MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Brooklyn, New York (1919–1932)
Ruth was three years old when her sister was born. Like most firstborn children, Ruth assumed her younger sibling would be a miniature version of herself. She would have straight hair, brown eyes, and a soft, gentle voice. She would love books and numbers, and the two of them would be inseparable.
It didn’t take long for Ruth to realize her mistake.
When Ruth’s mother felt up to it, she invited a small group of friends and relatives to the apartment. Packed into the small front room, nibbling on kichel and sipping glasses of tea, the visitors stared at the baby like tourists in a museum. “What do you call the color of those curls? Reddish like that—isn’t there a name for it? And my God, those eyes! Who knew eyes could be so blue. Keinehora, Florence!” one of the cousins shouted. “You’ve finally got yourself a beauty!”
Ruth’s mother was too distracted to notice the pitying looks her older daughter received from the downstairs neighbors. But Ruth had a glimmer of what the “finally” meant.
That evening, Ruth complained to her father about the fuss everyone made. He patted her head and told her not to worry. “This is life, mameleh. People like babies. When babies grow up, people lose interest.”
“When I was born, did they all say I was beautiful too?”
“Absol-utely,” he answered. “Such a kvestion!” Her father’s accent was more noticeable when he was nervous or excited. It was especially conspicuous, Ruth knew, when he lied.
To six-year-old Ruth’s great disappointment, there was nothing that Millie hated more than being read to. She covered her ears with her short, chubby fingers and held her breath dramatically until Ruth was silent. When Ruth expressed her dismay at her sister’s tantrums, her mother brushed it off. “Not everyone is a bookworm like you are,” she said.
When they were older, Millie would wait by the windows of their apartment, watching for activity on the sidewalk below. As soon as the neighborhood girls started their games of hopscotch or jump rope, Millie bolted out the door and ran down the steps to join them. It didn’t matter that Ruth had just picked a puzzle for them to put together or that Millie had promised to play house with her after that. While Ruth sulked in her bedroom, her mother gave her some advice. “If you can’t learn to let your sister be, the two of you will never get along.”
The fact was, the two girls had little in common. Ruth liked to be early for school each day, but Millie dawdled in the mornings and made them both late. Ruth kept her half of their bedroom neat, while Millie’s side was littered with paper dolls and crayons. With a different girl, such flaws might have drawn greater attention, but with Millie, no one seemed to notice or care. Their mother tidied the bedroom without a word of complaint, and no matter how late Millie was when she walked into her classroom, the elementary school teacher always marked her on time.
The sisters had opposite temperaments too—something it took Ruth longer to comprehend. Ruth was the steady one, disciplined and composed. She had always been proud of the way she could control her emotions, but eventually, she was made to understand that this wasn’t a quality everyone admired. She learned this lesson at her great-aunt Edna’s funeral, on a cloudy April morning just after she’d turned ten. Aunt Edna was their father’s aunt—a woman they saw just a few times a year. She appeared mostly at holidays and the occasional Sabbath dinner. Ruth was sorry that she had died, but she didn’t know the woman well enough to truly mourn her passing. Ruth sat quietly in the synagogue, half listening to the rabbi’s words and wishing she’d been allowed to bring one of her books from home to pass the time.
Millie, on the other hand, was utterly bereft. Sandwiched between their mother and Ruth, the seven-year-old listened to the eulogy with the kind of concentration Ruth didn’t know Millie could muster. When the rabbi spoke about Edna’s childhood in Poland, Millie’s sniffles turned to sobs and her whole body shook. Their mother tried to soothe her, but there was no calming the girl. Soon, her cries were so loud that they drowned out the rabbi’s voice.
It was Ruth who took Millie by the hand and led her out of the chapel. It was Ruth who wiped Millie’s eyes with the handkerchief from her skirt pocket and Ruth who made her blow her nose to stop the snot from running down her face. As they waited together in the synagogue’s drafty vestibule, Ruth asked her sister why she was so upset.
“Why do you keep crying? You barely knew her.”
“Because she’s dead,” Millie bawled. “She was a little girl like me, and then she got old and died.”
“But she lived a long life. That’s what the rabbi said.”
“I don’t care how long it was. I’m never getting old.”
“You have to grow up sometime.” Ruth hadn’t meant for the words to come out sounding the way they did—more like a threat than a friendly observation.
Millie slid to the opposite end of the hard, wooden bench and stuck out her tongue. “Maybe you do,” she said, “but I don’t.”
When the service was over and all the relatives gathered together at Edna’s apartment, Ruth thought someone might thank her for calming the disruption her sister created at the synagogue. But instead, it was Millie who garnered all the praise. Mourners brought her plates of cookies and thick slices of challah, clucking to their mother about what a sensitive and sympathetic child she was. No one looked at Ruth or offered her a plate; no one complimented her quick thinking. On her way to the bathroom, she overheard a trio of women talking about her. “The older sister is a real cold fish,” one of them said. Only later did Ruth understand what the term really meant. At the time, she’d only shivered and buttoned her cardigan over her dress.
The more responsible Ruth proved to be, the more it was held against her. Her exceptional report cards created such elevated expectations that when she received an A minus, her parents seemed disappointed. If she ever lost a hair ribbon or a button on her dress, her mother threw up her hands and complained about the waste. Meanwhile, Millie’s poor grades were never discussed. And when Millie lost two library books—books she hadn’t even read—her mother paid to replace them without a word of reproach. The fee was not inconsequential, and there was little to spare in the Kaplan household. But when Ruth grumbled about the cost, her mother defended her younger sister. “No one is perfect, Ruth. People make mistakes.”
The discrepancy in treatment shaped Ruth’s childhood. Years later, when she tried to explain it to her husband, she struggled for a long time to find the right words. Though Ruth’s tiny transgressions were few and far between, they never seemed to escape her mother’s notice. Any misstep Ruth made was a short, shallow wrinkle on an otherwise smooth and pristine tablecloth. Millie’s slipups, by contrast, were like a full glass of burgundy tipped over onto clean white damask. To their mother’s discerning eye, Ruth’s wrinkles were conspicuous. But her sister’s stains were overlooked and hastily covered—anything so that the meal could continue being served.
The girls’ teenage years brought more hurtful comparisons. Even before she entered high school, Millie’s curves and auburn curls turned men’s heads on their block in Brooklyn. But with her pin-straight hair and even straighter figure, the only heads Ruth turned belonged to the balding, middle-aged men from her father’s pinochle game. “Tell Morris we’ll see him on Tuesday,” they said.
By the time Millie turned thirteen, more than a few older boys had asked her for dates. To keep them at bay, their father enacted an ironclad rule: neither of his daughters was allowed to date before turning sixteen. While the rule was supposedly meant for both girls, Ruth’s social life never required its enforcement.
One Friday afternoon, a few months after Ruth’s sixteenth birthday, her mother was busier than usual in the kitchen. A pot of mushroom barley soup simmered on the stove, filling the room with a rich, earthy scent. Two fresh loaves of challah had been set out to cool. As Ruth did her homework at the small kitchen table, she watched her mother pull an apple cake from the oven.
“You’re making an awful lot of food for just us,” Ruth observed.
“We’re having company tonight—Mrs. Rabinowitz and her grandson are coming.” Ruth’s mother looked away when she made the announcement, busying herself with the chicken she had left on the counter. She seasoned the skin with salt and pepper, all the while taking pains to ignore Ruth’s fretful gaze. Though she had tried her best to make the news sound unremarkable, there was no way to disguise its significance.
“Her grandson?” Ruth questioned, chewing nervously on the back of her pencil.
“Mrs. Rabinowitz says he’s a very bright boy.”
“Well, if his grandmother said so, he must be a genius.”
“Don’t be such a comedian,” her mother snapped, slamming the oven door shut. “Now, put away your books and help me set the table. They’ll be here in an hour, and I want everything ready. You’ll have time to change your dress after.”
“Why do I have to change?”
A weary sigh escaped her mother’s lips. “You’ll put on the blue dress and a little bit of lipstick. It’s not going to kill you to dress up for company.”
Ruth was so out of sorts that she hadn’t even noticed her sister entering the kitchen. “We’re having company?” Millie asked. “Do I have to change too?”
Their mother shook her head. “Not you. Just your sister.”
Ruth hated to admit it, but the grandson was handsome. His lightly tousled hair was just a fraction too long, in a way that appealed to mothers and daughters alike. His build was athletic, but not overly slim. Ruth learned that he would be graduating from high school in a few months and starting at City College in the fall.
“Walter is one of the top students in his class,” Mrs. Rabinowitz crowed.
“Very impressive,” Ruth’s father replied. “What will you study?”
“Ruth is terrific at math,” Millie chimed in. “They let her skip ahead so she could take the hardest class.”
“Calculus?” Walter asked.
Ruth felt the heat of the soup rise upward toward her cheeks. “Yes,” she answered.
“She might have to take a college math course next year,” Millie continued. “The principal even wrote a letter to our parents about it.”
“That’s great,” Walter said, smiling at Ruth. “You know, you’re the first girl I ever met whose eyes didn’t glaze over when I mentioned my major. Most girls think math is boring.”
“Not Ruth,” Millie said. “She’s a whiz.”
When their mother got up to clear the soup bowls from the table, Walter stood too and offered to help. “Sit, sit,” she insisted, shooing him back into his chair. “Ruth will help me.”
As soon as they were safely on the other side of the swinging door, Ruth’s mother almost threw the bowls into the sink. “I told you,” she whispered. “See how polite? And the two of you have so much in common.”
“He does seem nice,” Ruth admitted, smoothing her hair. Despite her initial misgivings, she felt herself being drawn into her mother’s hopeful mood. “Should I go back and talk to him?”
“Yes. Send Millie in here to help me serve the chicken.”
Later, it was decided that Walter and Ruth should walk to the drugstore to buy ice cream for the apple cake. “The cake isn’t nearly as good without the ice cream,” Millie said. “And the drugstore isn’t far—it’s just down the block.”
“Of course,” Walter agreed, making sure to hold the door for Ruth as they left the apartment.
She was delighted when they first set out. The evening air was warm, and the light from the streetlamps flickered softly on the sidewalk. But once they were away from her parents and Walter’s grandmother, Ruth felt a not-so-subtle shift in the young man’s mood. He became increasingly agitated, and his smile disappeared.
She tried to make conversation. “Are you excited to graduate?”
“I guess so. I don’t know. Look, can I be honest?” Walter tugged at his shirt collar as if he were choking. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
Ruth’s head began to spin with unfamiliar confusion. What was he talking about? Had she done something to offend him? She didn’t answer right away, but Walter kept talking.
“I don’t usually let my grandmother drag me with her to these dinners, but she can be awfully pushy sometimes, you know? And your mom’s a good cook, so it wasn’t half bad. But I don’t want you to think that I’m asking you for a date.”
Ruth bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. She forced herself to answer so Walter wouldn’t sense her disappointment. “Don’t be silly,” she lied. “I wasn’t expecting anything like that.”
“Phew.” Walter exhaled. “I’m glad we understand each other. No offense or anything—you’re just not my type. Of course, I figure I’m not your type either. From the way your sister was talking, you probably want to marry one of those Ivy League guys.”
“Probably,” Ruth agreed, suddenly exhausted.
On the way back from the drugstore, she stopped worrying what he thought of her. There was no way to change the outcome of the evening, so she decided to learn what she could from the humiliation. “Just out of curiosity,” she decided to ask, “what kind of girl would you say is your type?”
Walter wrinkled his forehead and clasped his hands in front of his face. He leaned forward slightly, lost in his own thoughts. “Good question,” he said as if she’d just won a prize. “My type is a girl who appreciates me, someone who likes to have fun and isn’t too serious. I don’t want her to be stupid, but I don’t want to be with someone too intellectual.”
“You mean, you don’t want a girl you think is smarter than you?”
“Exactly!” Walter said, oblivious to her sarcasm. Ruth felt her hope melt away, like the ice cream in the paper bag she carried. “Of course, there is one more thing…” His voice trailed off.
“What’s that?” Ruth asked, too far gone to care.
“It sure wouldn’t hurt if she looked like your sister.”
Millie knew something was wrong as soon as they returned. There had been a quiet confidence in Ruth’s bearing when she had set out for the drugstore, but when she got back to the apartment, the glimmer was gone. Millie watched, unsmiling, as Walter inhaled his dessert. When his plate was clean, he wiped his lips with his napkin, put his hand on his grandmother’s arm, and told her it was time for them to head home. “I have a paper due on Monday that I have to get started. Thank you so much for the meal, Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan,” he said. “Good luck with calculus next year, Ruth.”
Puzzled, her mother turned to Mrs. Rabinowitz, but the old woman seemed equally taken aback. She lifted her shoulders upward into a shrug and raised her eyebrows as if to say, I have no idea. Ruth was the only one at the table who didn’t seem surprised. After Walter left, she went into the bedroom and shut the door behind her.
Grandmother and grandson exited so quickly that Millie’s father didn’t even have time to get up from his seat. “Vat happened?” he asked, slapping his open palm on the table. “The little pisher bolted like a spooked horse!”
“Shush, Morris, please. Ruth can hear you.” Millie’s mother cleared the plates with anxious efficiency. “Maybe my cooking didn’t agree with him.”
“Bah!” her father said. “Did you see how much he ate? It’s a miracle he didn’t choke!”
“Too bad he didn’t,” Millie muttered under her breath.
Her mother gasped and teetered on her feet, sending one of the plates she had been holding to the floor with a crash.
“Do you want to tempt the Evil Eye? God forbid anyone should choke in this house!”
“There’s no such thing as the Evil Eye!”
“Don’t raise your voice to your mother like that!”
They were all yelling now, bickering like children, despite the fact that Ruth was the one who should have been the most upset. The noise drew Ruth out from behind her closed door. When she saw the commotion, she skirted past the broken plate, retrieved the broom and dustpan from the back of the hall closet, and began to sweep up the shards. Her diligence shamed the rest of them into silence. Ruth had always been the best of them at cleaning up messes.
“I’m sorry, Ruth.” Their mother was the first to speak. “I thought for sure … this time, after what Mrs. Rabinowitz told me…”
Her father shook his head. “He was a putz,” he lamented.
Millie chimed in with her own observations, hoping to show her sister some support. “I didn’t like him one bit, Ruthie. He wasn’t nice, and he wasn’t good-looking either.”
“That’s too bad,” Ruth said coolly. Her words came out jagged, like the fragments she swept so neatly off the floor. “He certainly liked you. Apparently, you’re just his type of girl.”
Millie’s stomach lurched. Ruth might as well have struck her with the handle of the broom.
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you have to keep talking about my math classes?”
“I wanted him to know that you have the same interests. I was trying to help!”
“Well, it didn’t help at all. You made me sound like the dullest girl in the world! ‘Ruth loves calculus, she studies all day.’ What kind of boy wants to ask a girl like that for a date? Meanwhile, you sat there and batted your eyes at him. No wonder he liked you better than me!”
“Batted my eyes? I barely even looked at him!”
“Well, he was looking at you!”
“That isn’t my fault!”
“Enough!” Their mother’s voice rang out over their shrieking, stunning the girls into temporary silence. After their father made them sit, the sisters glared at each other from across the dining room table. The evening had started with such high hopes, Millie thought—with silverware that gleamed and freshly pressed napkins, with a promising young man and a hint of romance for her older sister. But now it was over; all of that was gone. The silverware was sticky and the napkins full of wrinkles. The young man was indifferent—Ruth would not see him again.
“Of all the boys to fight over,” their mother began, “that one isn’t worth the aggravation. Believe me.”
“I’m not fighting over him,” Millie insisted. “I never wanted anything to do with him!”
Ruth crossed her arms over her chest and glared. Her rage was so fierce that it made Millie’s eyes fill with tears. “I didn’t!” Millie whined. “Stop saying I did! Mama, make her stop looking at me like that!” She lowered her head onto the table and sobbed. Why did Ruth always blame her when something went wrong? She had spent the entire evening complimenting her sister. She had thought Walter would be impressed, not put off or intimidated.
“Shush now, mameleh,” their mother said, patting Millie’s back. Then she turned to Ruth. “I was sitting here the whole night, just the same as you. Your sister didn’t do anything to get that boy’s attention. Whenever she spoke, it was to say something nice about you. He must have said something on your walk to make you so upset.”
“He said I wasn’t his type. That I should marry an Ivy League boy.”
Their father grunted. “He’s not so wrong about that.”
“Then he said he wanted a girl who wasn’t so serious. And that he preferred a girl who looked like Millie.”
Millie’s head began to ache, her temples to throb. There was a long stretch of silence before her father spoke up. “Millie can’t help the things the boy said. It isn’t her fault his parents raised a schmuck.”
Ruth uncrossed her arms and unclenched her jaw. “I know,” she admitted, her voice softer than before. “I have to get used to it. It’s just the way it is.” She got up from the table and went back to sweeping. Her dustpan was almost full by the time Millie raised her head.
“What does that mean?” she wanted to know. The skin around Millie’s eyes was swollen and raw.
Ruth didn’t look up. She searched the floor for stray shards, for any broken bits she might have missed. “It means people notice you, but they never notice me. They like you better, they treat you differently, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Everyone thinks you’re special. Everyone goes out of their way to be nice to you.”
“Not everyone,” Millie said, her voice low and miserable. “Not my own sister.”
Copyright © 2019 by Lynda Cohen Loigman