Duel in the kitchen

Adele Wiseman’s novel The Sacrifice won the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in 1956. Here she tells the beguiling story of a child’s worldly innocence

January 7 1961

Duel in the kitchen

Adele Wiseman’s novel The Sacrifice won the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in 1956. Here she tells the beguiling story of a child’s worldly innocence

January 7 1961

Adele Wiseman’s novel The Sacrifice won the Governor-General’s Award for fiction in 1956. Here she tells the beguiling story of a child’s worldly innocence

Duel in the kitchen

THE WINTER MY FATHER went to Vancouver to look for a job Joe and I were still too young to go to school. We stayed home and my mother found things for us to do after Belle and Arty left the house. In those days the house was full of roomers. You’d be surprised at how many tenants can be crowded into a five-room bungalow, particularly if the landlady and her four children arc flexible about shifting around to accommodate the guests. For Mrs. Lemon alone we had moved our belongings in turn to every room in the house. Every time my mother gave in and said. “All right, you can come,” we tried to clear out a room other than the one that she had occupied last time, because my mother wanted it to be a fresh start each time. She did not want to remind Mrs. Lemon that last time she had moved out because we were piping poison gas into her room.

Joe was still practically a baby. He missed my father terribly. Everybody said so. and 1 could prove it any time. All 1 had to say was. “Where's Daddy? Daddy’s gone away.” Fat tears would glaze his trusting eyes; his belly would heave into some mysterious preparatory discipline, and from his mouth would burst the foghorn bass bellow that was the pride of our house. You couldn’t bear to listen for long. Remorsefully, 1 would yell into'his weeping, “He's coming! He's coming home!” Joe would hesitate uncertainly, the sobs clucking and gurgling. I completed the cure. “What'll he bring? What'll he bring me?” It was a pleasure to sec the joy spread over his good-natured face. “What'll he bring Joe?”

“Me! Me!” chuckled Joe. I played nicely with him for a while after that.

Every morning 1 took a trip. Sometimes I took Joe. We had our route laid out. To a certain listing, brown-shingled house down the street we went, laboring through unshovelled snow. Up icy front steps we climbed, on all fours. Finally we stood rattling the doorknob and banging with our fists on the door. If no one came to the door 1 would stand back and let Joe holler into the sparkling air. That was when it was good to have him with me. “Mrs. Fi . . . fer!” His powerful roar shattered the air, scattering the billion tiny crystals that darted thick and glittering in the daylight and sending them blinking to hide in the snow. That brought Mrs. Fifer running.

Joe got his voice from an uncle on my father’s side. That uncle was born with church bells in his chest. An aesthetic priest had gone mad over his voice and had pressed him into the service of the church choir, because there was no one in all Russia who could intone like he could, “Christ is risen!” Through three successive pogroms his voice had been the salvation of his entire family, and of everyone else who'd had the sense to seek refuge in his house. For when the parishioners ran amok they left his house religiously alone. “They respect me,” he used to say, with not a little pride.

We all of us in our house had little characteristics that were passed on to us from relatives, some of whom we had never known, so that we grew up with the feeling that we were part of a much larger family than we actually had. They told me that I took after my aunt Yenta. my mother’s sister, who lived only a few blocks away. It was because I talked too much. Yenta herself was always the first, though, to accuse me of spreading family secrets. Nobody ever told me why they weren’t secrets CONTINUED ON PAGE 74

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“It must be very embarrassing for them,” said my mother. “The rich are so sensitive”

until I talked about them. They were just things everybody in the house discussed. But the minute they found out I’d told Mrs. Fifer they became secrets.

Mrs. Fifer was an old lady. She and her husband lived in one of the groundfloor apartments in the ramshackle house right next door to the apartment of my aunt Yenta's best friend, Dvosieh Krotz. She was always wonderfully pleased to see me, and Joe too. though he wasn’t much to talk to yet. She loosed our clothing. unwound our scarves, and gave us cookies from a shredded-wheat box.

As we ate Mrs. Fifer would ask me all kinds of questions, and 1 would answer her while my index finger kept the turning crumbs poked back safely in my mouth. Mrs. Fifer liked talking to me. She used to tell my mother what a nice little girl 1 was to come and visit, and how polite 1 was to spend time talking to an old lady. My mother always smiled in an apprehensive kind of way.

They were not only family things Mrs. Fifer asked about, with her intensely interested, kind old face bent forward to hear what 1 said. She took an interest in our roomers too, what they said, what they did. what my mother thought of them, did they pay their rent on time, which ones were on relief, did any of them have secret jobs the relief didn’t know about, was it true this one had fought with that one over a pot on the stove, and so on. I loved to listen to the talk in our house, so I was particularly good at correcting Mrs. Fifer when she said, for instance, "And did your Daddy say so and so?”

"No, he said such and such,” I would reply, proud to be able to set an adult straight.

How did my auntie always know what I'd been saying to Mrs. Fifer? I could tell by her preliminary stamping on the ice outside and by the way she slammed into our house, rattling the frosted windows, how serious her visit was going to be in its consequences for me. She would always call out before she was fully over the threshold. "I’m not staying. Dont make tea.” She kicked off my uncle's old galoshes and came up the five hall steps, bringing the chill of the outdoors into the room with her. Joe. who sat with his flannel kimono loose, shuddered up and down his rolls of baby fat, accompanying his shudders with resonant, self-comforting growls.

"What?” cried my aunt, readily indignant. "is the child doing naked?”

“Don’t come near him. auntie.” I said, "Mama’s fixing his combinations. We got the other ones wet outside.”

"You,” said my aunt. "Leubitchka with the active lips, does Mrs. Fifer know that too already? It hurts me for you Rivka," she turned to my mother. "This child has a faceful of mouth, a mouthful of tongue, a tongueful of every little thing that goes on in this house, so Mrs. Fifer can run and spread it like fire all over the prairie.’

"Mrs. Fifer’s sick," 1 said, "in an armchair, covered over. I was there with Joe.”

“Not too sick to ask questions,” said my aunt bitterly. "It hurts me, Rivka. ...”

"It hurts me,” like “I’m not staying, don’t make tea,” was one of those baffling statements that Yenta made. She always stayed. She always drank tea. And she never told you where she hurt. She al-

ways changed the subject in mid-sentence. “It hurts me your name should be dragged through the mud.”

There was no mud any more. “Through the snow,” I offered.

“What?” said my aunt.

"Nothing,” 1 said. Maybe she meant ‘It hurts me your name should be dug to the mud.’ Bui why did it hurt? And how did a name get dragged or dug? Anyway, with her dark, flashing eyes and glowing skin, she never looked as though anything was hurting her.

"It’s not Mrs. Fifer spreads the stories,” said my mother quietly.

"Don’t be foolish," said my aunt heatedly. “They fly by themselves, all over town.” She looked at me. "On wings of tongue they fly.”

1 laughed. 1 liked the way my aunt talked. She laughed too. In spite of the things she called me we got along, and it sounded as though it might go easy with me and Mrs. Fifer today, though you never could tell. They laughed and laughed and suddenly they jumped you.

“Mama says Mrs. Fifer doesn’t tell any-

thing,” I said, before I could stop myself.

“Oh she doesn’t?” said my aunt. “So if your mother says she doesn’t then she doesn’t. Should I argue? When your mother gets stubborn I might as well talk to the walls.” My aunt stopped talking.

My mother, smiling, looked up from her stitching. "How’s your friend Dvosieh?”

My aunt ignored the question and addressed me directly. "Why do you talk so much? Where do you get your tongue? Why do you tell her everything?”

"She asks me,” 1 faltered. "I take after you,” I added quickly.

"Don’t be disrespectful,” said my mother.

"But you say so,” I said.

"It’s not what you say but when,” explained my aunt, "that makes respect. Is it true then?” she continued, "what she told Mrs. Fifer? Are you taking Mrs. Lemon in again? As if you haven't got enough to worry about. Don't do it Rivka. What do you need her for? Tell her no for a change. Let her find somewhere else.”

“She’s here already,” said my mother.

"In the house?” my aunt’s voice disappeared suddenly in her lips.

"No, she had to report to the relief,” said my mother. “But she moved in this morning.”

My aunt frowned. Her eyes seemed to light on me.

“That’s what 1 told Mrs. Fifer,” 1 said.

My aunt shook her head. "She’s getting worse, not better. One day she’s fine, talks like anybody else; the next day suddenly, out of nowhere, an accusation you can’t make sense of; then locks herself in her room, not a word; then starts to run around to the neighbors. Did you hear what happened? Yesterday she went to her husband’s people again and made a scandal. She said they're keeping her husband locked up a prisoner in the TB hospital. She said they’re paying the government to put germs in his X-rays to kill him. They wouldn’t let her into the house so she went shouting up and down their fancy street.”

"It must be very embarrassing for them.” my mother said. “The rich are so sensitive.”

"It hurts me for them,” said my aunt in a surprisingly satisfied voice for one in pain. “They didn’t even offer her a glass of tea, not a bite. They tried to give her money to go away, five dollars to ease her pain. She threw it at them. And they from behind closed doors, afraid to let her in, a human being like themselves. She didn't have a mouthful of saliva to chew on all day. She walked from their place to the Hudson’s Bay Company in the snow, and fainted twice, once in the notions and the second time when they took her to the restroom. So strangers called an ambulance and took her to the hospital. It’s all over town.”

“I know," said my mother. “An ambulance brought her this morning.”

My aunt laughed. "She certainly gets free public transportation. It’s always ambulances and police cars.” My aunt could never quite overcome the suspicion that it was somehow useful to Mrs. Lemon to be sick. In spite of her hard talk Yenta had taken Mrs. Lemon into her own house three disastrous times already. Things always started off well enough, with my aunt proud of how well she could handle a problem that had once again vanquished my mother, and Mrs. Lemon temporarily tranquil because she had once again fought off some obscure threat. Then my auntie’s crony, Dvosieh Krotz, would come over to sit in and give advice, the same crony who lived behind the wall of Mrs. Fifer’s flat.

Dvosieh advised friendship and reason, and the sane discussion of past delusions in the calm of present clarity. My aunt showed her friendship through the simple means of frequent reiteration. "I say to her,” she would explain to my mother, "You see. I’m your friend, Mrs. Krotz is your friend. We’re all your friends.” And Yenta was not one to be stingy with her sympathy. "Your poor husband, where is this san? Up north? What's up north? The Eskimos! Why would they put a TB san up north? So they can cure him of consumption and kill him with pneumonia?"

Under the stress of reason, advice and friendship, Mrs. Lemon’s suspicions were rapidly forced, like monstrous bulbs, in her mind’s darkness. By some inspired stroke of malignancy her fits always crystallized around Yenta’s most sensitive

spot. My aunt is a wonderful cook and a proud one, justly famed in our neighborhood. Mrs. Lemon always ended up by accusing her of poisoning her food. My aunt could not resist taking it personally. She would become incensed and run among the neighbors herself. When my mother tried to reason with her she grew even more irate, “See here Rivka, listen here. You say it’s madness, so let it be an equal madness for everybody. Has she ever told you you poison her food? No!”

“But I've gassed her and drugged her and I whisper in her room at night,” my mother defended herself.

“That doesn’t make any difference. Three times she’s lived in my house and three times I’ve poisoned her. It’s too much. If at least once I’d gassed her I wouldn’t feel so much she was deliberately needling me. She means something by it.”

“She’s sick,” sighed my mother.

“You always find something good to say for everybody,” sniffed Yenta. <a>

This time, however, my aunt had a more serious threat to disclose against Mrs. Lemon than her own erratic ire. After this last scandal in the south end the in-laws had sworn, in front of witnesses, that if it happened once more, if once more she made trouble, they would have her put away.

“They wouldn’t.” said my mother after a silence. “She’s harmless.”

“Oh yes they would,” said my aunt. “They’re out of all patience. Once more and they’ll put her away for good. They don’t like scandals on the south side.”

“You make money you lose patience,” said my mother.

“Where will they put her away?” I asked.

My mother and my aunt looked at each other. “Nowhere,” said my mother hastily.

“Mrs. Fifer has her radio on,” said my aunt, pursing her lips.

“Mrs. Fifer hasn’t got a radio,” I was happy to contribute.

My mother sighed. “Just don’t repeat everything we’ve said to Mrs. Lemon.”

“All right,” I said. “I like Mrs. Lemon,” I added. “Joe and I don’t want them to put her away. Nor Belle nor Arty neither.”

“Just don’t talk,” said Yenta quickly, “and they won’t.”

“She’s like you, Yenta,” my mother remarked.

“Like me? How like me? I’m no child. A child shouldn’t sell your teeth every time you open your mouth.”

This was not the first time I had heard that “they” could do something dreadful to Mrs. Lemon. No wonder she had fits.

I could not separate the idea of Mrs. Lemon’s being “put away for good” from the memory of the time our dog Rhubarb had to be put away, and the man had come with a closed wagon with a grilled door in back to take her away, and she had stood still behind the grille, and had left us all standing and watching and stained forever with her mute, despairing eyes. Just let them try to come and get Mrs. Lemon.

Mrs. Lemon played with us, not the way most adults do, always with the end of the game in sight, as though telling themselves approvingly over their impatience, “now we are playing with the children for a little while.” Rather, she let us play with her. Quietly she sat or stood or turned as we directed her, never imitating us and never rushing us through her time. We usually played in the kitchen those winter afternoons. Sometimes we played in her room, but my mother didn’t like that. She said that if Mrs. Lemon saw that we kept strictly away from her room there would be less chance of upsetting her. So it was mostly in the kitchen

that we had our games, the warm white kitchen with its frost-fuzzed windows, its big grey electric stove, its knife-scarred wooden table covered by a knife-scarred printed oilcloth, and its wooden rung chairs, behind which Mrs. Lemon allowed herself to be barricaded while Joe and I pretended we had captured her and had her in our power. She stood quietly, occasionally saying something nice in reply to my mother, like “No, they’re not bothering me.”

I liked the way Mrs. Lemon looked. She made me think. She could be compared to something, even though it was a wrong thing. She didn’t look like a lemon. She was thin and brown. Her hair was black and rolled round and round at the back of her head. Her eyes were big and bugged out a little, with dark brown middles and yellowish white parts. And she was extra brown all around the eyes.

In spite of my mother’s instructions Joe and I were not strangers in Mrs. Lemon’s room. We knew her few belongings well, especially the raddled orange fur collar with the fox’s head and its loosely snapping jaw. On her bureau sat a little brown old country picture of her

mother, her father, and two sturdy boys, with a little, big-eyed girl between them I knew was Mrs. Lemon long ago. I always wanted to ask her which one was the brother who had dropped dead when they were burying her father; right into the grave he dropped. I knew all about what a sad life she had had that made her go funny sometimes. But I never did. There was another picture, in a small frame, of Mr. Lemon. He wore a white collar and looked bristly, and I said, like my mother did when she mentioned him sometimes, “He’ll get well soon,” in the same confident voice that pleased Mrs. Lemon. The candy was in an almost empty top right-hand drawer, in a box with a gypsy on it.

Sometimes she would say, “Do you want to take a walk with me?” And my mother would say, “Mrs. Lemon, you shouldn’t, they’re too wild.” And she would beg and make promises along with us until my mother said, “All right, but you mustn’t buy them anything.” And Mrs. Lemon wouldn’t say anything and my mother would bite her lip. for fear she had hurt Mrs. Lemon’s feelings by implying she couldn’t afford to spend her relief tickets on us.

They would truss us up and we would move stiffly off between the snowbanks. I slithered around on Arty’s old moccasins and screamed into Joe, knocking him over like a kewpie doll, sideways, into the piled-up snow, where he lay, one arm standing straight out, the other buried. His cries shattered the still, needle-charged air. Mrs. Lemon dug him out, soothed him, called him “little snowman,” and 1 magnanimously let him push me back, which he did, chuckling his deep bass chuckle. I flung myself, screaming, into the bank, and waited for a panting Mrs. Lemon to right me before 1 flung myself on Joe again. We were snow-plastered and steaming through every layer by the time we

reached the corner grocery. Inside it was hot and dingy and glamorous. We consulted with Mrs. Lemon for a long time and then she bought us each a string of pink and white crystallized sugar and a flat square package of bubble gum with a hockey picture in it that Arty would be nice for.

“I'm not eiving Arty my hockey picture,” 1 suggested to Joe. Joe gripped his with his mitt against his chest and shook his head fiercely, eyes shining, cheeks fiery, nose running. But 1 knew very well he would rush, the minute Arty made his noisy, dishevelled entrance from school, with his hockey picture extended, for the immediate gratification of a big brother’s thanks. Arty wouldn’t win mine so easily. I knew the subtler pleasures of the drawn-out wooing and the gradual surrender. “I have one too, Arty, see? No you can’t. What’ll you give me? Can I play in your igloo?”

So the winter passed. One day, late in February, my mother was sitting alone in the kitchen, sewing and humming to herself. Mrs. Lemon slipped in so quietly my mother didn't even hear her, till the hissing whisper started her out of her chair. “Do you think I don't know why you’re singing? But you won’t get me that easily.” My mother got up and made some tea, which they drank in utter silence. After that, Mrs. Lemon stopped talking almost entirely. Sometimes she sat in the kitchen without speaking for hours at a time, while my mother did her work, occasionally throwing her an anxious glance. At other times Mrs. Lemon stayed in her room. My mother warned us to leave her alone, then, and 1 heard her tell my sister that maybe if we just kept still too it would blow over.

One day she left the house very early. She spent the whole day wandering among the neighbors and talking to people about her suspicions. My mother knew what she was doing, as she had often received such confidences when Mrs. Lemon was living elsewhere. “Maybe she’ll just talk it out of her system,” she told my aunt, who had come rushing over with the news.

“No.” My aunt was triumphantly certain. “There’ll be trouble.”

Mrs. Lemon returned home that evening, thoroughly chilled, blue tints frozen into her swarthy skin, and for the next few days she lay coughing in bed. My mother tended to her, talking gently and soothingly, and pretending she didn’t notice that she got no answer.

“Maybe the fever will burn it away,” said my mother hopefully.

“No,” said my aunt, “I tell you Rivka, you won’t avoid a scandal. And this time. ...”

“I’ll try to keep her in the house till it blows over,” said my motb?r

The coughing ceased and my mother listened anxiously to the silence. She sighed more frequently as she listened, and raised her hand often from her sewing to run it through her softly waving black hair.

Then one day Mrs. Lemon, who must have been waiting behind her door for a long time, took advantage of a moment when my mother had gone into our bedroom to slip out of her room, through the kitchen, down the hall steps and out the side door. Joe and I were playing on the kitchen floor and we called out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear our pleased hellos; she was all dug down into her coat. Only the fox winked and snapped at us from her back as she bounded down the steps.

My mother ran out of our bedroom, but too late she scratched at the ice of the window. “What was she wearing? Was she dressed warmly?”

“Her winter coat and her live fox,” I said. My mother still looked worried. She

One of the men, smallish, with a glistening stone in his tie that looked as though it would melt any minute, leaned from his chair and whispered, hesitantly but loudly enough for me to hear, to the beaded lady, "Er . . . which one?” The beaded lady then introduced Mrs. Lemon as her sister-in-law, and all kinds of crossintroductions were made. 1 stared at her. This was the enemy, on whose lawns the scandals were enacted, who never even offered a glass of tea. though my mother even now was pouring hers.

1 cannot remember in detail exactly what was said during the next little while, but 1 do remember that 1 behaved very badly. The kitchen gradually filled and filled and stretched outward with sound, much of it coming from my lips. Numerous faces all turned toward me. with varying expressions of amazement, distaste, disapproval, despair, as 1 talked, interrupted. contradicted and mimicked. The rich lady coughed at the smoke from the cigarettes the men had lit, which was mingling with the steam from the kettle to fug up the room. She took noisier and noisier breaths. My aunt told her very kindly that she hoped her brother's ailment didn't run in the family, which made her cough so hard her beads rattled. 1 started to cough too. and my brother Joe chuckled approvingly at me, adding a stentorian spur to my antics. He thought it was a line game. My mother pleaded with me in a shocked voice to be quiet, please. 1 couldn’t. I no longer knew how.

Then my aunt and the rich relative got into what seemed to me a traitorously amiable conversation about what an unmanageably talkative child 1 was, and my aunt told her how 1 couldn't keep family secrets, and 1 remember being fiercely hurt that she should sell a family secret of such magnitude to an enemy, and in front of strangers.

Finally, my mother ordered me out of the room and I stood there bawling and insisted that 1 wouldn't go unless Mrs. Lemon came with me. By this time she was the only true ally 1 had left in the world and I could not leave her to treachery. My last-ditch tantrum was interrupted by loud noises at the door. My brother Arty and my sister Belle were outside quarreling about who would get into the house first, Belle, with both arms bookladen. with snowpants under her thick coat, besparkled and dishevelled, and chubby Arty, in britches and high boots and fur-lined jacket, banging his hockey stick against the wall of the house and lashing icicles from the caves as he argued. There wasn’t room for both to squeeze in at once, so meanwhile they held the door open and the blast whipped up blue around the fuggcd-up kitchen, and everybody shivered.

"1 don’t care if you are a lady,” challenged Arty, who had wedged his hockey stick in front of Belle so that it suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway with an ancient pair of razor-sharp skates hanging from knotted yellow laces over its edge.

"Belle! Arty!” boomed Joe joyously, as the skates narrowly grazed his skull. The three strangers exchanged glances as the stick and swinging skates advanced into the kitchen, the blades blinking ferociously and slashing indiscriminately through the air.

"Arty!” cried my mother aghast. “Belle, shut the door for goodness’ sake! We have guests!” she added hopefully.

“I can't.” wailed my sister. “Fie won t let me in.”

“Arty, take your skates away!” cried my mother, as the wind howled around the kitchen

The guests broke for die bedroom. They found their coats. There was con-

fusion in the kitchen for the uc few moments, with Belle and Arty getting out of their wet clothes and the guests trying to get into theirs, and everybody exchanging polite "goodbyes” and “come agains” and the beaded lady saying something about "in good hands,” and the small man with the pin saying something about "family atmosphere,” as he nodded his way vigorously to the hall. Then they left. Soon afterwards my aunt left, having just remembered she had a word to say to her friend Dvosieh down the street. Mrs. Lemon said she was tired, suddenly, she

didn't know why, and retired to the quiet of her room.

“What happened?” asked my sister.

“She feels better.” said my mother.

Joe deserted us to go and look at Arty’s sled with him in the cellar. Belle and my mother started doing the dishes. My mother said she was afraid supper might be a little late tonight. Everything was fiat and quiet suddenly. I picked at the crumbs on the table. "What can 1 do?” 1 asked. My mother came to the table and stood looking down at me. She looked lovely, with her long, fine nose, her

delicate skin all pink, her deep-set eyes shining golden brown. “Aren’t you tired?” she asked, as though she really thought I might be, so early.

“No. Can 1 help you?”

“You know." said my mother, “the way you behaved. ...” Suddenly, unaccountably. she grabbed me up, so violently that my curls bounced over my eyes. “You've helped enough,” she said into my ear, and it felt, from the way her stomach was shaking and from the muffled sounds she was making in my hair, as though she was laughing.