Belated Letters to Old Friends
Excerpted from Joey, A Memoir
Shaker Heights, Ohio
Dear Miss Goretzka,
My baby brother disappeared on January 10, 1951 and died on February 24th, 1951. Maybe that was the day during rest period I wet my cot. The snow was so thick it looked like all the branches on the elm next to the bay window wore casts, so thick we couldn’t see the elms on the tree lawn. Do you remember that day?
I was five years, seven months and thirteen days old on the day Joey died. Maybe that’s why I didn’t play in the wooden play house, why I liked rest period best and watching snow fall and bury everything. I didn’t want to play mother. I couldn’t play sister. Never the baby.
I wish I had told you my secret in 1951. I needed an ear, Miss Goretzka. I also could have used a hand on my shoulder or head. A hug would have been good. I needed a room with a door, shelves stacked with tissues, a quiet person sitting on a comfortable chair not scared of tears, a person who would have said, More, Judy. Tell me more. This is important.
I don’t know why I never told you the secret, Miss Goretzka. You could have used it for Show and Tell, or told the principal and the school nurse. The sky would not have fallen.
Baby Joey was kicking inside me, but I couldn’t open up.
Thank you for listening now. Better late than never.
Yours since 1951,
First Grade Teacher
Shaker Heights, Ohio
Dear Miss Gelsenliter,
Remember after Thanksgiving vacation in 1951, when I told Tim in the cloak room, “My mother had a baby boy”? We were hanging up our winter jackets. Mine was red, his blue with a fuzzy hood. We both wore plaid scarves around our necks. The hooks were like gold fingers.
Of course you don’t remember that morning, because you were sitting on the teacher’s chair in the reading corner, waiting for all of us to take our places. I wish I had been able to say to Tim, you and the whole class, and not in the narrow dark cloakroom with its golden claws, but in the bright classroom with its towering windows covering the whole wall so that even on gray days First Grade shone with light: My mother had a baby boy. This one is Jimmy. The first one died. He was Joey. This was important, Miss Gelsenliter, because at the end of November we were learning to see.
See Dick. See Jane. See Spot.
I wish I had known where my first brother was. He left without saying goodbye. Was he buried inside me? Were my mother’s tears buried inside me?
How could I see? Who could believe?
Dear Miss Gelsenliter, I wish we had learned words like death and sad. I needed words beyond See Spot run.
Life in the book was always glad. At home, even walls cried.
But it’s not your fault, Miss Gelsenliter. Thank you for teaching me how to read. You taught me to stand straight like an “I,” even when I felt like a lower case “c.” These too are important lessons. One language is better than none.
Yours since 1952,
Judy Labensohn is an immigrant to the Third Age, where she experiences vertigo and dust allergies. Nonetheless, she persists to write, teach and cut hair on the occasional head. In Tel Aviv she rides a low tech two-wheeler. Her hybrid memoir awaits a publisher. For more, see www.writeinisrael.com