My mother tucked the phone receiver between her shoulder and her ear, lit a cigarette and simultaneously dialed Aunt Rachel’s number.
I left home several years ago, but I’ve overheard enough of these phone calls to be able to recount this conversation. While they lived only two blocks apart and neither of them worked outside the home, my mother and my Aunt Rachel found enough drama in their lives to need to speak to each other every day.
I know the phone was answered after only two rings. Each of them knew when the other was calling.
“Are you making dinner?” my mom asked. “Going to broil chops? Okay then, it's only a little after three, you've got time till Morris comes home. I was getting ready to make a chicken with some potatoes when I got a call. Now I’m so upset I don’t know what I’ll do about dinner and the naked chicken is just sitting alone in the roaster.”
I’m sure Aunt Rachel immediately sat down. If my mom was contemplating not having dinner ready when my father walked through the door, this was a serious call. We’re not a family in which people wait to be fed.
When dinner guests are expected, the entire meal is cooked and ready by noon. A few hours before the meal is scheduled, food is reheated and kept on a low flame. Company walks through the door, says hello, women go to the bathroom and fix their hair, men get drinks, and then everyone sits down to eat. Latecomers eat fast and catch up.
Meals generally include vegetables boiled long enough to remove all vitamins, texture and flavor. It wasn’t until I left home that I realized peas and carrots had individual flavors, not just different colors. There might be some flaccid noodles next to the main dish but fancy side dishes were rare. My mother believes the best thing to accompany a few slices of brisket is a few more slices of brisket.
“I thought, I’ll make it fast and get back to the chicken,” my mother said. “Then I realized it was my-son-the-doctor so I figured Saul could wait a few minutes for dinner. I wanted to have a nice talk with my Benny, make sure the shiksa girlfriend is taking care of him properly. One of these days I’m going to get on a plane and see for myself what’s what in that wilderness.”
My mother paused, inhaled her Kent Menthol and noisily exhaled into the phone. “All I wanted was for him to let me know he was warm enough and eating properly and taking care of himself, because, you know, I worry,” she said. “But instead of comforting me,” he says, ‘I’ve got some great news. Mary and I have decided to make it permanent. We’re getting married in a few months at her parents’ place in Ohio.’
“Say? What could I say?” asked my mother. She stubbed out her cigarette in the ceramic ashtray I’d made in the third grade and lit another one. The menthol smoke mingled with the omnipresent kitchen odors, chicken fat, onions, and lemon-scented cleaning products.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s certainly big news. Sorry to cut this call short but I’ve got to put in the chicken otherwise your father will go hungry.’ Then I hung up and called Sarah to see if she knew what was going on with her brother, see if maybe she could talk some sense into him. But of course my daughter the big business executive was in a meeting and didn’t bother calling her mother back.”
My secretary has strict orders not to put through any calls from my mother unless she proves she’s calling from a hospital or the police or fire department are on the scene.
“Sarah, you’re asking about?” my mom said to Rachel. “Don’t ask. Of course she hasn’t got anyone. Too busy climbing the corporate ladder. Yes, she was always smart. Maybe too smart for her own good.
“I suppose you’ve heard about the Silverberg’s girl? You know, the Silverbergs, they live in the Tudor with the funny looking window trim, around the corner from the shul. Anyway, their oldest daughter Sheila, now she’s a good girl. Okay, not the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen, can’t hold a candle to my Sarah and between you and me I never understood why they didn’t fix her teeth when she was younger. But from a girl like that a family gets noches. This Sheila went to Hunter College right here in the Bronx and became an elementary school teacher. What better job could a girl want? And her uncle pulled strings so she was assigned to a good school in Riverdale. After graduation she didn’t see anything wrong with living with her family. Now she’s engaged to a pharmacist in Spring Valley. The Silverbergs are comfortable, I’m sure by this time next year we’ll hear he’s opening his own drug store and they’re starting a family.
“Between you and me, Sheila’s mother told me more than once how her daughter would love to go out with my Benny. I let him know, but he wouldn’t look at her. Such smart, beautiful children I have,” sighed my mother. “They certainly learned how to give their mother aggravation.”
At this time my brother, Dr. Benjamin Rosen, aka my-brother-the-doctor, who was fruitlessly trying to get the family to call him Ben instead of Benny, was avoiding the threat of Vietnam by working in Appalachia.
Ben supervised a team of hard-working women, members of the Frontier Nursing Service, who drove their jeeps into the mountains each day to treat the people who lived there. Many patients suffered from diseases caused by years of working for strip mining companies, some had digestive disorders caused by drinking moonshine brewed in dirty bathtubs and stills. Patients too sick for the nurses to handle were loaded into the jeep and transported to the medical facility known to my mother and the rest of the family as Benny’s Hospital, a ten-bed facility in a dry Kentucky county.
Jugs of home brew given to him by grateful patients were proudly displayed in my brother’s office along with his diploma. He offered to send a bottle to my father, claiming there was a definite link between the backwoods hooch and Slivovitz, the plum brandy favored by our Eastern European relatives—both drinks smelled and tasted like paint thinner.
Ben and Mary had recently purchased a canoe and started hiking on Appalachian trails. They called their new hobby, portaging. My mother called it “schlepping a canoe though the wilderness and sleeping on the ground like gypsies.”
When my parents and their friends went to the country, they went to the Catskills and stayed at a hotel like Grossingers. A mountain walk involved following paved paths through neatly trimmed lawns. There were three huge meals a day, pools, golf courses, nightclubs, and, at the end of day, comfortable beds, maid service and minibars.
Finally my brother decided to invite the family to come visit him. “I’m tired of having to explain to Mom and Dad that I’m not living on the moon,” he said when he called and asked me to come along. First-generation children need contemporaries to serve as reality checkers and reinforcements when dealing with immigrant parents. I didn’t mind. I was curious about the place.
Ben picked us up at the airport and, because I’d threatened to jump out of the car if her first words were about how upset she was at the news of his wedding, my mother spent the hour-long drive filling my brother in on the activities of all of our neighbors and relatives, many of whom neither Ben nor I could remember. I got out of the car as soon as I could and looked around.
Everything in this town was green and leafy. The people might not be doing well, but the foliage was thriving. I soon learned what I'd mistaken for lush bushes was actually kudzu, an invasive weed that wound itself around the trunks of healthy trees so thickly the trees died from lack of sun.
We visited the old cemetery behind the local church, popular with collectors of rustic memorabilia who did grave rubbings, and I spotted a pink princess phone embedded in a tombstone with the inscription, “She Heard Jesus Calling.”
“Someone’s going to have quite a long-distance bill,” said my father.
The next day we went to a crafts fair where my mother and I admired the handmade quilts displayed by local women. Mary helped us examine the merchandise to make sure they were really pieced from 100% cotton fabrics. Some of the local women had lately started using synthetic materials because they lasted longer. They didn’t understand why visitors from the city turned their noses up at acrylics.
My father, quickly bored with the fair, wandered off to explore the rest of the town and soon got lost. He walked up to a local policeman. “I’m Dr. Benny Rosen’s father, I vunder, could you help me out?” said my dad in his thick Jewish accent.
The cop looked at him for a minute and then smiled. “Dr. Ben. Sure, I know him. You have a very smart boy there. I had some real bad pain in my gut about a month ago and he fixed me right up.”
My father smiled at the officer, pleased to hear his-son-the-doctor was appreciated.
“And he’s got a good head on his shoulders for non-medical stuff too,” continued the cop. “The house he’s renting here in town is owned by my cousin and when he heard a doctor was thinking about taking the place he tried to jack up the rent. But your son got the house for a very good price. Dr. Ben really knew how to Jew him down.”
My father froze. After a minute he politely asked for the location of the closest synagogue. The cop paused for a few minutes, looked at my dad and told him there wasn’t one in town. There was probably one in Lexington. He wasn’t sure.
My dad got directions back to the crafts fair. He quickly located my mother and me. Like everyone else making a purchase, we were busy bargaining with an old woman. We’d found a king-size double wedding ring quilt, a real steal even at the asking price.
He listened for a minute and then interrupted. “It’s a good enough deal,” Dad said. “We’ll take it.” He took a wad of bills from his pocket, handed them to Mary who was staring at him, and asked her to pay for the quilt.
Then he pulled my mother and me aside. Speaking softly in Yiddish, confident no one else could understand, my father recounted his conversation with the cop. My mom and I looked at him and at each other. Then we all started talking at once.
“Jew ‘em down is just an expression.”
“It doesn’t mean anything to them.”
“They actually mean it as a compliment.”
“Don’t tell Ben and Mary, they’re going to live here for the rest of the year, no need to upset them.”
“But maybe they should know who they’re living with.”
My father had grown up in a small town in Poland, a place where many of the Polish children who were his friends when they were all little became the enemy when they got older. My relatives’ stories often sounded like they’d been cribbed from Fiddler on the Roof, but instead of fleeing the czar, people in Dad’s town had to escape the Nazis and local anti-Semites.
One of the most moving scenes in Fiddler is the lighting of the Sabbath candles. In Jewish homes throughout the village, old women and young women, in small huts and large houses, wave their hands over burning candles, welcoming the Sabbath and bringing the candle’s light to their faces as they blessed their children. Part of the prayer they chant during this scene goes, “strengthen them O Lord and keep them from the stranger’s ways.”
My brother was living among strangers. He was accepted, respected. But you never know. Things could change quickly. It had happened before. My father didn’t expect my brother to join the synagogue in Lexington, but he was reassured to know that, just in case, some of “our people” were nearby.
We walked back to the fair where Mary had the quilt wrapped and paid for. “Everything okay?” she asked. We said we were fine. We had decided not to mention my father’s conversation with the cop. Mary wouldn’t understand. Ben would understand but might say my dad was being sensitive. No one wanted Ben to bring this up with the cop or any of the townspeople. That would be asking for trouble.
“Let’s go back to the house,” Mary said. “It’s time to start dinner.”
My mother nodded. “Don’t worry, dear,” she said. “I’ll help you. I know how my Benny likes his food.”
Like all of the family members in my generation, my brother had lived at home while going to college, but after graduation he brazenly refused to apply to an NYC medical school. Talk about chutzpah. His applications for internship? Not even on the East Coast.
I was in awe of Ben’s independence. I’d read all the teenage romance novels and yearned to be part of “the real America.” But when it came time to fill out college applications, I was unable to launch much of a battle against my parent’s insistence that I go to a local school and live at home.
I was smart and popular enough in my own world, but what would it be like on the outside? Maybe I’d heard too many stories of marauding Cossacks, of friendly Polish neighbors who revealed hidden Jews to the Nazis, or maybe there’s just a limit to how much ground the oldest child can break. I went to school in New York, lived at home, and fought with my folks until they agreed to my moving out after graduation.
I only got as far as Manhattan, a subway ride away, but it was farther than most of my friends. My mom was embarrassed to tell people I’d flown the nest without a wedding ring on my hand. “What was I doing in my own apartment that I couldn’t do in my parents’ home which was bigger and cleaner and where I had everything I wanted?” she asked.
At the end of my visits home, there’d be several packages carefully wrapped in flesh colored butcher paper, steaks, lamb chops, sometimes a chicken or a roast, ready for me to take to my apartment.
To make sure the local kosher butchers, and any nosey customers who might be listening when she placed her order, didn’t ask why she was suddenly buying less, my mother continued to buy as much meat as she had when I was home. “Why should other people know our business?” she asked. “This way I know you’re eating good stuff.”
Ben and Mary had been dating for over a year in Chicago where he was an intern when he got the position in Appalachia. He immediately asked her to go with him. Much to my parents’ annoyance, she agreed.
“It was bound to happen,” my mother said when she told friends that Ben was getting married to the shiksa. “A nice Jewish doctor out there in the Kentucky wilderness, away from his family, what could we expect?”
Like most Jewish women with sons, my mother and aunts believed that, throughout America, hordes of gentile females were lying in wait for their sons, desperate to land a nice Jewish boy. Sons were cautioned to remain stalwart against the lure of the Christian sirens who wanted to pry them from their loving families. Most of the Jewish boys I knew were all too eager to submit if they could only find these girls.
Jewish girls were told to be wary of this competition. "Women like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, rich, beautiful movie stars, converted and married Jewish men," our mothers reminded us. "And the men they married weren't even doctors. With such competition you don't want to be too picky."
My failure to return the message my mother had left in my office didn’t deter her from making sure I got the news as soon as possible. When I walked through my door, the phone was ringing.
“You’ll never guess what happened today,” said my mother.
I wasn’t surprised by her news but I didn’t let on that I’d spoken to Ben a few days before and knew he was planning to pop the question. I’d been more concerned about my mother’s reaction than Mary’s answer.
I spent the next half hour making soothing sounds, “Ah hah, mom…I understand, mom…of course you and daddy were great parents… no I don’t think Ben has some sort of disease that’s affecting his mind.” I threw in a few phrases like, “Actually I think she’s a nice girl,” and “You know Ben has a few faults too,” but those didn’t go over too well.
In the midst of our conversation my doorbell rang. I knew it was Luke with our dinner. I stretched the phone cord across the room so I could unlock the door.
Luke walked in carrying two shopping bags which he put in the kitchen and then came over to where I was still talking on the phone and quickly kissed me on the cheek. “It’s my mom” I mouthed. He held up his hands in mock terror and backed out of the room.
"Gotta go," I said into the phone. "The delivery from the Chinese restaurant is here.”
“Be careful when you open the door,” my mother said. “A pretty girl like you, someone could be trying to break in and take advantage.”
“I’ve been living on my own in Manhattan for almost ten years Mom, I know how to take care of myself.”
“Believe me, I know you’re alone although I can’t understand why. Maybe you should learn to cook. I could give you a few recipes the next time you’re here. Maybe that would help.” I rolled my eyes and got off the phone.
“Well, it’s official,” I said, walking into the kitchen where Luke was unpacking the grocery bags. “The great healer is marrying a gentile.”
“Oy vey,” said Luke. He’d been in New York long enough to pick up a few Yiddish phrases.
I didn’t hear his last remark. I had my head in the freezer, using a sharp knife to try to get at the Sara Lee Cheese Cake that was frozen to the shelf. I managed to pry away the frost-covered package top, hacked off a large chunk of cake and popped it into my mouth. As the cake-cheese sickle filled me with icy, sweet gooeyness, I turned and saw Luke staring at me.
“What?” I said. “My mother makes me tense. It’s not that I’m so needy I can’t wait for the cake to defrost. I prefer it this way.” I wondered if Luke was planning to spend the night and, if so, if I’d be able to sneak any more frozen cheesecake later on.
Luke shook his head but didn’t say anything, just went back to chopping vegetables which would be steamed and served next to the chicken breasts I’d gotten from my mom the previous week. He’d removed the skin, quartered the bird and left it in some sort of marinade the day before.
I looked at Luke while I set the table. Tall, well-muscled and blue-eyed, he was the farm boy stereotype I’d always lusted after, so good looking that when I first saw him leading the exercise class at my gym I doubted he was straight. I started going to his fitness workouts every day, got to know him and eventually we started dating. I learned that he left Nebraska right after high school and came to New York to become an actor. Stardom turned out to be more elusive than he’d anticipated but he wasn’t giving up on his dream and kept himself in shape so he’d be ready when the big break came.
The guy didn’t provide much intellectual stimulation but, between the food and the exercise, this was the healthiest relationship I’d had in a while.
Everyone always wants to know about my social life, maybe I should take Luke to the Bronx I thought, smiling for the first time that evening.
You should see him cook, Mom, I’d say. Ask him for his chicken breast recipe. I gleefully imagined my mother getting paler and paler. Her daughter’s boyfriend was not just a goy, but a goy with no financial prospects. She’ll plotz I thought, go into cardiac arrest and my-brother-the-doctor will be too far away to save her. Well, it’d be one way to get away from the nagging. But then I’d be stuck taking care of my father. It wasn’t worth it. Better keep Luke a secret, let him just cook nutritious meals and flex his muscles only for me.
We do not suffer silently in my family. We seek solace and advice from kindred souls. Yet we rarely communicate directly with each other. No one called my brother. All messages were filtered through at least two other people.
As soon as she got off the phone with my brother, my mother dragged out the stepladder and easily found the box of chocolate chip cookies she’d hidden from herself so she wouldn’t ruin her latest diet. She opened a fresh pack of cigarettes and picked up the phone.
After calling me and Aunt Rachel, my mother called her friend Miriam, whose daughter Phyllis had been involved with a non-Jew but, faced with her mother's strong disapproval, broke it off and was now seeing a nice Jewish boy, an accountant. Then she called her friend Frieda, whose son Barry married a Puerto Rican girl and his whole family went into mourning. It had been a year since anyone had spoken directly to Barry. It was rumored that Barry's wife was pregnant and planning to have the baby baptized. If it was a boy, they would name it Jesus Goldfarb. The soon-to-be grandmother was getting migraines and spent her days lying in a dark room with a damp cloth on her forehead. Neighbors dropped off casseroles.
My father called his brothers, which was very unsatisfying since they already knew the story from their wives who had been contacted by my mother. He called a few golf buddies who didn’t seem too concerned.
So he decided to pull out the big guns. He called the Rabbi.
The fact that the Rabbi hadn’t seen my brother since his Bar Mitzvah was irrelevant. He was after all, THE REBBE. My father was a big contributor to the Bonds-for-Israel drive and to the Synagogue Renovation Fund. There was a plaque with my father’s name on the door leading to the area where the mechanicals for the central air conditioning were housed. My father was sure the Rabbi would know what to do and would be glad to do it.
As far as I could tell, sitting in my Manhattan apartment, every time anyone in the family spoke to anyone else their next step was to dial my number. “Sarah, you’re a smart girl, you know how the world works,” they cried. “How could this happen? What should be done?”
As far as I was concerned, nothing needed to be done. I liked Mary and thought Ben was lucky to have her. I wondered if I should call Mary and let her know what a lunatic family she was about to enter.
Before they hung up and went back to wringing their hands, most of my relatives managed to find a way to remind me that I was Ben’s older, still unmarried sister, and to inquire as to whether I was seeing anyone and did I want to be fixed up.
I sometimes wonder if my family’s mania over my failure to find a man was their way of thinking I might be gay. I remember the time a cousin from Miami whom she didn’t see very often called my mother. “My daughter is coming to New York for a week,” the woman said. “She has a partner. They’re coming together.”
My mother, ever hospitable, immediately offered to take care of the girls. I wondered if she’d understood the implication of her cousin’s description of the friend, or had just jumped at the chance to have new people to feed. Two days after they arrived my father called and told me to phone my mother. “The lesbians are driving her crazy and your mother’s driving me crazy,” he said.
“They’re impossible,” my mother told me. “The way they live is unnatural. I can’t believe people survive with such an unhealthy lifestyle.”
I launched into my prepared speech on the importance of tolerating people who were different. My mother cut me off. “They’re sweethearts, who cares?” she said. “The rest of it? Disgusting!”
My mother eventually explained that as soon as the girls walked through the door she led them to the table where gefilte fish, roast beef and chopped liver were waiting. That’s when she learned that the young women weren’t just lesbians. They were vegetarians!
“Did you ever hear of such a thing?” my mother ranted. “They’ve decided to eat all of their meals out while they’re in New York. They’ll probably starve to death. What will I say to their mothers?”
Two weeks after my mother’s call, when I thought I’d heard from every last relative and associate who believed they had an obligation to share their opinions, my phone rang again.
"Hello, Sarah?" said an unfamiliar voice. "This is Rabbi Weissman. How are you?"
I almost dropped the phone. I was talking to the Rabbi while wearing only an old T-shirt and a pair of panties. I was grateful that at least I wasn’t wearing the panties with the ripped elastic. I started to stutter, sure the Rabbi could tell from my voice that I'd had a ham and cheese sandwich the day before. To his credit, the Rabbi seemed primarily concerned with how upset my family was rather than the likelihood that my brother was heading for whatever Jewish equivalent of hell awaits sons who aggravate their wonderful-parents-who’ve-never-wanted-anything-but-that- their-children-should-be-happy. Before he said good-bye, the Rabbi mentioned that he knew a few eligible Yeshiva students who might want to meet me.
Enough was enough. It was time for action. Not at all reluctant to dial the Kentucky area code, I called my brother and told him that the whole family was going crazy about his wedding plans.
“You’re exaggerating,” he said.
“That’s what you think!” I yelled. “They’ve all been calling me, rehearsing their spiels! They’re ready to push every button, from the obligation of Jews to produce more Jews because of everyone killed in the Holocaust to the fact that if Mom hadn’t sat in front of your highchair shoveling food into you each day, every day, at every meal you’d have starved to death.”
“If she hadn’t shoveled so much food into us we wouldn’t have had to deal with being fat children,” he said. “Thanks to those forced feedings we’ll always have a weight problem.”
My family fed their children as if they were French farmers trying to produce foie gras.
“Don’t I have a right to live my own life?” he said.
Now this was a radical idea. I paused before I answered, loudly. “Of course not! What’s happened to your sense of family obligation? The guilt our mother worked so hard to instill?’ The air high in the Appalachians must be very thin, I thought. Or maybe he’s been dipping into the moonshine.
“Look, you have to come back here and talk this out in person,” I said. “This is no way to start your married life. Mary deserves better.” I hadn’t watched my mother play the guilt card all these years without learning a few things.
“I can’t just pick up and leave anytime I want,” he said. “There are sick people here, the hospital needs me.”
Oh no, kid, I thought, don’t try that Saint Doctor act on me.
To be fair, Ben always seemed a little embarrassed by all of the doctor idolatry. He wanted to be a doctor, not the doctor. Accordingly, he had refused my mother’s suggestion that he bring his stethoscope to Passover dinner the first year he entered med school, “Just in case someone doesn’t feel so good.”
“Listen Dr. Benny-boy,” I said, “there are other docs at the hospital. Tell them it’s a family emergency and fly back for a day or two. Otherwise,” I warned, “the next call I’m making is to the Rabbi. I’m going to tell him I’m sure it would be helpful if he called you personally. Then I’ll phone Mary and while I'm congratulating her I'll share some family memories, maybe send her a few of the photos from your Bar Mitzvah.”
As an adult my brother had grown tall and trim and athletic. But at thirteen he was a cherubic little creature, as wide as he was tall, with puffy, bright red cheeks, the kind no aunt or grandma could resist pinching. He’d sported a gold brocade tuxedo jacket and matching yarmulke at his Bar Mitzvah party. The photo I had in mind showed him ogling an enormous standing rib roast while our parents beamed in the background. I certainly wasn’t going to send any of the photos that included me, stuffed into a shocking pink satin dress, slightly taller than Ben but just as wide, my hair teased up half a foot with sparkling blue eye shadow from my lashes to my eyebrows.
My brother remembered the photo album. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said.
A week later, Ben and I rang their bell. I’d picked him up at the airport. Like a child who taunts a misbehaving sibling, ‘boy are you gonna get it now,’ I was looking forward to this confrontation and didn’t want to miss any of it.
My mother shuffled to the door visibly suffering, grey roots showing in her unteased hair, chips at the oval tips of her Revlon’s Fire and Ice painted nails. I wondered if she’d contemplated a hunger strike, but that would have been counterproductive. When you’ve got a figure that’s best described as zaftig, any weight loss is met with congratulations not pity.
After making sure my brother wasn’t dying of hunger or thirst by making him the sandwich and drink he refused three times, my mother launched her attack.
“All I want is for you to be happy.
“Think of your children. What will they be? They won’t feel like part of the family.
“Your backgrounds are so different, you need to find someone who shares your values,” she said.
“Maybe you should take some time off and get away,” my father said, not wanting to be left out. “We’ll pay. A week in the Caribbean, maybe a cruise. Go alone so you can think about what you’re doing. You’ve been spending too much time surrounded by hillbillies. Go someplace where there are Jews.”
“What will I tell people?” My mother took back the conversation. “How will I face your grandmother?”
“Hey, Mom,” I whispered. “Grandma died three years ago.”
My mother scowled at me. “I mean when I see her in heaven,” she said and turned back to my brother. She had one big powerhouse punch left in her.
“You’re a doctor. We sacrificed so you could make people feel better. Look at your father. Doesn’t he look sick? I haven’t been able to make him a decent meal since this business started. And me? Don’t ask,” said my mother. “How I feel isn't important. I just want you to be happy.”
My brother landed a few good jabs, forcing Mom against the ropes, weakening her position.
“We’ve been together for several years,” Ben said. “We know each other very well.
“I’m not a kid anymore, I know what’s right for me.
“Mary’s family isn’t religious. We’re going to be married by a judge. If you want to have a rabbi perform another ceremony some time when we visit that would be okay.
“Maybe she’ll convert. We’ve talked about it. Just not right now.”
Then he looked my mom right in the eye, pushed away the apple she’d sliced for him, and landed the haymaker.
“Look, I really want you to be at my wedding. I’ll be very disappointed if you’re not there. But with you or without you, we’re going to get married.”
I almost passed out. Somehow during his years in the Midwest my brother had managed to grow a pair of balls so big it was a wonder he could walk.
My father looked at my mother. My mother looked at my brother. My mother is an expert card player. She knows how to tell when someone is bluffing. It was time to throw in the towel.
My mother fed my brother two large meals, packed a bag with a dozen bagels and a brisket and sent him back to Kentucky. Then she got on the phone and announced to everyone that if we didn’t go to the wedding we’d lose Benny, her-son-the-doctor. Everyone had seen something like that happen in other families. My mother wasn’t going to let it happen to her. “There’s room to negotiate,” she said. “What’ll be in the future, will be. Right now I have to figure out what to wear to this affair.”
A few months later, there we were, landing on a runway lined with cornfields, to witness the wedding of my-brother-the-doctor to the skinny shiksa from the Midwest.
“Welcome to Pleasantville, Ohio,” said the pilot. If he’d said we were landing in Ulan Bator it wouldn’t have sounded any more bizarre to me.
I was sitting next to my parents, watching my mother try to pull a comb through her heavily sprayed hair. Behind me, Aunt Rachel was telling Uncle Morris not to forget the bag in the overhead compartment. “In all our years of traveling I never forgot a bag,” he said. “It wouldn’t be an issue if you didn’t bring so much.”
Across the aisle, Aunt Bessie was peering into the large purse she'd clutched on her lap since take-off, everyone had gone to the bank and taken their big rocks out of the safe deposit boxes. Uncle Paul leaned over her to ask the stewardess if she had a few extra packs of peanuts, just in case he needed a snack. The women were wearing polyester pants suits, good for traveling, in a variety of pastel colors. They had all gone to the beauty parlor the day before to get their roots done and a few extra highlights. The manicurist had filed their nails into points and painted them Dragon Lady Crimson. Dresses and dyed-to-match shoes were carefully packed.
It had been a three-hour flight with no meal service and everyone was hungry. Look out Pleasantville, Ohio.
We got through the wedding in one piece. It was held at Mary’s parents’ home and I quickly got tired of explaining that the furnishings were antique, not old. I pointed out the beautiful hard wood floors and kilim throw rugs throughout the house. Aunt Bessie shrugged. “By us, we like wall-to-wall” she said and snared another mini quiche from a passing waiter.
I started talking to one of Mary’s aunts, a thin woman who thought that it must be so exciting to be “a New York career girl.” She was sorry her own daughter had married young and never got a chance to “spread her wings.” I wanted to throw my arms around this woman and beg her to adopt me.
The ceremony was mercifully short, the judge was a friend of the family who had been briefed on the situation and managed to unite Ben and Mary in holy matrimony without any mention of a divine presence from either the New or the Old Testament.
I’d been concerned about the dinner, afraid Mary’s family would put everything in Jell-O molds and cut the crusts off all of the bread or my family would loudly ask why the portions were so skimpy. As far as I could tell no one had any complaints about the food, at least none that kept them from putting away second helpings. I wondered if Mary’s family was surprised at how quickly my family gobbled up the bacon wrapped appetizers and left the fresh vegetables.
Turns out we weren’t the only Jews in this Ohio town. Every time there was a pause someone introduced my parents to “our very good friends, the Levines.” Of course Tommy and Susie Levine weren’t like any Jews my parents had ever met. Tall and thin and blond, they’d just won the country club tennis doubles championship and bought a brand-new BMW to celebrate their victory. My father graciously didn’t mention his feelings about Jews who bought German cars.
A few months later Mary’s parents flew to New York for the “Jewish wedding.” The event was held at my parents’ country club, one of the Westchester clubs with a Jewish membership. A Reform rabbi, provided by the caterer, performed the marriage ceremony, under a chupah. There were a few blessings in Hebrew, some words of wisdom in English, and then Ben stomped on the glass (actually a flash bulb wrapped in a napkin.) Everyone yelled, “Mazel Tov” and went into the next room for dinner and dancing.
Luke and I had broken up; I went to both weddings alone. Every single person in my family shook their heads and sighed. In a panic, I noticed they were no longer offering to fix me up. Clearly my freshness date had expired.
Mary’s parents had prepared for the event by taking Israeli folk dancing lessons at a local college and were disappointed they didn’t get an opportunity to demonstrate their new skills. The band played show tunes, a variety of oldies, and one hora during which Mary sat on a chair carried around the room by a group of sturdy cousins as she tried to laugh and keep from falling off.
“It’s not even a Klezmer band,” I overheard her parents whisper to each other.
The happy couple eventually settled in Baltimore, not exactly the Bronx but not that far away. They joined a temple, Mary converted, became president of the Hadassah and was the only one in the family who regularly lit candles on Friday night. With three toddlers at home, she managed to graduate at the top of her law school class and every bedroom in their house had a hand-made quilt. She’d learned the skill during their time in Kentucky.
When my mother became ill, Mary commuted to the Bronx to spend a night with my mom every other week. “Of course my daughter-in-law-the-lawyer is a wonderful girl,” my mother said to admiring friends.
“You think my son would settle for anything less? Don’t forget, he’s a doctor.”