By Nancy Ludmerer
My mother had a stroke in 2010. Since then, her left leg is like putty; her left arm curls uselessly against her chest, like a broken wing. Pre-stroke, she lived in Florida, drove, and did her own shopping. Now she must have every physical need attended to. Yet, as we’ve discussed, better that her body – not her mind – failed. Her perceptions and memory remain clear.
Or so it seemed– until she told me she was getting married. It was during breakfast, as she sat in her wheelchair, sipping coffee and chewing on an English muffin, her reading glasses at the ready. After breakfast she’d go back to her book.
“His name is Baruch,” she told me. “They’re making me marry him.”
“You know, them.” She paused. “It’s not so bad. He’s a nice Jewish boy.”
“Mom, you’re 94. You can’t be marrying a boy.”
“That’s just an expression. He’s no kid.”
“But why get married now, at 94?”
“I’m not going to sleep with him without being married.”
“Why sleep with anyone?”
“It gets cold at night here in New York.” She didn’t seem upset. “You’ll see. Come next Sunday, I’ll be married.”
Was it a hallucination? A dream that wouldn’t let go? Sometimes my mother’s home health aide telephoned me at work because my mother didn’t want to get up. Was her marriage fantasy a rejection of the dependency that age, and the stroke, had forced upon her? Or was it signaling yet another loss, beyond the physical — the loss of self that we were so grateful hadn’t accompanied her stroke.
Where did the name Baruch come from?
Baruch means “blessed” in Hebrew. Was Baruch a metaphor, a figure from the hereafter, waiting to take her? My father’s name was Morris, not Baruch, and if there was anyone she was going to meet “over there” it was him – not someone named Baruch.
Had she known any Baruchs? I dated a Baruch once, but that was thirty-five years ago, when I was in law school in California, and my parents only heard about him during one of my visits home. Baruch was the son of our congregational rabbi in Queens and we’d met again because he was teaching at Berkeley. My family wasn’t observant – and certainly weren’t regular shul-goers. Still, when I asked my father cautiously how he’d feel if I married Baruch, he said it would be an honor: the rabbi’s son. When that relationship ended, though, it ended. There was nothing “arranged” about whom I would date or marry.
A generation earlier, my mother too married for love. In 1939 she was 19, studying library science at Simmons Colllege in Boston. At home in Jackson Heights for the holidays, she didn’t have anywhere to go on New Year’s Eve. A family friend asked my father, a poor but respectable City College graduate studying accounting at night, to find a New Year’s Eve date for Helen Strochak. He arranged for his friend Irving to take Helen and they double-dated. But Morris took one look at the petite, charming Helen and thought “am I crazy?” The rest is history – with no Baruch in sight.
Was the wedding fantasy a delayed effect of her stroke?
Right after the stroke, we read aloud to each other, to strengthen both her weakened facial muscles (which engendered the cute, crooked smile she has to this day) and her concentration. We began with Sylvia Beach’s essay about opening an American lending library in Paris in 1919. To borrow books you had to become a member, with a membership card. “This membership card was as good as a passport” wrote Beach. My mother and I both loved that essay, a testament to the power of books to transport us.
Soon my mother was reading as before. This was critical to her. She’d worked as a librarian before becoming a full-time mother and homemaker. Her love of books – and libraries – was a constant in her life. It sustained her after my father’s death as well as after her stroke.
As I pondered her fantasy marriage to the mysterious Baruch, I noticed the Posman’s bookmark peeking out of her book. It was the last book I purchased at Posman’s Books in Grand Central before it closed.
If my mother had her libraries, I had Posman’s Books in Grand Central. When I first learned many months ago that Posman’s would close, I could barely walk by the store on my way to the train; it was like having to see a former lover every day. Posman’s was my refuge; after a particularly arduous day at work, I’d lose myself among its tables, browsing for “finds.” Once I purchased a book of simple crossword puzzles for my mother instead of a novel. I’d read that crossword puzzles provide mental exercise that wards off dementia. My mother had no interest. “Don’t buy those for me, Nan,” she said, “Buy me a regular book.”
On Posman’s last day, I bought my mother the novel she was now reading: Eve Harris’s “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman,” set in an orthodox Jewish community in London. Now, while my mother finished breakfast, I paged through the book, reading about Chani on her wedding day, “rigid under layers of itchy petticoats” listening to the men singing behind closed doors.
As my mother reached for her reading glasses, I sat silent beside her, absorbed in the details of Chani’s constricting hand-me-down seed-pearl-encrusted wedding dress — a “passport, her means of escape” from her family home.
Like a passport out of her present life, the novel had transported my mother into the body of Chani Kaufman. Chani was not only real to her, but she had become Chani, about to be wed in an arranged marriage.
Days later, my mother laughed when reminded of her fantasy. She’d finished the book and knew her own marriage wasn’t imminent. “For a little while, I believed it,” she said.
As for the groom in “The Marrying of Chani Kaufman”?
His name was Baruch.
Author’s Note: Around the time of my mother’s wedding fantasy, I read an article about the effect of reading fiction on the brain. Twenty Emory University students had MRIs of their brains taken while all reading the same novel. The study’s authors found consistent changes in each student’s cerebral cortex, and concluded that reading fiction transports the reader biologically, not just figuratively. That’s surely what happened to my mom. Sadly, she’s reading less these days. The cake for her 95th birthday was inscribed: “Helen – 95 and Still Beautiful.” Baruch doesn’t know what he’s missing.
Nancy Ludmerer’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, Vogue, San Francisco Chronicle, and other magazines. Her essay “Kritios Boy” (published in Literal Latte) was mentioned as a Notable Essay of 2013. She lives in NYC with her husband Malcolm and cat Sandy, a brave refugee from the storm for which he is named.