In early 2013, while reading Shifra’s Story, written by my book club colleague, I recalled writing some of Kalman’s Story and discovered my handwritten pages, likely written around 1980. This story is my recollection of how my grandfather, my Pa, started a journey at the turn of the 20th century from Must, Poland, that led him, eventually, to the United States. With the passing during the last days of 2012 of Pa’s precious daughter, who was my dear mother, I treasure the many family stories that live in my memory. I will do my part, now, to preserve them by writing what I consider to be sacred texts.
“Mmmm. Ouch. Ugh.” moaned Kalman. His little legs ached as he ran. His little arms hurt as they held on to the wagon. Running—literally—to freedom and safety meant holding on to the back of the eggman’s horse-drawn wagon and keeping up with a horse’s four legs that were much longer and speedier than his two.
“What’s that I hear?” murmured Reb Mayer. He stopped the wagon. “Who’s there?” Reb Mayer stopped the wagon, sprung to the ground, walked to the back of the wagon, and found Kalman. “What are you doing here?”
No answer came from the eight-year-old boy. A pleading, pained look said, “Please offer me a ride.”
“Come on up front. Have a crust of bread. And tell me why you’re here.”
Kalman began, “I know you stop at Bialystock. I want to go there.” To Kalman, Bialystock meant Mama Gittel’s sister, Chana, and her children. It meant an end to Must.
For Kalman, his Must home after his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage was just a place—and not a pleasant, safe, or happy one. It meant food locked in cupboards, hunger, and harsh words from a mean stepmother who told lies of misbehavior to Kalman’s father when he returned from his logging trips—making rafts and rowing them to the other side of Must’s river—resulting in painful, humiliating, unjust beatings. Must meant ridicule from children who had coins to a buy a bagel after Kader when Kalman could not.
Must, too, meant a beginning of self-reliance—collecting and filling his pockets full of feathers during the seasons of grass-covered ground and small metals during the seasons of snow-covered ground—and exchanging both feathers and metals for kopecks from a neighboring lady. Kopecks enabled Kalman to enjoy an after-Kader treat, like the other boys, eliminating their taunts. But they did nothing to save him from his stepmother, no substitute for his own warm, gentle, kind Mama Gittel. Now sitting up front in the wagon with the eggman, Kalman wanted to find his Aunt Chana.
On this wagon, heading away from pain, moving in a new direction, Kalman had already come so far. He had made his preparations. Earlier, he had thought, “I know Reb Mayer delivers eggs to Bialystock. I can ask him to take me there. Yet, he will surely ask her for permission, which will cause me even greater trouble. Or, he will ask him, which will also mean pain. Neither my stepmother nor my father will ever allow me to leave. So, I won’t ask. I’ll just go.”
Kalman carefully watched the eggman make his deliveries. He learned the route and knew the last stop before leaving Must.
On this particular day, eager and in wait behind a tree, with no one in sight, Kalman watched the eggman make his final stop in Must. Then he ran behind the wagon, expecting to hop on board the back of the wagon and ride. His little arms grabbed hold, but his little legs just couldn’t make the climb. So Kalman just ran and ran, holding on for dear life.
Now, how good it felt to sit up front and to eat. The small comforts of life maybe yet would be his.
“Kalman, what will I do with you in Bialystock?” asked Reb Mayer, amazed that so young and gentle a child had so much persistence, courage, and desire.
“Just take me to my Aunt Chana. Like my real mother, she has red hair.”
“I know only one woman in Bialystock who has red hair. I will take you to her.”
And so they rode, with Kalman dreaming of a new life. In Bialystock, Reb Mayer drove the wagon here and there, delivering eggs. In the center of one town square, he stopped his wagon and pointed to a house, “The lady with red hair lives there.” Kalman jumped off the wagon and looked up at the house. In a window, holding an infant, was a woman with red hair. She spotted him and recognized that this was Sister Gittel’s Kalman, now her Kalman. She welcomed him into his new home.
© 2013 Judith E. Shenouda
This story touches on elements conveyed in this blog: journaling, self-discovery, motivation, inspiration, obstacles, mapping a route to a destination, transitions, transformations, and the making of a meaningful life. What family treasures, alive in your memory, are you preserving? What are your sacred texts?