Digging to China

Angel's Flight, Vol. 7.1 (1982)

David Lipton

" . . . a strong woman who bore six children. She will be remembered by her two surviving sons and their wives and by her five grandchildren. Her three great-grandchildren will be told of this unselfish woman who took pleasure in sacrificing for her family and caring for them for more than sixty years . . ."

The rabbi's voice strained to sound sincere. Father sat stiffly on my right. Tiny drops of sweat slid down his reddish neck, leaving a network of moist lines. I rubbed my palms on my thighs. The coarse black material of my skirt refused to absorb. Mama sat on my left. She pushed a white ball into my hand. I blotted my palms.

The rabbi sang an ancient, unintelligible Hebrew. We sat on hard benches, separated from the pulpit, the Hebrew, and the casket by a sheer white screen. The rabbi's form was visible, a vague shadow against the white.

We stood and walked past the casket. Such a large box to hold that tiny, shriveled body. The polished wood shone and reflected my image. Mama stepped quickly by. Father lingered and laid a thick pink hand on the closed lid. I turned back. My brother Larry waited with the other young men. He pulled and twisted the tips of his moustache. Father tugged at my arm. "Come on, Karen," he whispered.

"Come on, Karen," Daddy says. I run to the car. It's a big green car. "We're going to see Grandma!" I say. I want to go see Grandma. She's funny. She can make her teeth say "clop-clop!" and they come out.

"Larry! Larry!" Daddy says. Mama pulls Larry by the hand.

"I don't want to go," Larry says.

"You always say you don't want to go, and when you get there you don't want to leave," Mama says.

"I don't want to go! I don't!" Larry says. I laugh. Larry's older than me. He's funny, except when he hurts me. Grandma's funnier. "Clop-clop," her teeth say.

It's a long time to get to Grandma's house. I sit behind Daddy. Daddy's neck is red with little black hairs. My dress is pink. It's hot. Daddy's neck is shiny and wet. I pull my dress up, it's so hot.

"Mama! Look at Karen!" Larry says. Mama looks out the window. I pick the brown hard thing on my knee where it hurt.

"Look! Look at Karen!" Larry says.

Daddy says, "Karen! Stop that. Pull your dress down." His eyes are in the little mirror. I pull my dress down and smile at the little mirror.

"Are we there yet?" Larry says. I like Daddy's neck. I touch it.

"Not yet," Mama says. Larry bounces. I bounce too. We bounce, up and down, up and down. Mama says, "Stop that! Stop that! I'm getting a migraine from those two."

"What's that, Mama? What's 'mi-graine'?" I say.

"You're dumb," Larry says.

"I am not," I say. I kick him.

"Mama! Mama! She's kicking me!" Larry says. He kicks me.

"Karen. Stop," Daddy says. His eyes are in the little mirror. I stop kicking Larry. I smile at the little mirror. The eyes smile back.

We get to Grandma's house. It's hot. Grandma's standing on the porch. I run to her. "Grandma! Grandma! Grandma!" I say.

Larry says, "I gotta go to the bathroom." He runs into the house. I run to Grandma. She hugs me. Her face is gray and fuzzy.

"Darling," Grandma says. "Shane-a-punim." She pinches my face.

"What's 'shane-a-punim'?" I say.

"It means, 'beautiful face'," Daddy says. He's behind me. He kisses Grandma's fuzzy face.

"Why is Betty in the car?" Grandma says.

"She has a headache," Daddy says. He wipes his face with a white cloth. "I'm going to take her home," he says.

"Daddy! Daddy! Don't go!" I say.

"Always a headache," Grandma says.

"I'll pick them up later," Daddy says. "Good-bye, sweetheart, I'll be back soon," he says. He goes to the big green car.

"Don't cry, darling. I made cookies for you," Grandma says. I cry and wave good-bye.

There were twenty or thirty people assembled in front of the open grave. Father stood next to me, wiping his face and neck. Larry and the others rolled the casket on a cart. The air was warm and heavy with moisture, the sky a dull gray. The men lifted the casket and set it down next to the square hole. Two heavy, brown-skinned men lowered the casket into the hole with ropes. They lowered three concrete slabs after.

"Those who wish to pay their respects to the deceased may do so by casting earth into the grave," the rabbi said. He spoke now without any forced inflection, pausing only to wipe his face. People lined up on either side of the grave. One gray old man grabbed a shovel and thrust it into the huge mound of black earth that stood behind the grave. His face glowed bright red and his plump neck bulged over the edges of his collar.

"Bury her?" I said. "We help bury her?"

"It's all right," Father said. "It's orthodox custom. Your grandmother wanted this. Really, it's all right."

"It's all right, darling," Grandma says. She touches my head. She says, "Do you want Grandma to do something to make you laugh? Do you?" I stop crying. She smiles. I smile too. I know what she is going to do.

"Clop-clop! Clop-clop, Grandma!" I say. Her mouth opens and her bottom teeth come out and go back in. Her teeth say, "Clop-clop!" I laugh and Grandma laughs.

We go inside. "I made cookies for you," she says. The cookies are good. Larry won't drink his milk.

"I hate milk! Can't we go outside? I want to go outside!" Larry says.

"Of course, darling," Grandma says. Larry runs outside. I look at the pictures on the wall. There is a picture of a man holding a little girl. The man has a black moustache.

"Grandma, is that me?" I say.

"Who, darling?" she says.

"In the picture. The little girl. Is that me?" I say.

Grandma laughs and says, "Oh, no, no, no! Ha, ha, ha! The little girl is me, darling. It's me."

"Really? Who is that man?" I say.

"That's my father, darling. You see how handsome he was? Don't you think he was a very handsome man?" she says.

"Oh, yes, Grandma!" I say.

"Yes, he was. So handsome. And he loved me very much," she says.

"I love you very much, Grandma," I say.

"Yes, darling, I know," she says. She kisses me. Her mouth is wet.

"Sit! Sit, darling," she says. I sit on the big sofa. It's got big red flowers on it. It's shiny and sticky like sitting in the car.

"My father was a felcher. A felcher's like a doctor," Grandma says.

"I hate the doctor!" I say.

Grandma says, "Oh, but my father was a very kind man. You would not have hated him. We lived in Nickoliev, in Russia. And when I was sixteen, just a young girl, he took me on a trip to Germany. Such a wonderful trip. We went to concerts and museums. It was the most exciting thing in my whole life!" Grandma smiles. Her eyes are wet.

"Every night, we rode in a buggy," she says.

"What's a buggy?" I say.

Grandma says, "Oh, we had no automobiles then, darling. So we rode in a big, black cart with a horse pulling it."

"A horse! Oh, I love horses!" I say.

Grandma says, "Do you, darling? Well, so do I! Do you want to see something?"

I shake my head, up and down, up and down. "Yes!" I say. Grandma goes away and comes back with a bag. She says, "My father bought me a beautiful gift in Germany." She opens the bag. It is something black. She says, "You see? A beautiful shawl! A wonderful gift!" She holds it up. It is black but I can't see Grandma's face behind it. She says, "Such fine material. Feel it. So soft." I touch it and it is soft. It smells funny, like the big wood box in Mama's closet.

"My father was a wonderful man. So handsome. He loved me very much," Grandma says. She is crying.

I say, "Don't cry, Grandma! Don't cry. I love you too!"

"Does everyone have to?" I asked.

Father wiped his face. "Only if they want to. It's a way of showing respect. You don't have to." I stepped up to the grave. I grabbed the shovel with both hands and sank the blade into the soft pile of earth. I tried to jerk the shovel up, but stumbled. I went down on one knee, still clutching the shovel. My face came close to the mound of loose, black earth, and I saw the casket at the bottom of the square hole, the three gray concrete slabs resting on it. I sucked in a deep breath. The odor washed over me, the heavy, moist smell of freshly broken ground.

The ground smells funny. Larry and me dig with our hands in Grandma's backyard. The ground sticks to my fingers and my knees. The ground is wet.

"I can dig deeper than you," Larry says.

"No, you can't," I say.

Larry says, "Yes, I can! I'm a boy and I can do everything better than you!" He digs faster. I start to cry.

"Come on, you crybaby! Dig! Come on!" Larry says. I cry. He says, "Do you want to know where we can dig to?"

"Where?" I say.

Larry says, "Well, if we dig real hard, all day maybe, and we dig and dig and dig . . ."

I say, "Where? Where will we dig to?"

"China!" he says.

"China! Really?" I say.

"Yes, China! Come on, dig, dig!" he says.

We dig faster. I want to dig to China. I've been to Grandma's house and to our house and to the store and to the park and to Kindergarten and to church. But I've never been all the way to China!

"Larry, is Germany near China?" I say.

"I don't know. Maybe . . . yes, I think maybe it is," he says.

I say, "Oh, I hope so! Come on Larry, let's dig!" We dig and then I say, "Larry, should we pray to Jesus? Mama says if we want something real bad, we should pray to Jesus."

"Yes, I think you're right. Let's pray to Jesus," he says. We put our hands together and pray. "Please, Jesus, we want to dig to China real bad," Larry says.

"And Germany," I say.

We dig for a long time. Grandma comes outside and says, "What are you children doing?"

"We're digging to China!" Larry says.

"No! No! Stop digging in the dirt!" Grandma says. She kicks dirt into the hole.

I say, "Stop! Grandma, stop! I want to dig to China 'cause it's near Germany! You'll come with me! Germany's the most wonderful place in the whole world! Please, Grandma, please! We can dig to China and Germany and we'll be happy there!" Grandma kicks dirt into the hole. I cry and cry.

The shovel load of earth thudded against the concrete slab and shattered. I felt weak from the heat and the humidity and the smell of the grave. I pushed the shovel back into the mound and walked back to Father and Mama. She gazed at the gray sky. "Mama," I said, "aren't you going to?"

"No," she said. Father smiled quietly and stepped up to the mound of black earth. "No," she said. "I can't. I just can't."

"I can't," Mama says.

Father says, "All right. How about you, Karen?"

"Sure," I say. "I'd like to go."

Usually, father drives fast, jerking away from stoplights. Today he drives slowly, nearly crawling. I roll my windows down but the car moves so slowly, there is no breeze. The air is hot and still and lifeless.

The elevator also moves slowly, cautiously upward. Father sweats and the air in the elevator cab is heavy with moisture.

"This way. Down the hall," he says. We pad quietly to her room.

"Hello, Ma," Father says. She sits in a wheelchair, gazing out the window at the gray sky. He bends stiffly and kisses her cheek. She is shrunken, tiny and dull in the glistening wheelchair. She turns and her cloudy eyes settle on me.

"Darling!" she whispers.

"Hi, Grandma," I say. I bend to kiss her. Thin arms encircle me and squeeze with astonishing strength. "Feeling better?" I ask.

"I'm so glad you came to see me! So happy!" she says. She weeps and covers her gray face with spotted hands. Blue patches dot the skinny arms where needles have entered the flesh, searching for elusive veins. Father and I talk quietly, bringing her small news items of family and friends.

Abruptly she says, "The maid! She left last week! We must find another maid!"

"Ma," Father soothes, "the maid left thirty years ago."

"Last week . . . we can't pay her . . ." she sobs. She looks out the window then back to me. "Darling," she says calmly, "did I ever tell you about my father, my wonderful father? He loved me very much. When I was a young girl, he took me on a trip, a trip to Germany. There was art and music . . . the most exciting place I have ever been! He was so handsome! He bought me a gift, a beautiful black shawl. He loved me very much."

"Yes, Grandma, I know," I say. She looks out the window again. Father stares at the floor.

"Fa spielt dem Leben!" Grandma blurts. She cries for a moment. I stroke her dark gray hair, thick like a younger woman's hair.

"All right," I say, "it's all right."

She stops crying and is calm again. "Thank you, darling. Thank you for coming to see me."

The elevator descends slowly, carefully. We reach the ground.

"Father," I ask, "what she said . . .'spiel' something?"

"Fa spielt dem Leben!" he sighs. "Literally, 'I played the life' . . . 'I pissed my life away'."

The two dark-skinned men finished filling in the grave. The rabbi sang while shovels diminished the mound of moist, black earth. Mama walked ahead of Father and me.

"Have you ever been to Germany?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, "during the war."

"Did you like it?"

"I suppose. Things were pretty bad then."

"I think I would like to go there."

"Would you?"

"Yes . . . and China too!"


I smiled and took his arm. We walked slowly to the car.

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