By Debora Bess Siegel
Maggie’s do-gooder mom was forever shopping, cleaning and cooking for a score of venerable Yiddish-accented extended family members. During school vacations and on weekends, Maggie’s Good Samaritan Mom would invariably invite her to accompany her on her house calls and she would invariably refuse, having absolutely no desire to face the onslaught of cheek pinching, wet kisses, squeezing and rude comments that her mother’s charity cases bestowed upon her. “Maggichka come sit next to me so I can have a good look at you…I see you enjoy your food…how old are you now? … Really, already nine – your mom was already turning heads at that age…Maggiele what big white teeth you have; Tanya you must get them straightened or she’ll look like a chipmunk…Tanya dearest she looks like Pippi Longstocking with her red hair and freckled nose; you must keep her out of the sun or she’ll be covered with them…”
Mom would try to convince Maggie of her duty with an array of moral-educating proverbs—reciting quotes and quips being a family tradition: It is more blessed to give than to receive or In Faith and Hope the world will disagree, but all mankind’s concern is Charity; but still Maggie would adamantly refuse. The one exception was visiting Auntie Bee.
“I’m going into the city to bring some groceries to Bee,” Mom yelled out from the kitchen and Maggie responded eagerly, “I’m coming too.”
“Only if you are ready instantly and help me carry the bags. Also, promise not to eat any candies she offers you; apart from adding needlessly to your middle, they may be filled with worms. Bee has no sense of time; the years pass without her noticing.”
Maggie and Mom climbed the four flights of narrow stairs to Aunt Bee’s Lower East carrying bags of groceries. Mom, who had her own key, opened the door and called out,”Bee, it’s Tanya, I’ve brought Maggie with me and a stewed chicken. I’ll heat some up for you.” “Kleine Maggie, come sit next to me,” Bee called out in return from another room. Mom immediately busied herself opening all the curtains and then the windows letting in light and air as well as the noise of the city street while Maggie admired the high ceilings with decorative moldings, and the many overly stacked bookshelves. She felt such pride that Aunt Bee had read them all. She too was an avid reader and had already won the library summer reading contest two years in a row. Maggie grabbed the shoe box marked postkarten off one of the shelves and perched herself on the armrest of the worn leather easy chair where Bee was enthroned, an ageless woman, elegantly dressed in a black suit and lacy shirt, smooth opaque stockings, her gray hair tightly pulled back in a bun. A book in some language other than English lay on her lap. Aunt Bee greeted her gaily with a playful sentence: “Magic Maggie, fairest of them all, how are you faring this fearful day?” Or “Maggie the Magnificent, do you fancy a buttery butter scotch, a peppery peppermint or a lickable licorice?”
Maggie tried to impress with her own chain of alliterations: “Amazing Auntie Bee, it’s awfully awesome of you to offer but Mom the Menace is sour on sweets, pretty please play the postcard game?”
“With the greatest of pleasures!” Bee replied gaily. “Close your eyes and choose a card, any card, let chance be your guide.”
Maggie dutifully closed her eyes tightly, awaiting Aunt Bee’s explanation.
“You chose well Maggie dear, a postcard of Auguste Rodin’s Eve in the pastoral garden of the Rodin Museum; a pearl of a museum, in the middle of Paris but feels like the countryside; genius oozes from its walls— Eve is one of Rodin’s last sculptures. She has that rawness of Michelangelo’s unfinished prisoners, struggling to escape from the marble. The belly is undefined because Rodin’s model’s belly kept changing; she turned out to be pregnant; maybe she was carrying Rodin’s child because she is so lovely, so tempting; you can feel Rodin devouring her. Rainer Maria Rilke was his secretary, you know. You must read Rilke’s treatise on Rodin, very enlightening.”
“What’s a treatise?” Maggie inquired, as if she had understood all the other high level words Bee had used.
“A long essay; I wrote a few myself in my university days; even one about Rilke: Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen, die sich über die Dinge ziehn. How I loved that poem.”
“Is that Yiddish Auntie Bee? What does it mean?”
“No that’s German, I studied in Hamburg before… never mind, it means, I live my life in growing orbits which move out over the things of the world. Perhaps I can never achieve the last, but that will be my attempt.”
Then Maggie opened her eyes wide and discovered Bee’s enchanted Eve. It was thrilling.
“Hurry, choose another postcard…” She closed her eyes again and randomly pulled out another image. “Ahhh, yes, excellent choice. That’s Woman Drying Herself after the Bath; that’s my favorite Degas. The lusciousness of the soft pastels, so very sensual and intimate, even more than Degas’s dancers, if that is possible.”
“What’s sensual and intimate?” Maggie asked, opening her eyes again.
“Sensual is soft and curvy, like you and like me, not skinny as a string bean like your mother. Intimate is being close and telling each other secrets. So let me tell you a secret about how I posed as an odalisque for an Albanian prince who wanted to paint like Matisse.”
“What’s an odalisque?”
“A member of a harem.”
“What’s a harem?”
“Never mind. Let me find the Matisse painting for you.” She took the box and expertly shuffled through the cards, clearly familiar with each one. “Ah ha, here it is, Odalisque with Green Scarf. Exquisitely exotic. Matisse was enraptured by anything Oriental. Now tell me Maggie dear, how’s your own drawing going? Have your brought me anything to look at?”
“Yes, I drew a still life, the same one ten times, just like you told me.”
“You are improving dear Maggie, for next time I want you to draw a self-portrait – sit in front of a mirror and draw what you see. All great artists draw self- portraits. Next time I’ll show you Van Gogh’s with a bandage on his ear.”
That evening, Maggie announced, “Mother, I want to dress up as a belly dancer for Purim.” Mom stopped folding the laundry and looked sternly at Maggie, her hands securely on her hips. “What? That must be Aunt Bee’s doing. I’ll have no belly dancers in my family. I have already sent your Queen Esther costume to the seamstress to be altered; she’ll add a piece in the back and it’ll fit you just fine.”
Maggie stamped her foot: “Every year Queen Esther!” she protested. “I refuse to be boring and serious like you. I want to be bold and daring just like Auntie Bee and travel the world.”
“Travel the world indeed. Is that what my poor sister has been telling you? Bee hasn’t been outside her apartment since I moved her there. Bee lives in her imagination, everything she tells you is fantasy. The only traveling Bee has ever done is not what I would wish on anyone except for those who sent her there.”
Maggie stood as erect as she could, threw back her shoulders, chin high and said angrily: “I don’t believe you. You’re just jealous of our intimachy.”
“Jealous of what? You’re a silly child and you don’t understand the words coming out of your mouth. Now let me get on with my housework, and you go set the table.”
“All you care about is cleaning and cooking, you never paint pictures, read poetry or go to museums. If you and Bee are sisters, why are you so different?”
“Bee doesn’t care about cooking and cleaning because she lives inside her mind. Anyway, we’re half-sisters, same father, different mothers. Aunt Bee’s mother died in the War and so did Aunt Bee’s husband and two … Never mind. After the war Grandpa Samuel, may he rest in peace, married a woman nearly twenty years younger than him, Grandma Martha, my mother.”
“So why am I more like Bee than you? Maybe I am really her daughter. Tell me the truth, is Bee my real mother?”
“Your mother? Don’t be silly ! Thinking is the essence of wisdom! Aunt Bee was born in 1920, she’s almost sixty years older than you. Enough of your gibberish! It’s starting to rain and the laundry needs to be brought in, and dinner isn’t ready yet. You lay the table. Remember forks on the left, knives on the right and fold the napkins properly. Quickly now!”
The next time Mom took Maggie along to Auntie Bee, their entrance went unnoticed. “Hi Bee, brought you a pot roast. Shall I put it on the stove?” No response. Mom seemed unconcerned at the silence, and busied herself putting away the rest the groceries she had brought. Maggie found Bee in her usual easy chair but everything else was odd. Bee was wearing a heavy robe, her hair unkempt, swaying slightly and staring blankly out the window. No lyrical greeting was forthcoming, no sound at all.
Breaking the silence, Maggie chimed gaily: “Howdy Auntie Bee, Maggie the Magnificent at your service,” and continued the routine. Maggie grabbed the shoe box, sat on her usual perch, closed her eyes, rumbled through the cards and chose an image: “Ok Aunt Bee, you can explain it to me now.”
Maggie kept her eyes closed, and tried again a bit louder: “Auntie Bee, pretty please with a cherry on top, explain the picture to me.”
Still no response. Disappointed, Maggie opened her eyes and looked at the image. It was of a baby nursing. She read aloud what was printed on the back: “Mary Cassatt’s Maternite, oil pastel 1890; the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
As if returning from a faraway thought, Auntie Bee slowly reached for the image: “Marie Cassatt was a friend of Degas. He taught her how to paint with pastels in the Impressionistic style. She never married. Thought it would interfere with her career. Instead she painted mother and child again and again.”
“Auntie Bee, is that why you never got married or had any children?”
Auntie Bee’s face tensed, a vein in her neck throbbing visibly. Then she suddenly shouted: “Tanya where are you? Take Maggie away. It’s better you don’t bring her the next time you come.”
Mom quickly appeared, ordered the shocked Maggie to put on her coat and wait outside. Neither Mother nor daughter said a word the entire hour drive home. Silence was broken only when they pulled into their driveway.
“Mom, why did Aunt Bee get so upset?”
“Maggie dearest, Aunt Bee has lots of reasons to get upset.”
“Is it because I asked her why she had never had any children.”
“Maggie, you shouldn’t have asked that.”
“Because you simply shouldn’t!”
“Why can’t you just tell me why?”
“Because I can’t. I shouldn’t have brought you today, it was the wrong day.”
“Wrong day? What do you mean?
“I mean it was the wrong day. Leave it at that.”
“I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything! How can I know what to say and what not to say if I don’t understand?” Maggie whimpered, burying her head in her elbow.
“A child’s tears rend the heavens,” Mom chanted softly, pulling Maggie’s head next to her belly. Maggie stayed glued, sobbing for a long while.
” Margareta Chaya Volovsky, look straight at me,” Mom demanded, grabbing Maggie by each shoulder until she stood silent and erect before her. “You don’t need everything explained to you. There are things you don’t need to understand, that you shouldn’t understand. Do not be wise in words, be wise in deeds. Go and lay the table. Remember fork on the–”
“Yes, I know Mother, forks on the left, knives on the right and fold the napkins properly,” Maggie completed her words, content to let Aunt Bee slip away from her thoughts.
The next time her Mom went to visit Auntie Bee, Maggie refused to come. Mom tried to convince her, “You love looking at the postcards with Bee and she so enjoys your company, it’s as if she comes back to life,” but Maggie just covered her ears with her hands and ran to her room.
Soon afterwards Maggie overheard her parents whispering in the kitchen about Aunt Bee being institutionalized. Maggie did not want to know what the word meant; She didn’t want to know anything that had to do with Aunt Bee. Mom never asked her to go on visits to Aunt Bee and Maggie was relieved.
Aunt Bee faded out of Maggie’s consciousness until her first visit to Paris. She unexpectedly found herself in front of the Rodin Museum and was drawn inside. When she saw Rodin’s Eve, memories of Bee vividly returned. She called her mother collect from the nearest phone: “What happened to Aunt Bee?” she demanded to know. “Is she still alive?”
“No Maggie, she died some time ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why didn’t you ask?”
“Now I’m asking.”
Long distance, Mother sketched Aunt Bee’s tragic life journey; how her beloved husband was gassed in the back of a moving truck and how her infant twins were pried away from her at a death camp.
“I saved the postcards for you. And Maggie,” mother added, “remember, the only truly dead are those who have been forgotten.”