Kneeling on soft blue carpet, I lift a pile of plates into a box. When Ruthie sees this, she says, “Aren’t you going to pack them individually?”
“What do you mean?” I brush bangs off my face.
“Put newspaper between the plates.”
I say, “We’ve got to get through this whole house by Friday.”
“But what’s the point, packing everything, just so it’ll break?”
“When I drive to Recycle North, I’ll make sure the plates don’t break.”
Ruthie presses her lips together in frustration. One of the front curls has broken free of her ponytail, spiraling down into her face, which is my face, too. Walking over, she takes a Kleenex out of her shirt pocket, then bends down.
“You’ve got a smudge.” She licks the Kleenex, rubs my forehead with it.
After she’s back in the kitchen, I can hear her banging drawers, and I know I’m driving her crazy. So I take the plates out of the box, and repack them the way she’s asked me to.
People always assume twins are alike. Ruthie and I have the same brown, curly hair, the same long nose, the same big eyes that get us attention. But Ruthie’s organized and professional. She can’t stand loose clothes, and needs everything fitted, tucked. Whereas I like baggy jeans and big shirts. I’m a romantic, like Mom was, and I’m overly emotional. Which makes this week even harder. Mom died in June, and we’ve put off packing her house until December, because of how hard this is. We’ve been in Vermont five days—me, from Boston, Ruthie, Chicago.
We can’t find Mom’s wedding ring. It’s a tight, upset thread pulling between us, complicating our grief. Early in the week, when we began to clean, we assumed we’d find the simple gold band that was all Dad could afford when he proposed. It helped him, financially, that Jewish law dictates the ring be unadorned by designs, stones, or inscriptions. Still, he spent all his savings on the ring. Mom lost it down the drain as a young bride. She called her own father in a panic and he came over and dismantled the pipes to find it. After that, she never wore the ring when she worked at the sink.
In June, when she felt lightheaded and called her neighbor, she’d been doing dishes. And when the ambulance took her away from this house for the last time, the stroke that would kill her as yet undiagnosed, she wasn’t wearing the ring.
We’ve looked everywhere. It is not on the windowsill in the kitchen. It is not in a small dish on her dresser. It is not in her jewelry box. All of these were places she used to stash it before doing the dishes with us, when we were kids.
From the other room, Ruthie yells, “Do you mind if I keep the yellow and blue teapot? It matches my kitchen.”
She’s back, holding the little teapot Mom always used in winter. Each day, when we got home from school, she’d make a pot of Constant Comment tea. We’d sit and talk about our day before homework and dinner.
As soon as I see it, I want the teapot; one look and I’m back in ninth grade. I’m in the kitchen with sunshine streaming through the windows. Mom is amused about how Mrs. Wilhay, the music teacher, has asked us to sing “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel” in the holiday concert. Again. Because we are the only Jews in our class, and this is the only Hanukkah song she knows. I want the teapot because I can’t remember Mom’s voice or her laugh or the way her hand looks, curled around a cup.
“That’s fine,” I say. “You can have it.”
“Any sign…?” She says. She means the ring. I shake my head.
Ruthie disappears from the doorway again.
The ring will go to Ruthie. As Mom told me years ago, it had to go to one of us. “You don’t care about rings,” she said, insinuating I was too cool for conformist symbols of attachment. But we both knew I was the one most likely to lose it. Ruthie might not even wear it, but she’ll keep track of it. And some day, she’ll pass it along to a daughter, and it will stay in the family.
We’d started with Mom’s room, figuring that would be hardest. And it was. Ruthie took the dresser and sent me into the bathroom, thinking I couldn’t get sentimental over soap. But I opened the linen closet and faced the old glass bottle of Jean Naté, the Ponds cold cream, the white and pink cotton robe, and I broke down. Ruthie came and put her arms around me in a quick, neat hug, then said, “Leah, we have to be efficient.”
Blowing my nose, I’d nodded.
“When you see special things, hold them, remember what they mean. And then throw them away. Can you do that?”
“We can’t keep everything.”
“And you can’t be crazy. We don’t have time.”
We’re very different, Ruthie and I. As kids, we didn’t get along. And as adults, we haven’t kept in touch. Since June, though, we talk on the phone sometimes. She tells me about the bank. And I tell her about my dreams—how I wander through them, trying to find Mom, but can’t.
Ruthie reappears now, holding the menorah.
“Do you want this?”
“Sure.” I reach for it.
“It’s Hanukkah tonight.”
“Is it?” I smile. “I forgot.”
“Let’s light it. Okay? We’ll leave it out and get candles later.”
It’s kind of nice that Ruthie suggests this. It’s more the sort of thing I’d have said.
Hanukkah was Mom’s holiday. Dad used to call it “the goyim’s consolation prize for Jews.” He couldn’t stand the season altogether.
“You don’t get a tree?” People would say, faces full of pity. In the grocery store, a well-meaning cashier might ask Ruthie and me what Santa was bringing us, then look appalled at the answer: “Nothing.” Dad would grit his teeth.
“You’re too hard on people,” Mom would say to him. “They just never learned about us.”
Dad died of a heart attack when Ruthie and I were eleven. Sitting Shiva, I heard Mom telling her sister she’d never be happy in the same way again. And I think probably she wasn’t happy in just the same way again, because she had no one to dress up for, no one to tell her how beautiful she was, how smart. No one to take her hand, spin her once in the kitchen, and say, “My lovely, lovely Laura.”
She was happy in other ways, though. She was happy with us, and proud—when Ruthie had an essay published in the Vanguard, when I got cast as Miss Hannigan in the Lyric production of Annie!
It’s when I clean out the hall closet that I find the ring. Behind jackets and raincoats and a single oversized sweatshirt that reads “Vermont Catamounts,” there’s a change purse hanging for no reason from a hook on the wall. It’s all by itself, with no other purses. There’s no reason for it. I can hear Ruthie, still in the kitchen, wrestling with the vacuum cleaner and all its little parts. I take down the purse. Inside, wrapped in a crumpled square of pink tissue paper, is the ring. I smooth my finger over its glossy gold surface. I slip in on. It’s too big for my own wedding finger, but when I try the other side, it fits. I take it off and push it into the back pocket of my jeans.
When I walk into the kitchen, I’m planning to tell her I’ve found it. But instead, I say, “Let’s walk downtown for the candles.”
I’m a little surprised at myself, for not saying anything. But it’s not as if I’ve stolen it. Not exactly.
“You want to walk?” she says.
“I want to stretch my legs.”
“Downtown is two miles, Leah.”
“Let’s take the bikes.”
We’d found them yesterday, when we did the garage. Tibetan Resettlement came for the Subaru and for Dad’s tools, so all we had to deal with were some gardening things and our old bikes from high school. Ruthie says she’s going to take hers to the dump before I drive her to the airport on Friday. I might keep mine, use it in Boston.
“We’ll be biking in snow,” Ruthie says.
It’s true that the forecast calls for snow. I can feel it coming. The sky is dark pink and the clouds are thick and full; the air feels wooly. But I say, “So?”
We head into Burlington on our bikes. After a minute, I say, “Sometimes I think I’ll never be happy in the same way again.”
I’m quoting my mother, and Ruthie knows it, but she says, “Me, too.”
“Do you ever have trouble remembering her?”
“Of course not,” Ruthie says.
By the time we get downtown, it’s cold and getting dark. I’m wearing mittens and a scarf along with my Icelandic sweater, and Ruthie has on her camel hair coat and leather gloves. She thinks they’ll have Hanukkah candles in City Market on South Winooski, where the old police station used to be. When we get there, I realize we have no bike lock.
“Who’d steal these bikes?” Ruthie laughs. “Look at them!” They’re ten speeds, with taped, curled handlebars. Ruthie’s is white and mine, blue, with a sticker peeling off the frame: Grateful Dead teddy bears, dancing in a line.
My breath makes warm, steamy clouds. “Go buy candles,” I say. “I’ll hold the bikes.”
She leans her bike toward me and I reach across mine to grab one of her handlebars.
“Back in a minute.”
As evening falls, it starts to snow. Ruthie’s handlebars keep twisting out of my grip, twirling away from the rest of the frame. Trying to stop her bike from falling, I bend clumsily, feeling foolish.
“Need some help?” A guy stops and rights Ruthie’s bike, settling it closer to me, so I can hold it.
“Thanks,” I say, but he’s walking on, hands in his pockets.
‘Tis the season. Everyone in Burlington’s in a good mood, whistling or singing, stopping to drop quarters in red metal buckets. Letting my head fall back, I watch as white flecks fall from the sky, lit by the street lamp on the sidewalk. It’s bizarre watching these big flakes appear out of nothingness, abruptly jumping into view in the yellow circle of light.
I balance my bike on my thigh and hold Ruthie’s with my other hand. Then I dig the ring out of my back pocket to look at it.
Ruthie steps outside, holding small packages. I make a fist, close my hand around the ring. A security guard from the store follows her, and for a moment I think she’s shoplifted. But then she says, “Do you want blue, multicolor or white?”
“Are you kidding?”
She holds them out, displaying them. “We came all the way down here. I thought I’d ask your opinion.”
I smile. “Blue, I guess.”
She hesitates. “The multicolored are prettier.”
As she ducks back into the store, I roll my eyes at the guard.
He says, “You’re twins?”
He looks like he wants to say something else, but stands quietly, watching it snow.
What I want is to put the ring on and wear it under my mitten until we get home. Just til then. But as I grapple with the bikes, trying not to let them fall, I drop it.
“My dad was a twin,” the security guard says, and I jump, because I’ve forgotten he’s there. “He died young. It was always strange, after that, with my uncle. I could see how my dad would have looked, if he’d gotten old.”
Without warning, I have a smarting lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, thinking about Ruthie or me dying and the other, left behind. He looks embarrassed for having shared something so personal.
Ruthie comes outside then, holding a small brown bag.
“All set,” she says.
The guard says, “Goodnight.”
Ruthie takes her bike and heads off, giving me the opportunity to pick up the gold band. I take off my mitten, slip on the ring, put the mitten back on.
“You coming?” she shouts over her shoulder.
Pedaling carefully, because of the snow, we ride uphill toward home. Ruthie holds the bag of candles, wrapped tightly around a handlebar.
I say, “I can’t remember how she said my name.”
I shake my head, thinking how I also can’t remember what it’s like to be in a room with Mom, how it is to hold her hand or to cook beside her. She used to reproach us gently if we cut carrots on the vertical instead of the diagonal, but I can’t hear how that sounded.
“She’d draw out our names and add the ‘-la’ sometimes, like Bubby used to. Remember? Leah-la. Ruth-ela.”
“Right,” I say. “That’s right.” And although I hadn’t forgotten, not really, now I can hear her voice: How was school, Leah-la?
Ruthie says, “It’s all right. You know who she was.”
Paralyzed by guilt over the ring, I slow down and get off my bike. Ruthie stops, too.
“What’s up?” She says.
“I found the ring.”
Her eyes light up. “Why didn’t you say?”
I remove the mitten and take the ring off. “I just wanted to wear it for a little while.”
She looks at my hand, and her face falls.
“I should have told you right away.”
She takes the ring and puts it on her finger. Then, like I did earlier, she switches it to her right hand. It glints under the streetlight. “It’s elegant, isn’t it?”
“You keep it,” she says.
“No, she wanted you to have it.”
“She was wrong about that.”
“I already dropped it once.”
Ruthie laughs, which surprises me.
“You keep it,” I say, “but let me have the teapot.”
She laughs harder, and it seems like one of those out-of-control things that isn’t really about something funny. I smile, though, drawn in by her amusement.
We look down at Burlington, backlit by the last trace of sunset and filling with snow. Our tire tracks follow us up the hill. And although it’s not like me to need everything tidily arranged, this steadfast pair of identical lines, side by side in the snow, comforts me more than I can explain.
Ruthie transfers the paper bag to her other hand. “Can I light the candles this time?” She sounds eight years old.
“You can lead the prayers.”
I smile. “Okay.”
We get back on our bikes and, together, pedal home.
Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s stories and essays have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, The Baltimore Review, Gulf Stream, and, most recently, New Ohio Review. Her story “somewhere never gladly” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her novel, Shape of the Sky (Wind Ridge Books, 2014), was nominated by a Vermont bookseller for the Vermont Book Award. She has an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her radio show, Write the Book, features interviews with authors, poets, agents, and editors and is heard weekly on 99.3 fm, WBTV-LP in Burlington. It has twice been included in Writers’ Digest’sannual list of the 101 Best Websites for Writers on the web. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont, with her husband Jerry. In 2014, they biked from Key West, Florida, to their home in Vermont, which was an amazing adventure (and a bit out of character). It’s great to do things that are out of character once in awhile.
© 2020, Shelagh Connor Shapiro
2 comments on “Alike, by Shelagh Connor Shapiro”
Shelagh, Loved Your story! Anyone who has gone through this process with a family member knows the give-and-take that sometimes is difficult. THANK YOU!