By Rose Lemberg
7 June 2010
My mother always calls at three a.m. From over the ocean I can feel her gearing up for the call, pacing in her seaside apartment with huge windows and a half-working washer (the drying is supplied by sun and pigeons). She doesn't know what time it is in America, she doesn't know my husband's name; she wants to buy me a set of dishes. Say thank you!
Perhaps I really am ungrateful, that is, not grateful for gifts: the three bent spoons, the piece of local newspaper, a bunch of dried herbs. I don't bathe in the tincture of herbs or read the newspaper—and so she paces, and cockroaches the size of toy airplanes smash into her windows. She hexes them without a glance, continues pacing as they topple to the ground.
I sit in the kitchen, waiting for her to call. My fingers knead the kifli dough, caress the living firmness of it. The plum jam is bubbling on the gas stove, smelling of that village, that little plump woman I would have become, had I not moved across the ocean. Both the village-me and the city-me agree on the making of kifli, crescents of dough with the heart of crimson jam.
The phone rings.
"Dishes! You will say no! But I know!"
She knows; I am weak in spirit. Late at night, rubbing dough residue from my palms, I dream of a set with painted lilacs—and my guests, drunk on the smell of fresh pastry, tracing the petals with slightly oily fingers.
"In restaurants, the dishes are always white!"
But I don't cook restaurant food. I make kifli and deep-fried Georgian chebureki and stuffed cabbage drowning in sour cream. I make bread shameless with brie and walnuts. My mother orders pizza. But of course, kifli and walnuts and even pizza would look better on white.
In my mother's apartment, another bug smashes into the window and slides off, defeated. The taste of my mother's hex transfers through the telephone, and I know the plum jam will turn out slightly bitter. My mother has everything—a profession, money—while I am only a housewife with odd hobbies and a plum tree. And dishless—we use paper when guests come over.
I wipe the vision of the lilac plates away. "Order something on Amazon."
"How can I buy something I've never seen?" she says. "What if I don't like it?"
I am suddenly tired, and even the dough under my hands feels droopy. It feels like screeching sandpaper over my heart. Why doesn't it matter what I like? "Whatever. I'm going to sleep, mom."
She calls the next night, triumphant. "I was passing in the neighborhood. . . ." Breath. "You don't love me." Sigh. "You hate me!" Then: "I bought you a set of dishes! Six dining plates, six salad plates, and no cups. They didn't have any cups."
She's meaning to mail them. Airmail, which costs more than the dishes themselves.
"Mom, listen . . ."
No, she doesn't.
The next night my phone rings again. I am in the kitchen, licking bitter jam from the bent spoon and sipping raspberry tea.
"I bought you another set. Six is not enough. You have people over!" She never comes over, she means. It's her fault and mine that I feed strangers while my mother subsists on leftover pizza. "I blessed the dishes," she says.
My phone rings again the next night, and the next. She bought serving pieces, saucers. She bought soup dishes, a tureen, and a salt shaker.
I don't remember my mother's face.
The dishes are traveling over the seas. My husband chucks the bitter jam and buys me a "fun dessert"—he thought it was ice cream, bless him. It tastes like soap and candles. He disconnects the phone and talks to me about the evolutionary advantages of peanut butter.
A week later, I hear clanking. There is another pot of jam going on the stove, and my hands are full of flour from the rolling pin. I unlatch the window and peek out.
The golem is made of dishes. Its arms are pieces of bowls. Its belly is humongous dinner plates. Its legs are ceramic slivers—there's no telling what those used to be. Its face is made of serving platters, flat and white and simple like the ones you get at Target. Its salt-shaker nose is leaking salt, and the golem sneezes, swaying tentatively towards me.
Nobody's watching us. My husband is at work. I open the door and usher it in; the golem jiggles as it sits down at the table. Behind the dishes, inside its torso, there's the scroll that animates it—a piece of checkered paper, her letter. It's warm here, she writes. The sand wind blew the other day. The city is on strike again, and garbage fills the streets. My mother's truth—concealed from view behind these words, inside her dish golem.
I love you, she means. I miss you terribly.
I spoon the jam onto the warm circles of dough and form the crescents. The golem sways, sighing patiently while the kifli mature in the oven.