Having a child is something you never forget. I still can remember the birth of each one. Golde and I were so young when Tzeitl was born. We were scared to death. The delivery went fine, but neither of us knew what to do with this tiny person. I was afraid to even touch the baby for fear of somehow breaking her, but she was a strong little girl and couldn’t be hurt even by my clumsiness. I used to come back from work and spend hours staring at her while she slept, amazed that I could have had anything to do with producing anything so beautiful.
When Golde was carrying Hodel, she had a lot of problems. She got sick for a while and then had difficulty moving around. She spent the last few weeks in bed, afraid to move. When it was finally time to give birth, it took hours. I had bitten my nails to the tips of my fingers and was ready to start on my toes. Hodel was no easier after birth. Golde had trouble getting her to eat or sleep. And what lungs she had. I think they could hear her screaming from Yehupetz. When she really got going, it sounded as if her whole insides were going to fly out. I spent many a night holding her and dancing around the house singing Yiddish songs my mother had sung to me. It was obvious she was not going to be a quiet child.
Our third child, on the other hand, was the quiet one. Chavaleh. I still can’t bring myself to speak of her. It’s too painful.
And now it’s just as difficult to think about Shoshie. I guess you could say things went wrong from birth. I remember she came out backwards. Could that explain why she killed herself?
Devorah was tough, like Tzeitl. She got sick when she was an infant, but recovered quickly and grew like a weed. She would eat anything you gave her. When she got older, she wanted to spend all her time with the animals. If she found any living thing that was injured, she’d bring it home and try to nurse it to health. Golde would complain that the house was beginning to look like Noah’s Ark, with all the rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, birds, frogs. She was just as gentle and sympathetic with people, so I wasn’t surprised when she went to work with Dr. Susser in the infirmary here. Now, of all things, she’s teaching the chaverim how to shoot rifles and make Molotov cocktails.
It’s hard to believe my youngest, Sarah, has also become a woman. By the time she came along, I knew babies were resilient, sometimes it seemed indestructible. I could carry her with me while I worked, even though it drove Golde to distraction. She’d scream, “What are you doing milking that cow — or saddling that horse — while you’re holding the baby. She might get stepped on or kicked.”
But so long as Sarah was in my arms I knew she was safe. That was when I knew they were all safe. The saddest thing about children growing up is that you can’t hold them to ensure they’re protected.
It’s funny that I think of the younger children by their Hebrew names now. Schprintze, Teibel and Beilke were such beautiful names, taken from great aunts from my side of the family. We named the first three girls after Golde’s grandmothers and an aunt. When we ran out of relatives on her side, we started on mine. Now, I’m not sure what we’ll do.
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.