“Moving . . . [the] hopeful ending may well offer comfort to youngsters who have experienced a similar loss.”Publishers Weekly
“Serious, without being overly sentimental.”School Library Journal
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People don’t just up and die in the middle of the kitchen . . . in the middle of lunch . . . in the middle of their lives, do they? Sierra’s father does, and suddenly life is blurred and unreal. No amount of sympathy from Aunt Rose, Tia Claudia, or the rest of Sierra’s well-meaning
A teen finds solace in Abraham Lincoln’s words and wisdom
People don’t just up and die in the middle of the kitchen . . . in the middle of lunch . . . in the middle of their lives, do they? Sierra’s father does, and suddenly life is blurred and unreal. No amount of sympathy from Aunt Rose, Tia Claudia, or the rest of Sierra’s well-meaning Jewish-Cuban extended family can bring the focus back.
But there is the junk-shop portrait of Abraham LincolnSierra’s historical idolthat had been one of Papa’s “finds.” With Lincoln’s kind eyes and craggy, melancholy face staring out from the frame, it’s as if he is Sierra’s confidant, listening to what she longs to say so she can let Papa go . . . and let her family back in.
When William Goodman died back in the winter of sixteen snowstorms, everybody kept saying, "Thank God Sierra wasn’t there." They were wrong, of course. So vivid were the images that Sierra had gleaned by eavesdropping, she might have rounded the corner and witnessed the scene. A collage of snapshots had been assembled in her head as if she’d pasted them in an album marked "Papa’s Death."
Her father’s hand clasped the remains of a corned beef sandwich as he sat still and dead in the kitchen chair. Just a few minutes before, she could hear her mother scolding him: "Turkey is so much healthier than corned beef, Billy!" She could smell the spicy mustard in the big glass jar, next to his plate with a crust of rye bread on it. A yellow-smeared knife had been tossed carelessly in the sink. She could see him tear into the heft of the sandwich with his strong white teeth, taking swigs of cream soda between bites. The radio next to the toaster blasted a football game. Every once in a while he jabbed a fist in the air, yelling "Yes!" at a touchdown.
Papa was gone by the time Sierra returned home from Eli’s. The apartment was filled with family members: Cubans and Jews. Tía Claudia was there, from Sierra’s mother’s side, speaking Spanish with Tío Berto. Aunt Rose was there from her father’s side, her lilac scent by Avon mingling freely with Tía Claudia’s musky, more expensive fragrance. Uncle Max slumped next to Rose, and like a pair of aging twins, they resembled each other in their wrinkled plumpness. Aunt Rose’s hand lay limply in her husband’s palm, her chipped red nail polish against his blue-veined skin. Tía Claudia’s fingers gestured in glistening pearl, their half-mooned tips painted the whitest of white.
When Sierra’s father first met her mother, he thought she was Puerto Rican. Mama was miffed. Her family had left Cuba when she was six years old, and she was proud of her heritage. "In New York City," she complained, "if you’re Latina, they think you’re Puerto Rican." When Sierra’s parents got married, her father designed apologetic wedding invitations. "Menta Valdes, Cuban princess, and William Goodman, Jewish cowboy, joyfully request the honor of your presence on the occasion of their marriage, Saturday, the third of August, at two o’clock." Neither family found it funny.
When Sierra was born, Menta held her and whispered "mi vida" in the infant’s ear. William had a suspicion that he knew what it meant, but he requested a translation. "My life," she told him, and his eyes filled with tears.
In the hallway of the apartment Eli and his mother flanked Sierra. Uneasy guards, they were confused by the mixture of Spanish and English, with snatches of Yiddish in between. Audible whispers described the commotion, Mama’s attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the arrival of the ambulance. Ginger’s hands hovered above Sierra’s ears, ready to swoop down and cover them the way she’d covered Eli’s, years ago, when anyone swore.
Tía Claudia rushed over and pulled her niece to her chest, encasing her in the softness of her fine silk blouse. The cold crush of her necklace pressed against Sierra’s cheek. "Ah, mi amor, Mama will be with you in a minute," Tía Claudia murmured. "She’s trying to reach your grandmother."
"What happened, Mima?" cried Sierra, using the nickname she had given her aunt as a child. She pulled herself away, sought her aunt’s red-rimmed eyes beneath the fringe of blond hair. Tía Claudia’s lower lip, smudged hastily with an odd pumpkin color, trembled ever so slightly. A clacking noise sounded inside Sierra’s head, a gavel that rapped out, "Your father has died."
"Mi amor," Tía Claudia repeated, cupping Sierra’s chin in the palms of her hands. "I’m so sorry."
Sierra stepped back as if her aunt repelled her. "Where’s Mama?" she cried. "Where’s my brother?" The look on Tía Claudia’s face made her want to run screaming. Her aunt was obviously dangerous, an iceberg in disguise wearing silk and perfume, and the Titanic was about to hit her with Sierra’s family on board. Sierra searched her face for a sign that Papa was alive, in a hospital somewhere, in critical condition, that after the operation they’d move him to step-down, and then they’d list him as stable and he’d be home again. Wasn’t that the way it always went? But it was clear by her aunt’s grimness, by her look of pure sorrow, that the lifeboats had gone.
Copyright © 2000 by Judith Caseley
Reader’s guide copyright © 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
Originally published as Praying to A. L. in hardcover in the United States by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2000.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
JUDITH CASELEY has written many books for readers of all ages. As a young girl, she was drawn to the kindness and melancholy in a framed portrait of Lincoln that hung on her bedroom wall. She lives in Glen Head, New York. www.judithcaseley.com
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