The reel of unseen dreams flickers her eyelids as the man who has slipped into her room watches. A crescent smile glides across his face like a canoe trailed by ripples of worry. Deep within her consciousness, she senses his presence, and the blue eyes marred by clouds of age slowly open.
One, two, three seconds pass as recognition surfaces. Her face, soft as worn flannel, bunches around her eyes and mouth.
Her equally soft hand pats his sandpaper chin.
“I know I haven’t been to visit you as often as I should, but…”
“No apologies, sweet boy. You’re here now.”
“I came to spend Shabbat with you, Gram.”
The old soul leans forward in her bed, peers out the window.
“Seems a little early yet,” she says.
“Well, Mom says you’re asleep by seven, and the summer sun sets so late.”
“Cheeky devil,” she chuckles, again patting his face. “Go ahead and light the candles. Fetch my shawl from the drawer—no, that one, Freddy, the next one down—and I’ll say the blessing.”
Fred complies with her request, draping dark blue silk around her head and shoulders. Daylight blasts hot and bright through the windows of her room in the nursing home; her white crowned head swathed in navy gives the appearance of the moon in the night sky. He lights two candles in cut glass holders, and the sun withdraws its spears behind linty clouds.
Elsa Cohen breaths as deeply as her ravaged lungs will allow; she wheezes like a broken bellows, drawing withered hands above the dancing flames, the ancient prayer she recites flowing like new wine. When she finishes, she looks up into her grandson’s drum-tight face.
“Why so troubled, Freddy?”
“I don’t know, Gram. I’ve been feeling kind of…melancholy lately?”
“Are you asking me?”
Elsa pushes the shawl off her head, smooths the fabric around her shoulders.
“It’s just that, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat lately either, Gram.”
“No, that’s just what people say when they’re giving you time to collect your thoughts and tell what’s on your mind. Spill it, Freddy.”
“Oh…uh, well, I haven’t been keeping Shabbat because…because it’s really hard to do in today’s society, you know? I mean, living in America and all, well, people don’t stop, like, working and stuff at sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday.”
“Oh gosh, people don’t even stop on Sunday anymore either.”
“I remember when you were little that gas stations and stores were closed on Sunday, and all the good people went to church, and everyone rested.”
“We live in a ‘round the clock kind of world these days, Gram.”
“That we do. How’s that working for you, Freddy?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you visited three months ago—”
Elsa waves him to silence.
“You said you and Margaret were so exhausted with long hours at work, running errands, shuttling the kids from here to there.”
“Well, I don’t see how taking a whole day off to do nothing is going to help any of that, Gram. Wouldn’t that just put us more behind?”
“Do more on the other six days. Totally run yourself into the ground. Or you could save up all your Shabbats until retirement and lay around doing nothing for ten years.”
“Gram, be serious.”
The old woman chuckles until she coughs. Fred leans her forward and delivers firm pats to her back. Her nightgown is a floral landscape across the sharp ridges of her shoulders. Once settled against her pillows, she continues.
“You have to decide for yourself, Freddy, why you do or don’t do these things.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told me what to do?”
“What fun would there be in that? Besides, there’s no guarantee you’d do it just because I say so.”
“It was so much easier when Grandpa was alive. We all met for dinner at your house and followed his lead.”
“Fredrick—Shabbat hasn’t gone by the wayside just because your grandfather died. Everything that is good about it is still with us. My goodness, dear boy, for one so educated, you sure are stupid.”
Fred can’t keep from laughing at his little grandmother’s spoon-blunt words cutting him sharply.
“Okay, Gram, I get it.”
“Are you sure? Because I could spell it out for you. Use pictures and small words.”
He kisses her forehead like she is his child.
“I love you, Gram.”
“I know, Freddy. Now take that box of candy over there your mother sent me—she knows I can’t chew caramel and nuts anymore—and go home to your family. Rest, my boy.”
Elsa snuggles into the blankets her grandson pulls up over her chin. Her eyes flicker as the dream scenes resume, and she is asleep before he crosses the room to leave.