More than ever, immigration is a hot topic in today’s political environment. I thought I would contribute to the dialogue by presenting two excerpts from my novel in progress, The Ultimate Patient. The first was posted last week. It is 1961 in Romania. Tina, one of the main characters talks to her husband Ben and, later, to her daughter Lydia about the imminent departure to Israel of her sister Larissa and her family. Edith, called Baba by Lydia, is Tina’s mother who lives with them.
In her room, Lydia was trying to finish her homework. The clock on her bookshelf showed 9 pm. Even with the door to the living closed, she could hear her parents talk. She imagined them sitting on opposite sides of the large, square table, the one covered by thick crystal glass, and looking away from each other. A beige, lacy tablecloth, crocheted by Edith, was pressed under the weight of the glass.
“I’m happy for them,” Ben was saying. “They’re doing the right thing.”
“No, they’re not,” Tina said. Her voice was subdued, as if running out of steam. “Ben, my sister and her family are leaving. When will I see them again?”
“Be happy for them. They’re going home.”
“Home is here,” Tina said.
“We’re Jewish. Home is here and also there,” Ben said. “When I was a young man, I dreamed of going to Palestine. I know many people who did the same.”
“Are you still thinking of it?”
“Of course I am. But I won’t do anything until you’re ready. I’ll wait.”
“I’ll never be ready,” she said. “You simply don’t understand. I only have one country, one home and my sister is leaving and I’m very sad.”
“I have a sister too,” Ben said.
From time to time, from Edith’s room, came the muted announcements of Radio Free Europe. Edith listened to that station every night when they weren’t watching TV. Noise traveled everywhere in the apartment and joined the sounds of the street. Ben said it was the way the apartment was laid out.
From the small entrance hallway, one stepped straight into the L-shaped living room. The table and high-backed chairs took up the center. The door to Lydia’s room opened from the opposite side. There were many other doors, to Edith’s bedroom, to the parents’ bedroom, to the bathroom, and to the balcony on Bastille Street. From Edith’s bedroom and from the entrance hallway, one could go to the kitchen, beyond which was a second balcony into an interior courtyard, a second bathroom and a small room, not larger than a closet. “That,” the former tenants had explained, “was meant for a live-in domestic. Now we keep junk in it.”
After she finished her homework, Lydia went to bed, but couldn’t fall asleep. The radio in her grandmother’s room was still on. Normally, the noise didn’t bother her. She got up, knocked on her parents’ bedroom and opened the door.
Her mother was in bed, holding a book. She had cried and the skin under her eyes was red. Halfway under the covers, in his blue, silky pajamas, Ben had his back turned to her. He seemed asleep.
“Come here, baby,” Tina whispered and padded the edge of the bed.
Lydia crawled in. She hadn’t done this since Tina remarried and felt she needed her mother’s warmth.
Ben didn’t move.
“Mommy, why do people want to leave our country?”
“Not all of them do.”
Lydia didn’t probe any further. Instead, she shifted her body searching for a more comfortable position and pushing against Tina. “Mommy,” she said. “I’m eleven. Am I too old to be snuggling in bed with you?”
“You’ll never be too old to hug your mother. Are you upset by what happened today?”
Lydia looked up at Tina and nodded.
“Don’t be,” Tina said. “Everything is all right.”
“You cried, Mommy, and Baba cried also. You wouldn’t cry if everything were all right.”
“We are sad,” Tina said. “Larissa is leaving. And Simon and Rudy are leaving with her. You know, when people leave, especially people you love, it is sad. It can be a happy time as well because they wanted to go to Israel and their wish has come true.”
“Because they are Jewish?” Lydia asked.
“Yes, baby, because of that.”
“We are Jewish also. Are we going to go to Israel?”
“Not all Jews have to live in Israel,” Tina said.
“Adriana said that the Jews want to go to Israel to escape persecution. Was Aunt Larissa’s family persecuted?”
Tina moved ever so slightly not to disturb Ben and slid her arm over her pillow and under Lydia’s head. “Come here, baby,” she whispered. Then she thought for a few seconds how to answer her daughter. “Jews are no longer persecuted in Romania,” she said. “I mean, it’s not the way it was during the war. Simon and Larissa worry that Rudy won’t be allowed to go to college, not because he is Jewish, but because of his bourgeois family background. You see, sometimes when we try to correct a social wrong, we create another one. In the old regime, the workers’ children didn’t have access to colleges and now, as we try to open that path for them, we have to exclude other young people.”
“Why do we have to exclude them?”
“To make room.”
“Mom, do we also have a bourgeois background?”
“No, baby, we don’t.”
“You are Larissa’s sister and come from the same family.”
“I think their fear was exaggerated. There is also another reason they want to leave.” Lydia didn’t say anything, and Tina continued, “They don’t have enough money and Simon’s convinced that with his profession he’ll do better in Israel.”
“Is Simon the boss in their family?”
“No, there is no boss in their family, and Larissa feels that he deserves the chance.”
“So, will he?”
“Will he what?”
“Do better in Israel.”
Tina smiled. “I don’t know.”
“Do we have enough money, Mama?”
“Yes, baby, Ben is an engineer and I am doctor, and we have all the money we need.”
“That’s good,” Lydia said. “I don’t want to be poor, and I don’t want to go live someplace else. You know, I even miss our old apartment, but I like this one as well.”
“At least this one is closer to your school.” Tina closed her eyes. She thought Lydia might fall asleep and she gently pulled the blanket over Lydia’s shoulders.
“You’re warm, Mommy,” Lydia said. “Do you think the boy in my class left because his father didn’t make enough money?”
“Each family is different, and they all have different reasons,” Tina said. “Your daddy, when he was alive, fought very hard to make this country the best it can be and I fought right there with him. Social changes take a long time. You know what a social change is, don’t you?”
“No,” Lydia said.
“It means that we fight to change the rules, so that the people who have too much share with those who don’t have enough.”
“And then everyone has money and everyone can go to college?” Lydia asked.
“Yes,” Tina said.
“And you fought for this?”
“I did. I still do.”
“Then you are a hero, Mommy,” Lydia concluded. “You’re like Zoia Kosmodemyanskaya.”
“No, no,” Tina said. “Zoia fought in the war against the Germans. I didn’t.”
“But you suffered during the war. You were sent to Transnistria, with Baba, Larissa and Bebe. I know, because Baba told me a million times.”
“It’s true. They deported us to Transnistria, and we survived.”
“Ben was not deported,” Lydia said.
“He wasn’t. Instead, he was forced to do hard labor right here in Bucharest.”
“Because we are Jewish.”
“Yes. Many other people suffered as well.”
“Zoia lived in the Soviet Union and was killed by the Nazis. She was a hero. The Nazis were animals and the Soviets won the war. They came and freed our country. I know because I have read the book several times.”
“Yes, the Soviets won in the end.”
“My cousins, Erica and Roxana lived in the Soviet Union. They told me they liked it.”
“And now they have returned. See, there are people who leave Romania and then come back. Take it from me, baby, true patriots stay.”
“The patriots and the cats,” Lydia said.
Ben grunted and turned onto his other side.
“Ben?” Tina whispered.
He didn’t answer.
She wondered if he was truly asleep. And she had another thought: in her family, when it came to life changing decisions, Larissa was always the first.
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