By Esther Rapaport
“You didn’t finish your compote, Rachel,” Elsie said.
Rachel wrinkled her nose. “Compote is such a hospital word,” she said. “In the dorm we don’t usually have dessert at the Friday evening meal. Anyone who wants can take cookies from the tea room, but they are the exact same cookies that we have on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wedne—”
“I got it, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” Elsie said patiently. “It’s really a shame that you have that all week. It’s just not healthy. So you don’t want to eat your compote?”
“No,” Rachel said. “If it would be the apples that you cook, that would be one thing, but this is just plain pineapples from a can.”
“If I would have known you were coming, I would have prepared apple compote for you, but I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Don’t tell me the dorm mother didn’t call you.”
“She called, but on Thursday afternoon I don’t go shopping anymore. You know which hours I’m on shift, don’t you?”
They finished eating their meal in Elsie’s small room. “Do you want to talk about it now, or tomorrow, or only after Shabbos?” Elsie picked up a bentcher.
“I don’t want to talk about it at all,” Rachel grumbled.
“Excellent, because I don’t have a lot of time now. I have to sleep a bit before the shift change at eleven. Do you want to take a peek at Sarit and the others for me before we get ready for bed?”
“Wait, where are you running? Don’t they teach you to say Birchas Hamazon in your school in Tel Aviv?”
“They teach us, but you know, sometimes I forget, and then they don’t even say anything.” Rachel took the bentcher Elsie had placed on the table, tracing the gold stamped letters on the front with her fingers. “The teachers aren’t as religious as you, Elsie. Just a bit … It’s like … sort of …”
“And your friends?”
“Each one is something else.” Rachel glanced at a picture on the wall. It was her at age three, in the large crib, with Elsie standing beside her. It was the same bed that was still in the next room. Her crossed eyes were very obvious, much more than they were today, but she was smiling sweetly and looking at the woman next to her, and Elsie was laughing at her. “I’m definitely the most religious of all of them there. They didn’t grow up with you. What can we do …?” Her voice trailed off, and she began to bentch.
“I’m going to kiss Sarit,” she said when she finished.
“Good. But don’t wake her up. Take your nightgown with you and get ready for bed. I’ll prepare the mattress for you in the meantime.”
“Thanks.” Rachel dashed out of the room.
Elsie moved the table aside in an effort to make some space in the little room. They could have eaten in the kitchen or the dining area on the ward, but she tried to give Rachel a familial feeling. The girl had spent most of her life eating in communal dining rooms, so on the rare occasions that she came to Elsie for the weekend, Elsie tried to conduct a normal Shabbos meal with just the two of them.
She opened the closet and took out the set of linen that Rachel liked. When had Elsie given it to her as a gift? After the operation when she was six. Rachel had been leafing through the pages of a children’s magazine and noticed a photo of a furnished children’s room. She’d gazed longingly at the bed. “I never had such a blanket, with a big bear on it like that,” she’d said sadly. “Right? Only hospital sheets all the time.”
That day, after her shift, Elsie had gone to a nearby store and splurged on a cute set of linen. It didn’t have a big bear on it, but it did have shiny hearts with big smiles appearing to frolic in the ocean’s waves. The little girl’s eyes had lit up when she saw the gift the next day, and even after she recovered from the surgery and went back to the routine of being passed from one foster family to another, she’d taken it with her everywhere. Only at age nine, when she’d moved permanently into the dormitory of the boarding school in Tel Aviv, did she decide that it was too babyish and that it was better to leave it in the hospital, in Elsie’s closet.
“I’ll be coming here a lot more often now, anyway,” she’d said, “so take care of it for me, okay?”
But why wasn’t she coming now? How much time did it take to give Sarit a goodnight kiss?
Finally, Rachel appeared in the doorway.
“Rachel, what took so long? Did you go sew the nightgown or something?”
“No,” the girl said, giggling. “It’s Shabbos, Elsie, remember? But I met a mother with her son on the ward. They were sent up from the emergency room because he has a fracture of the skull. She looks very scared, so I just wanted to come tell you that I’m helping her with him, okay?”
Esther Rapaport is a prolific author whose novels include Diamond in the Rough, Divided Attention, Behind the Scenes, Without a Trace, Dance of the Puppet, Blood Brothers, and The Kenya Conspiracy. She resides in Israel. Stay tuned for the next installment in next week’s Five Towns Jewish Times or visit 5tjt.com for more.