I don’t like to speak bad about anybody, especially not family, but sometimes the truth will have its way. This is one of those times.
I have a niece, my sister Bella’s daughter, her name is Lilian, Lily we call her, she’s a smart lady, went to Hunter College, you’d like her.
Okay, she’s not the one I’m talking about. It’s her daughter, Ruthie, also a brain in her head, but I’m telling you, that girl is sincere. She comes to visit me here, all the way to Florida she comes. I don’t know why she does it. She doesn’t like the sun, and the ocean makes her nervous. Still, she comes. She’s a good girl, that’s why. Sincere.
She wants to talk to me about my past lives, she says. For an article. In a magazine. Like somebody will want to read this? What do I know? She says she’s getting paid to do it. Real money yet.
“In a past life,” I say to her, “I was nobody. Who would I be? Cleopatra, maybe?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Aunt Bessie,” she tells me.
“Darling, believe me, I wouldn’t sell myself to nobody, tall or short.” It’s a joke. She doesn’t get it.
She’s hockin’ me and hockin’ me with the reincarnation business, it’s very important to her, not just an assignment. She says to me, she herself, in a past life, she was Moses.
“Sweetheart,” I tell her, “you’re a smart girl, a Ph.D. you have, even. But Moses, that I don’t think is possible. Listen to me, you are not a boy.”
She gives me a look, such a look, like maybe I just killed a tree, like maybe I smell bad I should go and take another shower.
She doesn’t give up. Like a pit bull she is, just like her grandmother Bella, two peas in a pot they are. She’s after me, and she’s after me, she wants me I should count backwards from 100 and tell her what I see.
“Ruthie darling,” I tell her, “I can save us both a little time. If you make me count, I’ll only fall asleep. So I’ll tell you already, in a past life, I was a chicken.”
I want this should be the end of it, but Ruthie, with the kind of cockamamie mind she has, she doesn’t see my humor, she thinks we should investigate further.
“Tell me,” she says, “why exactly do you think you were a chicken?”
This is a normal conversation we’re having? What can I tell her? I say, “I like chickens.”
“You identify with chickens?” she asks me.
“What’s there to identify? I know what they are already, I’ve seen them all my life. Chickens are very nice,” I tell her, “chickens, I like to eat.”
That reminds me of a joke I once heard. Not from a comedian, either, from a writer of books. I say to her, “Ruthie, do you know who is Isaac Bashevis Singer?”
She knows, she tells me. “He was a Yiddishe misogynist,” she says.
Misogynist? Did you ever hear from it? Me either. I make her write it down for me on a piece of napkin. Then I make her say it again so I can remember. Misogynist. So many letters. Ruthie is very good with languages, the bigger the word the more she goes for it. So, okay, misogynist. A person who doesn’t like women, she says.
“Singer?” I say, “he didn’t like women? That I wouldn’t know, I never met the man. But still, he could write. They gave him a medal even, for his writing.”
Ruthie is not impressed with the medal. I ask her, “Do you want to hear the story or not?”
She shrugs. From a misogynist she doesn’t even want a funny story.
I tell it to her anyway. "Somebody asked Isaac Bashevis Singer why he was a vegetarian. He answers, I’m a vegetarian for health reasons. The other man says, Oh, I see, for your health. Mr. Singer, he says, no, not for my health, for the health of the chicken."
It’s a funny story, isn’t it? I think so. Ruthie, she doesn’t laugh.You see, this is what I’m telling you, she is sincere.
So now it’s like she’s made me a challenge, I have to get a laugh out of her. When I take it into my head I’m going to do something, I do it.
“Ruthie, darling,” I say to her, “let me tell you another story. This is a true story from the Bronx. Remember when I lived by the zoo and you would come to visit?”
She remembers. So I say, “Okay, remember the family what lived on the other side of Bernice Levine? The Walachecks? With all the children, what, maybe 6, 7 children they had.”
Again, she says yes, she remembers.
“So,” I say, “these Walachecks, nice people I’m sure, but their children were very noisy. And dirty habits they had. When they threw the garbage away in the incinerator room, it would land all over the place. More than once I found chicken bones in the chute, not pushed all the way down. The chicken was picked clean to the bone, but still, it's not the kind of thing you want staring you in the face. You follow me?”
She nods her head, yes, she’s following me.
“So one day I get an idea. I leave a little note on the door of the incinerator room. I say ‘Dear People.’ You see, I don’t want the Walachecks they should feel singled out and be embarrassed, so I make it like it’s to everybody, only of course Bernice, remember her? My good friend, Bernice Levine, she knows I’m not talking about her. Bernice, she was a very neat woman, she was. When she wrapped her garbage, she tied the paper bag with a string, nothing should fall out.
“So I write like to all the tenants, I say: ‘Make sure your chicken bones go down the chute.’ A simple note, to the point, that’s the way I’ve always been. I didn’t put my name, I signed it just ‘a neighbor.’
"But somehow, the Walacheck children, they figured out it was me. And after that, when they saw me in the elevator, they made a little clucking sound in their throats. Clucking like a chicken, they were. They called me Mrs. Chicken Bones. Imagine that, with all the fat I had on me. Now, you don’t see it so much, I’m shrinking in my old age. But then, I was what we called zaftig. You know from zaftig, Ruthie?”
“Oh, Aunt Bessie,”she says to me, “that is a very sad story.”
“It’s not sad, it’s not sad,” I tell her, “it’s funny.”
“They were oppressing you,” she tells me. “Size oppression.”
“No,” I tell her, “it was funny, they were only children. Noisy children, not neat, but in their hearts, they were good children.”
She shakes her head at me, like she knows and I don’t know.
But I don’t give up. Determined, I am, to get at least a smile out of her.
“Ruthie, listen,” I tell her, “I have another story for you. About your grandma Bella. This one you’ll like, I guarantee it. One day I went to visit your grandma, this is when she lived on Belmont Place, you remember, in the walk-up. So, it was the summertime, it was hot, I had to schlep myself all the way up to the 4th floor. By the time I got there, believe me, I wasn’t whistling no tune. So, your grandma Bella she greets me at the door, she’s got a frozen chicken she’s holding up to her shoulder."
I look over at Ruthie. Not a smile anywhere on her face. I do not give up.
“So I say to your grandma, 'Bella, what’s with the chicken?' She tells me she hurt her arm so bad. She was trying to move her sofa all by herself, she couldn’t wait for the super to come and help her. When Bella got it into her head to dust, there was no stopping her, like a maniac she was. Anyway, she’s pushing that big sofa, you remember Ruthie, the gray one, and she hears something go pop. In her shoulder it popped. Very painful. So she needs ice, but, lo and behold, she’s all out of ice. Not an ice cube in the apartment. So what does she do? She pulls a frozen chicken from the refrigerator and she makes a bandage from it. Can you picture this, Ruthie? Can you picture it in your mind? It was very comical, I assure you. Your grandma had a good head, to think of something like that. The chicken, the chicken didn’t have a head, but Bella, she had a good head.”
Still, no laugh out of Ruthie. What can I tell you? I started to get a little bit tired from my efforts.
“Ruthie,” I asked her, “would you like I should make us a little fresh lemonade? Some tea, maybe?”
She’ll make it, she tells me. Lemonade, no sugar. Okay, I don’t argue with her, she’s my guest.
I should sit, she tells me. All I’m doing since she arrived is I sit. She doesn’t want me to exert myself, she says. Exert myself? I’m boring myself to death.
“Ruthie,” I tell her, “I’m like a log here, like a log on the ground. Maybe, darling, in a past life I was a log. Maybe I was a bump on the log.”
She doesn’t hear me, she’s in the kitchen with the lemons. No sugar. Listen, I have to be honest with you, it will be a relief for me when she leaves. Company, company is good, but this kind of company, no laughing, no smiles, it’s taking years off my life.
I’ll tell you something else. I’m not so up on my history, but it occurs to me, maybe Moses, maybe he was like this, too — sincere. He must have been a houseguest they were happy to see the back of him.
So okay, this I maybe have to learn to live with. If what Ruthie says is true, with all the reincarnation mishagas, then I am the great-aunt of the Big Man. Moses himself.
I’m telling you, it makes me feel old, just to think about it.