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by Roslyn Bresnick-Perry I LOVED SATURDAY, NOT BECAUSE IT WAS SHABES, a day that brought back wonderful memories of my childhood in the shtetl; not because there was no school; not because you dressed up in your best clothes; not because you went to the movies. I loved Saturday because on that day, I loved my mother. All through the week, my mother was a tight-tension wire coil, ready to spring at any moment. She hardly ever smiled; her sense of humor was completely nil. She could not handle anything that was the least bit negative in the life of her children. My mother worked four days a week with my father in his kosher butcher shop. She hated every minute of it. She was the exact opposite of my father, who did not mind cheating a little here and there, so the family could stay alive during the Great Depression. My mother would not go off the straight and narrow path even if we had to starve. They continually fought the battle of expediency versus ethics. My mother would have liked to stay home and feed her children healthy kosher food, instead of throwing things together at the last moment. My mother would have loved to go to night school to learn to read and write English as well as she read and wrote Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. My mother would have liked to spend her evenings reading books of philosophical value, instead of washing clothes, mending socks, ironing. My mother was good at whatever task she undertook: sewing, cooking, baking. She made curtains for all our windows. She made summer covers for our couch and armchairs. Anything and everything that needed doing attained perfection in her hands. Under the load of all her labors, she was continually stressed out and frustrated, day and night. ON FRIDAYS, MY MOTHER WAS A COMPLETE TYRANT AND HYSTERIC. It was the only day she did not go into the butcher shop. Everything had to be done on that day to prepare for the shabes, which started at sundown on Friday. Being dogmatic and attached to the routine of shtetl life, she would not deviate one iota from the rituals, customs, and requirements mandated for celebrating that holy day. Friday was my nightmare day. On my return from school, I had to change all the bed linens, polish the furniture, whisk-broom the couch and armchairs, and polish the floors. Then we all had to take our baths, put on clean clothes, and wait for the beginning of the shabes meal. My mother was a tornado in the kitchen. She baked khale and various kinds of cake. The chicken and the accompanying chicken soup was put up to boil; the noodles waited their turn. My mother made her own gefilte fish, and her own applesauce or compote. She made sure we had sweet red wine for the blessing. After cooking, she put a clean white cloth on the table, washed the kitchen floor, took her own bath, and was ready to light the candles just as the sun went down. Her face was always flushed from heat generated by the stove, her own frenzy to accomplish her Herculean chores before sundown, and the warm bath needed to be clean for the beginning of shabes. My father, on the other hand, came home tired from his chores, and he was not interested in following my mother’s routine. He balked at taking his bath just at that time, or changing his clothes, or going to the synagogue, or even saying all the prayers mandated for shabes. And so there was a bitter fight almost every Friday night, which was just the opposite of the spirit of the holiday. BUT OH, WHAT A DIFFERENCE SATURDAY MADE! On that day, my mother was the shabes queen. The shekhinah, the gentle spirit of God, ruled our house. I don’t ever remember my parents at war with one another on shabes. My mother’s face took on a quiet look of peace. The tensions of the work-weary week faded from her eyes; they now had a gentle sparkle. She even smiled when my father said something to amuse us. The house itself became a welcoming haven, offering us the wonderful aroma of last night’s feast. A feeling of cleanliness that emanated from the furniture polish and floor wax pervaded every room. And when my mother rose from her bed, combed her hair and put on her holiday clothes, her aristocratic bearing somehow suited the occasion. All day long, until sunset, my mother went about her usual activities allowed on shabes with a serenity that gave us all a measure of contentment. The highlight of the day was when my mother came home from the synagogue, and we had our dinner of cold chicken. My mother would open the Jewish newspaper and read to my father some of the articles they both found interesting. In a household of turmoil and contention between the parents, it is a gift to the children to see their parents in harmony, even if only for the one day set aside by tradition for rest and contemplation. I loved my mother on Saturdays, and I loved Saturdays because they showed me my mother the way I always wanted her to be. Roslyn Bresnick-Perry is a storyteller, poet, and translator who came to the U.S. from a Belarus shtetl in pre-Holocaust Europe, settled and lived in New York, and emerged as a senior designer in the garment industry. Her performance venues include Victory Theatre on Broadway, Smithsonian Folklife Festival as well as the National Storytelling Festival. In 2007, Roslyn received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Storytelling Network in recognition of her work in the art of storytelling. Her books include Leaving for America and I Loved My Mother on Saturdays, which is newly for sale at our Pushcart.
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