They are so good to me when I’m sick

herring “Would you like a piece of herring?”

What was it? The lox I ate Saturday night? A bug I picked up at work or at shul? The minty dental floss I used before I went to bed? On Sunday morning, I woke up feeling not quite right. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get into the car and drive almost two hours north to New York City.

“Would you drive out into a storm?” my mother asked me.

My mother’s argument was undebatable. I lay down on the trusty faux-velvet sofa in the morning and couldn’t be coaxed off it until 10:00 o’clock that night.

My father is weakened by diabetes; my mother has to massage her legs off and on all day in order to quell the stabbing pains that keep her from taking her inveterate morning walk. But they hovered over me off and on all day, feeling my forehead for fever, encouraging me to eat toast and drink tea.

“In Europe when somebody was sick, the parents would go out and buy an orange,” my father said. He went to the refrigerator and cut up one of the dozen oranges in the crisper for me.

I wondered what our lives would have been like if we all had grown up in Poland.

“Our family would have been so big we could have made our own shtetl,” my mother said.

“Hitler made sure we didn’t,” said my father.

“So did the Poles and Ukrainians,” said my mother.

“No, it’s Hitler.”

My father was encouraged by my effort to sit up. “Would you like a piece of herring?” he asked me.

“Papa, I have managed to hold down whatever is left inside me, but an offer of — I can’t even say the word — is pushing me to the edge!” I said.

I am always happy when I see my father enjoy a little joke.

We are great rationalists in my family. There had to be some reason why I got sick.

“Did somebody sneeze in the last couple of weeks?” my father asked.

“At work?” my mother suggested. “In the supermarket?”

I thought back over my recent life. I could imagine any number of people sneezing, but couldn’t vouch that such an event actually occurred.

My sister Pesha arrived late in the day with a bottle of Pepto Bismol. She challenged me to a game of Scrabble but, considering I couldn’t sit up, I had to forfeit.

In the morning Pesha offered to drive my father to his doctor’s appointment.

“I can still take care of myself!” he said.

“Why can’t you let your daughter do something for you?” my mother said.

My sister sneezed.”Pesha sneezed!” I said with the full conviction of accusation.

My father smiled again. It feels good to see him smile.

On Monday morning, I still didn’t feel quite right, but I returned to the indifference of my own home.

Evenings at my parents’ house are so quiet. My mother and father sit next to each other on the smaller of the two sofas (the love seat?) and talk over the events of the day. Their children and grandchildren are the events.

“Brushka ate part of an orange,” my father says.

“Does she still have fever?”

“I think it’s better.”

“Pesha is carrying the weight of the whole family on her shoulders,” my mother says. She suffers for her youngest child who singlehandedly supports three children and a husband.

“I never saw such a spread at a kiddush before,” my father says. He is talking about the bat mitzvah celebration in shul on Shabbat.

“I’m sure you sneaked in a piece of cake,” says my mother. “You don’t watch yourself.”

My father sits with his arms crossed and doesn’t deny my mother’s charge.

“I thought for sure we would hear news that Shana had a baby,” my mother says. She knows when to change the subject.

The living room is under-illuminated. The phone doesn’t ring. The TV will sit silent until my father turns it on to watch the MyPhilly News at Ten. My parents’ American lives used to be full of phone calls, battling children and, in their later years, volunteer shul activities. It is so quiet now that I can’t get the image of a brittle piece of paper, maybe a transit visa, out of my head.

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  1. Jack Richman said

    Sweet and charming. But, as a writer, you should know enough not to leave out important details. Was the herring pickled, schmaltz or matjas?

  2. modestine said

    Jack, at the time, any in-depth analysis into the nature of that otherwise delicious fish would have ratcheted up my nausea to an unacceptable degree. But you certainly raise an important point.

    The herring my father lovingly offered me is silver-white and comes in a 32-ounce jar. Before I sampled red matjes herring in Israel — drenched in oil and slivered scallions — any herring would have satisfied my appetite. That Israeli herring, however, spoiled me for all other herrings. And while this is no excuse for a writer, I now see any piece of American herring as undifferentiated from the rest.

    So, to answer your question, I believe the herring was pickled. I do not regret having let it get away.

  3. Jack Richman said

    On second thought, perhaps the herring I raised (and you might have had you ingested it) was red. But enough of its politics. Sour cream or wine sauce?

  4. modestine said

    Jack, I am a changed herring eater after my encounter with the Israeli brand, red or otherwise.

    I plan on writing something on these pages about a “news” report on CNN last week about the Bhutto assassination. Wolf Blitzer seemed to suggest he had it on good authority that Musharref was responsible for Benezir Bhutto’s death. I’m not close enough to Musharref’s or Bhutto’s people to know one way or another, but I couldn’t help but think Blitzer’s reporting was premature and irresponsible. What may be closer to the truth is that Bhutto and Musharref had gotten themselves caught up in a power struggle with each other and took their eye off the real danger in the country, and in the region, for that matter, i.e., Bin Laden and radical Islamic terrorism. Talk about red herrings, eh?


  5. Jack Richman said

    One of the problems with 24-hour news is the frequent requirement that newscasters vamp incessantly in the absence of additional information. In this regard, newscasters’ opinions reveal themselves to be little better than those of barbers or cab drivers.

    While regrettable of course, Bhutto’s assassination was virtually foreordained. The violent expression of political passions is routine in that neck of the woods. Musharref himself has narrowly escaped assassination several times. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that he benefits from Bhutto’s death. They were headed toward some sort of power-sharing arrangement. The predictable turmoil caused by Bhutto’s assassination may soon topple Musharref’s government and leave him out of power completely.

    I’m also troubled by much of the media’s eagerness to give Bhutto the ‘Princess Di treatment.’ Bhutto headed a corrupt administration. They didn’t call her husband “Mr. Ten Percent” for nothing.

    And her democratic street cred was based on little more than playing the western media like a fiddle. Her will bequeathed leadership of her Pakistan Peoples Party to her husband, Asif Ali Ten Percent. After a careful reading of his life insurance policy’s Pakistan Peoples Party leadership exclusion clause, Ten Percent decided pass the torch to their son. Doesn’t sound very democratic to me.

    Nevertheless, I’m inclined to cut Blitzer some slack. Who among us, if required to talk extemporaneously, about a wide variety of topics about which little is known wouldn’t say things that are ill-considered, if not outright foolish? The lesson for the public is not to take news readers as seriously as they take themselves.

  6. Peter Wortsman said

    Nice piece. Being under the weather provided a nice umbrella for lyrical brooding. I’m strictly a matjes man myself. raw. But I do understand that your kischkas were doing the thinking. Still your stuffed derma does listen well. I’m just back from France, where I delighted in salade de museau (salad of pig’s muzzle) and tete de veau (veal’s head), among other delicacies, which is somehow related to all this in an alternate-universe way.

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