For These Thy Gifts
by Harry Buschman
At precisely 5:30 am on the cold gray morning of November 29th, 1930, Edna Butterman rose quietly from the folding double bed in the front parlor. Her husband turned restlessly and threw one arm over his eyes to block the weak morning light. During the day their bed was a davenport in the chilly, unoccupied room of the fifth floor tenement, but for now, with five Buttermans in the apartment it served as their master bedroom.
Gathering her bathrobe around her thin frame, she tiptoed to the window and looked out at the dark deserted street below. The day promised to be dark as well. She denied herself the luxury of yawning and shuffled her way to the kitchen by way of the dining room where Owen slept. He was sitting up in his cot ... writing again. Would he ever stop writing? What kind of a trade is writing?
The Depression had barely begun, but already it had made a difference in the daily life of the Butterman family. Owen was sleeping on a cot in the dining room, she and Frank were in the parlor, her sister-in-law, Minnie, and her brother-in-law, Fred, were in the bedrooms across the hall.
Frank still worked three days a week at the book bindery but old man Jimson paid him for one. "It's all I can afford,” he explained. “Take it or leave it, Frank. Would you rather have no day of pay at all?" Frank Butterman took it. Minnie lost her job at the lace factory three months ago and was addressing envelopes in the afternoon. Fred, a pipe fitter, showed up willing and able at the shipyard shape-up every morning at seven. Once in a while there was something to do, but more often than not, he would spend the day with his friends at the waterfront bar.
Owen stretched out once more in the creaky cot and thought about his book report for English class that afternoon, "The Social Significance of Tiny Tim." He had his classes changed to the afternoon so he could take a part-time letter carrier job from seven ‘til noon. It was only for the Christmas holidays, then he, too, would be out of work. “....Tiny Tim, hobbled and poverty stricken, a kindred spirit who blessed everyone, even the tight-assed old Scrooge....” That was the opening line in his book report. But Owen asked himself, “How can a kid hobble around on a crutch; not have two cents to rub together, then bless the man who screws his father?” He felt a flush of anger as the Dickens story brought home the analogy between the Cratchitts and the Buttermans. He pulled the report out from under the cot and read it through again, for the fifth time.
He heard his mother making breakfast in the kitchen. He thought it would be a good idea to get up while he still had a chance at the bathroom. Above his head he heard the shuffle of feet on the gravel roof. He was still up there! Old man Lewenthal was living in a lean-to on the roof. His mother told him, "Leave him alone, Owen. When it gets cold he'll have to move on, don't say anything to your father." As he washed up in the john he had to laugh to himself. "Holy Christ!" he thought, wouldn't Charles Dickens love to write a story about old man Lewenthal.
Edna had fallen into the habit of sighing before she spoke, as though the effort to speak was a strain.
"Mornin' son. Sleep well?"
"Yeah, pretty good. What's that, oatmeal?
She nodded her head and turned back to the stove. Owen knew she would start to cry again. It began when his father lost his job. Things had been going so well. Pop was working overtime. His Aunt and Uncle would come over weekends and they'd go places, and he could have almost anything he asked for.
"C'mon, Ma, don't start. Okay?"
"You been talkin' to God again, aint'cha?"
She filled a bowl with oatmeal, set it in front of him and got the pitcher of milk out of the ice box and smelled it cautiously before putting it on the table.
"It's good for one more day. C'mon now, say your Grace."
"For everything. Say it with me. 'Bless us O Lord and these Thy gifts."
"Yeah, yeah, ‘these Thy gifts’ – some gifts!"
The others drifted in. They looked tired already, more tired than the Cratchitts. Two brothers and a sister; hard times, helplessness and fear had brought out their strong family resemblance. One-by-one they sat down across from Edna and Owen. It looked as though the oatmeal would have a hard time making it all the way round the table.
Edna sighed again and said, "Owen and me said Grace."
"I'm sick of your damn Grace," Frank said. "Day after day we go on thankin' Him. What for! What the hell for! What’s He done for us?”
"Please Frank, not in front of Owen."
Frank was nearly at the end of his rope. He was no Bob Cratchitt to sit and take Scrooge's crap all day. But he was frustrated and had no way of fighting back. Somebody would grab his one day's pay for three day's work job at the drop of a hat. The factory would be back in business one of these days, and Frank didn't want to be outside looking in.
"Look Edna, Owen's 14 years old. He knows damn well how God's takin' care of us."
Minnie and Fred sat there looking from one to the other. They were evicted three months ago, and their furniture was held by their landlord for back rent. It doesn't pay to take sides when you've got holes in your shoes.
One by one they finished and left the table. One by one they bundled up to face the cold November wind. Frank to the book factory, Minnie to the junk mail depot, Fred to the ship yard, and Owen to the Post Office. A passerby couldn’t tell one from the other. Edna watched them from the parlor window .... the house was empty and quiet when they were gone, just the whispering of Mr. Lewenthal's feet on the roof above her head.
From the fifth floor window, the bell tower of St. Theresa's Roman Catholic Church could be clearly seen. Another hour and the sun would turn the white stucco wall to gold, and the copper roof of the belfry would be as green as jade. Another hour, and she too, would bundle up against the chilly November wind and go to seven o'clock mass. It was so different at mass ... so peaceful. She could pour out her heart to God there, tell Him her troubles one-by-one and feel the weight lifted from her shoulders – one-by-one. Minnie would be back while she was gone, and when she returned, they would address 500 envelopes in fine Spencerian penmanship before two o'clock in the afternoon. For this, they would each receive $4.50.
There was so much to pray for and she was only one of many. How many troubled people would be asking for things at the seven o'clock mass? "Money for the rent, food for the table, keep my husband and son in health O Lord. Have pity on Mr. Lewenthal on the roof above us. Stand between Fred and the waterfront bar. I ask for no miracles, no favors, I only ask that You hear me."
She heard the clump of the fire door in the hall outside. It meant Mr. Lewenthal was coming down. The poor man must be frozen she thought. What will happen when winter comes? There was a soft knock at her kitchen door.
"Is that you, Mr. Lewenthal?"
"Yes Mrs. Butterman, may I speak with you?"
Edna unlatched the three hasps that kept her safe inside. It was rare to see Mr. Lewenthal in her kitchen and should anyone else see him there it would implicate the Butterman family in his concealment. He was a short, bearded man, well past middle age and he carried an enormous brown paperboard suitcase tied with clothesline. In better days, he had been an expert pants cutter with Harris work clothes. He had a fine reputation; an expert pants cutter can squeeze six extra pairs of pants from a bolt of denim. A profitable cushion in a competitive trade. His married daughter was a teacher and lived with her family in St. Louis. Edna knew all this from her frequent chats with Mr. Lewenthal on the roof when the weather had been milder.
"Come in, Mr. Lewenthal, you must be chilled to the bone." Edna hoped he wouldn’t stay long, she really should be getting to seven o'clock mass, and she didn't want the landlord to find him there.
"I promise not to keep you long. Mrs. Butterman. In Missouri I go to my daughter." He bobbed his head and displayed the palms of his hands like a schoolboy. "It has been very kind of you and your family to let me live on the roof above you."
Edna shushed him, "You’ve been no trouble, no trouble at all, Mr. Lewenthal, but we worried about you when the weather turned cold." This may have been true for Edna, but the rest of the family didn't share in her sympathy. Frank had said many times, "What is he, some kinda nut? He's gonna die up there come November .... just don'tcha get yourself involved, Edna. If somebody asks you, you don't know nothin'."
"Oh, but I was by the chimney Mrs. Butterman. My lean-to was built around the chimney. It was quite warm in the evening when the landlord sent up the heat. But I must thank you for letting me use the toilet, and for taking my mail, and for the delicious food."
Edna looked at the clock on the kitchen wall.... delicious food indeed, most of it was leftovers her family would not touch. "God go with you, Mr. Lewenthal. I hope things go well for you in Missouri."
"They may – or they may not, no one can say. But, to the business. All trace of me is erased from the roof. Some things were thrown off the parapet into the areaway, others went down the dumbwaiter. What you see is all that's left of Syd Lewenthal. But I wish to give you and your family something, Mrs. Butterman." He fished in the side pocket of his threadbare coat and removed a small cut glass jar with a blue stopper.
Mr. Lewenthal stared at the jar and shook his head sadly. "Even Jews have their limits, Mrs. Butterman. In this jar is the Promised Land. In truth, Mrs. Butterman, I know it looks like the gray sand of Coney Island, but it is the land promised to us by God." He placed it on the kitchen table and buttoned his old winter coat.
Edna was not impressed. "Thank you, Mr. Lewenthal. I'll put it on the mantel and it will remind us of you." Edna got her coat out of the kitchen closet. "I'm sorry if I seem ungrateful, Mr. Lewenthal, but I'm really in a hurry."
"Yes, I know .... the mass at seven. We can walk together."
Together they walked down the five flights of stairs. Mr. Lewenthal had to stop twice to breathe and to change his suitcase from one hand to the other. They stopped to sit in the small park between the church and the Catholic primary school.
"What did you mean when you said Jews have their limits, Mr. Lewenthal?"
"It slipped out, an idle thought – nothing"
"No, tell me, please. It has something to do with that glass jar, doesn't it."
Lewenthal put his heavy bag down and looked at the steeple of St. Theresa. "Inside the jar is the soil of Canaan. It was promised to Abraham by God himself .... yes, the same God you praise here at St. Theresa. Some day this land shall be called Israel. The jar has been in my family for two hundred years. Do you wish to hear more?"
"Yes, Mr. Lewenthal."
"I have an hour before my bus. But I shall tell you in ten minutes why I, as a Jew, have reached my limit." He took a soiled handkerchief from his outer coat pocket and blew his nose loudly.
"I have no roots, Mrs. Butterman, none. How long can a man live without his roots, even a Jewish man. I believe in nothing anymore – this soil from Canaan, the Promised Land, came from an old grandfather who brought a boatload of it over from Jerusalem to distribute to the Ashkenazim in Poland."
"The sad and lengthy history of the Jew is a lifetime in the telling, Mrs. Butterman. In truth, the little jar of soil from the Promised Land is a poor excuse for a homeland. But it was all we had and we carried it with us from place to place to remind us of where we came from. It should mean much more to me than it does. But I can be a Gypsy no longer. Perhaps St. Louis is my promised land."
"We will take good care of it, Mr. Lewenthal."
"May it bring you more happiness than it has brought to me, Mrs. Butterman. Would you do me two small favors, Madam?"
Lewenthal reached in his side pocket and withdrew a dollar bill. "Would you take this dollar and light a candle for me in St. Theresa?"
"A dollar's too much, Mr. Lewenthal."
"I know the value of a dollar, Mrs. Butterman. Nothing of value can be burnt in a flame."
"Very well, Mr. Lewenthal. I shall light a candle for you and pray for your happiness .... " She glanced at the clock on the church wall. "There was something else?"
"Would you kiss me goodbye .... as you would kiss a member of your family goodbye?"
Edna drew back a little.
"I put it badly Mrs. Butterman. it is only that I have no family here to say goodbye to. It is as though I was never here, you see? By such a favor I would carry with me the illusion that someone was sorry to see me go."
Edna leaned over quickly and kissed Sydney Lewenthal full on the cheek and ran inside just as the mighty iron bell rang for seven o'clock mass. She didn't turn back to see Mr. Lewenthal walk slowly to the subway.
The priest bent down to kiss the altar cloth. Edna crossed herself and stood up. At the seven o'clock mass there was always an audible effort to kneel and many of the elderly could not keep up with the bobbing and weaving of the Roman Catholic Mass. They sat on the edge of their seats with their knees just touching the floor. I've done that myself sometimes, she thought, after doing the kitchen floor or cleaning under the sink. Out of the corner of her eye, Edna could see her two candles burning. One for her family and one for Mr. Lewenthal. His dollar bill had paid for both of them.
Mr. Lewenthal's candle seemed to burn brightest. His was the last one lit. Edna's family candle came first, and already it had guttered down to a low flame like all the others. If God were forced to choose one, he would surely pick Mr. Lewenthal's. But what could he do for him she wondered? How many years had passed since that promise he made in Canaan? Gray sand. What did he say? Yes, dirty Coney Island sand. A long time ago. Thousands of years before our Savior came, a long time to wait for a promise, a long time to carry a jar of dirt.
The Mass droned on. There seemed to be no communication between the priest and his congregation. A poor paying mass – the seven o'clock. Get it over quick as can be, then wait for the money at the High Mass at nine.
Edna didn't know where to begin, there was so much to ask for. Would He hear them all or would it be one common cry of need? Food on the table, money for the landlord, keep my husband and my son in safety and in health, let things be like they used to be .... and may Mr. Lewenthal find happiness in Missouri. Each of us thinks their wish is special, but we are a herd, like sheep, our wants are the same. How I would love to receive Communion – the Body and the Blood of Christ – to be new-born, innocent once more. But no, Edna, not without confession – and how can I confess when I refuse to have a child again. A child is a luxury we cannot afford.
The Holy Water was frigid, frigid as the day outside and it gave no comfort. There was sediment at the bottom of the basin from the dirty gloves of the parishioners of St. Theresa. Still it was holy. Blessed by the priest. Edna took her share and said a Hail Mary for the road home.
At the butcher she stopped for a fat-breasted hen chicken, very reasonable for this time of year, and absolutely vital for a Michigan stew. Then to the grocer – good to get there early, just putting things out – get your pick. Let's see, she thought, potatoes, lima beans. Corn and tomatoes she'd have to get in cans. A Michigan stew will go two days with no complaining, after that it's Friday, and who knows what Friday may bring. The money she got from Frank, Fred and Minnie barely covered the food bill. She should have given Mr. Lewenthal something to eat on the bus. He probably wouldn't get to St. Louis until late tomorrow.
She got home and Minnie wasn't there. She must have met someone on the way. She did the breakfast dishes, made the beds and read last night's newspaper. The prediction was for a long cold winter with greater than average snowfall. If they could just get through it perhaps things would pick up in the spring. The hollowness of her hope caused her to put the paper down and go to the parlor window again. Parting the curtains, she saw Minnie with a large box under each arm walking quickly towards the apartment.
"About time. Where have you been?"
"I stopped off at Bracken's, they're startin' up again next week. They're tryin' to keep their applique people together and they think maybe two, three days a week."
"That's great, Minnie. Did they say they would have work for you?"
"Yeah, I think so. They said to show up early every morning, and they'd let me know. It's easier than callin' people on the phone, maybe it's good you don't have a phone, Edna." Minnie unloaded the boxes on the kitchen table and set out the name lists and the envelopes. She went to the mantel to get the pens and the ink. "What's this glass jar on the mantel?"
Edna had almost forgotten it. "Oh, Mr. Lewenthal moved out today. It's a present."
Minnie shrugged. "Gee could he spare it?"
They sat across the table from each other and began. Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Ameling, Miss Cynthia Goldfarb, Harold Roebling, Esq. It went on hour after hour with a break for lunch – tea and cucumber sandwiches. When you are concentrating on the spelling of names and writing them down in a fine Spencerian hand, it's best not to indulge in idle chatter. Each spoiled or misspelled envelope must be accounted for and deducted from the day's pay. "Unfair? Step aside lady, the woman behind you is next."
It was four thirty. Minnie leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms wide, then rubbed her eyes.
"Moved out, huh?"
"Who?" Edna asked.
"Yes, gone to spend the winter with his daughter. Longer maybe, I don't know. He's got nobody here, you know? Not since his wife died."
Minnie yawned and put the cover on the boxes. "Y'know, when Jews get trouble they get double their share. The little jar up there," she pointed at the mantel, "what's it supposed to mean?"
"He told me it's some of the earth that God promised to the Jews. It's been in his family for hundreds of years."
Minnie lifted her nose an inch or two. "What's that I smell?" she asked.
"Michigan stew." Edna looked at the clock again. Owen would be home in a half hour. Walking all morning with a bag of mail and then learning what he could his first year of high school. Would he stay awake? Maybe oatmeal isn't enough in the morning, and God knows what he eats for lunch. And the writing. Would he ever stop writing? On her trips from the parlor to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she would pass the dining room where he slept and see him hunched like a shoemaker with his knees nearly up to his nose.... writing. My God. My God, what kind of a trade is writing?
They could hear his slow labored step on the stairs outside. Edna opened the door before he knocked.
"C'mon in Owen," she looked him over carefully, "you’ve gotta be worn out."
He smiled weakly and collapsed in a kitchen chair. He kicked off his shoes and stared at them. "I put twenty-five miles on those shoes today, Ma. But I got some really grade 'A' news." He smiled and dug into his school bag. "Looka that, Ma." He carefully brushed the table before putting down his "Social Significance of Tiny Tim."
"100 ever lovin' points! Huh, Ma! Not only that, Mr. Molloy says I got talent way beyond my years. He says he never thought that Brooklyn and London had so much in common. Know what else he said?"
"Somethin' good I hope, Owen."
"Better sit down ... you too, Aunt Minnie. He says I got the makin's of a journalist in me. He's gonna get me a place on the school paper where I can really write. You know, use a typewriter and all, go to school ball games, interview students and teachers."
Edna took a long look at Owen, sighed and turned to Minnie. "If he's happy, I'm happy. Owen, I guess that's what you wanna do." She flexed her fingers, still stiff from her afternoon of writing.
"You bet it is, Ma. It's what I wanna do."
"Wash up Owen, your father will be home any minute." No telling when Fred would get in, if he didn't work today he might still be at the waterfront bar. She walked to the parlor and stared at Mr. Lewenthal's glass jar on the mantel. Something good for Owen, something good for Minnie. Was it really something good? It sounded more like promises.
Suddenly there was the sound of singing in the hall and someone fumbling with a key at the kitchen door. It swung open abruptly and banged against the icebox. Frank and Fred stood there unsteadily, looking like two recruits caught AWOL on a Saturday night.
"Frank Butterman! Look at you .... look at the two of you!" So much for the magic jar of dirt, Edna thought. Christmas just around the corner, a ray of hope maybe, and these two fools come home drunk!
"Kiss me, Edna. Tell me you love me, and I'll give you good news." Frank grabbed Edna and spun her around.
Fred was carrying his gray canvas bag with the tools of the piping trade. He dropped them with a clatter to the kitchen floor. "I'm workin' Edna .... six months easy."
Frank puffed out his chest, "See Edna, kiss Fred too. The navy sent a ship up here from .... where was it, Fred .... Newport Noose? They're gonna refit the old bucket."
Fred picked up the story. "It could be done in four months, but we can pad it out to six, then it goes out for trials and comes back .... another couple months for retrofit." He nudged Frank, "I'll be pullin' outta here Edna, you can have that bedroom back. First four pay envelopes are yours."
It was hard to keep up. First Minnie, then Owen, now Fred – rags to riches. Well, not riches, but something better than rags. But still, it was no excuse for these scatterbrained brothers to come home tipsy ... and furthermore they'd better get themselves cleaned up for supper. The stew was ready.
Frank came out of the bathroom first. His flushed face had returned to its normal pallor. "Edna," he cooed, "come into the parlor with me, love."
"Frank, there's no time for foolishness. Everything's ready. Sit down and eat. You take up too much room standing up."
"C'mon Edna, just for a second. There's somethin' I gotta tell you." He took Edna's arm, took the pot holder out of her hand and gave it to Minnie. "Just for a second, Edna."
They stood in the middle of the parlor. Frank looked around him and slowly shook his head. "Boy! Will I be glad not to have to sleep in here no more ... what I hafta tell'ya ... get a grip, Edna ... Jimson's got a big book contract for the Philadelphia School District. Told me today. Rithmetics, Joggerfrees and spellers. It means full weeks, Edna – full weeks. For the next three months anyways."
Edna sat down suddenly, as though all the air had been let out of her.
"Aint'cha glad, Edna?"
Edna could see the glass jar just to the right of Frank's elbow. Its bright blue stopper seemed to sparkle a bit in the light coming from the kitchen.
"Of course I'm glad, Frank. For all of us. But I'm scared too. Why I wonder? I was gettin' used to bein' poor I guess." She reached in the pocket of her apron for a handkerchief and blew her nose, then stood and held Frank tightly.
She finally broke away: "It's been a good day, Frank, an awful good day. You and Owen ... you don't know about Owen, do you? His English teacher is gettin' him a job on the school paper. He wants to be a writer, Frank." Frank looked at her puzzled. "Yes, a writer. That's okay isn't it? It's what he wants to do. Minnie's gonna be workin' part time and Fred's got his job back. Like I said, it's been an awful good day. Oh! I didn't tell you. Mr. Lewenthal's gone from the roof ... gone out to his daughter's in St. Louis. He left us a present."
She broke away from Frank and crossed to the mantel. "Here, here it is."
"What's that? A bottle of dirt?"
"No, it's not dirt. I don't have the time to tell you now. Supper's ready. Maybe later. It's all come so fast, Frank. C'mon, the stew's ready." They walked into the kitchen together – the others were already sitting.
"You do it, Owen." Edna said.
"Bless us O' Lord, and these Thy gifts which through Thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ our Lord. Amen."