At the end of August an official-looking letter arrived for Shifra and Baruch.
“Why should lawyers be writing to us?” Shifra asked, reading the return address.
“Open it and find out,” Baruch advised. “I hope it’s nothing to do with title to the house.”
Shifra unfolded the letter inside. “I have to go to the reading of Mrs Mottram’s will. I seem to be mentioned in it,” she said in a puzzled tone. “Oh, dear! I’ll have to see that awful Mrs Owen again.”
“Never mind. If you get a couple of hundred dollars out of it, isn’t it worth it? It would cover a month’s repayment of Mom’s loan.”
“I guess so…” Shifra was unconvinced. “I don’t know…I’ll have to think about it. I’ll get what Mrs Mottram left me whether I go or not…”
However, on the appointed day she booked Mrs Sussman again, and attended the reading in the same lawyer’s office she had first seen three years before. As well as the Mottram family, Shifra found Bertha there, in a seat in the corner. She slipped into the one beside her. There was a contented look about Bertha. Clearly marriage agreed with her.
“Thank goodness you’re here, Bertha!” Shifra whispered. “I’ve never been mentioned in a will before.”
“I was, once,” Bertha answered in a low voice. “A nice old lady left me fifty dollars and a china teapot. It was nice of her to remember me. After all, I just do my job.”
Shifra smiled. “You do, but don’t forget, Bertha, there’s a difference between doing a job and doing a job well.”
Bertha smiled in return. “That’s a good way of putting it. I do try. And I care about my old ladies.”
In a colorless voice the lawyer began reading the will, which was not long but was full of legal terminology. Major bequests were covered. There appeared to be no surprises until the lawyer reached Mrs Owen’s clause.
“What! Are you saying I don’t get my share unless I visit that garden of hers twice a month?” demanded Mrs Owen. “That’s insane!”
“Only for a year,” said the lawyer.
“A year! I live in New York! Am I supposed to drive up here every two weeks?”
“Your mode of travel was not specified.”
“What kind of crazy condition is that?” Joyce was out of her seat.
“Mrs Owen. Please.”
“Sit down, Joyce,” Ray said. “Your marriage is on the rocks. You don’t know your future plans. You could end up back here for all you know.”
Turning on her brother, Joyce snapped, “My marriage is my own business! But this – this travesty of a will – !”
“Mom had her own agenda,” said Ray. “She put that in for a reason. Look, can we just get the thing read, then discuss it afterwards?”
Joyce looked around the room, glared at Shifra, her brothers, and the lawyer, and slowly resumed her seat. “Go on, then.”
The lawyer went on to the minor bequests.
Bertha’s name was mentioned and a sum that made her sit up straight with a look of shock.
Suddenly Shifra heard her name and a phrase after it.
“She left me what?” she almost shrieked.
“Ten thousand dollars,” the lawyer repeated stolidly, “and a pair of china candlesticks. She was a rich woman, Mrs Levenberg. To her, this was chicken-feed.”
“But she hardly knew me! I’ll be happy to have the candlesticks but I can’t take that money! I’d be stealing from her children!”
“I couldn’t agree more!” snapped Mrs Owen. “What with this clause and that other lunatic one, Mom must have lost her mind! I’ll contest the will if necessary.”
Ray straightened his tie and leaned forward. “Joyce, I want to say something.”
“I saw what a difference Mrs Levenberg’s visits made to Mom. Three years ago Mom was fading away. The doctor told me then he didn’t give her more than a couple of months. And you know why? She was literally bored to death. You know none of us shared her interests – gardening, cooking, Canasta… Sure, we visited her, we were good children to her, but we bored her as much as Sunnyfields did. She didn’t want to hear about actuaries or the stock market or Manhattan real estate. Remember the stupid conversations we had? ‘Hi, Mom, how are you? What did you have for lunch? Did you see anything interesting on TV?’ Life was going on outside of Sunnyfields but it wasn’t touching her, and we couldn’t share our boring, successful careers. Then Mrs Levenberg came and talked gardening. They shared that interest. They shared jokes. You know, the nurses told me how they could always hear laughing so whenever they had a couple of minutes they started dropping in to Mom to find out why. They all thought she was terrifically entertaining. Joyce, did you know that by the end Mom was so popular the nurses took to having their coffee breaks in her suite? Mom had a life again!”
The other well-dressed man gave an emphatic nod. “I agree with Ray. We were with her when she altered her will, Joyce, and we approved. Maybe you didn’t notice the difference when you visited, but we sure did. Thanks to Mrs Levenberg, Mom had three more years, three years so good she was really enjoying herself, almost as much as before Dad died.”
“She wormed her way into Mom’s affections to get her money,” said Joyce.
“No, she didn’t. Mom didn’t talk about her that way. All they did was talk gardens. And that was exactly what Mom wanted and we couldn’t give her.”
“You say that even knowing what this woman is?” Joyce accused.
The man gave Shifra a bewildered glance. “What she is?”
Shifra raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
Both men laughed. The first one said firmly, “I don’t care if she’s a purple Martian. She did Mom a lot of good. And if Mrs Levenberg is an example of ultra-orthodox people, maybe you should get to know a few, Joyce. You might become a little more human yourself. You might even take up gardening.”
“May I remind you that I live on the twelfth floor?”
“Move,” he said decisively. “Move somewhere with a community, where people know each other. Move back here when the divorce is final. Get to know real people, not high-powered executives. Get a life, Joyce. And let Mrs Levenberg have the little thank-you present Mom left her. You won’t miss it and neither will we, and she can probably do with it. Come on, Joyce, how about it?”
“I refuse to discuss it in public.”
“If you still want to contest the will, Joyce, go ahead, but Ray and I will fight you. Fair’s fair.”
Joyce glowered at her brother. “We’ll discuss this later.” Lips pressed tightly together, she nodded brusquely at the lawyer. “Finish the reading.”
Shifra sat in silence until the lawyer sat back and slipped the document back into its folder, then she quietly thanked the men, nodded to Mrs Owen, and left with Bertha.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty about taking that money,” Bertha told her as they parted. “She talked about you like you were the best thing since sliced bread! And if you’re going to have that Owen woman twice a month, my heavens, Mrs Levenberg, you’ll be earning it!”
“It would mean a lot,” Shifra said to Baruch when he came home from work and she told him about the bequest, “but I don’t know…I feel so guilty taking it. Honestly, I almost agree with Mrs Owen – I feel as though I’d wormed my way into Mrs Mottram’s affections. I didn’t mean to, but that’s what seems to have happened.”
“You didn’t do any worming,” Baruch assured her, “aside from earthworming. We can really do with it, too. You gave her what she wanted and she was grateful. That’s all. Didn’t she leave something to that nurse?”
“Well, yes, she did, but it was only a thousand plus some odds and ends she had at the sheltered accommodation.”
“Which are worth a considerable sum, I’ll bet,” said Baruch. “Anyway, you can stop feeling guilty until you actually get the money. That Mrs Owen doesn’t sound like the type to give up easily.”
“Her brothers said they’d fight her. Oh, dear – and in the midst of all that wrangling I’m going to have her visiting me! – No!” Shifra drew herself up and took a deep breath. “I’m not going to be intimidated!”
“What are you going to do?” Baruch asked, interested in this new aspect of Shifra’s personality.
“I’m not sure. But I think I’m going to have fun!”
Mrs Owen’s call that evening challenged Shifra’s resolve. Shifra was sure she detected rage and frustration in Mrs Owen’s voice, but she refused to allow herself to crumple into babbling mode when she replied to Mrs Owen’s request to see the garden the next day.
“You’re welcome anytime,” Shifra said. “If you’d rather not have the kids around, morning is better. You won’t even need to speak to me. Just walk up the driveway and around the house to the back; the gate isn’t locked.”
“Don’t you want to show me around?”
“I didn’t think you’d want me to, but I can, if you like.”
“According to that will I have to spend at least three hours each time.” The words clearly came through gritted teeth. “I can hardly sit doing nothing for that long.”
“Let’s play it by ear,” Shifra suggested. “If you bring a book along, you can just sit and read if you have to. I’ll leave a comfortable chair on the patio.”
Joyce Owen took Shifra at her word. Sometime after picking up Chavi from playgroup, while she was feeding lunch to the two little ones, Shifra noticed Mrs Owen sitting upright on a garden lounger on the patio. A book lay open on her lap, but she was looking out across the lawn.
Smiling a little at the peaceful picture, Shifra stole out to quietly leave a glass of juice and a plate of cookies on the table outside.
Mrs Owen’s head snapped around. Seeing the refreshments, she said, “You don’t have to do that.”
Mrs Owen gave her a quizzical look. Then, shifting her gaze to the cookies, she said, “They look homemade.”
“They are. Baking your own costs less than buying.” For a moment Shifra was going to add, We’re saving up to extend, but a moment’s thought reminded her that Mrs Owen might focus on the unwisdom of having large families you couldn’t afford and couldn’t accommodate in a small house. “I’ll be back in a minute,” Shifra said instead, “if you want me. If not, I’ll stay with the children.”
Glancing down at the open book, Mrs Owen said petulantly, “Everybody told me this book was gripping. I’ve never been so bored!”
Taking this as an invitation to return, Shifra nodded. “I’ll put them to sleep.”
When Shifra came out Mrs Owen closed the book without bothering to mark the place but her expression remained unfriendly. Shifra could almost feel Mrs Owen’s antagonism, an invisible casing with prickles all over the surface. She took a cautious seat on the far side of the patio table. Mrs Owen made a face. “I don’t bite, you know.”
Obligingly moving to a nearer chair Shifra said with a little smile, “I didn’t know if you’d want an Orthodox Jew too close.” Why not challenge her? she thought. She’s been pretty outspoken to me.
“Touché.” Picking up a cookie, Mrs Owen took a nibble. “Kosher, I suppose?”
“I’m afraid so.” Shifra’s eyes brimmed with amusement.
“I’ll survive. We’ll both have to.” After a pause she added, “She uses – used – people, you know. She’s using you.”
“I had that feeling.” Shifra laughed. “She used to tell me how naughty she was. She said people shouldn’t let her get away with it.”
“She was infernally rude to me.”
“She was to your brother, once, but she apologized. I think things just slipped out. But I had the impression she liked you better than your brothers.”
“There’s a lot of her in me,” Mrs Owen admitted. “When I was little I never disliked something, I hated it. Strong reactions.”
“You religious types make me feel uncomfortable. Almost…creepy.”
“Oh, I understand, now!” Shifra exclaimed with relief. “The way you don’t like Orthodox people — I was so afraid somebody Orthodox might have done something awful to you – but it isn’t that, is it? You’re just reacting strongly to feeling uncomfortable around us!”
“You think that’s good, do you?”
“It’s big relief. Nobody’s done anything wrong.”
“What are you, some kind of psychoanalyst?” The tone was sarcastic.
“I like to…think about things. When you’re folding laundry or nursing the baby you have time to think…Sometimes things fall into place. Sitting here in the garden, too – you get to thinking. You know, there is an alternative,” she went on. “Couldn’t you just not visit, and forgo your inheritance? Or wait until you feel more ready?”
“I can’t. My ex cleaned out the joint account.” Mrs Owen bit off each word and spat it out like a bitter pip. “I have something left in my own account but it isn’t enough. He left me all the bills.”
“But that’s horrible!”
Mrs Owen shrugged. “I have the apartment. I changed the locks.”
There was a silence.
“You know,” Shifra put in, “we’re going to have to deal with each other for a whole year. Don’t you think we ought to declare a truce?”
Mrs Owen looked at her thoughtfully. “You’re different,” she said. “Confident. When you bought the house – ”
“I know. The garden did it. It seems to…make things happen.”
“I think so. There’s a lot of your mother in it. Her softer side.”
Mrs Owen laughed shortly. “She didn’t show it much.”
“The garden does. It’s…peaceful. Welcoming. It…it sort of leaves room for you to explore yourself. When it isn’t full of children running around screaming, I mean.”
“Did my mother see it that way?”
“She never said. Maybe she sensed it. After we went around the garden we used to have cookies and something to drink and just sit here watching it. She couldn’t see well, you know, so she must have just been enjoying the atmosphere.”
“She wants the garden to change me,” Mrs Owen said bluntly. “Three hours twice a month. For a year,” she added with a grim expression. Her mouth puckered as if she had eaten something sour. “It’s going to be a long year. All right. Truce.”
“Nu?” demanded Baruch when he walked in from work.
“Nu what?” With the dexterity of long practice Shifra slipped a spoonful of mashed peas into the baby’s mouth while with the other hand she hauled Shimmy back to the table. “Bentch.”
“Did she come?”
“Who? Oh. Mrs Owen. Yes. I’ll tell you more when I’ve finished with these little…angels. Tova, stop that this minute!”
Three hours later Shifra finally updated her husband, after he came back from his evening shiur.
“So you’ve made progress,” he remarked as he made himself a late cup of decaf while Shifra started folding a basketful of laundry on the kitchen table. “You’ve established civil relations.”
“Well, she didn’t say anything, only looked like she’d sucked a lemon when I gave her the list of non-visiting dates.”
“Yom Tovim. I think we’re entitled to a little privacy.”
Baruch took a sip and set down his mug. “But why the whole visiting the garden business in the first place?”
“Therapy. It’s a nice peaceful place to sit. You get to thinking. It’s ninety-six hours of thinking, Baruch, and Mrs Owen isn’t stupid. Mrs Mottram knew her marriage was breaking up; she knew she needed to get her life back on track, and this was the only way she could think of to help. She was a good mother, you know, even if she didn’t have much in common with her children.”
“And you’re putting up with this – this therapy?”
Shifra softened her shrug with a smile. “She’s paying me ten thousand dollars to help her daughter.” She added another towel to the pile.
Baruch looked up. “You’re not hoping to make her frum, are you? She sounds like a pretty tough case.”
“She is. I think I should just aim at making her feel comfortable with frum people. That’s the root of the problem, anyway.” She reached for a scissors to snip a trailing thread. “If her neshoma feels the pull of frumkeit, she’ll make her own decision.”
“Think she’ll keep driving up here from New York?”
“Oh, yes.” Shifra looked thoughtful. “She’s very decisive. When she commits to something, she’ll see it through.”
Even Shifra, though, was taken by surprise when Joyce Owen told her, at the end of September, “I’m moving up here in October. My apartment is too expensive for only one salary. I’m taking a sabbatical from the Manhattan agency.”
“That will make life much easier for you,” said Shifra, playing her cards close to her chest and showing no reaction. “Do you have somewhere to live?”
Mrs Owen looked down her nose at Shifra. “I hope you’re not offering me a room in your house!”
“Wouldn’t think of it,” Shifra assured her. “Even if I’d wanted to, there’s nowhere to put you. It really is a very small house. I assume you’ve found somewhere to rent.”
“And a job with the biggest commercial realtor in town,” said Mrs Owen smugly. She turned to the chair she usually took on the patio, then rose. “It’s too chilly to just sit,” she said. “I’m going to walk around.” Taking no further notice of Shifra, she strolled off. It was clear that being civil did not include actually being polite.
Two weeks later, however, Mrs Owen was greeted by a torrential downpour. There had been showers or light rain once or twice before, but on the whole the sun had shone. This time the rain gushed over the edges of the gutters, overwhelming the downspouts and creating a fringe of little waterfalls all along the eaves.
Throwing open the patio door, Shifra reached out and pulled Mrs Owen inside, exclaiming, “Mrs Owen! You can’t possibly stay out there!”
Mrs Owen drew herself up. “If that will says I have to visit the garden I’ll do it, if I have to wear fishermen’s waders!” she snapped. “And I’m dripping on your floor.”
“It’s linoleum, who cares? But, look – if someone’s in quarantine in the hospital and you can’t go in, you stand outside and wave through the window, and that’s a visit, isn’t it?” Shifra argued.
Mrs Owen looked at the deluge outside and back to Shifra. A sudden drumroll of thunder punctuated the pause. “I bow to your superior wisdom,” she said dryly, and took off her raincoat.
“I’ll go hang it somewhere it can drip,” said Shifra, suiting action to the words. On the way back she made a detour to the kitchen for a plate of cookies. “Coffee or tea?” she asked, handing over the cookies.
Clearly the idea of an Orthodox woman again doing something thoughtful for her sat uneasily with Mrs Owen, but she managed to say reluctantly, “Coffee. Black. No sweetener.” There was a short hesitation before she added, “Thank you.”
Black, thought Shifra. Of course. It would be. She’d never tolerate enfeebling coffee with milk or sugar.
As Shifra returned with Mrs Owen’s coffee and a mug of herbal fruit tea for herself, there was a flash of lightning followed almost at once by a thunderclap that shook the house. “Good!” Shifra exclaimed, stood, and made brochos on both, just as a wail came from upstairs. “Oh, dear, the thunder’s woken Chavi,” she said resignedly, hurrying to fetch the toddler.
“She’s a light sleeper,” Shifra explained, sitting down again with Chavi in her lap. “Look at that rain, Chavi! Just like emptying your paddling pool!”
Ignoring both child and mother, Mrs Owen kept her gaze fixed firmly on what could be seen of the garden through the curtain of rain.
Shifra felt her tea. Still warm enough to drink, she thought. “Do you want a drink, Chavi?”
Chavi shook her head, climbed down, and rummaged through the toy chest in a corner. Shifra sipped her tea in silence.
“If I were dressed for it, I wouldn’t actually mind walking around the garden in the rain,” Mrs Owen said suddenly, not looking at Shifra.
“Your mother said she often used to,” Shifra said quietly. “She had big boots, she said, and a disreputable old plastic raincoat with a hood.” Shifra smiled reminiscently.
The ghost of a smile touched Mrs Owen’s lips. “I remember that horrible raincoat. We were all so ashamed of her when she wore it in public.”
“And I used to cringe when my mother brought out her big shopping cart.”
“Did you really?”
Shifra nodded. “We’re human, too. And teenagers are teenagers.”
“Hath not a Jew…”
Shifra laughed. “You said it, I didn’t.”
“You called me Mrs Owen. I’m dropping it. I use my maiden name for business, anyway: Miss Mottram. But as long as we have to put up with each other, you may as well call me Joyce.”
“And I’m Shifra.” She betrayed no surprise at Joyce’s unexpected offer. Just take things as they come, Shifra told herself. “Is that coffee cold? Would you like some more?”
Joyce took another sip. “It’s still okay. What were you mumbling just after the thunder? You said ‘Good!’, then said something to yourself.”
“Oh – that. Blessings on thunder and lightning. It’s really great for kids. When you make a big deal of the blessings, the little ones forget to be afraid of the thunder. And of course it’s fun making blessings you don’t get a chance to say very often.”
Joyce stared. “Fun?? Being religious is fun?”
About Henye Meyer