One hundred years ago your great grandparents and their strange traditions came to the new country. Your great grandfather bought a whitefish from the market. Your great grandmother kneeled in front of the bathtub, pushing steel wool and bleach against the grime. She filled the clean tub with clean water.
The whitefish lived in the bathtub for a week. Your grandmother visited it after school but was not permitted to name it, and was made to wash her hands before dipping her fingers into the cool wet to rub its scales.
Nobody showered for a week while the fish swam between white porcelain walls. When Shabbat came the apartment stank of armpits and shoes. But the bathroom tiles were coated with the pure, mineral scent of freshwater.
While your great grandmother wrestled the fish from the tub, chopped off its head, cleaned its innards and ground it into meat, her family used the newly freed shower to wash away a week of work, school, city grit, and harsh words.
At suppertime everyone gleamed. Only your great grandmother came straight from the kitchen to the table, still stinking of brine and iron. Resplendent in her Shabbos skirt, matte ocher blood becomes evening gloves. Bread and fish, a thimble of wine—the scents of it all waft from her fingers to her family’s clean noses as she fills their plates.
Rachel Attias spent most of her life along the Hudson River valley of New York. She has a BA in English from Skidmore College, and now lives in Jackson, Wyoming. She has been previously published in The Master’s Review, Five:2:One Magazine, and CHEAP POP, among others. Find her at www.rachelattias.com.