The rabbi doesn't say she was sly and peevish, fragile and voracious, disheveled, voiceless and useless, at the end of her very long rope. He never sat beside her like a statue while radio voices called to her from God. He doesn't say how she mamboed with her broom, staggered, swayed, and sighed afternoons, till we came from school to feed her. She never frightened him, or bent to kiss him, sponged him with a fever, never held his hand, bone-white, bolted doors and shut the blinds. She never sent roaches in a letter, he never saw her fall down stairs, dead sober. He never watched her sweep and murmur, he never saw spider webs she read as signs her life was over, long before her frightened husband left, long before they dropped her in a box, before her children turned shyly from each other, since they never learned to pray. If I must think of her, if I can spare her moment on the earth, I'll say she was one of God's small sculptures, polished to a glaze, one the wind blew off a shelf.
It is a Sunday afternoon on the Grand Canal. We are watching the sailboats trying to sail along without wind. Small rowboats are making their incisions on the water, only to have the wounds seal up again soon after they pass. In the background, smoke from the factories and smoke from the steamboats merges into tiny clouds above us then disappears. Our mothers and fathers walk arm in arm along the shore clutching tightly their umbrellas and canes. We are sitting on a blanket in the foreground, but even if someone were to take a photograph, only our closest relatives would recognize us: we seem to be burying our heads between our knees.
I remember thinking you were one of the most delicate women I had ever seen. Your bones seemed small and fragile as a rabbit's. Even so, beads of perspiration begin to form on your wrist and forehead — if we were to live long enough we'd have been amazed at how many clothes we forced ourselves to wear. At this time I had never seen you without your petticoats, and if I ever gave thought to such a possibility I'd chastise myself for not offering you sufficient respect.
The sun is very hot. Why is it no one complains of the heat in France? There are women doing their needlework, men reading, a man in a bowler hat smoking a pipe. The noise of the children is absorbed by the trees. The air is full of idleness, there is the faint aroma of lilies coming from somewhere. We discuss what we want for ourselves, abstractly, it seems only right on a day like this. I have ambitions to be a painter, and you want a small family and a cottage in the country. We make everything sound so simple because we believe everything is still possible. The small tragedies of our parents have not yet made an impression on us. We should be grateful, but we're too awkward to think hard about very much.
I throw a scaling rock into the water; I have strong arms and before the rock sinks it seems to have nearly reached the other side. When we get up we have a sense of our own importance. We could not know, taking a step back, looking at the total picture, that we would occupy such a small corner of the canvas, and that even then we are no more than tiny clusters of dots, carefully placed together without touching.