On Easter afternoon, just before Passover began, Caroline ironed her mother-in-law's French linen tablecloth on the highest steam setting. She polished her silver with a chamois cloth, and Rose, her five-year-old, rinsed and dried some of it. She cut a thick handful of daffodils from beside the back stoop and put them in a cut glass vase, though Miriam later rearranged them, and she tasted the garlic and potato soup and pronounced it delicious. Miriam was only asking to be polite. Still, Caroline noted the gesture. She set the table for seven, with plastic for Rose and blue-rimmed Limoges china for the adults, and Miriam herself added the crystal wine goblets that were the only heirlooms to survive her family's exodus from Paris before the war.
As the last chilly streaks of spring sunlight spilled into the icy Hudson River, a train whistled -- G with several undertones -- and suddenly it was dark. "She'll be here when she's here," Henry said to Miriam and began the Kiddush.
After nine years in this family, Caroline knew much of the Seder's Hebrew text, but tonight she allowed herself simply to float with the rising and falling intonation of Dan's father's voice, the melodic line of words that for her became not a line of language at all, but a universal hum of convergence and separation, like the hum of the strings of her cello beneath her bow.
The first drink of wine, the washing of hands, the dipping of the parsley. Henry broke the matzoh, then began the Passover story in English. "This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. All who hunger, let them come and eat: All who are in need, let them come and celebrate the Passover. . ."
"Okay," Dan whispered to Rose, and she tucked her legs under her and stood atop an anatomy textbook while Dan held the hem of her taffeta dress. With his other hand, he reached under the table to touch Caroline's leg. In her clear, sweet voice, Rose recited, "How is this night different from all the nights? Why do we -- on all other nights we eat bread or matzoh, but why do we eat -- on this night we only eat matzoh?" She paused, then looked down at Dan for help.
"Herbs," he prompted, but she was stumped. "Why is it that on all other nights," he said, "we eat all kinds of herbs, but on this night..."
"...only those that are bitter," Rose said, and smiled. Then she looked to her father again.
"Why is it that on all other nights, we do not dip our herbs even once..." and she joined him for the rest of the question, then recited the fourth herself. As Rose wobbled her way through the questions, Caroline found herself transfixed by the color of Rose's hair beneath the chandelier, which drew beautiful reddish streaks in the brown curls, their wispy tips nearly blond. Just this morning this grown-up child had walked to the altar of Caroline's church and sung "Jesus Loves Me" louder than any of the other children, if not perfectly in tune.
When Caroline and Dan had married, it had been so easy to imagine raising their hypothetical children in two faiths, or even in one. While they were engaged and into the first years of their marriage, Caroline had at times considered converting. It was Dan's father, Henry, who had introduced them -- he and Caroline played together in the Philharmonic -- and it was Henry who had patiently sat with her on the screened porch that first summer answering all her questions about Judaism. Newly married into this family, Caroline had seen only possibility and promise. Then, a few years later, they'd had Rose. The winter of Rose's birth, still half-pregnant with the milk of a nursing mother, Caroline had begun to stop in at the neighborhood Methodist church, at first just to sit in the back in the silence and muster up the energy to go home from her demanding job to her demanding baby. One afternoon the minister had found her napping in the last pew, her face pressed into the velveteen cushion. They'd sat and talked for a long time. "Next time bring your cello," he'd said at last. "The acoustics in here are excellent." So she had. Two, sometimes three times a week. The heat would be turned down--it was the middle of the week -- but the vaulted ceiling would catch the warm sound and toss it from beam to beam like a peal of laughter.
Later she'd gone to a service or two, and she'd been surprised at the visceral pull of it. The hymns with their simple 4/4 time and major chords sang of her mostly effortless childhood, and the Lord's Prayer, which she hadn't spoken in twenty years, came back in one unbroken piece. The questions that were prodding her with greater insistence now that she had a child weren't exactly answered. But sitting there on a Sunday morning with a familiar community surrounding her gave her a new way of asking them, a new way of seeing herself in the world that she'd found at once startling and reassuring.
Dan held both Rose's hands as she struggled to sit down again, Henry and Miriam's proud smiles directed at the two of them. Over dinner they talked about real estate and summer plans and preschool and politics, ignoring the two empty places -- one for Dan's sister Sarah, who still had not arrived, and one for the prophet Elijah. After dinner, Rose had the thrilling job of finding the hidden afikomon and opening the door for Elijah to come in. The crispy squares of matzoh were in the piano bench with the sheet music, right where Henry always hid them, but Rose shrieked when she found them as if it were a complete surprise, then gathered them up in her small hands and distributed them around the table. "One for Mama" -- Caroline couldn't help feeling proud to be first -- "One for Daddy. One for Grandma." There were three squares left, and Rose paused at Henry's chair to think. "Grandpa, I think you get three!" she announced, dropping them on his plate. "You're the specialest one!"
"This one's for you, Rosie," Henry laughed, holding one out to her, but Rose had already turned toward the front hall to execute the next portion of her assignment.
"Just a crack, sweetheart. It's cold outside," Miriam said.
From her chair, Caroline could see Rose pondering this advice as she stood in front of the hall closet. She opened the closet and disappeared inside, burrowing through Miriam's neatly arranged crates of hats, gloves, scarves, and umbrellas and emerging with one of Henry's winter boots, which she used to prop the front door open "just a crack" as Miriam had suggested. Only Caroline heard the tentative knock at the door. The others were too busy praising Rose for her work.
"Sorry we're late," Sarah said, peeking around the door, and their praise swelled into relief as they stood and made a show of welcoming her as if they'd never complained of her lateness or debated whether she was doing it on purpose.
Sarah looked beautiful in a muted green cashmere turtleneck, her hair curly around her face from the rain. Her cheeks were rosy and cool as Caroline pressed her face to Sarah's in a hug. And then she saw him--a strange man standing in the orange glow of the porch light. He had a dark beard, and his hands were plunged deep in the pockets of a navy blue pea coat. Sarah reached back and took him by the arm and led him through the door. "This is my friend Ravi," she said with an anxious smile, and he held out his hand to shake Henry's.
Caroline could see Miriam had never met Ravi before, and probably had never even heard of him. It was Sarah's way -- the surprise attack. Caroline eyed Elijah's place at the table and knew both that Miriam would pretend it had been set for Ravi and that Sarah would hear about it later.
Henry took Ravi's coat, and Caroline and Dan pressed their backs against the wall of the narrow entryway to give the others room to pass. "Come, join us," Miriam said, guiding Ravi by the elbow into the dining room. "We've eaten, but I've saved some warm food for you both." She indicated Elijah's chair, next to Sarah's, and as they sat, Miriam opened the drawer of the dining room sideboard and pulled out an extra kipa, which she handed to Ravi without explanation.
"Do you work at IBM as well?" she asked as she watched him fumble with it. He glanced at Henry and Dan for help, but maintained his poise enough to answer her question. "I do. I transferred up from Raleigh in December." Dan and Henry both seemed oblivious to his discomfort, but he managed to turn the kipa right side out and set it precariously on top of his head.
"That's too bad," Miriam said. "You must have preferred the weather down there."
"Oh, I like being close to New York City. I have cousins here."
"The rest of his family is in Paris," Sarah said, glancing at Miriam, but getting no response. "My mother is from Paris originally," she said to Ravi as she shook out her napkin and spread it across her lap.
"I left when I was five years old," Miriam said. "I don't remember it."
"Do you have family there still?" Ravi asked.
"None," Miriam said.
"I'm playing a concert in Paris this summer, " Caroline offered. "We're looking forward to the trip." Ravi nodded politely, but his attention was still on Henry and Dan. He clearly didn't want to misstep.
"We're going to see the Ivory Tower," Rose said.
"The Eiffel Tower," Dan corrected her, holding back a grin.
Rose leaned across the table toward Ravi, and the napkin tucked into her collar flopped on his hand. "I'm going to kindergarten soon," she said.
He leaned toward her to reply in a half whisper, "That's wonderful," and Caroline's heart opened to him.
Miriam set warm plates of food in front of Sarah and Ravi, and Henry resumed the Seder as they ate. "Pour out Thy wrath upon the heathen that have not known Thee, and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon Thy name: for they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste His dwelling place," Henry read.
"Jeez," Sarah muttered through a mouthful of food. Miriam put her hand on the base of her wine glass as if to steady herself, and Sarah swallowed and studied Ravi for a moment. "Look, you don't have to wear this," she said, plucking the kipa off his head. "It looks silly on you."
"I'd like to wear it," Ravi said, putting it back on. "I would like to show respect for your family."
Henry, with his back to the hall, shivered and said, "Did anybody close the door?"
"Did Elijah come in?" Rose whispered to Dan. Then, without waiting for an answer, she climbed down from her chair and ran back to check the door. Caroline poured herself another glass of wine and half listened to the talk of car finance rates and bait-and-switch salesmen. She could get down on the floor with Rose and color Easter eggs and yellow chicks and pink bunnies through the nice little fog that was rising in her head. In fact, there was nothing she'd rather do at this moment. But she felt an obligation to stay and help Ravi through this meal. Sarah, on the other hand, tossed her napkin over her unfinished dinner as soon as the conversation shifted from her new car to an argument over the cost of health insurance and crawled over to Rose, who was sprawled out on the living room carpet, leaving Ravi to fend for himself.
"Is there more charoset?" Dan asked, cutting off Henry's familiar complaints about malpractice insurance.
"Of course," Miriam said, waving him into the kitchen. Then she leaned toward Ravi as if in confidence, her onyx beads clinking against her plate. "Charoset is a traditional Jewish food made of apples and nuts. Would you like to try some?"
"Oh, yes," Ravi said, nodding. Dan set the baking pan in the middle of the table, and Miriam shot him a look, which he missed; she would have served it up on a nice dessert plate in the kitchen.
Ravi picked up his fork. Caroline could tell he was waiting for someone else to say something. Always the best strategy.
"So, what do you do at IBM?" she asked him.
"I'm a programmer," Ravi said. "Do you know much about computers?"
"Not a thing. I'm a high school music teacher and a cellist." She nodded toward her cello, which stood in the corner of the living room. A hinge on her case needed repair, so she'd taken the cello to church in the morning wrapped in a quilt. With the temperature dropping, she'd brought it into Henry and Miriam's house to keep it warm, and now, with the quilt spilled around its end pin, it looked awkward and out of place. She longed to leave the table and pick up her bow and play. "I played in church this morning," she added, and saw the flicker of interest in Ravi's eyes as he realized she was an outsider of faith too.
"It's a beautiful instrument," he said, craning his neck to see it better.
"It has a tone like the night sky," Henry said. "I've never heard another one quite like it."
Henry had said this before, but Caroline was pleased nonetheless.
"My brother plays the cello," Ravi said. "He's a teacher at Hunter College."
"I thought your family was in Paris?" Dan asked.
"All but this brother and some cousins. But we're from India, of course, originally."
Sarah came up behind Ravi and put her hands on his shoulders. "I thought we could go for a walk," she said. The relief in Ravi's face was unmistakable.
"If you don't mind..." he said to Henry, who raised his hand and shook his head no. As Ravi stood to join Sarah, she lifted the kipa off his head again, and this time he tucked it neatly into the pocket of his khakis.
The front door shut just shy of a slam, and Henry sighed.
"I have some dishes to do," Miriam said, standing, and she added, to Caroline, "You sit and rest a minute."
Henry took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Holidays are meant to bring families together," he said, glancing toward the front door.
"They'll be back," Caroline said, and Dan humphed as if he hoped they wouldn't be.
Henry put his glasses on again as if to examine Caroline's face. After a long career as a neurologist, he often said he could read people's faces. Not just for telltale droops and twitches, but for signs of stress or pain or confusion. He said treating a patient meant being able to see more than test results. That was what had made him a good doctor, but Caroline imagined it was also what had made him introduce his son to a gentile woman ten years ago. Never mind what was on the surface. He'd seen something in her that he'd understood to be right for his son.
"You look tired," he said now.
"Church, brunch, an egg hunt, and a Seder," Caroline said. "I am tired."
"Your holidays don't usually collide like this," Henry said, glancing at Dan, who was leaning back in his chair and staring absently at the ceiling. "Miss Rosalita seems to be weathering it all quite nicely," Henry added, nodding to the corner where Rose sat, tongue stuck out of the corner of her mouth as she vigorously colored something deep purple.
"She'll fall apart soon," Caroline said. What she meant was that Rose would suddenly collapse in exhaustion, probably cry over something insignificant, and have to be put to bed in her party dress unless someone moved soon to get her in her pajamas. But Caroline couldn't help wondering: how will she fall apart later? Into one Jewish piece? One Christian piece? Or into two pieces of nothing?
"How about some music," Dan said, sitting up suddenly, and Caroline wondered what he'd been thinking about.
"A nice bit of Brahms for the lady," Henry said. Dan's chair scraped on the floor as he stood -- a sound that Caroline knew would make Miriam cringe in the kitchen -- and wordlessly he disappeared into the living room to survey Henry's vast LP collection. In a moment, the agitated first movement of Brahms' string quartet in C minor slunk into the room. Henry cocked his head to the left, and Caroline could see it wasn't what he'd had in mind either. But she knew Dan hadn't done it on purpose; he'd just pulled the first Brahms record off the shelf.
"Music is my faith," Caroline said, to herself more than to Henry. It was the music this morning in church that had lifted her spirit to celebration. It was always the music that spoke to her most deeply.
"No," Henry said. "Music is merely an expression of something greater."
"Isn't it funny that we can't agree on what that something greater is?"
"Oh, I think we mostly do agree," Henry said. "We simply get bogged down in the details."
Caroline wasn't sure she'd classify Christ as a detail, but she understood what Henry meant. "We can agree on the beauty of a Brahms quartet," she said.
"We can." Henry leaned back, clasped his hands behind his head and closed his eyes, as if inviting her to do the same. And for a moment she did. She closed her eyes and relaxed into her chair, until she felt a wave of sadness about to crest over her, and she jerked her eyes open and stood up, saying, "I think I'll help Miriam with the dishes."
What she really wanted was some time alone; when she pulled down the spare apron that hung on the back of the pantry door and offered to take over so Miriam could sit down with Henry, Miriam looked at her with a funny little smile as if she were about to say something. Then she stepped aside, and all she said was, "Thank you."
The dishwater in the sink was already gray and flat. Caroline drained it out to start fresh. She turned on the hot water full blast and passed her hand through, then drew it back sharply.
"Let me get those," Dan said behind her, and though she had hoped for some quiet time to herself, she complied so she could wrap her hand in a cold towel. She leaned against the oven and watched Dan's shoulder blades rock under his shirt as he attacked the first pot.
"There's a story in the Bible where two women are fighting over the same child," she said at last.
Dan looked up. "One of them wants to cut it in half and the other one would rather let it go."
"Right," she said. "And King Solomon says the one who will let it go is the real mother."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." He grinned at her with that dimple in his right cheek, and she remembered the thrill that smile had given her the first time she'd seen it.
"That's just what we agreed to do," she said. "Cut Rose in half."
"Hmm. I wonder who her real parents are."
"In our version of the story, we're assuming she'll eventually decide which faith, which parent, to go with. We're asking her to make a terrible choice."
Through the kitchen doorway, Caroline saw Rose had climbed into Henry's lap. She was examining the gilded picture of Jerusalem in the center of her haggadah while Henry and Miriam continued the Seder on their own. Suddenly Caroline wanted her all to herself. It was bedtime; she could brush Rose's hair and watch her hop on one foot and then the other as she put on her pajamas. She could snuggle with her under the comforter on the twin bed in the guest room and read her a story and stroke her head as she fell asleep.
"We're asking her to be her own person," Dan said. "Maybe she'll choose neither."
"I remember one time, before we were engaged, your mother took me to the mall to pick out some curtains," Caroline said. Dan placed one pot on the wooden drying rack and started in on another. "In the car, she told me how her family escaped from France." Miriam had been told to stop speaking to the neighbors, to repeat nothing that had been said at home, so she'd stopped speaking altogether. She and her parents had fled in the middle of the night. Her father had taken her from the bed where she slept with her cousin, Lorraine. The girls had cried out for each other, and Miriam's father had clapped his hand over her mouth so hard she couldn't breathe.
She still had nightmares, Miriam had told Caroline in a rare moment of intimacy. Suffocating nightmares of being trapped in a strange bed and frantically searching for Lorraine, whose family had stayed behind too long. Sometimes in her dreams Miriam found her cousine alive and well, only to awaken to the reality that she was indeed gone, not even a grave to visit.
"She asked me what my intentions were," Caroline continued, "and I said I hoped we'd get married. And she told me she thought I was a 'lovely girl,' but that I should know that she would fight to make her grandchildren Jews."
"That's my mother for you," Dan said.
"You've never had the balls to say it that bluntly."
He withdrew his hands from the water and shook them once, hard, then turned to face her. "I don't know what it is you want from me," he said, folding his arms across his chest. "Maybe you're upset because tonight Rose asked the four questions for the first time, and you can't bear to see her becoming Jewish."
"I don't think you can bear to see her become a Christian. It would be about as hard for you as reciting the Apostle's Creed."
Dan plunged his hands back into the sink and scrubbed more furiously.
"You don't even know what the Apostle's Creed is, do you."
He turned and looked at her. "No."
"I can recite the Kiddush in Hebrew."
"Good for you."
"You have to try a little harder," Caroline whispered through the lump in her throat.
"Look, I'm holding up my end of the bargain," Dan said. "I'm teaching her how to be a good Jew."
"The bargain was that we'd teach her both faiths together. But I practically have to blackmail you to get you into church with me. I've been to temple ten times more than you've been to church this year."
"No one asked you to come to temple."
"That's my job."
"It's all our job. Together."
"I don't get any of this. Because I'll tell you something. The woman I married was talking about converting, for Christ's sake." Caroline smirked at the slur, but Dan plowed forward. "Now all of a sudden you're some kind of altar girl."
She'd been angry with him many times before, but now the accumulation of this same argument over the years drove a stake of fury into her. Because he watched ESPN during her mother's Easter brunch, though Caroline was at his mother's side throughout the Seder. Because he refused to hang a Christmas stocking for himself no matter how hard Rose begged. Because of every little slight he'd given her religion, saying, "The Christians are your department, honey," when her understanding of raising Rose in two faiths had always meant raising her in two faiths together. She saw now that that assumption was the very root of the problem. He intended merely to keep up his end of their awful plan.
"You both look like you're about to spit," Sarah said, barging into the kitchen.
"It's just our annual Passover argument," Dan said.
"This is the stupidest thing I've ever seen." Sarah pulled the pot out of the coffee maker and poured herself an oversized mug. "I'm going to marry a leftover hippie and have little agnostic children."
"Ah, then I guess I should go home," Ravi said behind her. He was wearing the kipa again. Sarah reached around his waist and gave him a squeeze.
"They're fighting over religion," Sarah said. Then, to Caroline and Dan, "You guys need a vacation."
"Well, I'm so glad you've solved all our problems, Sarah," said Dan. "What a relief." He yanked the plug out of the drain.
"Please! Look at what religion is doing to you!" Sarah protested. "John Lennon was right. Imagine no religion. Your little family would be perfectly happy."
Ravi laughed then, a laugh from his belly. He threw his head back, and the kipa landed on the floor behind him. "My dear Sarah," he said. In his look was both amusement and adoration, and Caroline realized with a start that he was in love with Sarah. "Do you think one's religion is disposable, like a paper cup? This is so American, if you'll forgive me for saying so."
"You've disposed of your religion," she said.
"That's not true," he said, shaking his head. "What I said was I have chosen not to practice my family's faith. I was raised Hindu," he said, looking up at Caroline and at Dan. "But there's not much of a Hindu community here, so I've given up practicing my faith, at least for now. My family was not strictly religious, anyway. But," he looked at Sarah again, "I would never say that I've abandoned it completely. It was the way I was raised. It's part of who I am. How could I give it up?"
Sarah shrugged, but without her former confidence.
"You might think you've given up Judaism too, but I know that's not true," he continued. "All you've given up is the formalities. And if someone were to try to take it from you, or try to tell you your child must be something else, you would stand up."
"So stupid old Sarah is trying to make everything look simpler than it is again," Sarah said.
"No," Ravi said quietly and touched his nose to her hair in such a way that Caroline felt she should look away.
"You're a Christian?" Ravi asked Caroline. "Forgive me if I'm being too forward."
"I am," Caroline said.
"Is it customary for Jews and Christians to marry here?"
"It's more and more common," Dan said. "But not everyone is happy about it."
"Like your mother," Ravi said, and Sarah nodded. "And maybe your father too."
"He introduced us," Dan said. "Maybe he was too optimistic."
Another wave of anger rolled over Caroline, though Dan had merely said what she was already feeling.
"No," Ravi said. "My grandmother was Christian, and she and my grandfather had a good, long life together. Because he loved and respected her for all of who she was, and she him."
The truth of this pricked Caroline between the eyes. In fairness, Dan was right. She had spoken of converting. How seriously it was now hard to remember. She had been drawn in by the stories and traditions and language that, to her, were both new and ancient, both fresh and entirely proven. Judaism had touched her like a song, a psalm of praise and sincere faith, while the familiarity of Christianity had plodded along for her like a responsive reading she'd spoken automatically, one voice in a crowd. Then she'd realized that many of those same things that belonged to Judaism were already hers as a Christian. She just hadn't claimed them before. And stepping off the bedrock of what she already knew onto the raft of what she did not, and leaving behind much of what had shaped her as a child, had suddenly seemed foolish. And perhaps even impossible. But the woman Dan had fallen in love with had already set one foot on that raft. Perhaps she had failed him by stepping back. And then by standing firm on her own shore, firmer than either of them could have imagined she someday would. She clutched the cold towel to her chest, twisting it tighter around her scalded hand. And then, perhaps he had failed her by making his love conditional. Perhaps they weren't raising Rose in faith together because he wanted nothing Christian in his life.
So, how did I end up here? she thought.
And what am I doing here now?
In the living room, the forgotten stereo was still working its way through the Brahms, the cello line droning ominously toward the conclusion of the final movement.
What will happen to Dan if Rose chooses to be Christian?
What will happen to me if she chooses to be Jewish?
"But your grandparents must have chosen a faith for their children," Caroline said now to Ravi, as if their choice might somehow provide her an answer.
"They raised them as neither. My father spent his life trying to get back to his religious roots because they were never watered for him. It left a terrible void in his life. And then he met my mother, who was Hindu, and so we, my brothers and sisters and I, were raised Hindu. But not strictly religious, partly because my father was never comfortable that way. So, you see," he said, turning back to Sarah, "even when you have no faith at all to begin with, even that is a part of who you are. It defines you in a way that can never be changed."
"Come, Rose," Miriam said in the living room. "No more bouncing around. Let's read this story together." Caroline knew she should be out there paying attention to her daughter instead of in here arguing over her. Dan's head was bowed in thought, though it looked a little like prayer, and Caroline wondered whether he would be willing to talk when they were alone again.
"Careful, Rosie. . ." came Henry's voice, then a dissonant crash. Caroline ran.
On the living room floor, Rose and the cello were tangled together. And then Caroline saw the instrument's broken neck. It had separated from the body not cleanly, but like a twig snapped over someone's leg, with sharp wooden fingers thrusting out of its ribs
"Oh, Rose!" Miriam cried out, and Rose screwed up her face, took a deep breath, and wailed.
"What happened?" Caroline shouted above Rose's cries as she lifted the cello's neck and Dan lifted Rose.
"She was dancing," Henry said as he knelt beside Caroline and gently held up one end of a broken string.
"Wildly," Miriam added.
"Rose! I heard Grandpa ask you to be careful," Dan scolded, and Rose, still clutching a purple crayon, wailed even louder.
Struggling to her feet, Caroline left the cello in Henry's care and reached toward Rose, whose arms and legs were wrapped around Dan. "Give her to me," she said. Dan hesitated, and Caroline's face flushed hot. She choked out the words, "She needs to know I'm not angry with her," and Dan released his daughter and passed her to Caroline. Together she and Rose sank into the living room couch as if into a pile of sand. Sarah and Ravi stood watching, their arms around each other, as Henry tried to slip the cello's bridge back under its three intact strings.
Miriam mumbled something in French that Caroline didn't understand, but she saw Ravi open his mouth as if to reply, then close it.
Caroline pressed her hand against Rose's wet face and breathed deeply the smell of her clean hair. "It's all right, baby," she said. "I know you didn't mean to. We can fix it." But the uncertainty of her own words broke her. She bowed her head against Rose's to hide her own tears and stroked Rose's wet cheeks and kissed her forehead.
"I'm sorry, Mama," came Rose's little voice from inside their cocoon. And with one small hand on Caroline's neck, the other tucked between their bodies, Rose rhythmically cried herself to sleep.