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The Two-Family House
Author:Lynda Cohen Loigman

The Two-Family House

Lynda Cohen Loigman

For Bob, Ellie, and Charlie


She walked down the stairs of the old two-family house in the dark, careful not to slip. The steps were steep and uneven, hidden almost entirely beneath the snow. It had been falling rapidly for hours and there had been too much excitement going on inside the house for anyone to think about shoveling steps for a departing midwife. Perhaps if the fathers of the two babies born had been present, they would have thought to shovel. But the storm had prevented their return, and neither had been home.

She breathed in the cold night air, happy to be outside at last, away from the heat and closeness of the birthing room. How grateful she was for the sudden burst of wind that slammed the door shut behind her, shaking her out of her exhaustion and signaling the finality of the evening. She loved her work and cherished the intimacy of it. But it was not a pleasure outing.

Before today she thought she had seen every permutation of circumstance: the girls who cried out for their own mothers even as they became mothers themselves; the older women who marked themselves as cursed, suddenly bursting with joy over a healthy child come to them at last. She thought she had heard every kind of sound a person could make, witnessed every expression the human face could conjure up out of pain, joy or grief. That was what she thought before this evening.

This night was different. Never before had she seen such longing, pain and relief braided together more tightly. Two mothers, two babies, born only minutes apart. She had witnessed tonight what pure woman strength could accomplish, how the mind could control the body out of absolute desperation.

She had watched, and she had ignored. She had taken charge, yet she was absent. She let them believe that her confusion was real, that she was tired. But she was never confused. She was not too tired to comprehend their hopes. The fragile magic of that night had not been lost on her.

She breathed in the air again, crisp and cold, clearing her head. It had been a good night, two healthy babies born to healthy, capable mothers. She couldn’t ask for more. What happened now was out of her hands. Wholly and completely she put it out of her mind, said her goodbyes to the house on the steps and made her way home to go to sleep. There would be more babies tomorrow, she knew, and the constancy of her work would keep her thoughts from this place. She promised herself never to think of it again.

Part One

Chapter 1


(May 1947)

The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother’s apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.

Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. “Got to go! See you there!” Abe’s voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. “What do they need to get there so early for?” he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she answered.

Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew’s bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother’s family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe’s wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.

Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. “They’re like a row of spring daffodils,” Rose entreated. “Don’t you think so?”

Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.

Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father’s card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. “My birthday is over,” he explained. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort’s inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn’t seem to help herself. “What’s your favorite color?” she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year’s birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. “I don’t have one,” Mort said.

After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls’ appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.

Today, however, Mort was so out of sorts that he lagged behind the rest and stayed at the back of the line. Despite the warm weather, he found himself shivering in his baggy suit. His face grew increasingly gray with each step that he took. Rose walked ahead, slow and uncomfortable in the lead position.

The policy of the synagogue was to seat men and women separately, even children. Once they arrived, Rose and the girls headed upstairs to the women’s section, while Mort joined Abe and his nephews on the ground floor. While he was relieved to be unburdened by the flock of women that constantly surrounded him, Mort also felt strangely alone. He had been in the sanctuary countless times, but today he felt out of place and insignificant.