an excerpt from the unpublished novel “Ruthy”
by Elaine Rothman
The day after school closed for the summer they piled into the 1932 Packard, an impressively large car with very little passenger room because it was a Victoria Coupe. All of their belongings were tied down on the roof, which worried Ruthy during the four hour trip, particularly over the Wurtsboro hills. One of the boxes contained seven books, her entire personal library. She had read each book a hundred times, but she simply couldn’t go to a place where there was no public library without something to read.
The concept of living for two whole months on a farm terrified Ruthy. Grass and trees and fresh air sounded fine. It was the thought of animals that was frightening. Ruthy suffered from a recurring nightmare, stemming from an unhappy incident when she was a child of three or four, only slightly older than her brother was now. She and her parents had spent a day on a farm owned by one of her father’s friends. An older girl, perhaps six or so, had enticed Ruthy into an outdoor chicken coop, with wire netting overhead. Ruthy could still remember the disgusting smell, the malevolent, unblinking eyes of the birds, their fearful squawks, and the dusty flurry of their feathers as they lifted themselves a few inches off the ground.
For some reason the older girl had released Ruthy’s hand and had run out of the enclosure, latching the gate behind her, and abandoning Ruthy to the chickens. At the sight of the vicious beaks pecking at the ground close to her shoes, the scaly claws, and the gate that appeared securely locked, Ruthy rooted herself to the ground, closed her eyes, and howled. Some grown-up must have heard her as he passed the hen yard.
“You there!” she could hear him say, without opening her eyes. “You’re a big girl. If you want to come out, just lift the latch and git.”
Ruthy remained imprisoned with the chickens, unable to move, thinking it impossible to unlock the gate by herself, and attempting without success, to lower the decibels of her screams. The grown-up left and the older girl returned.
“What a stupid baby you are!” she said, flipping up the latch with one finger. “Here, get out of there. Hurry up before one of the hens gets out too.”
For years afterwards Ruthy’s nighttime dreams were haunted by that girl’s contemptuous face, by the squawks of attacking chickens, and by a lock on a chicken coop gate that would never open.
Her daytime fears of anything that flew, walked on all fours, or barked were encouraged by her mother. Mom would take Ruthy’s hand and cross the street if a dog was being walked on a leash, an infrequent occurrence in a neighborhood where almost no one had a pet. The few dogs were kept by apartment house superintendents, and they were there to frighten potential burglars. Pets like goldfish or turtles were dirty and brought germs into the house.
Although no one Ruthy knew had a cat, she was drawn to the sight of cats prowling through her grandparents’ yard in Brooklyn. She thought their eyes were like jewels and was fascinated by the slinky, boneless way they stalked along the top of Grandpa’s backyard fence. She could spend a very long time watching a pink tongue lick a tiny paw. Once a cat the color of butterscotch rubbed itself against her bare leg, and she felt a surprising tenderness well up inside of her. Next time, she told herself, she’d reach down and stroke its fur. Once Grandma began to keep geese, the visiting cats came no more. And by the time the geese were gone and the cats resumed their prowls, Ruthy was brainwashed by Mom into thinking that germs lurked, not only in all the obvious places like an animal’s poops or saliva, but also in its fur.
Her mother tried to reassure her about the prospect of a whole summer in the country by saying she had selected a boarding house type of farm. Ruthy wouldn’t be obliged to have any contact with animals. There’d just be plenty of sunshine, fresh air and wholesome food, everything to put roses in her cheeks and meat on her bones.
Maybe there’d be lots of trees. Ruthy loved trees and plants, anything green and growing. She never got dressed in the morning before looking out the window and checking out the park eight stories below and the two gigantic trees that rose in front of her bedroom window. She had planted half a dozen grapefruit seeds in a wooden cheese box, and already five of them had sprouted. A sweet potato that she watered regularly sent lovely green tendrils from its resting place in the dish on the coffee table. She couldn’t possibly go to any farm. Who would water her plants during the time the family was away from home?
The mother of one of her school friends, who lived down the hall, solved the plant problem for Ruthy by offering to take in the seedlings and treat them like her own. Finally Ruthy agreed to pack for the long weeks ahead. She put her books, a jump rope with wooden handles, a paddle with a red ball attached to a rubber band, crayons, blunt edged scissors, and her paper dolls into a box she labeled, “RAK, Ruth Anna Kramer, Her Things”.
The Weinstein boarding house, Sam Weinstein proprietor, was a big old farmhouse with a wraparound porch and a small parlor on the first floor, and six bedrooms on the second floor. The Kramers would live in a corner bedroom, equipped with a double bed, a crib for Frankie and a cot for Ruthy. Her bed was set right under one of the windows, with a view of fenced pastures, the surrounding hills, and a pond. In one corner of the room was a sink with a mirror over it, and a towel rack on the wall.
The other five bedrooms were all rented to city families, like Ruthy’s, each with one or two children. There was a huge kitchen and only one bathroom with a claw-foot tub. The women were expected to share the single, wood-burning cook stove, but each family was assigned its own tiny icebox, and its own shelf to store supplies. The long trestle table in the middle of the kitchen was surrounded by about two dozen chairs.
The Kramers were apparently the last of the paying guests to arrive. Sam Weinstein, a tall stooped shouldered man, was completely bald except for a yellow fringe over his ears. He had huge red hands and was dressed in a sleeveless undershirt and overalls, with square toed, scarred boots on his feet. He introduced Ruthy’s parents to the adults who were seated on the porch in a row, like sparrows on a telephone wire. An assortment of children, playing around their parents’ feet, stared at Ruthy and Frankie. Her little brother stared back, from the safety of his mother’s arms. Ruthy, glancing at the other children, saw only one or two possibilities for friends, and asked her father for her box. She wanted to put it safely under her cot, and look out of her very own window.
The late afternoon shadows were turning the hills to blue and purple. The pasture was dotted with specks of white. Wide eyed with delight she realized they were sheep, far-off, fluffy sheep. Through the open window Ruthy could hear them bleating. She also heard the tinny clanking of a bell. A line of cows shuffled out towards the pasture, following a lead cow that mooed with every step. When Ruthy craned her neck she saw they were coming from a picture book barn. The animals were speaking a language she’d never heard, only read about. She filled her lungs with the sweet smell of grass and tried to shut out the voices of her parents.
“What was in that head of yours bringing my kids to a place like this?” her father asked. “I get you an apartment with all modern conveniences and you insist on going back to the way we grew up on the East Side, complete with back houses. Call ’em privies if you want to, but an outhouse is an outhouse.”
“You’ll see how healthy the children will get from trees and fresh air and real country food. Next time you come, Max, you’ll see the roses in their cheeks.”
“I’ll never understand you, Frieda. At home you’re a queen with delivery boys and laundrymen at your beck and call. Here there’s not even an indoor toilet.”
“Mr. Weinstein said the plumbing’s all ready to go. He’s a little behind schedule.”
“Sam Weinstein’s a goniff. I know the type. You’ll use an outhouse all summer. You’ll see.”
Ruthy knew enough Yiddish to wonder if Mr. Weinstein was really a thief. He looked like an ordinary farmer to her, although her experience with farmers was a little limited.
The indoor toilets he promised her mother never materialized that particular summer, and Ruthy couldn’t care less. She got used to the outhouse marked Women, would tear off a catalog page from the nail, and study the pictures and prices before she used it. When the smell got too ripe, she would scoop a bit of lime from a bucket and pour it down the hole, slam the door and escape to freedom. No washing of hands and face, with special attention to the neck, and no brushing of teeth.
She didn’t have much contact with water the whole summer. She couldn’t escape the weekly hot bath in the claw-foot tub, where her mother scrubbed at every inch of her body and scalp with a scratchy cloth that made her yell with pain and indignity. And there was the muddy pond where Danny Weinstein taught her how to swim.
Danny was twelve, the youngest of Sam Weinstein’s four sons. At first he tolerated, and then seemed to expect Ruthy’s presence. She shadowed his every activity from sunup until sundown, when she tumbled into bed exhausted from trying to keep up with Danny Weinstein. Ruthy’s mother told her she should find someone her own age among the other boarders’ children, and then appeared to forget the suggestion as soon as she made it.
It was easy to understand how her mother could forget all about Ruthy. First and foremost all of the mothers concentrated on keeping their toddlers safe from falling into things and hurting themselves in a dangerous environment like a farm. Why these two, three and four year olds who walked perfectly well, like her brother Frankie, were called toddlers, Ruthy never bothered to find out.
The six mothers were kept very busy. They had to work out meal schedules, whose turn it was to use the stove, who was supposed to clean the long trestle table and sweep the kitchen floor. They had to purchase milk, butter, eggs, produce and kosher chickens, all delivered by local farmers. There was even a sign-up sheet for the use of the single bathroom. Ruthy’s mother went around all summer with her mouth pursed as if there were things she could say, but wouldn’t. She told Ruthy’s father, on the three occasions they saw him, that no sacrifice was too great for the health of her children.
Ruthy would wake at dawn while her mother and Frankie still slept. She dressed quietly and slipped out to the barn where Danny was milking the cows. His straw color hair stuck up in every direction. His blue eyes looked serious, but he’d do something crazy like squirt a stream of milk at her, or kick an empty bucket her way. Once he made her sit on his milking stool and, holding his calloused hands over hers, tried to teach her to squeeze the cow’s udders, counting: right, one, two, three, left, one, two, three. She couldn’t master the steady, even pressure required. Milking was harder than it looked.
When the milking was done, not too long a job because the herd was small, Danny would send the animals into the pasture, with Daisy, the one whose bell Ruthy had heard her first afternoon at the farm, in the lead. She learned to identify all of the cows but Daisy was her favorite because she was the prettiest, chocolate brown with beautiful long eyelashes.
Ruthy learned not to mind the manure, greenish and liquidy in the barn, squashed into brown pats in the fields. Except for the one time she held a cow’s teats, she usually stayed a good distance from the animals’ flanks, horns and hooves. But she couldn’t resist petting Daisy’s calf, Marigold. While Danny scalded pans and strainers and poured full buckets of milk into clean cans, she made Marigold a necklace of daisies and watched the calf toss its head and munch her offering, flower by flower.
She drank from the tin cup of warm, foamy milk that Danny shared with her, knowing that her mother would disapprove because it hadn’t yet been pasteurized. Almost everything she ate with Danny that summer was warm, either from the cow, or the sun, or from his mother’s oven. Warm fresh bread, slathered with butter, juicy raspberries picked in the heat of the day, tomatoes and cucumbers, sun warmed and right off the vine.
Ruthy couldn’t recall ever enjoying food quite so much. The slabs of white, crumbly farmer cheese and the slices of tangy salami on hot, fresh rolls smeared with mustard, and crunchy pickles on the side, were delicious.
“My mother sent this,” Danny would say, as they sat on the bank of the pond where he’d spent an hour or so teaching her how to swim. Both of them, out of sight, in their underwear, because neither one had a swimsuit. Their underwear would dry in the hot sun, as they picnicked, and no one would be any the wiser.
“I ate with the Weinsteins,” Ruthy would explain, later that evening when she picked at the supper her mother cooked. Her excuse had only a grain of truth, because she never entered the Weinstein shack where Danny’s family spent the summer, so the paying boarders could have their house.
Sometimes she helped Danny at his chores, but most times she just watched. She saw his mother, a slight, dark woman, pegging overalls and white undershirts to a line, where they hung stiffly like the clothes in Ruthy’s book of paper dolls. She never spoke to Ruthy. Nor did either of Danny’s two big brothers. They were both tall and stoop shouldered like their father, with Danny’s straw colored hair. They always seemed to be tinkering with some kind of machinery which they sat on and drove, clanking and puffing, to some distant field.
Only Mr. Weinstein, his bald scalp gleaming and his seamed face cracked with wrinkles and a smile, would speak to Ruthy every morning when he came into the barn.
“Is my Danny taking good care of you, little girl?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” Ruthy would say, between bites of Mrs. Weinstein’s bread and butter, sometimes aware that she had honey or jam smeared on her face.
“He’s a good boy. Too good for the farm. He’ll go to college some day.”
And Ruthy would look at Danny. But the boy would continue washing down the stanchions or shoveling manure, as if his father hadn’t spoken.
Danny did more than take care of her. He was the older brother she never had, any little girl’s dream of a protector. He showed her a ruined chicken house, saying a disease took all the birds years ago, before he was born. Ruthy was glad, she said, because she was terrified of chickens.
“Stupid birds. Not worth being scared of,” was all he said.
They spent hours at the pond. He put a frog into her hand, covering it gently with his own, before releasing it. He pointed out damselflies skimming over the pond, and showed her how to let minnows nibble at her toes. Once he said something strange, but true. “It’s their pond all year. Ours for just the summer.”
When he was teaching her how to swim, Danny wouldn’t let her cheat, hop on one leg along the mushy bottom while she splashed hard to make it look as if she were really swimming. After only a dozen afternoons, Ruthy really was swimming, not easily like Danny, of course, but dog paddling, on her own.
At the end of the summer all of the fathers came to take their families home. Ruthy didn’t want to leave before she said goodbye to Danny, but he was nowhere to be found. She resolved to write to him regularly, and tell him they’d be back next year. She begged her mother to promise they’d return. All Mom would say was, “We’ll see”, an unsatisfying reply which had never yet meant, “yes”.
Ruthy slept the entire time it took to get back to the city, more than three hours. Her father parked the big black Packard in front of their apartment house to unload all the family’s belongings. Ruthy stepped out on to the sidewalk, dazed from her long sleep. The buildings on either side of the street were taller than she remembered, and unreal. Their sunlit roofs seemed to tilt towards each other, leaning over the dark canyon of the street, as if whispering that the Kramers had come home. The room she shared with Frankie had shrunk to a cluttered cubicle.
“Here, Ruthy, help me unpack,” her mother said. “Why did you have to take this big box, with your name on it? You never once looked at anything in it. And throw the trash in this paper bag out. You’re a collector. Just like your father.”
“No, Mom! Those are my keepsakes.”
“Let’s see what you have in there, Rachele,” her father said, calling her by her Yiddish name, the way Grandma did.
She dumped the contents out on her bed. Cornflowers the color of Danny’s eyes. Dried daisies to remind her of the calf. Shreds of what Danny told her were real oats. Pebbles from the stream feeding into the pond. The stones were all lusterless and the flowers dried and crumbly. Mom was right. Her whole collection was nothing but trash. She began to cry.
“You look so tanned and pretty, Rachele. I’ve never seen you look so pretty,” her father said. “So tell me. What was the best part of your summer?”
“I learned to swim, Daddy,” she said, swallowing her tears.
“Help me clean up this mess, Ruthy. Never mind telling Daddy made-up stories,” her mother said, leaving the room with a bag of soiled laundry.
Her father stalked after Mom.
“Why don’t you ever believe the child? If she says she can swim, she can swim!”
“Because there was no place for swimming, and I never even packed her bathing suit!”
They had begun one of their pointless arguments, but at least they were arguing about her.