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As Close to Us as Breathing
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A multigenerational family saga about the long-lasting reverberations of one tragic summer by “a wonderful talent [who] should be read widely” (Edward P. Jones).
In 1948, a small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named “Bagel Beach,” has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal.
During the weekdays, freedom reigns. Ada, the family beauty, relaxes and grows more playful, unimpeded by her rule-driven, religious husband. Vivie, once terribly wronged by her sister, is now the family diplomat and an increasingly inventive chef. Unmarried Bec finds herself forced to choose between the family-centric life she’s always known and a passion-filled life with the married man with whom she’s had a secret years-long affair.
But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters’ watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan. Seen through the eyes of Molly, who was twelve years old when she witnessed the accident, this is the story of a tragedy and its aftermath, of expanding lives painfully collapsed. Can Molly, decades after the event, draw from her aunt Bec’s hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden that destroyed so many others?
Elizabeth Poliner is a masterful storyteller, a brilliant observer of human nature, and in As Close to Us as Breathing she has created an unforgettable meditation on grief, guilt, and the boundaries of identity and love.
You are as close to us as breathing, yet
You are farther than the farthermost star.
—Gates of Prayer:
The New Union Prayer Book
An Inheritance of Here
The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident with a man who would have given his own life rather than have it happen. The man was Italian, and for my mother, Ada Leibritsky, that was explanation enough for why he was a killer. Had he been Irish, she would have said the same. Had he been Polish, or Greek, or even some kind of Protestant, she’d have likewise put the blame on that. Back then it was common enough to think this way, to be suspicious, even hateful, of outsiders, and the Negroes and Jews got the worst of it. So had the man been Jewish, like us, I’ve often wondered if in her mad grief my mother would have attributed the killing to that. Kike, she would have called him in her rage, not noticing that in so doing she’d have missed entirely that it was us, her family, a whole body of Jews, who were more to blame than anyone else.
The summer began typically enough. We arrived at our beach cottage in Woodmont, Connecticut, and my mother flew from the car, determined as always to be the first inside, leaving the rest of us—her three children, her older sister, and her only niece—behind. She rushed up the porch steps, unlocked the door, and strode into the living room. The place was dim, with shades drawn and lights off, and the air was stuffy from three seasons of windows locked shut. Still, from the way she breathed, gulping in the unstirred air as if it were fresh from the shore, you’d think she’d been starved for the stuff. From the living room she looked behind her, at me, on the porch, reluctant to follow her lead until at least one window had been cracked. “Oh, Molly,” she said in a voice that was almost scolding. “We’re here. Here. What in the world are you waiting for?”
We’d almost not gotten there, at least that week, the first one in July, for my father had been sick with a cold over the weekend and couldn’t drive us to Woodmont from our home in Middletown. On Monday he’d felt better but had to go to work. Monday night, after a glum dinner—my mother, two brothers, and I sighing dolorously and effectively throughout—my father had suggested that my older brother, Howard, just graduated from high school, could drive us the next day, Tuesday, as long as he came back on Friday to pick up my father and our uncle Leo for the weekend.
From Middletown we’d be two families in the car: ours and my mother’s sister Vivie’s. But neither woman could drive. Neither could their other sister, Bec, who was to meet us there, traveling from New Haven.
Howard, then, was our only hope. He promised my father that he’d come back on Friday early, in time to join the morning minyan.
My father was a serious man; everyone knew that. But Howard’s words made him beam with joy. Still, he leaned forward, peered over his glasses, and warned, “Howard, sometimes all a man has is his word.”
“Here’s mine,” Howard said, his voice confident, his tone sincere. The two shook hands. Then the whole family, especially Howard, cheered.
But upon our arrival at Woodmont, Howard was less genial, more himself. As he stood by my father’s old Dodge station wagon, unloading suitcases, he yelled, even to our mother, “Hey, nitwits, get your fat fannies over here and help.”
My mother didn’t budge. At forty years old she was still the family beauty, her mass of mahogany hair, pinned up, only just beginning to sprout the occasional gray. A middle child, she was the most forceful of the three Syrkin sisters, and the most opinionated, which had something to do with her beauty, the extra confidence it gave her. She was the certain one, the one who told us that Bess Truman’s idea about her daughter, or any daughter, was right: she should most definitely not become president. And in our world of interethnic hatred, she was the one, spewing forth slurs, who could hate right back. But at that moment, even though from the living room she’d heard Howard well enough—a rudeness he’d never dare in front of our father—she was silent and statuesque, her big black pocketbook, a near appendage of weathered patent leather, dangling from the crook of her bent elbow, her back straight, her head raised, her eyes once again closed, her whole being seemingly intoxicated by the cottage’s oppressive air.
A moment later, though, she came to and charged through the front doorway. She’d just returned to the porch and had opened her mouth to address Howard—apologize, I hoped she’d say—when her eye caught the mezuzah nailed to the doorframe, its pewter casing glinting from the sun. At the sight of it she closed her mouth, was silenced.
Even though he was a religious man, my grandfather Maks Syrkin had waited to nail the mezuzah there until he’d paid off the cottage’s mortgage in June of 1939. For value received, we the undersigned, Maksim and Risel Syrkin, hereby agree to pay to the order of The Bank of New Haven $3,600.… The mortgage papers were dated 1915, which put him at twenty-four years in violation of Jewish law: and you shall inscribe these words upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. Yet for all those years my grandfather, who never missed a mortgage payment, didn’t consider the cottage his home. Like his house in Middletown, the Woodmont cottage was not a home until every last cent of it had been paid for, he’d told his family again and again, and then he’d told the Woodmont neighbors—Jews all of them—and then, once we were born, he told us, his grandchildren, though we were too young then to understand the rules of Judaism much less the rules of real estate. I remember my grandfather Maks as a strange old man.
Howard, still by the Dodge, continued his rant. “Is this Egypt? Is that sand out there the desert?” he called. I was still on the porch, by my mother’s side, and from there I watched Howard point ahead, toward the beach and Long Island Sound. “What am I,” he continued, “your goddamned slave?”
Our cousin Nina, then fifteen, was the one to yell back to him, “You’re the one treating us like slaves!”
Howard wasn’t the only one startled by Nina’s remark. I was too, for Nina had been virtually silent the entire road trip from Middletown to Woodmont, paging through Darwin’s On the Origin of Species the whole hour. “Is it good?” I’d interrupted once to ask. I also liked to read, but mostly about twelve-year-old girls, like myself. Nina’s answer was quick. “Fantastic,” she’d said, her face, heart-shaped and pretty, tense with concentration. But until she rebuked Howard she’d not said a word since.
Following her remark, Nina simply stopped, halfway between the car and the cottage. Like her mother, she was short, and her hair, the same thick and unruly brown mane of all the women in the family, was pulled back with a ribbon. She wore shorts and an unusually tight summer jersey. You could see that she already had a marvelous figure, even at fifteen. But from everything I knew about Nina I was certain the jersey wasn’t tight for effect; Nina was just too absorbed with the likes of Darwin to notice. My mother had a saying about Nina: “She’s too smart for her own good.”
It was Howard who couldn’t take his eyes off the tight shirt. “Hey Nina, can you and your bazooms hike it over here?” he said next.
“That’s brilliant, Howard. You’re a genius, aren’t you?” Nina snapped back. She strode over, arched her neck, and even though she blushed, she looked him straight in the eyes.
Everyone knew Howard’s grades didn’t compare to Nina’s.
“Ouch, ouch,” he teased, reaching behind her as if threatening to snap her bra strap.
“Don’t be an ass,” she told him, then slapped Howard’s arm down.
For a moment it looked as if a fight, as much physical as verbal, would break out between them. But the tension eased when my aunt Vivie rushed off the porch to step between the two, who were often enough at odds with each other. The problem, or so it seemed, was generational: everyone knew my mother had stolen my father from Vivie, and though the sisters no longer fought with each other, their respective firstborns—like biblical characters, born into their animosity—seemed unable not to.
“Don’t be mean,” Vivie told Howard calmly, her hand on his shoulder. “We just got out of the car. Give us a minute, won’t you, to stretch our legs?”
My mother still wasn’t paying attention to the goings-on by the Dodge. Rather, transfixed by the sight of the mezuzah, she reached up and touched the pewter casing. Then she brought her hand to her lips and kissed the fingers that had reached for the words of God. But she wasn’t religious, I knew, only nostalgic. She would have preferred just then to have touched the skin of her father rather than the metal of the mezuzah’s casing, but Maks had died six months after that last mortgage payment in 1939. My mother, Ada, was thirty-two years old then and heavily pregnant with my younger brother Davy, her third child. Maks was seventy-four.
A Friday morning, cloudy, the last week of June 1939, and Maks held the mezuzah in one hand, a hammer in the other. In his shirt pocket were any number of slim nails, and in his left pants pocket were eight more encased mezuzot, enough for all the doorways inside and the back door. Risel, his wife, the woman to whom he’d been matched all those years ago in his birth town of Balta, the woman whom he’d returned to Balta to fetch some five years after his start in America, a woman transformed by her journey across the world from a confident Russian girl to a bewildered and dependent American wife, a woman whom Maks loved endlessly nonetheless, was to have the privilege of holding the first mezuzah, to be nailed to the front entrance. We had all gathered on the cottage porch: Maks and Risel, my mother and Vivie and Bec, and the grandchildren then born—Howard, Nina, and a three-year-old me. Though it was only eleven in the morning, Risel already wore her best Shabbos dress, along with seamed stockings and heels, and Maks had on a necktie, which flapped as the ever-present breezes of early summer crossed the porch. My mother and her sisters wore bathing suits as always, though out of respect for the occasion they had covered them with day dresses, belted and short sleeved. Only we kids showed up in our usual Woodmont wear of swimsuits with sandy bare feet. The fathers, working still in Middletown, would hear about the event—the clothes, the breeze, the lifting clouds, the unborn child kicking for the first time in my mother’s stomach, the tears welling in Risel’s eyes—when they joined us later for our Shabbos meal. The ceremony began: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, Maks began chanting, and when he finished the blessing, Risel turned, pressed the mezuzah to the doorway, angled the thing just so, and my grandfather placed and then hit the first nail.
Vivie repeated her request to Howard. “Can you give us a minute?” This time she squeezed his shoulder and added, “Honey. Please.”
“Honey?” Nina muttered incredulously, causing Vivie to raise an index finger to Nina’s lips.
“Sorry,” Howard said to Vivie, the rising blush on his face matching Nina’s fading one. Vivie, calm as ever, could do this: soften Howard’s hardness. She then leaned into the back of the Dodge and pulled out a bag of groceries. Nina, too, reached for a bag. Howard remained standing amidst the suitcases he’d already unloaded, staring at them as if deciding which to carry in first. But just then he spotted Davy—who up until that moment had been standing unnoticed beside him—lugging up the porch steps a suitcase almost as large as his eight-year-old frame.
“Squirt!” Howard called, running to him. He reached for the suitcase.
“I can do it,” Davy protested.
“I know you can,” Howard said as he tugged at the suitcase. “I just want to help.”
Davy was small but strong, a baseball star in the making, our father hoped. When Howard, with a good ten years on Davy, pulled at the suitcase, Davy pulled back. “I can do it,” he said again, sure of himself. But when Howard tugged harder, the suitcase flew from Davy’s grip.
Suddenly off balance, Davy fell backward. He rolled from the middle step of the porch to its first, and then to the ground.
“See?” Nina called. “See what you did, Howard? Genius.”
I ran off the porch to help Davy, but by the time I got there Howard had him by one arm and Nina by the other. His left knee was scraped but not bleeding. He had another scrape on his left elbow.
“You okay?” we all asked. My mother, still at the front doorway, called the loudest.
You never knew. That was my grandfather Maks’s sense of things and the reason he’d waited so long to hang the mezuzah. You never knew. After all, so many times during Maks’s youth in Russia the family had been driven from their home in the middle of the night. Balta was home, then it wasn’t, then it was again. But you never knew, after that first exile, how long any home would last. And then Maks’s father had died just outside of Balta, the man and the horse he was astride frozen while riding home with firewood one blizzard-ridden February night. Maks was nine then, and because his mother had asked him to go out searching he had found the man himself, had touched the horse’s icy lips, then his father’s boots, lodged forever in stirrups, then his equally unmovable hands, frozen to the reins, before his own screaming set in.
“You okay?” I asked Davy again. As I inspected his scraped elbow Davy jerked it away.
“I can do it,” Davy told me, just like he’d told Howard a moment ago, though this time, hands empty, he wasn’t making sense. Still, because he clearly wanted to be left alone, I returned to my mother’s side.
“He’s all right?” she asked me, and I nodded, turning Davy’s way to be sure.
Below us, at the bottom of the porch steps, Nina glanced over Davy’s head, which put her, chin raised, eye to eye with Howard. “See what you did?” she said again.
If it was predictable that my mother would be the one to open the cottage, to be the first to grab at that cottage air, however intolerable it actually was, then what came next was equally predictable. My mother and my aunt Vivie stood beside each other in the living room, Vivie’s arms full with two bags of groceries, my mother’s arms empty except for her dangling pocketbook. They looked at each other, then at the couch, a sofa bed that Nina and I would share all summer. Lifting the corner of a sheet that covered it, Ada patted the worn brown plaid then nodded Vivie’s way. In the same manner, and without thinking yet to relieve Vivie of even one bag of groceries, Ada turned to the two armchairs in the front corners of the room, also covered by sheets. To watch my mother nod at the chairs, though, you’d think she could see right through the white cloth. An uncovered, dusty side table held a ceramic-tiled ashtray, and when Ada lifted the cheap thing, she and Vivie both sighed then said, in near unison, “Daddy’s Sunday cigars.” There was the photo hanging on the wall over the sofa bed to acknowledge too. Approaching it, Vivie finally set the groceries down. I stood in the doorway and watched.
Framed and fading, the shot was of their parents, in late June 1939, before their deaths within the next year—Maks of a heart attack, Risel, six months later, of heartache—two stocky souls in the bulky bathing attire of the past, sitting side by side on beach chairs, Maks Syrkin clutching Risel’s hand as if prescient of the separation death would soon bring.
Davy, by then inside, was the first to grow impatient with just looking. Turning from the photo, he raced, fully recovered from his earlier spill, past the radio console, almost knocking it over, until he came to the glass doors on the far side of the room. He opened them in time for Ada and Vivie to step through and into the sunporch, a room that contained a folding cot and dresser, along with a wicker chair and side table. This was the room of their younger sister, Bec, and because of its identification with her I knew my mother and Vivie wouldn’t step into it again for the rest of the summer. But just then they glanced about it, sighed some more, then cranked its many windows open.
From the sunporch the women made their way back through the living room and into the dining room, its oak dining table covered by yet another sheet, which the sisters expertly yanked off then dropped to the floor in a heap. We children, all of us silently following the mothers from room to room—as if this annual rite of examining the place was intrinsically about our well-being rather than about their past—knew that in the next hour we’d have to shake out that sheet and all the others before folding them and tucking them away. The dining room also contained a china cabinet for the best dishes, used only for Shabbos, and a sideboard stuffed with serving platters, pitchers, tablecloths, napkins, and the like. All of it came from Maks and Risel and was included in the sisters’ shared inheritance of the cottage. The dining room’s only other furnishings were a small table holding a telephone, and a simple chair set beside it.
My mother lifted the phone’s receiver, having promised my father that she’d call when we arrived. By this time, just past one in the afternoon, my father, Mort, in Middletown, would have returned from his after-lunch walk up and back Main Street. Satisfied with the morning’s business—ten customers, six sales—he’d be standing in the doorway of his store, staring out the front window. Everyone who passed Leibritsky’s Department Store would know him and wave, and he would wave back, solemnly. Nelson, his bachelor brother and the store’s co-owner, would be downstairs in the basement, placing a needle on the new recording of Benny Goodman that he planned to listen to while on his post-lunch break. Leo Cohen, my father’s brother-in-law and Vivie’s husband, would be alone in the back office, nibbling a bologna sandwich as he read, slowly, about Darwin’s meticulous studies of mold, an early work. For years already Leo had passed his best reads on to Nina and in so doing had recently gotten his daughter hooked on this particular and, in Uncle Leo’s words, “uncannily patient” man.
My mother knew all this, could no doubt picture it in her mind. Phone to her ear, she listened to the buzz of the dial tone as if it were a voice on the summer party line. Then, without dialing, she put the receiver down.
The kitchen was our next stop, but outside its doorway another photograph called for attention, one my father had hung there. Taken in 1942, it showed Davy atop Mort’s shoulders as my father, along with a crowd of Woodmont Jews, walked the length of Woodmont to protest the imprisonment of European Jews—five thousand or so, we thought then—a way of showing the world, however much of it would take note, that they knew what was going on; yes, the Jews of Woodmont knew. In the photo my father, wrapped like the other men in his sacred tallis, was his usual serious self, but Davy had thought the event a festival. Davy pointed. “Me,” he said, smiling just as he was in the photograph. “Us,” my mother answered. She took his hand and moved it across the scene in a sweeping motion that seemed to include the six million that by 1948 we understood to be not merely imprisoned but killed. “Us,” she said again.
We entered the kitchen, then, the way my father wanted us to: reminded of our luck. And there it was, in the speckled linoleum floors and counters, and in the table, a white porcelain enamel top with steel legs, but most especially in the automatic washer, recently purchased from Sears, Roebuck, without a wringer on top. Moving upstairs, the six of us stopped first at the master bedroom, the largest bedroom, at the cottage’s front, which, because my mother had married first and had the most children, she felt entitled to claim. Moving along, we paraded down the hall, past the cottage’s only full bathroom, where an old tub with high sides and clawed feet was the centerpiece. A bit ludicrously, in a way that made us laugh, everyone leaned in to wave at the beloved thing. At the far end of the hallway was a second bedroom, plain enough, shared by Vivie and Leo. Finally we landed at the snug third bedroom midway between the two others, which Davy shared with Howard. Of the twin beds almost touching, Davy’s was the one on the left, and after running a few steps, he managed a flying leap from the doorway onto it. Then he righted himself and began jumping. Before my mother could order him to stop he’d already bounced on the mattress several times, declaring with each airborne lift, “I’m free! I’m free!”
Yes, we were here, as my mother had first noted. Here: this cottage, the one she and her sisters had grown up spending their summers in, the one her father—a handyman who developed a knack for distinctive cabinetry—had bought and was able to hold on to, even throughout the Depression.
The cottage was itself part of a small complex of cottages, all of them crowding in on each other, set at times three deep between the road and the beach, and not in an orderly line but rather a haphazard clustering. Before ours, but not entirely blocking the view of the Sound, was the Isaacsons’. Beside us lived the Radnicks. Next to them came the Weinsteins. And on and on it went, one family after another, one cottage after the next. And this too, this familiar and messy collection of cottages, is what my mother meant by here.
Here: the shore, that small piece of it unofficially called Bagel Beach, which was our beach, the Jews’. We were among the many Jewish families throughout Connecticut (and a few from Massachusetts and New York as well) who funneled down to this spot where some of us owned cottages, some rented, and others stayed in seaside hotels, but all of us kept close, crowded, because in 1948 there were so many places Jews still couldn’t go, so many covenants, formal and informal, restricting us from neighborhoods, resorts, clubs—you name it. The genocide in Europe had yet to change that. But here, in this hamlet, we could be. Near the intersection of Merwin and Hillside avenues were Jewish bakers and butchers, and even a one-room Orthodox synagogue—the Woodmont Hebrew Congregation—a building of white clapboard, in the New England way. But its door had recently been painted bright blue, which was hardly a Yankee touch. Rather, it gave the place the vibrant colors of Israel. “Aren’t you adorable,” Howard had said that past May, when, at the news of Israel’s independence, I’d compared Bagel Beach, a small and sandy place that offered solace to the Jews of Connecticut, to Israel, another small and sandy place that would offer solace to the beleaguered Jews of the world. Recently we’d learned that we had a cousin there, Reuben Leibritsky, from Poland, a survivor of the camps, and my father and his brother Nelson sent him money each month.
Technically Bagel Beach was outside the bounds of Woodmont, or at least past the little sign at Woodmont’s western edge that read Leaving Woodmont on the Sound. So was the synagogue and so was the place across from it, Sloppy Joe’s, the hamburger shop all the high school kids gravitated toward in the evenings. But all of it—that world inside the bounds of the sign and that small, particularly Jewish stretch beyond it—was what we knew of and meant by Woodmont.
The coastline’s natural shale formations, often huge and jagged piles of rocks, created boundaries that formed Woodmont’s several and distinct beaches, the popular Anchor Beach, for example, which bordered Crescent Beach then Long Beach. Some rock formations had names, like Lazy Rock, Potato Rock, and Signal Rock, identifiable off the shore of Anchor Beach by its flagpole. Our beach was separated from the others not only by rocks, though, but also by a seawall, too high to climb over, which meant we needed to walk on the roads, rather than along the shore, to get to the others.
Bagel Beach was just a slice of Woodmont, and Woodmont, too, was just a slice—a small mile-and-a-half stretch—of the city of Milford’s coastline. Connecticut’s abundant Irish came there as well, though in our area of Woodmont their homes were set back from the water, in the hills past the Jewish world. And there were “Yankees” there too, my father’s word for Protestants. But of course we didn’t mix. Nor did we mix with the people living in the neighboring shoreline boroughs, as dominated by gentiles as Bagel Beach was by Jews, places like Bayview Beach and Pond Point, populated for the most part by Italians, or Morningside, which was a Protestant place, and as closed to us—or so I’d heard—as if surrounded by a fence.
Yes, we were here, engaging like everybody else in a kind of segregated ethnic tribalism that for us was part necessity, part comfort. But my mother didn’t mean only that when she said, her voice confident, her chest filling with air, Here.
- "Vivid, complex, and beautifully written, Elizabeth Poliner's novel, As Close to Us as Breathing, brims with characters who leave an indelible impression on the mind and heart. This moving story of the way one unforgettable family struggles with love and loss shows an uncommon depth of human understanding. Elizabeth Poliner is a wonderful talent and she should be read widely, and again and again." —Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Known World
- "What a lovely, lovely book." —Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge
- "Poliner depicts each character with sensitivity and insight...Beautifully written, stringently unsentimental, and yet tender in its empathy for the perennial human conflict between service and self."—Kirkus (Starred Review)
- "Poliner's novel is an exquisitely written investigation of grief and atonement, and an elegy for a Jewish family bound together by tradition and tribe."—Publishers Weekly
- "Beautiful.... A nuanced, intricate family drama that explores their tight culture at a turning point.... [It's] the kind of novel you sink into blissfully. It casts a spell.... [Poliner's] characters seem so real, so multi-dimensional, so sympathetic even when they mess up that you have to shake yourself back to the present each time you put down the book.... As Close to Us As Breathing is a marvel of artful storytelling."—NPR.org
- "Resonant, sensitively observed...Poliner has a keen eye for the awkwardness and sudden leaping insights of adolescents on the brink of adulthood....Poliner also deserves kudos for the warm, particularized light in which she dresses her many characters. As Close to Us as Breathing is a big-hearted roundelay of a novel that, among other things, performs the invaluable service of recovering a lost world."—New York Times Book Review
"If summer, for you, recalls days spent by the seashore, Poliner's saga of three Jewish sisters and the beachfront cottage they share with their families--until life-altering tragedy strikes--will enthrall you."
—O, the Oprah Magazine
"An instant classic.... Poliner handles the texture of Jewish family life with brilliance, authenticity, and a touch of wistfulness."
—Jewish Book Council
"Superb...As Close to Us as Breathing is a beautiful, complex, character-driven novel. In the author's capable hands, every one of Poliner's characters feels real. And, just as in reality, some of them succumb to life's challenging circumstances. And, just as in reality, some of them succumb to life's challenging circumstances. And some of them ultimately soar."
- On Sale
- Mar 15, 2016
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Lee Boudreaux Books