Part of a family with mentally retarded parents and siblings, Abra is the family caretaker. That is until she leaves for college, disconnecting her family ties. Abra's old school teacher assists her in locating a small establishment far from where she lives; it's here that she starts to fabricate a life as an orphan.
Abra creates an independent life as a successful psychologist and, 16 years after leaving home, she receives word that her sister has passed away. With her friends and colleagues, she decides to share her family secrets to help her understand why she abandoned her family.
She falls in love with her high school teacher's nephew, Adam, who assists her in coming to terms with her belief that she has genes, which must not be passed on to descendants.
Thank God there was a Starbucks across the street from the funeral home. At 7:00 that morning, Abra had taken the subway from her midtown Manhattan hotel to Queens so she could find an unobtrusive spot to observe the funeral. She had been shaking since she got on the subway. The trembling was especially noticeable around her neck. She thought she looked like someone with Parkinson's or Katherine Hepburn, in her old age when she shook like a leaf in a hurricane. But when she looked at her reflection in the subway window, she saw that she wasn't shaking on the outside, only on the inside. As she gazed at her reflection in the glass, she began to ease. The rhythmic rocking of the subway soothed her.
It didn't really matter if someone saw her sitting in Starbucks looking at the funeral home.
No one would recognize her. She was not the same Abra who was last in Queens 16 years ago.
She didn't even have the same last name. Then she was Abra Ginzberg, now she was Abra Berg. She had chopped off the first half of her name the same way she had chopped off the first half of her life.
She got off at the Queens Boulevard subway stop and as she walked up the steps to the street, she felt as if she were rising from a grave. She pictured herself like a figure in a horror movie - a transparent ghost in a white shroud wafting up from a coffin with arms outstretched and hair flying. She was coming back from her afterlife to her first life.
Before she saw the street, she felt it. With each step, her ears were bombarded by the sounds of traffic - buses moaning and groaning, cars beeping and screeching, people rushing up and down the steps speaking English with thick New York accents or babbling in incomprehensible tongues. The smells engulfed her. They permeated her skin and were absorbed by her cells. She felt that she would forever reek of exhaust fuels and frying oils expelled into the street air from the restaurants. By the time she reached the top step she was immersed in 1990, the last time she had walked these streets.
She headed in the direction of Goldstein & Simms Funeral Home. What a name for a funeral home, Jewish and WASP. That way almost everybody was a potential customer, whatever their religion. All they needed to do was add names like Hussain and Chang and they would cover everyone. As she walked, she recognized every inch of the streets. She had spent so much of her teen years walking these streets to do the family shopping. Not shopping for clothes, music, or jewelry, like other teenagers. No, shopping for life's necessities.
The funeral home was three blocks from the house where she lived the first 18 years of her life. She stayed glued to Queens Boulevard not daring to venture anywhere near 17th Street.
She didn't want to get a passing glimpse of the house or the street even though her family no longer lived there.
She searched the stores along the way to find those that had withstood time. There were still the kosher butcher, candy store, grocery, and cleaners. They looked so small and dingy.
They probably had always been small and dingy when she shopped in them, but the 16 years had shrunk them further and made them seedier and grayer. The grocery store still had fruit displayed out front. In 1990, she considered it old-fashioned and unsanitary, but now she thought it looked almost quaint. Like what you would see on the streets of some of Europe's cities. Open air fruit markets in London or Paris were charming. Open air fruit markets in Queens with circling flies and dirty, germ-ladened hands pawing the merchandise were disgusting. What bacteria and deadly viruses were transferred from those hands to those tomatoes? Years ago, when she had to buy the produce that was only in outside bins, she dug to the bottom to find the fruit that had been least contaminated. After she got home, she washed this produce as if she were an obsessive compulsive washing her hands.
But now there were new stores. There was Barnes and Noble, Old Navy, and, of course, the ever-present Starbucks. There were all types of ethnic restaurants and even a halal market to counterbalance the kosher butcher. She shifted her attention from the stores to the hordes of people on the street. She recalled that the streets had always been jammed no matter the time.
In New York, people looked like automatons, especially early in the morning. The ones rushing to the subway looked like they had been wound up tight, like toy tops that start turning in perfect circles and gradually wobble until they fall. So many were talking on their cells, and still others were holding the cells to their ears for security or their downloading of brain cancer waves. Who were they talking to so early in the morning? If you didn't see the phones, you would think that they were the schizophrenics wandering the streets talking to their demons.
They really sounded crazy because they spoke in loud voices as if they were yelling orders to underlings. Why did people have to scream when they were on cells? They didn't do that with land line phones. There were only a few facial expressions visible on these early morning rushers - preoccupation, worry, anger, but never smiles or eagerness.
There were women shopping at the old stores at this early hour. The old stores weren't like the new ones that opened at 10. The old ones opened early and stayed open late to accommodate people who worked long hours and had long commutes and, of course, to make more money. She noticed that some of the stores had different owners. In the candy store, there were now Asians in place of the old Jewish couple who had kept the store open from 6 AM till midnight. When had those people slept? Where had they slept? They never made conversation when Abra bought cigarettes for her mother or candy for Rachel and Noah. They never looked in her eyes even though she had been in the store countless times. They exuded anger and hate, not for Abra, but for life, their lives.
Abra remembered her morning shopping trips at 7 before she left for school. She had to make sure that there was enough food for her parents while she was at school. She knew the location of everything in the grocery store. She could find the soup shelves with her eyes closed. She bought gallons of soup, especially Campbell's chicken noodle. Everyone loved that along with thick slabs of challah slathered with butter. Suddenly she realized that the Jewish bakery was gone. Everyday she bought challah and bagels and bialeys. They never got stale because they were eaten three meals a day. Where had the bakery been? She thought maybe that was where the Thai restaurant was. What a trade - pad thai for challah.
She also remembered the night visits to the pharmacy. She must have been 12 when she started going to the pharmacy to get medicine for whatever was wrong with the kids or her parents. Wasn't she afraid to walk the streets at night even though they were well-lit and filled with people? She couldn't remember what she thought. She only remembered her actions. She did what had to be done and she didn't think about it. Now she was reflective about every action she took. Now she was alone - she wasn't responsible for anyone but herself. Then she had the weight of the Ginzberg world on her shoulders, and what a heavy world that was. But she never consciously thought about it. From an early age she knew she was responsible for the whole family, but she always knew she wouldn't be chained to them for her whole life. She knew she would make her great escape.
She walked slowly and examined the women who rushed by her. Some were dressed for work and pushing kids in strollers or holding their hands, probably taking them to day care.
These women looked so harried, so frantic, like the day had opened with hundreds of hours of things for them to do in the next confining 24 hours. She wondered if she had looked like that when she went off for her morning shopping. Rachel and Noah didn't go to day care. When they weren't in school, Abra was their baby sitter. Even if day care had been available, no one would have taken such damaged kids. She was even her mother and father's baby sitter. It was a shame there had been no parent day care where she could leave them. Oh, how she needed respite from her never-ending responsibilities.
The neighborhood had changed over the last 16 years, but it also hadn't changed. There were still lots of Jews, but they were different now. There were lots of old Jews. The younger ones had moved to the suburbs or the exurbs for a different geography, one with distance between people. In Queens, people were squashed together in their apartments, on the streets, and in the stores. There was no greenery. Everything was gray and concrete. The younger Jews had opted for space, greenery, and the proverbial white picket fence. Now, there were also foreign Jews, especially Russians, on the first stop before they, too, moved on in search of space and greenery. To add spice to the neighborhood, there were a number of non-Jews from all parts of the Arab world, Asia, and Latin America. This old Jewish neighborhood of New York was dissolving.
Abra knew diversity first hand. She worked for the Fairfax County schools in Virginia, one of the most diverse school systems in the country. There were kids from hundreds of countries speaking a babel of languages. She had to test and counsel kids who spoke Urdu, Kurdish, Tagalog, and languages no one had heard before the kids arrived on the school's doorstep. But Fairfax County diversity wasn't the same as Queens diversity. Fairfax had started with a small white WASP population, while Queens had started with a large population of Jews, some American born and others from European countries. There had never been a "real American WASP" in Abra's Queens.
Although she worked in a multicultural melting pot, Abra lived in an enclave of mostly affluent American-born whites. Her personal life was like a small island of white bread floating in a huge ocean of humus. Her friends were primarily white, with a sprinkling of Asians, all American born, all well-educated, and all middle class.
She was surprised that she remembered the stores so vividly. She even recalled some of the big cracks in the sidewalk. She had always walked with her head down determined to carry out her missions and careful not to trip on the jagged pieces of concrete sticking up. She made thousands of trips to the grocery, pharmacy, and different government offices. She was the lifeline to the outside world for the people who lived in apartment 2D at 4313 17th Street. She was the official representative who spoke to the world on behalf of the Ginzberg family. She made telephone calls and filled out forms. She was even the one who did the banking. From an early age, she knew how to deposit the government disability checks that supported them. She started writing checks for rent, electricity, and telephone when she was 10. Using her best penmanship she completed each section and then had her father sign on the signature line. He wrote like a child with large, shaky letters bunched together. Jacob A. Ginzberg. A for Aaron.
Everyone in the family had biblical names, although no one read the Bible or went to synagogue.
Today Abra worked with kids who acted on behalf of their parents dealing with the demands of living and working in a foreign culture. These kids were like UN translators as they ably spoke English to doctors, lawyers, policemen, landlords, and translated back into their parents' tongue. But it was different from what she had done. The parents of these kids usually made the decisions, and the kids were only translators. Abra had to make decisions for people who didn't have the mental capacity to do so. Her parents had grown up in the culture, but hadn't absorbed it. They were children in adults' bodies.