The core of this story my mother told me. But the details are mine.
Boris Feldblyum Collection; Riga 1928
I was sitting at the kitchen table working on my English homework. English was my favorite subject. It was late and I guess the light at the table was bothering my mother who wasn’t feeling well and trying to sleep. It was just one large room, our apartment. There was a coal stove for cooking and heating and sink for washing up, but only cold water from the tap. We had a settee and a soft chair where my father would sit to listen to the radio. There were two beds: my mother and I slept in one and my father and brother slept in the other.
My mother called out to me, “Herta, come to bed. Come and lie beside me. Herta.”
“In a minute. I will. Just let me finish this. In a minute, I promise.”
I didn’t realize that those would be the clearest words I would hear from her again. By the next day, she was struggling to breathe. Her slow labored breaths made such a terrible sound. She didn’t get out of bed again. And I sat with her then.
After he came home from school, I told my brother to try and find a doctor, anyone to come and help her. He didn’t know who to ask. He knocked on a few doors but no one was home. My father was at the barber shop working. He worked long hours, often ten hours a day, at only ten cents a hair cut.
I tried to get her to drink some tea. But it only made her start coughing when I tried to raise her head. Her eyes wept when she looked at me. She couldn’t speak. She tried, but only a few words I couldn’t understand. Maybe my name or Harry’s or my father. Once, I thought she called for one of her sisters. I wasn’t sure. And so I sat there because I didn’t know what else to do.
Finally, my father came home. He told me to make him something to eat and then he stood by her bed. I couldn’t hear what he said to her, but I could tell she was listening. He held her hand. He pushed hair back from her face.
I don’t remember what I made. Maybe it was potatoes. We didn’t have much. My father and Harry ate at the table. I couldn’t eat. I sat. And then they sat with me, the three of us, sat around her bed.
“Papa, can’t we get a doctor? Go to the pharmacy and get her something.”
“Herta, it is too late. She is dying. Her heart is not strong enough. We always knew. She knew. She warned me.” And he said no more.
Harry went to bed. I fell asleep in the chair, my head against the side of the bed. When I woke up, my father was still there. He did not go to the barber shop. Harry didn’t go to school. I didn’t go to school. We watched my mother die.
The silence was punctuated by her breaths which became slower and slower.
For three days we sat, sometimes sleeping, sometimes eating, but never far from her side. And then, I heard it and I saw it, her last breath, like a deep sigh, every last breath was released. She left her body in that sigh. She didn’t linger. She left.
My father rose. He pushed her eyelids down and then he washed his hands and face in the white bowl. He turned to me. I couldn’t look at him. I only looked at her.
“Wash her body after we leave. The bed clothes will be soiled. Dress her and comb her hair. I will go to her sister’s house and ask for a wagon to take her to the graveyard. I will ask her sister’s husband for a loan to pay for the gravedigger. Harry will go with me. Don’t wait. You must clean her before her body becomes stiff.”
And I was alone, at fifteen, with my dead mother’s body. I had never washed a dead body. I had never seen a dead person in my life. I cried. Hard. It wasn’t fair. None of it.
My aunt had promised to make me a new dress, a red dress, for my birthday. But now, there would be no red dress, only another black one. And every birthday after that would no longer be mine, but hers.
I washed my mother’s thin arms and legs. I washed her small breasts and sunken stomach. I rolled her from side to side to remove the sheet and thin blanket. There was a smell. I found two towels and put them under her. I pulled a dress up across her body. It was her better dress. Would she need underpants? For what? Should I put stockings on her? What would be the point? I covered her legs, up to her waist, with a blanket from my father’s bed. I pulled her hair back with side combs and tried to put back her wave. I folded her hands on top. Should I take off her wedding ring? I did. I put it on my own hand. Forever, I thought.
But, of course, it wasn’t forever. It was only one of the many things I would sell or trade, later on, during a war that we couldn’t imagine would happen again.