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Safta’s Valise
by KJ Hannah Greenberg



She hobbled as she walked over our threshold. Ema had told us not to stare, but I couldn’t help it.

What’s more, she was huffing and puffing by the time that she had walked from our front door to our guestroom, which was the bedroom closest to the door. One of my older brothers followed with her suitcase.

That piece of baggage, which was of an indeterminate color, was absent of the kinds of ribbons used to identify cases at airport carousels. Could it be she never traveled?

Anyway, she sat on the edge of her bed and adjusted her skirt so that it better covered her knees. Both her hair and her collar bones were covered. She was proper.

Except, she grunted.

I offered to get her a glass of water, which she blessed before sipping. I offered to check the temperature on the air conditioning in her room and then to leave her in peace.

She nodded, still sipping.


While Safta napped, Ema yelled at me. I should have kept Safta company longer. I should have helped her unpack. I should have offered her extra pillows and blankets. I should have shut off the air conditioning and opened the windows. Apparently, Safta was susceptible to repeat pneumonia and any amount of air conditioning was painful for her. Yet, Ema left it on in the rest of the house.

An hour or so later, Safta hobbled into the kitchen. I was checking lettuce, one of my brothers was seasoning soup. My other brother was seeing if any of the hardboiled eggs’ shells had cracks. Mom was in our office, talking to some of her students on Zoom.

I took Safta’s empty glass from her and offered her a clean one, full of water.

She accepted, blessed, and sipped. She also pulled her cardigan closed. I think the air conditioning bothered her.

One of my brothers offered her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

She accepted, washed, blessed, and took large bites. I never thought that Safta might be hungry or that she might like peanut butter. I never really knew what she liked. No one asked. Ema never said.

The apple, salad, and juice that I offered, too, were accepted. Upon finishing, Safta said blessings.

Thereafter, she hobbled to the sofa, where she huffed and puffed a bit.

When Em came in to check on the soup, she saw Safta and hugged her. Ema suggested that Safta take off her shoes and get comfortable. Safta just shook her head. Safta was always a very quiet guest.

When Ema went back to work, a large, clear tear slid down from Safta’s right eye to her nose. Safta dabbed at it with a used tissue that she had pulled from one of her pockets.

Later, when Batya called, I left Safta in our salon. My friend and I laughed and laughed. We had so much fun that I forgot to ask her what she did when her safta visits.


My safta doesn’t visit very often. Leg problems keep her from driving and from taking buses. Cost keeps her from taking taxis to us more than two or three times a year. Yet, when we get into our car, it takes us only half of an hour to get to her apartment.

When we visit, she takes cookies out of her freezer and pours Abba his favorite type of tea.

She keeps a box of it in her kitchen just for him.


Later, it’s time for dinner. Ema, my brothers, me, and Safta sit at our table. Abba’s on a business trip. He only travels four or five times a year. Sometimes, he goes to Canada. Sometimes, he goes to Great Britain. Safta always visits us when he’s not home.

Safta eats well. She eats all of the salad in her bowl, an entire quarter of a chicken (it’s a good thing we cooked two of them), a huge pile of rice, and an equally huge pile of beans.

Despite how much she eats, she’s skinny and misshapen. Safta’s belly protrudes, and the small amount of her arms and legs that are visible beyond her clothes are covered with saggy skin. Her face is wrinkled, as is normal for any safta, but the stray hairs that escape her snood are dark, not silver. I can’t decide if she looks like a starving child in a Third World country or like an aging movie star.

Either way, the sum of Safta’s lumps and bumps are very cuddly. I wish I could hug her more, but she seems to hurt all over every time I try. Yet, she tolerates my hugs and coos endearments.

Anyhow, after dinner, Ema goes back to work and my sibs and I clean up.

Safta sits again on our sofa. She recites Tehillim.

Ema peeks into the salon long enough to ask if anyone has helped Safta unload her suitcase.

I volunteer. I go to the guestroom and put Safta’s still full case on Safta’s bed but wait for her permission to open it.

Safta hobbles in behind me and sits on the chair. It must be awful to have every step hurt. She nods at me and then, for a minute or two, closes her eyes.

I slide the locks and the top of the suitcase springs open. Inside sit neatly rolled undies, bras, slips, and socks. There are familiar scarves, soap, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. As well, within a zipped, plastic bag are the various pills and potions Safta uses.

Beneath those things are a nightgown, shower shoes, shampoo, and a hairbrush. Safta’s skirts and shirts, her Shabbat clothes, and her Shabbot shoes take up the last bit of space. It’s not a very large suitcase, but its quite oversized for someone who has trouble lifting even a carton of orange juice.

“Do you like my valise?”


“Did you look inside the special compartment?”

I hadn’t. I reach my hand inside an inner, fabric pocket. Four wrapped gifts are there. I pull them out. One each is for my brothers and me. A somewhat larger one has Ema and Abba’s name on it.”

I turn to Safta to say “thanks,” but she has closed her eyes, again. I wonder if Ema knows how much Safta suffers.

“Please hand them out,” she says without opening her eyes.

Carefully, I close her suitcase, place it under her bed and then leave her room to distribute the gifts. Later, when I return, Safta’s asleep in her chair; I forgot to clear her bed of her things.

The day after Shabbot, which is a school day, Safta leaves. I don’t walk her to her cab since she leaves after I’m on the school bus. Ema, too, has returned to school, as have my brothers. Abba’s due to land at night.

When I get back from school, I finger the small doll Safta has gifted me. It used to be hers. She gave each of my brothers one of the baskets she made decades ago, when her fingers obeyed her commands. She gave my parents a set of candlesticks that Em always admired whenever we visited. I think Ema cried a bit when she opened that package.


Later in the week, Ema tells me to prep our guestroom. Some of my cousins, who live in a nearby town, are coming for Shabbot. Almost every week, we host one or another of Em’s or Ab’s siblings and their kids. Every month, we host Abba’s parents.

My aunt and uncle will sleep in the guestroom. The boy cousins will bunk with my brothers. The girl cousins will bunk with me.

I remove the bedding and start the washing machine. I open the shades and I empty the trash can. Then, I get the broom.

Sometimes, I take shortcuts. No one’s looking, so I try to sweep the dust under the bed instead of into the pan. My broom hits something hard.

I bend to look. It’s Safta’s valise. After sliding it out, I open it. Everything that Safta had packed for her last visit, minus the gifts, has been placed inside. There’s a note, too.

I read the note. It says, “I hope you invite me, again.”




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