I remember the day they came to tell my mom that Dad was dead. I was 7. Someone who was in Dad’s unit came alone, wearing dirty fatigues with bulging pockets. I was sure he was hiding lots of presents in them. Soldiers always have lots of surprises in their pockets. He didn’t prepare my mom at all, didn’t even ask to send me out of the room. He just sat down on the couch sheepishly and started to talk. He didn’t look at my mom while he talked and his voice was barely audible. He looked like a kid apologizing for doing something wrong. “We were in the jeep together, and Michael asked if we could pull over because he had to urinate.” He actually whispered the word “urinate.” “I pulled over and Michael walked off the road. He took four steps, I counted. One, two, three, boom. He stepped on a mine.” He stood up from the couch and looked at Mom’s face for a minute. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, and the door closed quietly behind him. He didn’t hug Mom, didn’t say, “It’ll be all right,” he didn’t even look at her, nothing. I was very disappointed that he didn’t give me a present. The ones in his pockets were probably for another kid. Mom was looking at the mud stains on the living room rug. “He brought all that dirt into the house,” she said angrily. “Is it really so hard to wipe your feet outside?”
A few hours later, the officer arrived, with a doctor and a woman soldier to give us the news. Mom poured everyone coffee with a steady hand and asked the officer all kinds of technical questions about how Dad died. The woman soldier said I was a cute little boy and rumpled my hair. I liked that. Even today, I miss the touch of a hand on my hair, but people don’t rumple a grown-up’s hair. The soldier said her name was Yael. She asked Mom if she could take me to a movie. Mom, who was busy talking to the officer, was glad to get rid of me.
We went to a matinee. There was an airplane in the movie, and a pilot. My father was up in the sky now, and I wondered whether they let him fly a plane, too. When we got home, the officer was still there and Mom was still asking him questions. The doctor had already gone home. Yael said goodbye to everyone, and before she went, she bent down and kissed me. A soft kiss, not the kind your aunts give you. I wasn’t even sure that her lips touched me.
Mom woke me the next morning and took me out to the closed-in balcony. She’d turned it into a memorial room. There were pictures of Dad, his report cards, diplomas he’d gotten, everything. “This is Dad’s room,” she said firmly. “You’re not allowed to touch anything here.”
The next week passed very quickly. During the day, people came to see us, and at night, Yair cried. Mom said it was because he was teething. Grandpa Gershon didn’t sit shiva with us. He said he didn’t believe in rituals. That really bothered Mom, but she didn’t say anything. After Dad died, Grandpa started doing all kinds of weird things. Mom never said anything to him about it, except at the Passover Seder 11 years ago, when he really did go too far.
We started the evening by reading the Haggadah. Grandpa only read the nice-sounding words out loud. “Rabban Gamliel … cleft the sea … the brick and the mortar.” Yair and I listened quietly because Mom promised us that if we acted nice to Grandpa, she’d let us go to summer camp. We sang the songs and found the hidden matzo and Yair asked the Four Questions. After that, Yair asked Grandpa Gershon why we can’t see Dad when he comes to drink from Elijah’s cup. Grandpa looked surprised and his eyes glistened. “You’re a very funny grandchild, Yair. You say sad things, but you never cry, just like your mother. Oh well, my tears instead of yours.” He put his fingers into his mouth, placed a saliva-soaked finger under each of Yair’s eyes and drew two wet lines down his cheekbones. Scared, Yair jumped up and shouted, “Grandpa’s crazy!” and ran out of the apartment.
Mom gave Grandpa a murderous look. “Gershon, I’m absolutely shocked. If Michael had seen that …” She got up and went to look for Yair, slamming the door behind her with muted rage. Only Grandpa and I were left.
Grandpa wiped his eyes with a napkin, then his nose. “Your mother would like your father’s memory to remain in our minds as if it were carved in stone. Stable, unchanged, unaffected by the vicissitudes of time. If it were up to me, I’d sculpt Michael in butter, and together, we’d watch your father melt. Michael didn’t see things the way your mother does. He preferred to write his life on water and create whirlpools of emotion and not to carve mundane facts on tree stumps.”
I didn’t understand a word of what Grandpa was saying, but I knew that the door was closed now, and that when the prophet Elijah arrived, he wouldn’t be able to get in.
Yair wasn’t at the following year’s Seder. He decided to stay in his room until Grandpa left. Before going to sleep that night, I went into the Memorial Room. I looked at pictures of Dad, but didn’t touch anything. Mom came in quietly and hugged me from behind. “I’m very happy you took part in the Seder, if you can even call that joke a Seder. I know it wasn’t easy. Grandpa Gershon is an annoying man, I don’t like him either. But it’s important, for Dad.” She kissed my head. “Thank you, Yoav,” she whispered. Actually, I had a great time at the Seder. It wasn’t long and boring like in other people’s houses, because Grandpa only read the beautiful words in the Haggadah. And because Yair wasn’t there, I got to read the questions, all four of them. One, two, three, boom.
Translated by Miriam Shlesinger
Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.