Chava’s parents were home when she got home from art class, and she couldn’t avoid seeing them. They were sitting in the kitchen, talking about some project her mom had finished that morning, and Chava didn’t even try to be quiet as she walked by.
“Ava? You’re just getting home now?”
Chava stopped but didn’t join them. “Evie and I were out,” she said.
“Come sit with us,” her father said.
Chava reluctantly followed his voice into the kitchen.
“You’ve been sleeping a lot recently,” her father said. Something in his voice let Chava know that he knew that she hadn’t been sleeping. She leaned up against a counter.
“Evie and I have been doing stuff,” she said.
Chava’s mother removed her glasses and rubbed them on a napkin. There was an awkward silence, and then Chava turned on her heel. “I’m just going to go to bed now, I think,” she said. Her mother was already turning away from her, but her father stopped her.
“What’s that you’re holding?”
Chava turned. “What —” She realized with horror that she was still holding the picture wrapped in newspaper. “Oh — just — something Evie bought for me at the commons.” Chava rushed out of the room and took the stairs two at a time, her heart pounding. She knew she would have to confront them eventually, and while she was sitting on the banks of the lake, she had thought tonight would be the night. But when she was actually standing before them, she was too terrified to even ask. It felt like she was standing on the bank of a much deeper and darker lake, one that would swallow her whole if she fell in.
Instead, she holed up in her room all night with the picture. She knew she needed answers, but she just wasn’t ready to get them from her parents. She tried to think of other resources. Her parents didn’t have any siblings, so there was no luck there. She could try to ask her parents’ friends, but that would too easily get back to her parents. Unfortunately, none of her grandparents were alive to ask. Chava laid on her bed, again staring up at her ceiling, and reached her hand out towards the glow-in-the-dark stars, pretending they were real as she had when she was little, and wondering what it would be like to touch them.
Chava awoke in the morning without realizing she had fallen asleep, and the last vestige of her dream was still sitting in her mind. She stood and stretched, looking out her window and seeing that her parents had already left for work. Today was her day for snooping.
She began back in her parents’ room, just for good measure, but found it as useless as it had been before. She then opened every drawer in the house, expanding her search to newspaper clippings, magazine articles, pictures, paintings, letters, postcards—anything that could help her. Eventually, she ended up at the door to the basement, and she flipped on the single lightbulb that lit the unfinished room. Taking the stairs slowly, making sure not to trip on the debris, she scanned the room for anything that might be useful. Their basement was a hodgepodge of abandoned items. Her father had never had the time to finish it, so the walls were bare and the pipes were exposed. Not much was stored here except for old working tools and broken kitchen appliances. When she reached the landing, Chava’s eyes were immediately drawn to a small closet door. She had never noticed the door before, but if she had, she would have assumed it was just filled with more junk. Today, though, she had a feeling she would find something different.
Crossing the room, Chava pulled open the heavy door, which squeaked loudly with every inch it was pulled. The closet was pitch black and she fumbled around the walls for a light switch until a metal string hit her in the forehead. She pulled the string, and the tiny room was illuminated dimly. Dust covered every inch of what appeared to be a small pantry, and old books and a typewriter took up most of the space on the shelves. Chava turned around the room, searching every crevice. In the corner, several boxes were piled high, but Chava thought she saw something sparkling behind them. She moved each box to the center of the room, to reveal what the sparkling something might be. When she turned back, she was facing the same wedding dress she had seen in the picture, covered in a plastic dress sleeve, hanging from a rusty metal bar. She blinked rapidly, and then rushed forward to grasp the gown in her hands. Behind it hung the white robe she had seen in the picture, also covered in plastic. She ran her fingers over the delicate lace embroidered over the collar.
Chava pulled the gown from its sleeve and removed it from the hanger. Now oblivious to the dust, she sat on the floor as the white satin, slightly yellowed on the bottom from age, flowed through her fingers and pooled in her lap. The gown was breathtaking — the embroidery exquisite and the pearl details were still sparkling. She examined every inch of it and held it to her face, thinking that maybe she could smell something, sense something. It was cool to the touch.
After a long while she stood and returned the dress to its original place. She felt a connection to the dress. It was a testament that everything she had seen and discovered in the last few days was real, tangible, here for the taking. Chava began to pile the boxes back in front of the dress, feeling a strange calm. Just knowing that she wasn’t crazy was a good first step. As she was moving the second box back in its place, she noticed the black hat from the picture sitting at the top. Its crown was crushed, presumably by the weight of the third box, but Chava recognized it nonetheless. She touched the soft velvet of the brim and reached her hand out towards the satin ribbon around the base of the crown. As she did, a much softer material brushed her wrist. She stepped closer to the box and dug underneath the hat. She grasped something and withdrew it from the box, pulling it into the light so she could see it better.
It was a velvet bag, its embroidered gold design faded with age. The top zipper was open, and Chava dumped out the contents. Two leather boxes with long leather strings fell out into the cardboard box. Having no idea what they were, Chava continued to shake out the bag, hoping to find something else. A small piece of paper fluttered down on top of them. She picked it up.
“To Yaakov,” it said. “With all my love.”
Chava quickly stuffed the note back into the bag, her hands shaking. That was her mother’s handwriting. And she knew her father’s name wasn’t Yaakov. All her calm had suddenly dissolved into a cold, clammy sickness in her stomach.
• • •
Early the next morning, Chava tiptoed out of her room. Despite the fact that they left for work together, Chava’s mother usually woke up first and put up the coffee, and her father woke up right before they needed to leave. After finding the boxes in the basement the day before, Chava had stayed up all night thinking about how she should approach the question, and she decided that it would be better to talk to her mother alone.
Chava peaked her head around the corner of the living room, following the smell of coffee, and saw her mother sitting there eating a bagel and drinking her coffee while reading The Wall Street Journal. Chava took a deep breath and stepped into the room.
Her mother looked up at her over the rims of her glasses, but didn’t put down the paper.
“Morning, Ava,” she said. Chava took a seat a few cushions away from her so that they could face each other. Her mother looked over at her again.
“You’re up early,” she said.
Chava nodded. Her mother kept looking at her, and finally rested her paper down on her knees.
“Is something the matter?”
Chava swallowed once. “I just wanted to—ask you about something.”
Her mother raised her eyebrows. Chava was silent. Her palms were sweating and she felt cold and clammy all over again.
“Um — I just —”
“What’s a chuppah?”
Chava’s mother stared at her. The words had come out all wrong, but Chava stood her ground, looking back into her mother’s gaze and trying not to look as scared as she felt.
“A what?” Her mother asked.
“A — a chuppah?”
Chava’s mother took her paper back into her hands.
“It’s a Jewish wedding canopy,” she said. She brought the paper higher and closer to her face so that Chava could barely see her.
“What’s this about, Ava?”
“But I saw—”
“Did you see this on TV somewhere?”
“I found a picture of you,” Chava said.
The paper fluttered to her mother’s lap. “What picture?”
“A — a picture.” Chava gripped the edge of the couch as tightly as she could, willing herself to stay calm and collected. “Of you and Dad. Under a chuppah.”
Chava’s mother’s eyes narrowed. “Did you?”
“It was for this art class I started with Evie. I was just looking through Grandpa’s pictures to find something for class, and I found this frame, and it had you and dad, and I was just—I was confused.”
There was silence in the wake of her rant. Chava’s mother took off her glasses and slowly cleaned each frame before replacing them.
“We did have a chuppah, as you can see in the picture.”
“But, I’ve never even heard of a chuppah before. Why did you have one?”
“We had one,” her mother said. “A lot of people have them.”
“I found your dress.”
This time her mother’s cheeks turned pink. “Have you been spying around the whole house, Ava?”
“Is there anything I’m not supposed to find?”
Chava bit her tongue, but the words were already out.
Chava’s mother stood and collected her coffee mug. “The dress is old and I need to get rid of it.” She brought her mug into the kitchen, and Chava jumped up to follow her.
“It’s beautiful. I don’t know why you never showed it to me.”
“It’s old,” her mother said, turning on the sink to wash her mug. “All that stuff is old and needs to be thrown out.”
Chava hesitated. The dress, the robe, the hat—all of those things she felt she could talk about. But the one thing she really needed to ask about—the note to the mystery man—she couldn’t force out.
“I’ve never seen you and Dad dressed like that,” Chava said. She thought back to what Henry had told her. “Was it a very traditional ceremony?”
“It’s not important,” her mother said.
Chava watched her mother dry her hands on the kitchen towel, and her wedding ring sparkled in the light.
“Who is Yaakov?” She said.
Chava’s mother slapped down the towel. “Ava—listen to me. Times change. People change. Whatever you think you saw in that picture, whatever you found down there—forget about it. It’s old history, and there is a reason we never talked to you about it. It doesn’t matter.”
Her mother swept away from the kitchen, leaving her mug unwashed, and her daughter with more questions than she could possibly answer.
to be continued…