Recap: A strange lady dressed in black comes to the door and warns Yehudis, “This house has a bad reputation. Things happen here. You should tell your parents it would be better not to stay here.”
The next morning, when I woke, at first I wondered where I was. It took a few minutes for me to reorient myself. Sunshine spilled through the window. Today was my Bais Yaakov interview. I dressed in my school uniform and davened. “Please help me in the interview,” I prayed. Then I asked Hashem to help me make friends and to adjust to my new living situation.
“Good morning,” Aba greeted me at the breakfast table.
“You’re up late,” Grandma Henny said. “I made you oatmeal.”
“Thank you.” I wondered how I would eat it. My stomach was so fluttery.
“It’s a 20-minute drive, so we can leave in around 15 minutes,” Aba said.
“Tuck in your blouse,” Grandma Henny said. “Did you brush your hair? It’s a mess.”
I’d brushed it and put it in a ponytail but I didn’t want to argue. “I’ll go do it again,” I said.
“You didn’t finish the oatmeal.”
I tried to eat more but it was no use.
“Wasteful,” Grandma Henny clicked her tongue.
I said the after-brachah and headed back upstairs to redo my ponytail.
Hurrying upstairs, I counted to ten slowly under my breath. Grandma Henny had a way of making me feel bad no matter what. Aba often told me it was not her intention, and I had to use these times to build up my resilience. Living a whole year in the same house with her, boy I would have a lot of resilience. “Hashem, please help me.” I wanted to be respectful, but sometimes her criticism was hard to take.
I pulled the pony out of my curly hair and brushed and then put it back in. I glanced in the mirror. I saw a girl with wide dark eyes and pale hair who looked nervous but neater. I headed back downstairs.
Aba was waiting by the door. “Come on, Hudi. We don’t want to be late.”
We drove down the worn driveway and road and then headed down the street past farms and fields until we hit the main road. I glanced around at the only house we passed. It had brown peeling paint on the outside and a shutter hanging by a nail. I wondered if the lady who visited last night lived there.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in front of a large brick building that said “Bais Yaakov of West Virginia.” “This is it,” Aba said. “Ready?”
We headed up the stairs.
A woman wearing a gray suit and a short brown sheitel greeted us at the door. “Welcome. I’m so happy to see you. I’m Rebbetzin Katz.”
She ushered me into a friendly office. Sunshine poured through a window and pooled on her desk. There were family photos propped on her desk and an array of plants growing on the book shelves and some potted trees on the floor.
She asked me about my school in Pennsylvania. “What are your favorite subjects?”
“I like math,” I said.
She looked down at my application. “I see you were in an advanced placement math class. I’m sorry we don’t offer that here, but I’m sure the teacher can give you some extra-challenge problems.”
I didn’t say anything, but I’d heard that almost every year of school until last year, when I finally had an advanced class that was challenging. In the regular math classes, teachers would give me extra sheets but it never really lasted long and I’d be sitting in class bored.
“I see you like to write. What types of writing do you enjoy?”
“I like writing historical fiction,” I said.
“Well, Miss Cohen will be excited to meet you. That’s her favorite genre. She’s written some serials for magazines.”
That sounded promising. I wanted to get pointers from a real writer.
“Our classes are small and our teachers are amazing. I’m sure you’ll enjoy our school and we are very happy to welcome you aboard. The secretary will give you the school calendar.
Early Friday evening, Aba drove Grandma Henny and me to the Unger home. It was around a half mile from our house. Rebbetzin Unger offered for us to sleep over, but Grandma Henny insisted she could make it back with her cane if we didn’t walk too fast.
The Ungers’ house was filled with lots of children running around and a warm Shabbos atmosphere. The table in the dining room was set for 20 people. Sari greeted us at the door and asked me to come up to her room. “I’m so glad you came,” she said. Her room had a bunkbed and a worn, light-blue carpet. There were two dressers and two desks. “I share with my younger sister Shaindy,” she said.
“Is it hard climbing up there every night?”
“Oh, I love the bunkbed and I love the circle window my parents built. I feel like Heidi.”
She let me climb up to check out the view. Stars glimmered in the sky and I could see moonlight reflected off the river.”
“What river is that?”
That’s the Kanawha River. We can see riverboats on it at night from up here.” Sari joined me on the top bunk.
“So, tell me about your Bais Yaakov and what you like to write. I’m so excited you’re going to help me with the yearbook. Don’t forget to get the baby pics and some baby stories.”
I told her about my school and about my best friend Tema. The conversation flowed like we’d known each other for years and not just for a few hours.
“I want to be a writer,” Sari said. “I want to write books and articles for the newspaper. I want to be really good at it, too.”
“I want to be a math teacher,” I said. “For high school.”
“Oh, not me,” Sari said. “You’ll like my friend Chevi. She also loves math.”
At the Shabbos meal, Rabbi Unger asked each of the people around the table to share a hashgachah story. There were a lot of Unger children besides Sari. The youngest was five and Sari told me that she had two older sisters who were away at high school in Chicago, and an older brother in yeshivah in addition to the four little brothers and two younger sisters seated at the table. There was also another family that were guests. They were a young couple who had just moved to West Virginia.
Sari said her hashgachah was meeting me at the store and now having me as a guest. I said mine was the same as hers. It was nice to be someone’s hashgachah story.
Aba and Rabbi Unger each shared a d’var Torah. I helped Sari and her two sisters Shaindy and Hindy to serve the chicken soup.
“Everything is delicious,” my father said.
Rabbi Unger turned to my father. “I heard you’re doing research at Marietta College. We know Mrs. Gross. She’s a good friend of my wife and she’s an excellent librarian. I’m sure she’ll assist you in your work.”
“Yes,” Aba said. His eyes sparkled when he spoke about his research. I’m itching to get started. Once we’ve unpacked more, I want to take Hudi to see the college.”
”It’s a beautiful campus, right on the river,” said Rabbi Unger. “We’ve run some Jewish classes there and students come here for Shabbasos.”
After desert, Sari and I went to her room and played Jewish Apples to Apples. Aba called from the doorway. “Hudi, we have to go back now. Grandma is tired.”
“Okay.” I sighed and climbed down the ladder. Sari followed me. “Come over tomorrow afternoon if you like.”
I asked my father and he said it was fine. I knew the way now, so it would be easy to get here.
As we were leaving, a girl was standing at the front door. “Chevi!” Sari turned to me. “This is my friend Chevi. She’s the technology editor of our yearbook. Chevi, this is Hudi Strollinger. She’s coming to our school this year.”
Chevi eyed me. She had green eyes that narrowed as she looked at me and a long mane of auburn hair. “Hi,” she said. She stepped into the room and began talking to Sari.
The two girls were head-to-head chatting and I felt a sinking feeling as we headed out the door. Sari turned back to call good-bye. Chevi motioned her to follow her upstairs, and my last glimpse was of them head-to-head chatting away.
“It was a nice Shabbos meal,” Aba said. He had Grandma Henny’s arm hooked in his.
“It ended too late,” Grandma said.
When we were back home and Grandma Henny had gone off to bed, Aba was seated on the stiff upholstered couch learning.
“Aba, excuse me. When you have time, can you please tell me a baby story about me? I need to write one up for the yearbook.
“A baby story.” Aba stroked his dark brown beard. “I have to think about that.”
“Please, just tell me one like when I was born or something.”
“Well, when you were three, you were sitting in the living room staring out the window. I wasn’t home, but your mother was and she was in bed with the flu. Anyway, you were sitting there watching the rain and then you noticed that the rain was pouring down into the room. You ran to tell Mommy but she was sick in bed and she just said, “No, no, Hudi. It’s not raining in the house. Look out the window. It’s raining outside.”
You ran back to look and saw the water pouring in and you rushed back in to Mommy and said, “It’s raining in the house. Come see.”
Mommy slipped on her robe and slippers and trudged into the living room. Sure enough, she saw rain pouring in and she called the roofer, and, well, that’s the story.”
“Thank you,” I said. “But, can you think of one when I was younger. She said baby stories.”
“I’ll see if I can,” Aba said and went back to his learning.
On Shabbos morning, Grandma was in the living room saying T’hilim. When she stopped, I asked, “Grandma, can you tell me a story about when I was a baby.”
She pulled a Chumash from the shelf. “Why do you need that? Such nonsense.”
“I need to write one up for the yearbook. Please can you remember something I did when I was a baby?”
She turned towards me. “When you were four, we made you this huge birthday party. Cousins and aunts and uncles came. It was a special party with a three-layer birthday cake with pink sugar roses. Do you remember it?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, that’s the story,” Grandma Henny said.
I sighed. Why couldn’t anyone remember a baby story about me?
To be continued…
Susie Garber is the author of A Bridge in Time (Menucha Publishing, 2021), Secrets in Disguise (Menucha Publishers, 2020), Denver Dreams, a novel (Jerusalem Publications, 2009), Memorable Characters…Magnificent Stories (Scholastic, 2002), Befriend (Menucha Publishers, 2013), The Road Less Traveled (Feldheim, 2015), fiction serials, and features in various magazines. Fiction serial Jewish Press Falling Star (2019).