A matinee at the Met, followed by dinner. A grandfather’s dream. Sixth row balcony, unobstructed view. Don Giovanni. Five minutes to curtain, the seat next to me still empty. Then, a soft commotion at the aisle; even softer apologies to the people she disturbs to get there. “I’m sorry I’m late.” Lorna says. “Believe it or not, I’m coming from the office.” After she settles in, she reports what the usher said: the last-minute substitute for Zerlina is better than the original.
The chandeliers begin their slow ascent.
“A gift from your cursed Wienna. Isn’t that what you always say about the chandeliers, Grandpa?”
“Indeed.” During intermission, we find a good spot to people-watch, a ledge for me to lean on. I unwrap four Lorna Doone cookies. Same as when she was ten, we eat them with milk pilfered from the coffee station. “Is it wrong Grandpa,” she asked at ten (such a serious child!), “to take the milk when we haven’t bought coffee?” I told her that in Wienna, they served coffee during the interval to everyone; in summer, ice cream.
“Dinner tonight will be unusual,” Lorna warns. “All seven species of trees, from figs to olives. For the holiday.” What holiday? But I don’t ask. Then it’s the second act and the final scene: sinful Don Giovanni consumed in flames.
“That’s one weird opera.” Lorna’s studio apartment is nearby, but even the six-block walk exhausts me. “The music is beautiful, but the story? I get why you didn’t take me as a kid.”
What operas did I take her to as a child? The Magic Flute, for sure. Hansel and Gretel? A kiddie version of Barber of Seville? It’s been twenty years.
“Did you see Don Giovanni when you lived in Vienna, Grandpa? With your parents?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“I know you saw Fidelio and Fledermaus. You always mentioned them.” She takes my coat, fusses in the kitchenette, arranges two place settings on the bridge table. Meanwhile, Simone—my cat for a decade, before Assisted Living made me give her up—is going crazy, circling my legs, meowing, then purring nonstop.
“Forget me, forget Mozart, you’re all about Simone, Grandpa.”
My daughter Helene once said, in front of Lorna, that I shouldn’t make things up. “You were six when you left Vienna on Kindertransport. You didn’t go to operas. Why do you tell Lorna such things?” I didn’t deny what Helene said; but didn’t admit it either. Lorna said, “I believe Grandpa. You weren’t there, mom, you don’t know.”
Lorna gives me a printed menu she prepared at her office. It describes the seven species and their significance, along with the bill of fare: mushroom barley soup, olive bread, salad with grapes, fig gelato. At the top: Grandpa and Lorna’s Tu B’Shvat Dinner. That holiday. The birthday of the trees. Obscure; nearly forgotten. I’m impressed Lorna knows about it.
She serves me pomegranate juice, symbolizing majesty. “What do you think?”
“Nothing a little wodka can’t fix.”
She grins, pours a jigger. The alcohol loosens my tongue. Or perhaps it’s the CD she puts on. La Ci Darem La Mano. Out of context, the Don’s attempted seduction of Zerlina falls away. The music is pure longing. Anticipating loss for what isn’t going to happen.
“What does the song mean, again?”
“The first line means there I will take your hand.”
That’s the line, I want to say. The rest doesn’t matter. I am eighty-eight years old. “I must tell you something. Before I forget. It’s about my sister. She was four years older.” Lorna’s face is rapt, like she doesn’t want to miss a word. “They took her to the opera. Not me. I was too little. After they got home, she would come to my room and tell me everything.”
Lorna turns off the CD. “That’s better.” She asks if Helene knows I had a sister. I shake my head. She says: “Don’t cry.”
“That’s what she said. My sister. She was supposed to go on Kindertransport, but got a cough or a sore throat, something, enough to make them reject her. My parents had nothing left. They made me go instead. Simone said: Don’t cry, Abilah, I’ll come find you. You’ll look up, and I’ll be there, reaching for your hand. I promise.”
“Simone, Grandpa? Her name was Simone?”
The cat is at the window, bristling at a pigeon through fogged glass. Indifferent to the sound of her name.
Yes, I tell my granddaughter.
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