Carla Sarett has worked in academia, TV, film and market research. Her short fiction has appeared in The Linnet’s Wing, Subtle Fiction, Eric’s Hysterics, Scissors and Spackle, The Greensilk Journal, Absinthe Revival, The River Poet’s Journal, Loch Raven Review, Danse Macabre, The Medulla Review, Rose Red Review, among others. Her first short story collection, Nine Romantic Stories, is available through Amazon.
In every family, there’s a story about a will. No matter how little is left, there’s a petty fight about money, a greedy relative who crawls out of the woodwork at the last minute. Whether it’s a Picasso or a dismal-looking vase, we wrangle endlessly about who gets what. Every bit matters, that is, at least at the very end. It’s our compliment to the dead in a weird, Antiques-Roadshow way.
My mother was an only child so, on that score at least, she had little to worry about. Her parents, Sam and Genya Morowitz, had lost their families ‘in the war’ as we said. My mother was all that they had left. They weren’t rich or anything close to it, but they had saved every penny for her and they were people you could count on.
When I was young, we saw them almost every week. It must have taken hours to get from Upper Manhattan to where we lived on Long Island. Genya turned up on Wednesdays to babysit and Sam visited on Sundays. Once in a blue moon, maybe for Thanksgiving or a birthday, they’d take the train together.
Genya came armed with bags of oranges and bananas—we were stick-thin kids and she pursued us with offers of fruit. When my mother was safely out of sight, she’d suggest slyly: “A little banana?” Whether I accepted or not was irrelevant. Either way, I’d soon hear: “An orange maybe?” For his part, Sam hid delicious chocolate bars in his pockets, Hershey’s chocolate—it was our little game. I’d rummage through his jacket pockets until I found it. More often than not, I would hand it over to my chocolate-loving big brother.
Sam and Genya lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment near the Cloisters in New York: pale mauve walls, a few scattered Art Nouveau prints, books in Russian and Yiddish. To my eyes, accustomed to our shiny split-level on Long Island, their apartment seemed faded,and it had the smell of old things and onions. The small windows were always shut. In the dead of winter, the living room was sweltering, hissing with forced air heat.
Much as I loved them, I felt that it was a sad place. Sam and Genya rarely spoke to one another, although, occasionally, I’d hear a sharp, tense burst of Yiddish. They didn’t quarrel—it was more like the aftermath of a wearying fight, an uneasy truce. When I later read Willa Cather’s novel, My Mortal Enemy, I thought of my grandparents, in their bleak no-man’s land of a marriage.
“What’s wrong?” I would ask my mother.
She would explain with her mordant cheerfulness, “It was always like that when I was growing up. I think she hated him, poor man.”
Hate’s a strong word, I thought.
They’d met in Warsaw. Genya and her sister owned a dressmaking shop in Warsaw, successful enough to support the two women. Probably, even then, she had a noble presence. Genya had exotic looks—light eyes that, even in old age, were clear as a lake, and blue-black hair. She wasn’t a catch in the conventional sense, though; she was a few years older than Sam, a Russian immigrant and a widow, besides.
My mother hinted that Genya’s marriage to Sam was a concession, unlike her first marriage – a young husband who’d died of tuberculosis. It made little sense to me. Genya’s first marriage had been arranged, but she’d married Sam by choice.
Or perhaps it hadn’t been a choice. Hitler’s thugs had already made one power grab in the early ‘20s, and Sam might have been Genya’s easiest escape hatch. Genya had fled danger before–Warsaw wasn’t her birthplace, it was a refuge from Russia’s pogroms. Or maybe she was lonely, and no other suitor came along. But I think on Sam’s part, there was love, the kind that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Not long after they were married, my mother was born, and she had Sam’s slanted brown eyes and olive skin.
In 1926, when the going was still good for Jews, Sam left Warsaw for New York. Like scores of poor immigrant husbands before him, he entered Ellis Island alone. Three years later, Genya and my mother followed (my mother had never met Sam before then).
Throughout the Great Depression, Sam and Genya worked in a millinery factory. Those were the grand days of hats—everyone in American cities wore hats. There were bowlers, feathered hats, velvet cloches, smart berets, fedoras, even hats shaped like birds, and Sam had a flair for hat design and blocking. Eventually, he headed his own department (“shop”) on the floor—in my mother’s words: Sam was a “crazy Trotskyite, always fighting for the union.” Vacation pictures show a satisfied, even dandyish, man in a white suit, savoring his perennial cigar. By the standards of the Bronx, Sam had done well.
“My father adored me,” my mother told me. She recalled freshly made cocoa delivered to her, in bed, before Sam headed to work. On her first date, he hid behind a tree to act as her “secret” chaperone. She was always “a good girl” and clever, too; she galloped through school and was admitted to Hunter College at the age of fifteen. But in her final semester, she stunned her parents by her decision to quit school and get married. My father had been drafted for the army.
Desperate, Sam tried to bribe her to graduate. He pledged to escort her to wherever my father was stationed, after she got her degree. Sam argued, the delay meant months, not years—and he and Genya approved of the match. But my stubborn mother had set her sights on my curly-haired father in high school and wasn’t letting him slip away.
“It broke my father’s heart,” my mother said. She never returned to college. Even now, after all this time, I can’t bear to think of Sam’s broken heart.
When I knew Sam, he was about sixty: a reserved heavyset man with my mother’s happy, almost dancing, eyes. He smelled of fragrant cigars, although he avoided smoking when I was around. On his Sunday visits, Sam wore a suit and tie, an old-style vest and, always, a hat. He and my mother spoke quietly in Yiddish while I sat in his lap and played with the few stray hairs on his head.
One odd memory about Sam stuck with me. Dad and I had enjoyed one of our special days in New York—we’d gone to see a ballet. Driving home (by that time, we lived in North Jersey), we lost our way, since my father had taken one of his “shrewd” routes which invariably took five times as long as the ordinary ones. We saw a man in an overcoat and hat walking briskly—in my memory, we saw him on an overpass, and we were below.
“That’s Sam Morowitz,” my dad said, forgetting to call him Grandpa Sam. It was the first time that I’d heard Sam referred to by his real name and it startled me. “I wonder where he’s going?”
“Where do you think?” I asked, uneasy without knowing why.
My sense of New York geography was sketchy. We were uptown but a distance (so I thought) from hilly Fort Tryon Park where Sam lived. That was where tiny grandmothers sat and talked of their clever grandchildren. On the ridge, you could see the grandfathers carrying enormous black pumpernickels and Russian babkas along with Yiddish newspapers, back to their wives. Torn from the neighborhood, Sam seemed like a ghost of himself. Where could he be headed?
“Who knows,” said my father, laughing. “The man likes to walk, that’s for sure.”
Genya’s last years were filled with illness and hospitals, and I saw less of her. She died while I was at summer camp. After that, Sam fell apart. There were bitter arguments with my mother, in Yiddish. I heard her screaming into the phone, late at night. “He’s going crazy,” she said.
Within a year and a half, he was dead of a stroke. We buried him near where Genya lay. It wasn’t a traditional Jewish funeral. Sam and Genya had nothing to do with rituals, rabbis, and prayers.
Then came Sam’s will. In it, he left all of his money to a Dr. Hoffman.
Dr. Hoffman was my grandmother’s “family” doctor; and to us, she was always “Dr. Hoffman.” I never learned her first name. I’d met her at Sam’s burial – a harmless wisp of a woman, fair-haired, about Sam’s age, in a lady-like knitted suit. It was Dr. Hoffman who had diagnosed Genya’s chronic coughing as bronchitis or allergies or even hypochondria. “Don’t worry so much,” Dr. Hoffman had said.
Genya died a painful death from esophageal cancer. The last time I saw her she was frail as a girl, her grey eyes still bright and curious. Her coughing should have been a tell-tale sign, but it had been ignored. And in a sick twist, her incompetent (or perhaps indifferent) physician was rewarded with Genya’s money.
My parents challenged the will on the grounds that Sam was demented. Obviously, he’d plucked a name from thin air—a family doctor, who else? It seemed an open and shut case, until it emerged that Dr. Hoffman and Sam had been lovers for over a quarter century, perhaps more. The facts were indisputable. The affair was well known to Dr. Hoffman’s children.
“That’s where he was walking that day,” my dad joked. “No wonder those walks were so long.”
“True,” my mother agreed, half-sad, half-mocking. “She wasn’t even pretty.”
The lawyers slowly hammered out an agreement. Dr. Hoffman didn’t give up without a fight, and it was a long, ugly fight. Maybe the money was split, or maybe she got most of it. I never knew, and I never asked. To me, the money was poisoned.
My mother recalled that as Genya lay dying, she’d wanted to alter her will to ensure that her half went to my mother. (The money was supposed to pay for our college education.) Genya had warned, “You don’t know your father.” My mother had cast off those words as ashes from a bitter marriage, ramblings from a sick old woman, and only later recognized their truth.
Later, my mother expressed a more sanguine view of Sam’s affair. “It makes me happy in a way. At least someone loved him. My mother never gave him any happiness.”
Sometime later, after the will was settled, I learned of Sam’s other daughter, Bella.
She was the child of Sam’s first young marriage, and was older than my mother by some years. Sam and Bella never spoke – there was some old wound there. And at sixteen, she left without a word to anyone. She vanished into the city, or so I was told.
My mother said: “I thought about finding Bella when Grandpa Sam died. But no one knows where to find her and maybe she isn’t alive, or she’s married and has a different name.”
For years, I’d listened to my mother lament her solitary childhood as an only child. It was unnerving to discover, as if by magic, a half-sister, my own aunt. Yet, my mother had never lifted a finger to find her, and, I knew all too well, she never would. Even if she lived a hundred lifetimes, she would never find Bella.
Every secret suggests another that is deeper, uglier, and darker. I’d read about families where ordinary men preyed upon their daughters in attics or cellars. That might explain Genya’s air of reproach, the flickers of contempt that I caught in her eyes whenever Sam came near. Maybe she had stood guard, protecting Bella and my mother—or maybe she’d failed. And my mother, erasing the shame, re-invented herself as the only child.
That was one version. But years after I heard a different story.
Sam Murawiek (the name was changed to Morowitz at Ellis Island) was the younger of two sons. The family lived in that part of Russia that became Poland after the First World War. As in many families, the parents favored the older over the younger. Often, older children were schooled while the younger were consigned to factories. Such arrangements were common. Sam accepted it, but it rankled him.
An auspicious match was arranged for the older son: a girl from a good family, a family that could provide a hefty dowry. But the older brother had strayed or fallen in love—after all these years, it doesn’t matter. Either way, there was a child. No girl from a good family could tolerate a “love child,” and no poor family could waste such an opportunity. So a new “father” had to be produced, and the family bore down on the younger son
Sam Murawiek had no sympathy for his reckless pampered brother. It wasn’t as if the older brother were a doctor or a scientist, someone important. But at nineteen, he was too weak to defy his family, and the brother sweetened the deal with money. Sam became a father to a girl—presumably there was a marriage, too.
By the time Sam courted Genya, he was saddled with the girl, Bella. That shame alone would have downgraded Sam in any woman’s eyes. A man like that was no bargain.
In 1929, Bella travelled to New York with Genya and my mother. At 14, she spoke no English and like many Polish girls, had but a smattering of schooling. America didn’t offer her a fresh start. More likely than not, she played caretaker to Sam’s real daughter. Perhaps Bella had steamed the milk for my mother’s morning cocoa.
Bella was well into her twenties when my mother entered Hunter College—far older than the age I’d imagined. She must have been sick with envy as she watched the spoiled favorite forge ahead. No one had grand plans for Bella, and by then, surely there were unpaid debts and slights, real and imagined—in all lives, there are. Bella furiously slammed the door behind her.
But she didn’t vanish at all. My mother soon spotted her on a neighborhood street, and Bella lowered her eyes, and rushed away. My mother let her go.
I like to think that later on, Bella was grateful. True, he’d been cold, but Sam Murawiek had spared her Warsaw’s terrors. He was no hero, and he didn’t pretend to love her, but he honored a promise, and because of that, one life, Bella’s, was saved. But maybe she never gave it a second thought. Injuries often linger longer than favors.
Sam cut off contact with his older brother who lived in upstate New York. As for Bella, he never spoke of her again. And who knows, one buried secret might have led to others. I know many of Genya’s stories – her first betrothal, her blue-eyed sister Sonya, her darling little brother Maurice. But Sam Murawiek is a mystery. I never learned his birthplace or what his mother and father did or if they, like blue-eyed Sonya and darling little Maurice, perished in the war. He faded into the background.
On one of Sam’s last birthdays, my dad presented Sam with a box of fancy cigars. Sam looked him straight in the eye and said quietly, “I gave up smoking years ago.” I can picture my father’s feigned surprise, my mother’s nervous laughter, and Sam’s tired smile. Of course, they hadn’t taken notice. Why would they?
My mother pleaded with me from her deathbed: “Remember my mother, please, don’t forget her.” She didn’t mention Sam.
Ironically, the battle over the will was for nothing. My father invested all of the money in the stock market, and in the bruising crash of the 1970’s, it evaporated, the way that money does. By my college years, the family was bankrupt, and my mother’s own vendetta against my father started. Genya and Sam’s sacrifice had been in vain—“schlect” as my mother said in Yiddish.
But maybe that’s why Sam changed his will.
I once heard Sam sing. Late on a Sunday afternoon, we watched James Cagney, dancing and singing, in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sam began to tap his hand against his knee, and in his thick Polish accent, sang loudly: I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle, Do or Die! And he laughed and laughed like a little boy. His slanted brown eyes, so much like my mothers, turned upwards—and we sang along, together, two confident and joyful Americans.
My father always blamed the will on my mother’s crazy temper, while my mother argued that Sam’s stroke warped his mind, and the corrupt mistress finished the job. And for years, the mere thought of the will made me hollow and heartsick. If only he and Genya had spent the money, I thought. If they’d lived in a big house (as we did), there would have been so little left, nothing to fight about or divide. Sam’s betrayal would have died gently, yet another secret in a lifetime of secrets.
But I can’t regret how it turned out, how he changed his will. Without Sam’s will, I’d get the story all wrong. I’d see escape rather than a young man’s adventure. I’d speak of sacrifice and disappointment, and I’d leave out the aromatic cigars and chocolate and love affairs. I’d suppress the brisk walks in unknown directions, but, I know now, those walks lead Sam to me with a force that astounds me.
I can hear him now. Look at me, he says. Take a good, long look. In America, an educated doctor loved me, Sam. In America, I counted. Whether you knew it or not, I counted.
Whether you saw me or not, I was here. Look behind you, I still am.