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Purim Surprise

Joey and his little sister Ilana wanted to be happy. Purim is supposed to be a joyous holiday. In fact, the rabbis point to only two things people must do on Purim, read the Megillah, which tells the story of Esther, and be happy. The commandment to be happy on Purim is so important that the rabbis even encourage the adults to drink lots of wine and liquor. Then, throw in dressing up in costumes, a story about how the Jews triumphed over their oppressors, and goodie bags of special treats—candy, nuts, fruits, and sweets of all sorts—called mishloach manot, and you almost have to be happy. You just can’t avoid it.

But Joey and Ilana were very sad in the weeks leading up to Purim. Their grandmother, whom they called Bubbie, died a few months before. It was Bubbie who brought most of the joy to their celebrations of Jewish holidays. She made wonderful foods and brought presents and sang songs and played games with the children and told stories of life when she was a girl growing up in the old country, a place she said was now called Poland. She made it all seem so magical.

Bubbie was very old, and she had gotten sick and died a few months before. They missed her so much on Chanukah. They still received presents from her—Mom said Bubbie had bought them before she got sick and died—but she wasn’t here to cook latkes or play dreidel or sing songs or tell stories like she always did. Mom tried, but it wasn’t the same. She was sad too. And their dad was far away. He is all right, but he and Mom divorced when Joey was very little and Ilana was a baby. He calls sometimes and sends letters, but they only really see him during the summer.

Now Purim was coming, and Joey and Ilana couldn’t get excited about the holiday at all. They even had roles in the synagogue’s Purim skit; he was going to play one of the king’s guards and Ilana would be a handmaiden to Queen Esther. And they were supposed to perform the skit in front of a real audience at a nursing home the week before Purim. Still they were sad. They didn’t even bother with their costumes. Mom wasn’t putting together the goodie bags of treats, mishloach manot, that they always gave out to other families. Instead, she just sorted through Bubbie’s things trying to figure out what they would keep and what she would give away. Their house was small and they didn’t have much extra room.

“Are we going to do Purim this year?” asked Joey.

“Yeah,” added Ilana, “Bubbie always brought us a Purim surprise.”

Mom didn’t know what to say. She felt sad too. Ever since she was a little girl she had loved Purim. Sometimes she dressed as Queen Esther. When she was older, she dressed as Vashti, the queen Esther replaced. Her mother, Bubbie, was always eager to help the children celebrate the holiday. But with her mother gone, Mom didn’t feel like celebrating. She knew she should help her children enjoy the holiday, which only made her feel worse. Next year, she promised herself, we’ll do it big next year.

In an apartment building on the other side of town, Estelle also was sad as Purim approached. She was an old woman who lived alone; her husband died many years before. Her apartment was bright and small and crammed with all kinds of plants and old-fashioned furniture. She was sad because her daughter and son-in-law and their three grandchildren, two girls and a boy, had moved far away. The son-in-law had been out of work for a long time and finally found a good job. She knew her daughter’s family desperately needed the money the new job would bring in, but she was still sad they had to move away. They promised to visit but that wouldn’t happen for months.

Usually, Estelle would bake wonderful cookies and treats for the grandchildren every holiday. And she always kept little packages of candy with her, which she gave to the grandchildren, although her daughter would gently scold her and complain that the sweets would ruin their teeth. To be honest, Estelle enjoyed the sweets herself, too, which is why even now she still keeps some in her pocketbook although her grandchildren have moved away. She also had a huge box of wonderful old clothes the grandchildren could wear for playing dress up or as Purim costumes. But without the grandchildren around, she wasn’t even thinking about Purim.

One day she was standing in her kitchen holding a pot when she fainted. Without any warning, Estelle suddenly just fell to the floor. She must have blacked out. When she finally came to she didn’t even remember what happened. One moment she was looking at a pot and suddenly feeling a little funny and now this. She was lying on the kitchen floor and felt so weak she could barely move. She tried to move her legs and get up but tremendous pains shot through her.

Unable to move even to call for help, Estelle was afraid no one would find her or they would find her only when it was too late. Although she couldn’t move, she had to do something. Luckily the pot she had been holding was lying right next to her. It took all her strength to grab hold of the pot and bang it on the floor. She hoped the neighbors who lived underneath her, a nice young couple, would hear the banging and come see what was wrong. She banged and banged the pot, but she didn’t have the strength to keep it up for very long. Then she heard the phone ring, but there was no way she could get to it. Once the phone stopped, she banged the pot a few more times, as much as she had strength for. It’s hopeless, she thought, and she blacked out from the pain in her leg.

She didn’t know how long she lay on the floor when the young couple and the janitor finally found her. “When we heard the banging and you didn’t answer your phone, we went to get the janitor,” explained the young woman as Estelle was put on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance. At the least, the emergency medical technician said, her hip was probably broken from the fall, maybe her pelvis too. “Don’t worry. I know you’re going to be all right. We’ll water the plants and take care of the apartment until you get back. And call us if there is anything you need,” the neighbor added.

Estelle wouldn’t return to live in the little apartment for a long time. She had broken some bones, the doctor said, and it would take weeks for her to heal. She would have to be in a wheelchair. From the hospital, they moved her to a nursing home, where she shared a small room with another old woman. The doctor didn’t think Estelle should live by herself until she could walk and climb stairs and move easily. Her old bones would need a long time to heal.

News that the children from the synagogue were coming to the nursing home to put on a Purim skit spread quickly. The old people living at the nursing home were very excited. Many of the people didn’t get visitors. And even when visitors came, they usually were grownups, not children. But the old people at the nursing home really loved seeing the children. Their smiles and their laughter and their voices made the people in the nursing home happy. The nursing home itself was a dull, drab place with walls painted tan and light blue, gray linoleum floors, and overhead fluorescent lights that hummed and flickered and cast a greenish light, making everyone look worse than they really were. Someone hung pictures of flowers on many of the walls, but even the pictures didn’t make it very cheerful.

The nursing home put up flyers announcing the Purim skit. Estelle had heard the news and now saw the flyers, but she had an appointment with her doctor that afternoon. They would put her in a wheelchair and someone at the nursing home would drive her to her doctor and bring her back. She would probably miss the skit, but the doctor’s appointment was much more important. Well, she hadn’t been looking forward to Purim anyway, she thought, so it didn’t matter that much.

On the day of the Purim skit, the children streamed into the nursing home like a flood of sunlight and lit up the place. The skit was held in a big common room filled with chairs. The old people who lived there and many of the parents of the children, including Joey and Ilana’s mom, crowded into the room. The children were nervous and giggling and laughing and fooling around. Only Joey and Ilana were quiet. They looked around at all the old people and got scared. Ilana actually hoped they might see Bubbie here. “Maybe she isn’t really dead. Maybe she’s just sick and living in a place like this,” Ilana suggested.

But these old people were nothing like Bubbie as they remembered her. Many of them were in wheelchairs. Others could barely walk. Some could hardly sit up or stay awake or even talk. “Forget it. Bubbie isn’t here. She was never like this,” Joey replied.

All the children changed into their costumes. Joey put on a funny robe, and Ilana got to wear a fancy party dress. First, the cantor from their synagogue led the children in some songs they had practiced. Then they put on their skit. They pantomimed parts of the Esther story while the rabbi narrated it. The handmaidens, including Ilana, were beautiful. So was Esther who, along with Mordechai, was very brave and stood up to the mean Haman. The king was foolish and silly and made loud noises. Haman stomped around acting mean and nasty. Finally, everyone cheered when Joey and the rest of the king’s guards carried Haman away. The people in the nursing home loved it.

After the skit, the nursing home staff served milk and hammentashen, triangle-shaped cookies filled with jelly and chocolate and other sweet things. Most of the old people weren’t very interested in the food. They just wanted be near the children, a few reaching out bony, bent hands to gently touch them. “This is kind of creepy,” Joey said to Ilana. As the children were preparing to leave, Estelle was being wheeled back into the nursing home from her doctor’s appointment. Joey and Ilana passed her in the lobby on their way out but didn’t notice her, just another old lady in a wheelchair. They saw a lot of them here. Estelle noticed the children and felt sad she missed the skit.

The actual Purim Megillah reading would take place the next week at the synagogue. Purim really is a big party. The children parade in costumes and shake their noisemakers every time the name of Haman is mentioned. The rabbi and the cantor wear funny costumes and hats, blow horns, and ring bells. The grownups slip off to the back room where they drink liquor. People pass around mishloach manot and everybody eats hammentashen. Joey liked hammentashen filled with raspberry jelly; Ilana loved chocolate ones.

Mom and the children always went to the synagogue with Bubbie, who usually brought them special noisemakers called graggers. She would bring a different kind every year. Joey and Ilana would shake or clang their gragger every time Haman was mentioned. This year, Bubbie wouldn’t be there and Mom wasn’t doing anything about Purim.

“Are we going to do anything for Purim?” Joey asked

“What do you feel like doing?” Mom asked.

“I dunno. Something,” he said

“We’ll go to synagogue for the Megillah reading and you can wear the same costumes you wore in the skit,” Mom said sadly.

During that week before Purim, Joey noticed Mom packing up boxes of Bubbie’s books. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“I saw they had a library at the nursing home when I went to watch your skit. I thought I would give these books to them. We don’t have room for them here, and I think the people there will appreciate them. You and Ilana can help me bring them over,” Mom said.

“I don’t want to go back there. It was kind of weird. Those people are nothing like Bubbie. I want Purim the way it used to be,” Joey said.

“I know they aren’t like Bubbie. We won’t stay long. We’re just bringing the books there and then we’ll leave. And we’ll have Purim, a special Purim, I promise,” she said, although she didn’t know how or what.

“What kind of special Purim?” Joey insisted.

“I’m not sure. It will be a surprise,” Mom replied, trying to sound confident.

“Surprise! I love surprises,” chimed in Ilana, who had been playing nearby.

A few days later Joey and Mom carried the books into the nursing home. Ilana mainly held the doors open. The woman in the library was expecting them and greeted them warmly. Estelle also happened to be sitting in her wheelchair in the library reading a book. She looked up and beamed as she saw Joey and Ilana. “What a big, strong boy you are to carry all those books,” she said to Joey. “And what a big help you are to hold the door,” she said to Ilana.

Joey put his box of books on the floor near Estelle. The people in the nursing home still gave him the creeps, but this woman seemed almost normal, except for the wheelchair. “What do you have there?” she asked Joey.

“These are my Bubbie’s books. She died,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear about your Bubbie. I bet you must miss her. We’ll take very good care of her books,” said Estelle. “Are you hungry after all this work? If it is all right with your mother, I just happen to have some little treats with me,” she said, taking a small package of candy from a little pocketbook. “And I have one for your sister.”

Mom glanced at the woman and nodded her permission to take the candy. Joey and Ilana thanked Estelle and opened the treats. Meanwhile, Mom and the lady in charge of the library started to take the books out of the boxes and stack them on the table. Estelle noticed one. “Could I see that book, please?” she asked Joey.

He went to get the book. It turned out to be a book with pictures of Poland, the old country. Bubbie used to show him the pictures and tell him and Ilana stories. “This was my Bubbie’s favorite book. She would read it to us all the time,” Joey told her.

“Read it to you? This is a very grown up book. You must be very smart,” said Estelle kindly.

“Well, she showed us the pictures. She lived there once. She told us lots of stories of living there,” Joey said.

Estelle looked through the book. “You know, I lived here too. It was very long ago. See this picture. This is the city near the village where I lived. My parents had a farm with a cow and some chickens. Would you like me to tell you about it?” she asked.

Mom watched as Joey and Ilana huddled around Estelle’s wheelchair and she told stories about growing up as a Jew in the Polish countryside. She was the same generation as her own mother, a natural-born Bubbie if there ever was one. Could they bring some joy into this woman’s Purim, Mom wondered. Maybe Estelle could make this Purim special for her children too? Wasn’t that what Purim was all about—joy, she decided. They all needed some joy this Purim. By the time Mom and the children left, they had invited Estelle to join them at the synagogue for the Megillah reading. “We’ll pick you up, wheelchair and all, and bring you back. But I have to warn you, it will be noisy.”

“I love Purim and the noise and tumult of children. I won’t mind,” Estelle replied.

When they picked up Estelle at the nursing home a few days later, she held a large paper shopping bag. “What’s that?” asked Ilana, sensing maybe something for her, a surprise.

“Something special from my apartment. You’ll see,” teased Estelle. Instead of the costumes from the skit, Joey and Ilana wore dress ups as Purim costumes, which Mom had hurriedly pulled together in the past few days. They also carried graggers Mom had dug up from a previous year. Estelle opened the shopping bag and started pulling out clothes for dress up. “I asked my neighbor to bring these over. I thought they might be good for Purim,” she said.

Estelle put on a funny hat piled high with fake flowers and fruit. She handed long white gloves and a feathery boa to Ilana. The gloves almost reached Ilana’s shoulders, the boa trailed on the floor. For Joey she had several old fedora-styled hats and some vests. Joey put on one of the hats. “Oh, you look like an old-time gangster, like Al Capone,” Estelle crowed. They helped Estelle into the car and folded her wheelchair and put it in the trunk.

The synagogue was crowded with children in costumes and adults, some of whom also wore costumes. Everyone who didn’t already have one was given a gragger. The rabbi and cantor, each in costume, were about to begin reading the Megillah. Joey and Ilana rushed in to join their friends. Mom stayed with Estelle by her wheelchair and introduced her to everybody around them. The tumult of happy children swirled throughout the large room. And the noise was deafening, especially whenever the name of Haman was mentioned.

Surrounded by all the hubbub, Estelle turned to Mom: “This is such a treat. Thank you for bringing me. I didn’t expect to celebrate Purim this year. I missed the children’s skit of the nursing home. This is such a delightful surprise.”

“It really is a treat for us too. Thank you for joining us,” said Mom. Holding Ilana by the hand, she caught Joey as he flew by at one point. “Hey, how’s it going?” she asked giving him a hug and a kiss.

“It’s nice, but I still wish Bubbie was here,” Joey said.

“Me too,” Ilana added

“Yes, I know. We’ll always wish Bubbie were with us. But think about this: we’ve made a new friend. Wasn’t that a nice surprise? Let’s think of her as our Purim surprise,” said Mom, who gestured toward Estelle. Just then, the name of Haman was mentioned. Estelle smiled at them and started to madly swing her gragger, as did Joey and Ilana and everyone else.

When the din finally subsided, Joey replied, “Yeah, she’s nice. I like her. Purim is fun.”