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Roundabout Miracles

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"Mama, how long have we had the menorah again?" Charlotte asked as their Mama set it down on the table. The aged porcelain was cracked in a few places and the base bore some stains from drippy candle wax they'd never been able to clean, but to Ella, it was the most beautiful menorah in the world.

"My great-grandmother," Mama said, wiping the surface clean with a dust cloth. "She passed it down to my grandmother, who passed it down to me, and it's held strong all this time." She chuckled. "It's even survived Henny knocking it down when she was four."

"I did not!" Henny protested, blowing into the room as though she were the wind and the snow flurries that had been falling since that morning. "It fell by itself!" She stamped her boots at the door and took her winter layers off, hanging them up so sloppily she might as well have thrown them on the floor. Sarah followed her inside moments later, carefully taking off her own boots, coat, and scarf to hang up in the closet where they belonged.

"Was it? I can't remember that Hanukkah," she said.

"She did knock it over," Mama said, "but it was only an accident and we know she didn't mean any harm." She smiled at Henny. "You wanted to help us put the candles in, but you were just a little too enthusiastic." Henny turned pink, rubbing one leg against the other.

"Sorry," she mumbled. "But I haven't knocked it over since!" Gertie, sitting on the floor, looked up from her picture book at Mama with a worried face.

"Does this mean I'm still too little to put the candles in?" she asked. "I'll be careful, I promise!" Mama laughed softly.

"We'll see, dear. But there's still plenty more you can do to help us get ready!"

"You can come with me to the market to pick up the ingredients for the latkes and jelly doughnuts," Ella offered. "It'd be nice to have the company, and I could use another pair of hands." Gertie brightened instantly.

"And can I help you and Mama and Sarah make them later?"

"You can help us measure," Sarah said, blowing on her hands. Even with mittens, Sarah's hands still stayed colder longer than anyone else's did. It was a funny contrast to Henny, who never seemed to get cold even when she forgot to wear her mittens and went around with her coat half-unbuttoned. Mama and Doctor Fuchs were beginning to think Henny was simply incapable of getting sick.

"Just don't go near the frying pan when the oil's hot," Mama said. "Ella, go get yours and Gertie's coats and boots and things. The market will be closing soon." Normally, she would send them to Mr. Basch's store just below the front room, but he had closed early to celebrate with his family. The Rivington Street market was open just a bit later, and would have everything they needed.

Ella nodded and hurried to the coat closet, helped Gertie into her coat and boots, and soon they were hurrying out the door. The snow flurries were getting a bit thicker, and soon it would get dark.

 

The air always smelled different during the holidays, Ella thought, and not just from cooking. It was something she couldn't quite put her finger on, a soft and smoky aroma that always seemed stronger when it was snowing. Beside her, Gertie skipped and twirled and tried to catch snowflakes on her mittens.

"I wish we could build a snowman like in my book," she said wistfully. "But the snow goes away too fast."

"I know," Ella sighed. She remembered being Gertie's age, wanting to play in the falling snow and crying when Mama told her it would just melt within moments of falling. The lower east side was just too dirty, and the gas lamps and smoke from the factories made it too warm for snow to stick to the ground. "But it's still beautiful to watch, at least."

"Maybe we can put snow in the icebox!" Gertie said. "It'll stay cold and later we can take it outside to make a snowman!" Ella laughed.

"We could never fit that much snow in one icebox! And Mama would never let us, anyway." Gertie's face became sad, and Ella put a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay. I wish I'd tried to think up something like that when I was little."

The market lay straight ahead. It was quite a bit of a walk from their apartment, but it was a nice walk, especially with the smell of winter and Hanukkah in the air, and Ella knew the market would be lively but not overly stuffed like it was before the Sabbath. Soon, the scents of garlic, pickles, spiced mushrooms, candied fruits, and smoked meats greeted them, as did the sound of peddlers and customers chattering away.

"Mama gave us a list," Ella reminded Gertie, "and just enough money to buy what we need. So no asking for any treats, okay?" Gertie nodded solemnly; Ella felt bad for having to be so stern, but money was sparse in the household and they were saving every penny for Hanukkah presents. Ella had already picked out hers for everyone, all she needed was two more pennies before she could buy Mama's. But right now, she was tempted to pick something else for Mama so she could spare a penny for a stick of the candied fruit Gertie so loved.

Another time, she sternly reminded herself as they selected four large potatoes and one large yellow onion. Mama already had more than enough oil at home, and the jam for the donuts had been prepared the day before. All they needed was flour, and another pound of sugar.

"Say, ladies, tell you what," the man at the flour stand said as they selected a five-pound bag, "I'll give you a nickel off, since it's the holidays and all." Gertie's eyes lit up, not at the prospect of cheap flour but because maybe, just maybe they'd have enough money for a treat after all. Ella smiled, handing over the quarter and accepting her change.

"Thank you very kindly, good sir," she said in her best but still clumsy Yiddish. English was the primary language of the household, Yiddish only spoken during prayers or during visits with elderly relatives who relied on their native tongue. A pound of sugar completed their purchase, and they were on their way.

"What should we spend the extra nickel on, Ella?" Gertie asked as they bundled the groceries in the baby carriage; after finding it so helpful for the Sabbath shopping some time ago they'd put it to permanent use during market trips. "Candied fruits? Oooh, maybe a couple of pickles! Henny would like that!"

"We could buy extra nuts for the dreidel game," Ella said, "both practical and delicious."

"Or we could all go to the candy store tomorrow!" Gertie said. "A penny's worth of candy for each of us and we can all mix it and share it, and-oooh! I just tripped on something." She steadied herself, holding onto Ella's hand. "Huh? What's going on?"

It was a little girl, curled up beside the little old pretzel woman and her stand. Her legs were tucked under her chin and the tattered coat she wore was at least two sizes too big for her. The old woman seemed not to notice her, nor did she notice the boy about Henny's age who rushed towards the stand and immediately turned his dark eyes towards the sisters.

"What do you do here?! Stay away from my sister!" he hissed. Gertie squeaked and hid behind Ella, who swallowed and held up a hand. The boy didn't look dangerous, but she could see the bulge of a pocket knife in his threadbare coat.

"We mean no harm," she said. "I apologize, we tripped on this." She pointed towards the tired-looking canvas sack, which the boy immediately pulled up and out of the way.

"It's our only food," he said gruffly. "Me and Sascha, we got nothing else. We got no one else." He looked down. "Our parents died from scarlet fever last year. We got no other family, so we're on our own. Ella's heart sank in sorrow for the pair, she couldn't imagine losing Mama or Papa in such a way. Gertie peeked out from behind Ella, towards the little girl.

"Sascha?" The girl nodded, uncurling from her ball a little. Her brown eyes seemed too big for her face, and her brown hair was pulled into messy braids that hung limply over her shoulders.

"Friederich," she said, "did you get anything tonight?" The boy shook his head, sitting down beside her and opening the sack.

"Sorry, sister. This bread and meat will have to last us at least another day." Sitting beside her, no longer in his defensive stance, Friederich looked as fragile and sad as his sister, his cheeks dirty and his defiant eyes now tired. He coughed into the sleeve of his ratty coat, and Sascha whimpered.

"Brother!"

"It's nothing. You know how it is when it's cold."

"Ella," Gertie whispered, "why doesn't anyone help them? They're so thin and I think the boy is sick!" Unfortunately, Ella thought, this was a bit too common around the lower east side. This was the first time she'd run across it at the marketplace, but children huddled in alleys or behind stores, trying to gather whatever pennies or scraps of food they could to survive. Papa had even seen a few near his shop, trying to sell old bottles or cans.

Her hand drifted towards the nickel in her pocket. The nickel that just moments ago she and Gertie were planning to spend on a luxury for themselves, a surplus of candy or nuts or pickles.

We may not have much, but we have far more than these two have.

"Gertie," she sighed, "we'll have to wait another time for five kinds of candy." Gertie looked about to protest, she was too little to understand these things and Ella didn't blame her for being upset. But Ella knew if she didn't do what was right, her conscience would never let her hear the end of it.

Gertie, thankfully, kept her mouth closed as Ella handed the nickel to Sascha.

"Here," Ella said. "It's not much, but...it should be good for a few days' worth of food." Friederich's eyes widened, and Sascha's filled with tears even as she smiled.

"Thank you."

"Have a good night," Friederich said solemnly, and the sisters quietly left the market, pushing their carriage of groceries home slowly. It wasn't until they were close to home that Gertie finally spoke.

"I still wish we could have had all that candy."

"I know." Ella smiled. "But there's more joy in doing good for those in need."

"They sure looked happy," Gertie said. "So I guess we did a good thing."

"We did the right thing."

 

Of course, Henny made a big fuss when Ella told the story, mourning the loss of all that candy, but to her credit she came around without Mama or Papa having to scold her.

"Besides," she'd said, "people are going to give us plenty when we visit with the relatives on the last night anyway."

"Do you think Friederich and Sascha will be okay?" Sarah asked.

"I hope so." Ella wondered if she should have invited them to come home with her and Gertie, but she didn't know how Mama and Papa would feel about two extra mouths to feed, or if the pair would even accept the offer.

After a delicious meal of chicken, vegetables, and potato latkes, Papa lit the shamas and the first candle in the menorah while they sang the blessing. Presents would not come until the eighth night, but Charlie had sent Papa home with little pads of paper and colored pens for the girls, as well as a little carved wooden bird for Mama's mantlepiece.

That night, as Ella curled up in bed beside Sarah, her thoughts drifted every which way. From Charlie's kindness, to how she longed for him to celebrate at least one night of Hanukkah with them this year, to the beauty of Mama's old menorah as it stood proud despite its age, to the nickel she'd given up, to the boy and girl huddled beside the pretzel stand.

Please let them be okay tonight. Please, God, protect them from the bitter cold and any danger.

 

She went to pick up Mama's present at Mr. Pincus's shop on the fourth day, on their way home from the library. Since he had promised to hold onto it for her, she had no worries about it being snatched up. But when she went to hand over her money, Mr. Pincus wasn't at the counter, but rather another familiar face.

"Hey! It's you from the market!"

"Friederich?" Ella gasped. He still wore the same raggedy coat and scarf from that night, but underneath he wore a clean shirt and slacks. His hair was combed, his face clean, and he looked like he'd had a good night's rest since then.

"Ella, who's this?" Sarah queried. Henny grinned.

"A boyfriend, maybe?" Friederich turned scarlet, and Ella nudged her sister in the ribs.

"Oh, Henny, be still!"

"Ella told us about a Friederich she met a few nights ago, though," Sarah said, "and your name is the same."

"That's 'cause I am the same," the boy said cheerfully. "See, Sascha and I can't stick around one place too long, cause people don't like it, so we moved on after I got us some bread from the market."

"We ended up here." Sascha, wearing a new coat and with red ribbons tied around her braids, fairly skipped into the shop, a bag clutched in her hands. "The shopkeep was awful kind, he saw Friederich lookin' for old junk to sell and gave him a job at the counter. He only pays thirty cents a day, but it's more than we're used to getting and we've almost got enough to get Friederich a better coat."

"Where are you staying?" Ella asked, remembering what Friederich had said about their parents.

"Dey's staying in de liddle apartment above me," Mr. Pincus answered as he made his way to the counter, patting the boy's shoulder. "Dat boy, he's a gud salesmin, and de girl, she's sweet company."

"How sweet," Charlotte murmured. "I was so sad when Ella told us the story, but it looks like it's had a happy ending!"

"And we want to thank you," Friederich said. "So please accept this nickel off of your purchase!" Mr. Pincus pressed it into Ella's hand.

"Spend it however ye like."

"Consider it our gift to you," Sascha said. "Happy Hanukkah!"

 

It was Henny, of all people, who suggested they use the nickel on a present for Uncle Hyman.

"He does so much for us," she said to her surprised family. "Not just the pennies, either, he stayed with Charlotte when she had a cold and couldn't go to Rosh Hashanah last year and he tells such fun stories."

"And it's so sad that a wonderful man like him is all alone except when he visits us," Charlotte added. "Henny, I think it's a lovely idea."

"It is," Papa added. Henny looked embarrassed all of a sudden, tugging one of her curls uncomfortably.

"Well...it's the holiday season, right? A time to think of others?" But Ella could sense that deep down, her harum-scarum sister was pleased with herself. She smiled proudly, patting her on the shoulder.

"Let's go to the shop tomorrow to pick something out. I have some money left over after buying everyone's presents."

"I've got lots in my penny bank, too," Sarah said. "Even after buying my doll and paying for the missing library book." Charlotte and Gertie, after giving it a moment's thought, turned over the after-lunch pennies they'd stashed in their apron pockets.

They gave the sum of their money to Papa and Mama to hold onto before they lit the candles that night. Gertie helped put them in place, Mama holding the menorah to keep it upright just in case.

 

It was snowing on the eighth and final night, but only a little. Gertie, once again, skipped alongside them trying to catch the snowflakes on her mittens, Henny held Uncle Hyman's present tightly as if she were guarding gold, and on the way to Tanta Rivka's they saw bright lights coming from the window of the apartment above Mr. Pincus's shop.

"He must be celebrating with Friederich and Sascha," Ella mused. "How wonderful."

"It will be nice to feel like they have a papa again, even just for tonight," Mama said. "I'd like to invite the three of them for dinner sometime, though, after the holidays."

"And maybe next year, we can all celebrate Haunkkah together!" Gertie piped up. Ella chuckled, patting her sister's head.

"Next year is such a long way off! But it's definitely something to think about."

They arrived at Tanta Rivka's, where the celebrations were starting almost the moment they walked in. Presents and dishes were placed on nearby tables, and cousin Adolph hurried the children to the living room for the first of many dreidel games that night.

Outside, the snow fell thicker, and Ella wondered if maybe this year, for just one day, it would stay and they could build a snowman.

But even if we can't, it's still beautiful.