Frumke stood in the doorway of her daughter's bedroom and looked with resignation at the clothes strewn all over the tiny floor. Dvora was sitting in the middle of the mess, cradling her favorite red dress and singing to it. When she suddenly became aware of her mother, prompted by some cue known only to her, the young woman ran over, alive with laughter, and embraced Frumke. Dvora's sounds, not quite speech, bubbled out happily. Frumke, in turn, hugged her only child. How could she not adore someone so full of love and happiness.
Frumke was known in David-Horodok as the Letterwriter, Frumke the Letterwriter, because she helped illiterates, a few men but mostly women, compose letters to loved-ones far away. In addition she taught a few female pupils every year the intricacies of written Yiddish. The irony that her own daughter had never even learned to speak was never far from her. To drill Yiddish letters into the heads of little girls, Frumke had to lock Dvora up in her room for several hours each day; she really had no choice because she didn't have the money to hire someone else to watch over the girl. Yet locking Dvora up always proved a problem; Dvora had a habit of finding some annoying way to entertain herself. Like today.
"Dvora, how often have I told you not to play with your clothes. Now I'll have to wash them again." Seeing a long session ahead at the river Frumke was depressed and somewhat irritated.
Dvora's shoulders slumped noticeably, provoking Frumke's guilt. How could she deny Dvora one of her few pleasures. She sighed. The girl was really such a problem. Why had God burdened her with this child, not wholly made before she appeared on earth?
Some unkind shtetl folk said that God had cursed Frumke for sins known only to Him. Frumke had heard the rumors, but paid no attention. She knew she had no big sins to hide, and moreover she could never bring herself to feel cursed-burdened yes, but not cursed. Dvora was always so happy, so kind, so loving. In her way she was a blessing, a companion always, for such a one would never marry. The only problem that troubled Frumke was the practical matter of what would happen to Dvora after Frumke died. The girl's best hope lay in reaching God first, but Frumke dared not think of her own loss in that case, so she avoided thinking about it at all. Anyway, what good did thinking do? Man plans and God laughs, as the old saying goes.
Frumke set down her wash basket outside the door and slid forward a bolt that locked Dvora and a favorite rag doll in the house. Locking her door always saddened Frumke, for it reminded her of how different her life was from her neighbors'. To her knowledge, she was the only person in David-Horodok who religiously locked her doors. Sadly she turned her back on her unwilling prisoner and trudged up Olshon Street to the beach near the Old Cemetery. There some dozen women were washing clothes on the banks of the Horin.
A shout came from one of the women a few feet away, "Such a lot of wash today, Frumke? Dvora been acting like a two-year-old again?" Feigel, Leibke the butcher's wife, was being tactless, as usual.
"Better Dvora acting like a two-year-old than your son Aharon stealing a pickle from the Koppel the Goat's grain store yesterday. Dvora at least has a good reason not to know right from wrong," retorted Chana, the young woman standing next to Frumke. Feigel humphed loudly but made no reply, knowing it was probably true.
"Thank you, Chana, but she's not worth it," Frumke said, picking up the first of the dresses and rinsing it in the drifting water.
"Just because Dvora is different, these hens think they can peck her to death. It makes me sick!" Chana's words had such force that they caught Frumke's attention immediately.
"Your mother-in-law ridiculing you again because of you're one of the few wives in David-Horodok who reads?" Frumke had committed the sin of teaching Chana to read at this very spot, while their clothes were drying. She had done it for free, knowing Chana would never get the money to pay her, yet realizing Chana needed something to be proud of. Beautiful, intelligent, kind yet vulnerable, Chana bore the burden of no children.
"The second she sees me with a book, she's at me: I'm neglecting my husband, neglecting the house. Why don't I go to the shop and help instead of indulging myself. 'When I was young, I gave my life for my family, not like you selfish young women of today.'" Chana imitated her mother-in-law remarkably well, well enough to provoke a few laughs from the women standing near.
"What does your husband say?"
"Nothing. Motle doesn't want to argue with her, so he just leaves when she starts up; then I have to hear what a martyr he is. Not a word from him about my helping so much more in the business now that I read! To me he says it; to her he doesn't. He never defends me!"
One of the other women remarked cynically, "A sonny-boy will always be a sonny-boy. I got one too. When I was young, I had to tell his mother to stay out of my house or she'd never see her grandchildren again!"
Chana brushed aside sudden, embarrassed tears, while the other woman's "Oy, I'm sorry, Chana," squeaked out. Chana's predicament was well known in the town; she had been married ten years without producing a child and her mother-in-law was pestering Motle day and night to get rid of Chana. "Ten years with no child and Jewish law says you divorce your wife."
Frumke hugged Chana gently, "God's ways are sometimes very difficult. But you can survive. No matter what you have to accept, I know you can survive." Anyone else telling her to swallow a childless divorce would have enraged Chana, but not Frumke. Frumke was worse off than she was-a widow with a retarded child. Or was she? It hardly mattered, but it certainly gave Frumke the right to counsel her on misfortune.
That night a frantic knocking brought Frumke out of her sleep. Motle stood in a panic at her door. At dinner he had told Chana that he wanted a divorce and she had disappeared without a word. He had looked everywhere. Did Frumke know where she might have gone?
Frumke threw on a shawl and ran to the river, to the place where she had taught Chana to read. Motle was at her heels. They found Chana sitting, mesmerized by the water's depths, with the women's Bible, the Tzene Rene, in her hands.
Frumke kneeled by Chana's side and stroked her hair softly. "Chana, do not do this. You cannot kill yourself over a weak husband and a heartless mother-in-law. Can such people be worth your life? Come and live with me, starting now, until you decide what to do." And because Frumke had the right to demand from Chana no less strength than she demanded from herself, Chana went.
Frumke quickly arranged a new marriage for Chana-to a widower from the nearby village of Rublye-and Chana produced a child within the first year. Motle also remarried, this time to a girl entirely to his mother's liking. In David-Horodok it was said that the girl married Motle's mother and got him for a husband in the bargain. Together the women planned every detail of the Motle's life, including a child every other year. Motle became so rich in family, Frumke would often see him when she went to wash, lying under the bushes near the beach, hiding. At these times she often wondered if he was dreaming about Chana.
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