Visits the Family
Izzy fell ill again. His respiratory infections often turned into bronchitis or pneumonia, so at first the illness seemed like nothing out of the ordinary. Pop, constantly glued to the radio for news of the war, heard about flu casualties all over the world, even more than from combat.
“Your ma’s bad, bubbeleh. She’s worried out of her mind about your brother. He might have the Spanish flu, Doctor Samson says. It’s killed some people in Boston already. You and me, it’s best to stay out of her way, let her take care of Izzy.”
“Minerva told me the flu’s contagious, and to wear a mask with disinfectant on it. I see many people with masks downtown, near Morris’s. Izzy is so blue, his skin. I don’t dare go near him anymore. And he’s coughing like the dickens, spitting blood. I think I should stay at the Rossettis’ home. I’m afraid of getting sick, Pop.”
“You go, darling. I’ll tell Ma. She’s got time for nobody now. She needs to wear a mask too. She doesn’t take care of herself—only Izzy. Ma, she has to protect her own health.”
Miriam wondered if it was wise to expose her dear friend and her family to flu. What if I have it already? But the Rossettis were always so kind to her, would do anything for her. Especially Mr. Rossetti. She bunked with Minerva in her small bed.
Days after Miriam arrived, she got a letter from Pop. Isaiah had worsened, he wrote. Foamy blood was coming from his mouth and nose. He was vomiting. He had a high fever. Ma had him in cool water in the bathtub now, to try to bring down the fever, as the doctor recommended.
Ma was heartsick. At Izzy’s bedside every moment, she wasn’t eating or sleeping, Pop wrote. The doctor from Massachusetts General Hospital came daily, but had no remedy except comfort. Doctor warned Ma to cover her face, to wash her hands often with that lime solution, and not to touch any body fluids. She followed his directions occasionally, and then slipped back to touching Izzy, rubbing his back, hugging him to her breast.
A telegram came within hours of his letter. The Rossettis did not have a phone, so Pop’s message took some time to get to her.
“My Mimi, your brother, he passed today. Come home, please.”
The whole Rossetti family gathered around her, talking together, stroking her, patting her head. “We love you, Mimi.” “We’re so sad for you.” “That little boy—that poor little boy.”
Miriam was stunned. How did this happen so fast? Why Izzy? She so regretted that she hadn’t spent much time with him in recent years, with school and theater rehearsals and working. She once yearned to show her little brother around, to teach him the ways of the world. That never happened.
One of many old memories flooded back.
It was a snowy day, one of the first of the season. Ma was out shopping to stock up on supplies before the other women bought up the good cuts of meat. It was just the two of them, Miriam and Izzy, in the apartment. Miriam was practicing for the next play at Peabody Playhouse in their parents’ bedroom. It was a Checkov play about sisters. She had the role of one of the sisters.
She noticed Izzy peering in at her, his eyes fastened on his big sister with such admiration that she couldn’t resist inviting him in.
“Izzy, there you are. Do you want to come sit on the bed and watch? It’s a play by a Russian man, a very famous playwright named Chekhov. When you’re older, you might read this in school. But I could use your help. Maybe you can read this part,” she pointed to the lines, “while I read this one.”
Izzy seemed thrilled that she’d asked him to help her. Although he stumbled on a few words, he was a smart boy and could read fluently. They continued like this until Ma returned. Ma called for him, nervous that he didn’t come running to her when she entered the flat with her bundles. She ran to the bedroom and, seeing her two children huddled together, reprimanded Miriam.
“You know I don’t like when you get so close to Izzy, Miriam. What you bring home from school to pass on to the boy, who knows?”
Miriam remembered how disappointed Izzy was at that moment. How she wished she could protect him from Ma’s worry and possessiveness. His eyes teared while he acquiesced.
Now he was gone. Gone forever.
No more could she dream of being a big sister to him, of teaching him how to get around Boston. Of taking him to theater like Pop always did for her. She wept and wept. She couldn’t stop. She was surprised at her reaction, not realizing how she much she loved that kid.
She remembered Izzy as a newborn baby. Looked like a little chicken. Thin, cried all the time. Miriam had little experience taking care of him at all—especially after that coughing fit, when Ma went berserk about Miriam dancing with him.
More memories rushed back—the poor kiddo, so excited to see her play Glinda; and earlier, when he saw her play Rapunzel and was fascinated with her long hair. Gone.
“How’s Ma ever going to get over this?” she wailed. Minerva, as always, steadied her, taking Miriam in her arms and stroking her hair.
Minerva wouldn’t let Miriam go home alone, even though Mrs. Rossetti was concerned about her daughter’s safety. But she wasn’t like Ma. She merely gave Minerva a new mask and doused it with disinfectant. The two friends packed up their small bags and made their way slowly to the trolley, Miriam leaning on her friend. It was dusk, and the graying sky showed signs of rainfall.
Ma barely greeted either of them. She sat on a chair in the living room, her head in her hands, her shoulders trembling. The flat smelled of sickness. Of death. Pop hugged Miriam without letting go for minutes, his tears wetting her cheek. He thanked Minerva for helping her.
The boy’s body was laid out in the center of the room, covered with a shroud. In accordance with Jewish tradition, someone would stay with the body until it was buried the next day. Ma insisted that she be the one to stay with Izzy, that she would not sleep until he was buried. She’d torn her clothing in the ritual way.
Miriam and Minerva went to bed in her small room, Minerva’s arm around Miriam as she tried to fall asleep, shivering, shaking.
The funeral would be next day. They belonged to no synagogue, Pop and his friends being socialists and atheists. But Dmitri, one of the men from the Workmen’s Circle, had studied at yeshiva when he was a young man in Russia. He offered to give a service, despite Pop’s protests.
“Not necessary,” he told his friend. But he succumbed to pressure from Ma, who wanted a proper send off and burial for her son.
No one in the family prepared any shivah, and many people didn’t want to attend for fear of exposure. But Mr. Ackerman and Ismael came. And Pop’s boss, but she stood by the door as if ready to flee at any moment. Morris arrived a bit late. Some of Miriam’s friends from the neighborhood stood at the periphery of the small space, wearing masks. They seemed terrified and left as soon as possible.
Ma was inconsolable. It was a dark time.
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