THE WHOLENESS OF A BROKEN HEART
By Katie Singer
Published by Riverhead Books /An Imprint of Penguin Putnam


Excerpt From the Book

LEAH
Hannah's great-grandmother
born c. 1869 in Dvinsk, Latvia

A groyse gedile hot mir getrofn. A big deal it happened to me. I hit the jackpot. Ikh bingeborn gevorn. I got born.

In Dvinsk I got born, with the name Leah Alterman, Vulf's daughter. Thirty-five versts from Riga we live. The Czar, he owns our land, he tells what we can keep on it, what we can't keep. Just four goats and some chickens means a lot of trouble. The Czar's men come whenever they want, spit on our scholars, take the women to the fields and roll on us, make us dirty like animals, like them.

Children give a little bit of joy, sure. But after fourteen winters, I've seen plenty die before they get to their first day of school. Girls we sometimes lose before they can mind the littler ones. Winters are cold, very cold. We have the one stove only, and two beds for all the children, eight of us, plus a little mat made of hay. Because I'm the only girl who lives, I get the mat. Sure, it's hard for me, to be the only girl. Some nights, so cold they are, I bring in a goat to share my mat, keep me warm.

My dear father, my tatte, he works in the tannery. He gets a little bit of rubles from it. My brothers go with him, of course. In the summer we sell eggs from our chickens at the market. In the fall we trade our extra for apples. Tatte, he likes my tzimmes, my stew, even without raisins. On Shabbes he takes my brothers to shul, to study Torah with Reb ha-Cohen.

Mamme and I, to wash the linens and the clothes, we carry them with the scrubbing board to the lake. In winter, we wash through a hole in the ice. Sometimes on the way back, my brothers' pants turn to ice. A whole verst it is--nearly a mile. We get home, I fork hay to the goats, Mamme starts the cooking. On the string near the stove, I put the laundry to dry.

Night and day, we haul water from the cistern out back. To cook and wash the pots for eight people means a lot of buckets. On the days we bathe, vey iz mir. You don't want to hear what I have to say about that.

My mother is a shtilinke, a quiet one. Which is to say she doesn't complain much. What else is to talk about, but complaints? She works all the days. She eats a little, she sleeps a little, she goes back to work. She has Shabbes of course. After blessing the candles, she whispers each of our names, so God is reminded of us. So, then she has a day for rest.

I think we are a pretty family. Dark eyes we have, dark curls, and sturdy bones. If you take a look behind the eyes, anybody can see, my tatte and my brothers are sharp, good with the books. Me, I am a short girl. But from all the water I haul, I have good muscles--like a donkey. And, when our new goat won't let her baby nurse, I'm the one who clears her teats each morning, and gets the little kid to drink from my bowl.

Like I say, I am the only girl who lives. The one before me, Golda, had only two years. The one after my brother Avram, Sora, she lived through a bad, bad winter, then took sick in the spring. She had maybe ten winters, and the best giggle in all of Dvinsk.

So, even though I'm a girl, to Mamme, I am a blessing. I am her help.

When I am nearly an old maid, nineteen winters, a neighbor girl whose aunt is Yente Malke, she says there's a man with an eye on me. For a few days, while I cook and wash and haul the water, I have little birds in my bosom. Like dreams. I wish for a man with eyes that tell me to him I am beautiful. A man who will buy from the Yiddish book peddler, and read books with me after sunset with help from candles. For this I wish.

Then my father tells me, ya, in two weeks I will have a wedding.

"Who is it?" I ask him.

"Who is it? It is a man," he says. "A good man, a wise scholar. You'll see."

Mamme is quiet, quiet. I think, for her this is not so easy. She thinks she will be alone with the work now. "Mamme," I say. "I will live near enough, right? We can still go together to the lake, right? And it will be a while before I have babies. So I can still help you at the market, too."

"We'll see," she says. Tatte has left the room.

The night before the wedding, Mamme and I are alone, making the challah. Mamme is heavy, sad like the dough after you punch it down. We each braid a long loaf, put them in to bake. Where Tatte usually sits, in our one chair with arms, she sits. So, I sit too. I think, maybe she has a blessing for me. I know talking for her is not easy. So, I wait. My heart feels like a flower, wide open. I wait to hear something nice, something beautiful.

But then with a fist she pats her mouth. "Leah, Leah," she says. Little tears come down. "It's Yeshia Zeitlin your father arranged for you to marry. The scholar."

I don't know the name. Mamme, she keeps looking at me, not talking. Her eyes are dark like an iron skillet with a thin layer of oil. I smell the challah just then, giving the air a bit of sweet.

"Yeshia Zeitlin . . ." I say. With his name on my lips, I recognize. "YESHIA ZEITLIN!?! Yeshia Zeitlin has five children! A widower he is--from a wife dead only two months!"

Mamme nods. "The oldest is Tamara, your age. You know her, ya? She'll be your help."

My hands, my heart too, they turn to nervous fists. I want to shove Mamme out of Tatte's chair. I am ashamed to say it, but maybe you can understand. I have nothing but a womanish brain after all: I want to shove her out so I can sit in that chair with arms. So if I live twenty years more, at least I'll have this little bit of comfort for my memories.


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Photo of Katie Singer by Herbert Lotz.