Gittel watched Fruma turn the pages of a novel with Talmudic intensity, devouring each word like it sustained her. Her cup of tea was situated to her right, as always, and the water inside was heated almost exactly to the temperature she preferred. If her toast was burnt, it would have received her full attention. However, crisped to her standards, it demanded as little attention as her hosts did – who were leaving the house for another day at Yankle's.
Eidel and Buncha slipped past Fruma quietly with curious disdain, looking back to Gittel with raised eyebrows, waiting for a confirmation that she refused to provide. Gittel had still not decided exactly how she felt about Fruma.
"Your cousin will be staying with us for a while," their mother had told them, weeks earlier, as she was pacing around the kitchen looking for something to tidy. She delivered the news matter of factly and did not leave room for discussion. "You're too young to remember, but her tatti, your uncle, grew up in Radzyn. They lived here before he became the chazzan in Odessa."
"Oy, mommy. Really?" they said in unison." You told us a thousand times already!"
Gittel's eyes widened at each mention of books, films, and cafes in her mother's brief description of Fruma's upbringing. The city of Odessa sounded nothing like the shtetl of Radzyn, and the girls of Odessa sounded nothing like the virtuous girls of Radzyn. Her mother had left out most of the details about why Fruma had traveled so far to stay in their home, but that did not trouble Gittel at all. It allowed her imagination to do the rest of the work.
At first, Gittel could not understand why Fruma's family would ever have allowed her to leave. Her laugh was infectious, often reaching a cackle and spreading around the room until everybody joined in. Her smile came all the way down from Heaven. It seemed she could get comfortable anywhere, without concern about who might be listening or watching, and it quickly became difficult to imagine the household without her bubbling energy.
That is, until the morning Buncha kindly reminded Fruma that she'd be expected to help out in the bakery.
"Oh," Fruma replied, tilting her head and squinting like she was being asked to make a decision. "But, I don't think that's really for me."
Gittel could not believe it. In her fourteen years in this world, she had never once witnessed such chutzpah. Nobody ever treated Buncha like she was just a child, even when she was just a child!
And so it did not take long for Gittel to understand why Fruma's parents had sent her to Radzyn. She would not be told when to work at the bakery, she would not be told to sit in shul and she certainly would not be told what to wear and how to wear it. Fruma regarded the household rules as useless, making boundaries seem as vague as the circumstances of her sudden arrival.
And, she was so happy.
She spoke only of lovely things, was exhausted at the end of each day, and brightened whatever space she chose to be in. Although her help was desperately needed, both in the house and outside of it, her bold refusal to compromise made Gittel wonder where she could get some chutzpah for herself.
"What in this world," Gittel imagined as she left for the bakery each morning, "is this girl's secret?"
Gently and deliberately, Gittel pushed each of the buttons on the register as far down as they could possibly go before having any effect. Her legs dangled freely off the chair, swaying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. "How is it it fair," she wondered, "that Fruma never does what she's supposed to do and she's the one that jumps out of bed with a smile every morning? What does she know that we don't?"
It was no longer a secret that Yankle's had not been what it once was, and it was no longer a secret that former customers now preferred to make their own challah at home instead of purchasing it in the early hours of an erev shabbos. Yankle's wife and daughters had inherited a thriving business, yet each week more and more cookies and cakes were left to become stale and discarded, instead of being placed amongst the crumbs of shabbos tables throughout the shtetl.
Radzyn and its only bakery had grown distant. And worse, nobody inside of Yankle's cared to acknowledge it.
Gittel had sensed it even before Fruma arrived. She did not know what it was, but she heard it in the silence of Eidel kneading dough, saw it in the uneven lines of frosting on Buncha's cakes, and felt it as her mother took breaks just to step outside and look around. Gittel could feel the weight under which the entire store was operating. It was burdened. It was rushed. It was exhausted. It felt like it should be anywhere but where it was. And after weeks of watching Fruma doing only what came naturally, and enjoying herself so thoroughly, smiling at a customer no longer felt polite. It felt like a lie.
"A gut morg'n" someone announced as they walked in, startling Gittel. She approached the register directly. "Looks like I have you all to myself this morning, Gittel."
The Rebbetzin nodded and leaned in. "I have to admit, a part of me is glad it's finally over."
Gittel smiled and her cheeks turned pink.
"But," she continued, grabbing Gittel's hand, "I'm so glad you and your sisters were able to come. Everybody could not stop telling me how beautiful you looked."
Gittel looked down and shrugged. She had only worn what she was told to.
"Gitteleh, is your mother here? I have an important question for her."
"Of course, Rebbetzin," said her mother. "Yankle's would be happy to cater the sheva berachos next week."
"Are you certain?" the Rebbetzin asked. "I don't want to take away from any other business."
Both of the women speaking knew this wasn't the case.
"How many people are you expecting?"
"How many people live in Radzyn now?"
Gittel's mother chuckled, and nodded slightly. "Very good," she said, knowing she would have to include all the yidden that had recently moved to take refuge in their small shtetl.
"The Rebbe wants me to tell you," the Rebbetzin added, "how important it is to him that you do this. He always has his reasons, you know."
The Rebbe spent his entire day doing things for the people of Radzyn, but it was rare that the people of Radzyn had the opportunity to do a favor for the Rebbe. Gittel looked up towards her mother so they could share this moment together, but her enthusiasm was met with the same pained expression she noticed on her mother's face when Fruma arrived. She had forgotten to ask then what it meant, but now she knew.
Gittel recognized it from an older moment in the bakery, when she once collapsed to the floor in frustration after dropping a batch of steaming rolls piled too high for her small arms.
Her mother knelt down and, with a kind whisper and that same pained expression, brushed the hair away from Gittel's face. "Sometimes," she told her daughter, "if someone is not yet strong enough, even the tiniest little thing can bring her to her knees."