I am a little girl of six.
We live in Kiev, the heart of the Ukraine. My father is taking me with him to a party. We are riding in a horse-cab, and Father is softly singing a Ukrainian song.
“Stop singing!” I say to him. I feel embarrassed. Singing in a cab! What will the cabby think?
“Why?” he laughs, and begins to sing even louder. The street is badly paved, all humps and bumps, and the harder we are jolted the louder he sings.
“Now stop that!” I say sternly. “Do you hear me?”
He roars with laughter. I feel disgraced.
The party is in full swing, the drawing-room is crowded with people. All eyes are turned on my father as we enter. His rather short, slight, nimble figure moves among the guests. A smile here, a laugh there.
And a pair of childish eyes follows him across the room, watches him in wonder: a queer papa! Unlike other people’s fathers.
We children are a spoiled lot. We raise the roof if we feel like it, but we are hardly ever punished. Yet if we go too far, Father takes disciplinary action. He picks up a newspaper, folds it like a fan, and slaps us with it. This procedure, however, is more painful to him than to the victims. He turns pale and is visibly shaken.
That’s why our mother has always admonished us to keep unpleasant things from father:
“Hush! Don’t tell Papa!”
“Hush! Don’t let Papa know!”
A long winter evening. Snow is falling outside. Papa sits on the sofa, and we all are huddled around him. We fight—each of us wants to be closest to him.
“I was here first!”
“I told you this was my place!”
He puts his arms around two of us. We girls adore Papa and are jealous of each other.
Later he sits with Mother, his arm around her shoulders, patting her cheek and kissing her.
There is a grand piano in the drawing-room. Once in a while Father sits down at the piano and plays without music, by ear. Wistful Jewish melodies. He likes to sit by the piano and pick out a tune. He says: “I might have become a musician instead of a writer. Who knows?”
No matter how much noise we are making, Father goes on writing, undisturbed.
In the morning he gets up before anybody else and in no time is at his desk, writing. He usually writes standing at a tall desk. Now and again he laughs to himself. Wrapped in a soft bathrobe (never a dressing-gown) with slippers on his feet, he stands there from early morning, writing, writing, biting his nails.
I rush in before leaving for school to kiss him goodbye. He looks at me but he does not see me. His eyes have a remote look, his mind is elsewhere, maybe in Kasrilevke. . . . We children ask him: “Where are you now, Papa? In what dream world?” Sometimes he laughs there at his desk until the tears come. “Now listen to him, listen to What he says!”—and he points at some passage in the manuscript. He can write standing, sitting, lying on his back. Even in the tram-car he goes on writing. He always carries with him a little notebook with tissue-thin pages.
He is superstitious and never marks a page with the number 13—it is always 12a.
A dreary day. It has been steadily raining since morning. Father is late for dinner. He has been out all day, looking for “business.” One cannot make a living by writing alone. He tells Mother he has been running around all day.
The bright merry eyes have a sad look today. The wrinkles on the brow are deeper.
A red-letter day! “Come on, children! Papa is going to read his new story!”
“Papa will read! Papa will read!” we chant, jumping up and down. And Papa, gathering his “commonwealth” or his “gang” (as he calls us) around him, reads his latest work to us, to his children—his first audience and his first critics.
He is a marvelous reader. His face glows as if touched with divine grace. And there is such a wealth of stories! He writes them with such ease. “Come on, children!”
On father’s desk, in his study, there are many curious things. A quaint cigarette container, shaped like a casket, with an intricate lock. Only Father knows how to open it, no one else. It is a fascinating secret. Then there is the famous miniature bicycle-famous because everyone who comes to see Papa seems driven by a compulsion to pick it up. And Papa, his eyes laughing, quietly takes it out of the visitor’s hands and puts it back on the desk.
People come in all the time. A variety of types. Father enjoys listening to them, he prefers listening to talking.
His eyes sometimes seem to make fun of the caller. Probably he is pulling his leg. How naturally he does it! He is an excellent actor. When the caller has left, Father makes us laugh mimicking him. We all delight in making fun of people. Father likes us to be gay, he wants laughter in the house.
Yet once, fumbling with the secret lock of the quaint cigarette box, he said to a caller, unaware of my presence in the room: “Couldn’t one borrow some money from you?”
Father’s clothes are always neat, trim, individual. Dapper, that’s what he is. Those wonderful cuff links! The velvet waistcoat with the special little buttons. He knots his tie in a way all his own. He likes beautiful things and never allows us to wear anything unbecoming. Once Father took such a dislike to a hat of my mother’s that he cut it in two.
When Father puts on a new suit for the first time, his face wears a peculiar expression, an air of festivity.
He likes bartering things. Exchanging an exquisite locket for a rare golden chain. But most of all he enjoys giving. Whenever we need money we turn to Father. We are too young to understand what a difficult art it is to give and what a master he is of that art. Throughout his life he remained a perfect gentleman in money matters. Once upon a time Father had been wealthy but he had been too prodigal of his money, giving it away right and left, with an open hand. We have no memory of that time; to us it is one of those fairy tales of early childhood.
Every summer we move to Boyarka, to a summer cottage in the midst of pine woods. We swing idly in our hammocks, we take long walks with Father. Every summer an elderly Jew turns up in his cart drawn by a small horse—“Tevye the Milkman.” He supplies us with butter and cheese. He is a handsome man with a pale face and a jet-black beard. Father enjoys chatting with him. They talk and talk and seem unable to stop. We are waiting for Father to join us for a walk in the woods, yet still they are standing there and talking. “Come along, Papa,” we drag him away. “Come on. . . .”
Father is passionately fond of nature. Every summer, with the same fresh wonder and fervor, he delights in the country air, die pine woods, the song of the birds, the pine cones dropping to the ground. “Strawberries, fresh wood strawberries!” chant the young peasant women carrying jugs filled with the small red berries, and he takes delight in the strawberries, too. Every summer he is enraptured anew by the sky, the freshness of the early morning, the sunset.
He is very, very fond of birds.
It is early morning at Boyarka. The air is pure and transparent, filled with the twitter of birds. Father is standing in the garden. His long blond wavy hair is ruffled by a gentle breeze. His blue eyes have a faraway look and gaze into space. In his hand he holds a slice of bread and he throws crumbs to the birds. Birds come flying down from everywhere and pick the crumbs out of his hand.
This picture is impressed on my memory forever. Just so has he stood before my inner eye throughout my life—in the garden, the long hair ruffled by the wind, the eyes gazing into the distance, a piece of bread in his hand, and birds, birds coming down from everywhere to pick crumbs out of his hand.
We are growing up.
Like “Tevye’s Daughters,” we are growing in our sleep.
It is a long time since Father has slapped us with a newspaper folded like a fan.
It has always been his heart’s desire that one of his children should become a writer. He says to me:
“If you only would make an effort, Lalka, you might become a writer.”
But I will not listen. On one leg I skip out of the room.
A new baby is born—a son. There are six of us now.
Nineteen hundred and five. The streets of Kiev are teeming with people. The Czar has granted a constitution.
Father is more excited than anybody else. He cannot stay put in one place. We girls, with red ribbons in our hair, follow him wherever he goes.
And in the evening of that same day—a pogrom against the Jews. The Czar has fooled us, has cheated us.
We leave Kiev and Russia. We emigrate.
Forty-One years ago. The 13th of May, 1916.
In Odessa, it is spring. The acacias are in bloom. The air is sweet and fragrant. I step out on to the porch. The white acacia blossoms hang down so low I can touch them with my hand.
A telegram from New York! Papa is in New York. Probably congratulations, for tomorrow is my birthday.
Three words in a foreign tongue:
“Papa very sick.”
The great Hebrew poet, Bialik, receives a telegram at the same time:
“Sholem Aleichem is dead.”
The thirteenth of May, nineteen hundred and sixteen.
Eight days after Father’s death.
There is a rather rundown summer colony in the neighborhood of Odessa—once the estate of the painter Badarevsky. Small cottages, covered with straw, a bit like Ukrainian peasants’ huts. A cherry orchard. At night, in the silvery light of the moon, the place looks like the famous painting, “Night in the Ukraine.”
One cottage is occupied by the Bialiks. We live in the one next door. I am alone. My husband, Doctor Kaufman, is not yet back from the hospital in the city. My little daughter is playing by my side. I am sitting on the porch grieving for Father. My thoughts are in New York, with my mother, my sister—how have they taken the blow?
Bialik appears in the distance. He has just returned from the city. He waves a newspaper from afar:
“Lala! The testament! Sholem Aleichem’s testament!”
There on the porch, we bend together over the paper and read for the first time my father’s testament:
. . . When I am dead, let me be buried not among the rich and the eminent but among the working people and common folk.
Again I am alone. I sit crying, with the paper in my lap. Then I become aware that I am not alone in my grief. On the porch opposite mine Bialik is sobbing, bending his huge bald head down to the wooden parapet. The sun is slowly setting. Our garden grows dark and still.
Dead? Can it be that I shall never see him again?
And then I see him. He is standing there in the garden, the long hair ruffled by the breeze, a faraway look in his eyes, a slice of bread in his hand; he throws crumbs to the birds. . . .
“Papa,” I cry, and rush toward him— “Papa! . . .”