Monday, January 27, 2014

Bathsheba’s Daughters: Our Story Begins With an Open Window and a Fall

There’s an odd similarity between the earliest story told about the great-grandmother I’m named after and the earliest story my parents used to tell about me: both involve an open window and a fall.

I’ve already told you about my mother’s earliest memory, how her grandmother held her hand and ran home with her from a pogrom in Jerusalem. I don’t know what my grandmother’s earliest memory or story was, although I do know several fascinating tales from her childhood and teen years that I plan to tell you in another post. The earliest story told about my great-grandmother, however, is so remarkable that it became a part of our family’s legacy.

My great-grandmother was named Bat-Sheva, a name that has been passed down in our family going all the way back to the biblical Queen Bat-Sheva, my royal ancestor and original namesake, the wife of King David and the mother of King Solomon.

My great-grandmother was born in Poland sometime in the 1870s. At the time of this story she was still a toddler, only two or three years old. Her father was a rabbi who also edited a newspaper, making him the first newspaper writer of five generations of newspaper writers in my family, ending with me (unless, somehow, my daughter carries on that legacy or marries a journalist).

I don’t know much about where they specifically lived, although I do know it was in a building that was at least three-stories high, so I have to guess it was a city. I know it was three-stories high, because that’s an important part of the story.

One day when my great-grandmother was just two or three years old, she climbed up to an open window on the third floor and fell out.

Her father saw her.

He saw his precious little daughter fall out of that third-story window, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.

Naturally, he was terrified.

She was just a baby, and it was such a great fall. How could she possibly survive? He had to get down to her as quickly as possible, and he couldn’t waste a second running to the window. Instead, he ran out of the room and raced down the stairs.

He could hear his feet pounding with each step he took. He could hear his heart beating hard and fast with fear in his chest. But he couldn’t hear his daughter. She wasn’t screaming, wasn’t crying.

He called out her name, “Shevaleh! Shevaleh!”

But there was no response.

His precious little girl had fallen out of a third-story window, and she hadn’t made a sound. Why hadn’t she cried out? Why wasn’t she crying now? Why didn’t she answer him?

His mind, of course, came to the only logical conclusion. She wasn’t crying because the fall had knocked her unconscious. Or worse. It had killed her. He prayed to God that he was wrong.

He raced as quickly as he could to the ground beneath the open window.

And he could not believe his eyes.

There was his precious little girl, standing up, not a hair out of place, looking as if nothing at all had happened to her.

He scooped her up in his shaking hands.

“Shevaleh,” he asked, “what happened?”

“Zayde carried me down the stairs,” she replied, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary.

But it was out of the ordinary.  In fact, it was impossible. Not only were there no stairs out of the window, but his daughter’s Zayde, her grandfather, had died two weeks earlier.

Her father was so astounded by this miracle, he had the story printed up in Yiddish, and he posted notices about it everywhere he could. I once saw a photo of that notice, and I would publish it here if I could find a copy of that photo.

You might wonder if I believe this story.

I can’t say that I do, but I do believe that my great-great-grandfather believed it with all his heart, so I don’t disbelieve it either. Like with most things that can’t be proven, I try to keep an open mind.

When I wrote Rideof Your Life—a novel about teenage ghosts falling in love in an amusement park—I treated it as a fantasy. However, as I do with all my novels, I still wanted it to make the most sense that it possibly could.  It seems to me that if ghosts do exist, they must be like the people they were when they were still alive. My great-grandmother’s Zayde was a good man who would have saved his granddaughter if he could. Perhaps he did. I don’t know. I suppose it’s comforting to think he did, and that comforting feeling is something I tried to convey in Ride of Your Life. The afterlife is unknown, but that doesn’t mean it’s scary.

As I said, the earliest story my mother used to tell about me also involves a fall and an open window. Unlike my great-grandmother Bat-Sheva’s tale, however, there’s nothing even remotely miraculous or other-worldly about it. In fact, it’s kind of funny, which I guess is fitting. It is, after all, about me.

A few weeks before I was born, my parents flew to Israel with my sister, Eliedaat. My mother lied to get on the plane, because it was against the rules for a woman to fly in the ninth month of pregnancy. They went to visit my extended family, particularly my mother’s parents and siblings.

At some time during the trip, my grandfather commented about my sister:  “You could draw a little circle around that baby, walk away, come back an hour later, and still find her in that circle.”

My parents agreed. My sister, who was eleven months old, was a natural born sitter. A natural born stay-in-placer. If you wanted to find a baby to pose for an oil painting, this was your girl! She could sit for hours and hours and not move.

Understandably, this led to a false sense of security.   

Enter me.
The oldest of my four younger brothers, me, and my sister. I have a dead tooth in this photo. If you guessed I got it from a fall, you'd be right. We were playing a "let's see how far we can jump" game (my sister's idea), and it turns out it wasn't quite as far as the top of the shelves  after my sister had moved them the second time. The dead tooth eventually fell out, but I still have the huge scar on my right arm from when my sister decided we should play milkman with glass milk bottles. (She says we were bowling, but I'm pretty sure we were playing milkman.) It was also her idea to play doctor with cold medicine that she spooned out to us. There is a slight possibility she wanted to be an only child. 

I was born days after my parents and sister returned from Israel, two weeks and two days before my sister’s first birthday. On the day I was brought home from the hospital, my father took me upstairs to the only bedroom in the house they were renting and laid me down on a bed. It was a hot summer day, and the window was open.

He thought, “This is safe. She’s a newborn baby, so she couldn’t possibly move.”

Yeah, right.

I was not my sister.

He left the room, I’m guessing to check on my mom and my sister. And when he came back, I was nowhere to be seen.

And the window was open.

Now, I know this doesn’t make any sense. I can’t even imagine a scenario where this might make sense. But for some reason the way my father tells this story is that he thought I had fallen out of the window.

I guess when you’re confronted with the realization that your assumption about your newborn being unable to move turns out to be false, you start to question the exact degree to which it is false. If your newborn can, in fact, move, who’s to say she can’t also climb windowsills? Or jump out of windowsills? Or fly? Or perhaps he knew the story about my namesake falling out of a window, and his mind played the most bizarre version of “connect the dots” anyone’s mind has ever played.

Of course, I hadn’t fallen out the window.

There was no miracle, ghost, or magic involved. I hadn’t disappeared. A short while later, my loud screams made it clear that I had merely fallen off the bed and had jammed between the bed and the wall.

To my father, though, this was almost as astounding as it would have been if I had disappeared.

Here was a newborn who could move a heck of a lot more than his almost one-year-old daughter. I couldn’t just move a little. I could move a couple feet right off of a bed. And I was only a few days old.

Over the coming months, my ability to move astounded both my parents over and over. You would think they’d have learned their lesson after that first time, but no. They didn’t.

One of the funniest stories my mother used to tell about me is how when I was a few months old, she put me in one of those baby carrier seats on a counter in a store. She left me alone for a second, just a second. Next thing she knew, I was crying, because I had flipped the seat over and was crawling around on the counter with the seat strapped to my back, like I was a turtle and the seat was a turtle shell I didn’t really like.

Through the years, I’ve tried to find similarities between myself and the great-grandmother I’m named after, and there are a few. I found out during my mother’s Shiva, for example, that my great-grandmother loved games. Someone told me she kept a chess set in a green plastic basket under her bed and would take it out to play chess with him when he was a little boy. But although I love games in general, I don’t like chess. I’ve also heard she loved to read and was usually found with a book in her hand. But she read mostly religious books, and I read mostly nonfiction, humor, fantasy, and science fiction. And several people have told me I’ve inherited her artistic and creative side. But I write and draw, and she expressed her artistic and creative side by sewing and crocheting, which are two things I can’t do at all.

But we do share a name and stories that start with an open window and a fall.

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