My mother’s sister’s house in Jackson backed up to the junkyard where my Uncle Sam squeezed out what he could of a living during the Depression. Aunt Itkeh cooked three meals a day in the “summer kitchen,” a dark room, shaded from the relentless “fry an egg on the sidewalk” July and August heat of Michigan. She cooked for her six children, cooked for my mother, father and me who had moved in with her, and for any Detroit cousins who might be sent to visit in lieu of summer camp no one could afford in those days.
I remember sitting in that summer kitchen one stifling summer day, half dozing, lulled by the voices of the two sisters: laughing at wry jokes, complaining about their husbands, and always, about the lack of money. At five, what could I know of their tsores? I had a feather bed on the floor to sleep in, enough food to keep my belly full, and cousins to play with. And I had the radio to bring in the world of a reality I couldn’t understand or of fantasies that fed my dreams.
When I raised my head from the linoleum-topped table, snapped awake, I whined, just a little. “’I’m hungry," I said. Above me, yellow fly paper indolently twirled, studded with corpses of flies like black currants.
My Aunt itkeh looked up from the cabbage she was shredding for the soup that would feed us all that evening, and she said in Yiddish, “Mamele, how about some bread and milk?”
Where ever had I found the words to say, “I don’t want bread and milk. Only poor people eat bread and milk!"
I felt my mother’s shame. I can see my Aunt Itkeh now in her cotton housedress, her forehead glistening from the heat, the soup. “Don’t ever say we are poor,” she told me. Her Yiddish was clear, and I have never forgotten her words. “We are not poor,” she said. “Only people who have no hope are poor.”
Faye Moskowitz is the author of Peace in the House (David Godine, 2002); A Leak in the Heart (David Godine, 1985); Whoever Finds This: I Love You (David Godine, 1988); and And the Bridge is Love (Beacon Press, 1991; reissued in 2012 by Feminist Press), among many other volumes. Her columns poems, essays and short stories have been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Moment Magazine, and the Jerusalem Post. A longtime professor of creative writing at George Washington University, she is the popular instructor behind Jewish Literature Live, a course underwritten by David Bruce Smith and named one of 17 "Hottest Seats in the Classroom" by Time magazine in 2013. She is the recipient of the Alice Goddard Douglas Award for Excellence and two PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards. Read more about her work here.