ACT ONE: ANGUISH
ACT TWO: NEGOTIATING THE DIVIDES
ACT THREE: TRYING TO PULL IT ALL TOGETHER
02 July 2013
My father had collapsed and was hooked up to machines in the ICU; my mother had fallen and broken her hip. That’s when she told me I was adopted.
BLC: What do you mean adopted?
The Nanny: But Miriam, she looks just like Nathan.
Ema: We did that on purpose.
ACT ONE: ANGUISH
PALESTINE: IN THE BEGINNING
Hers was not a big family. Just her, a brother and parents. Somehow this was connected to the ‘secrets’. But there were lots of friends and their children to play with. Often, on shabbes,they took the bus to the zoo or the beach. They had wonderful times together. And still, the secrets hovered. She didn’t ask. Somehow, she knew it would hurt her parents if she did.
Her father was away a lot and that seemed to add to her mother’s worries. He was a soldier and he had to fight in the army. When her mother found out what he really did, she went deeper inside herself. That became her default for the rest of her life.
BLC: Ema, tell me, where do you go?
EMA: Don’t worry where I go. I’m here when you need me.
With time, the pieces started to come together and the little girl began to know the story. Her parents’ families had been rounded up then herded like cattle onto trains and sent to the gas chambers. Times and details were always sketchy with unexplained gaps. Who knows what her father did? He was never in one place. He knew about horses, so he spent some time taking care of horses in Plaszow, of Oskar Schindler fame. Her mother was in the Lodz ghetto then taken to Auschwitz. At the end, the Nazis, knowing the end was near, marched two thousand women eastward away from the Allies. Only a hundred or so women survived that Death March. She was one of them.
EMC: (watching a documentary on one of the death marches) Can you imagine having to go through that.
BLC: Ema did.
BLC: Ema was on that death march.
EMC: That explains a lot.
After the war, her parents met in a displaced person’s camp in Italy, then smuggled by the underground into Israel on an illegal fishing boat. There they married, ready to start their new life, in the promised land. Within a year, war was declared and the very strong, very tall father was chosen to be in a dangerous unit in the army. For the little girl, the stories only added to her already unspoken fears and worries. It would never go away and would remain with her forever.
One day, her father rushed into the house and announced that ‘the papers’ had arrived. Before she knew it, they were selling everything and packing up to go to a place called Canada. She couldn’t imagine where it was but she knew they had to go for a long time on a big ship and that they had to leave everything behind – the new furniture, that crystal chandelier she liked to stare at for hours, the shoemaker around the corner who sat in the open window, her friends – everything and everybody. As it had been up to then – and what would become a lifelong pattern – it was a little exciting but a lot frightening. And it would only get more so.
In Canada, life turned upside down. She looked different and she certainly felt so. On the playground, some kids called her a dirty Jew or Christ Killer so she would get into fights. Her mother despaired. Would she always be so quick to lash out? Why was she always so angry? At the community centre, people were welcoming but in a guarded way. They had never met anyone so exotic. She became the exhibit at the museum, the monkey at the zoo; she was the alien in a world of perfect-looking children from perfect families who were every bit as wonderful as those she saw on television.
During this sequence, the Narrator weaves in and out of the various scenarios of her youth….
And the girls – ( little girls of various ages, twirl around the stage) — oh, yes, those delicately-shaped porcelain dolls whose mothers would shop for them in Buffalo for jewel-encrusted Capezio shoes and frilly, party dresses with layers upon layers of crinolines that lay just right. Not sticking out because of hips dangerously chubby. At the extravagant Bar-Mitzvah parties, the fashion in the Fifties, these precious princesses would be transformed into visions of pink femininity. Only she felt ridiculous in those poufy, organza nightmares. Looking at photographs from that time, one can just, just glimpse a ‘look’, a veil of unease that surrounds her face. The mouth is too set, the eyes too far-away. A sense of other-ness seems to hover. Or, could this be the adult looking back through the cobwebs of time? But it did seem as if everyone else exuded an air of confidence that came of knowing who you were and knowing that you belonged. They looked like Gidget; she looked like Anna Magnani. The hair was too big, the eyebrows were too thick, and the skin was too unfashionably Mediterranean: an out-of-control weed in a bed of hot-house blooms.
For the new kid-on-the-block, there were always pieces missing from the puzzle, keeping her perpetually out-of-sync with the rest of the world. Canadianisms eluded her. Rituals such as ordering at a restaurant — who went to restaurants? — knowing what clothes to wear — still elusive — even hiding your true feelings – cultural cues always remained a mystery.
As happens to the firstborn in every immigrant family, she became, by default, the adult in the family. Only adding to her confusion. She was the translator, the intermediary, the advisor, the cheque writer, the expert on everything Canadian. She was expected to be the adult; everyone else was busy being a kid. She was at home with her parents; everyone else was out at the Chicken Roost ordering a hamburger — not kosher! — and french fries. Girls dressed in their poodle skirts and boys in their chinos sprung forth out of the pages of Seventeen magazine.
And yet, something special did come out of staying home — one some-thing that was pretty wonderful. At first it struck her like a bolt. Its sheer fun, its frivolousness and its fantasy could transport her, for an hour or so — off to another world, to the make-believe world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
– Fred & Ginger dance routine projected on various walls and curtains
The ‘first’ time for her was not with one of their bigger screen musicals. Without forethought or planning, it just happened to be the first film they appeared in together – Flying Down To Rio. Granted, their film debut was not terrific – the two were more apart than together – but their brief coming together for a dance routine was a prelude to the girl’s secret love affair that would last forever. With that dance number, everything that came before seemed suddenly muted.
THE BRONX – WHAT AM I DOING HERE!
Memories of my family get-togethers in the Bronx makes Woody Allen’s dream sequences seem Gentile in comparison. There we were, our Bresler clan, with some newbies thrown in, made up of the quirkiest characters to step out of Poland. All squeezed together inside a cramped apartment on the Grand Concourse — once the showpiece of the Bronx but now the home to thousands of Eastern Europeans, many of then Holocaust survivors — in the middle of a sweltering New York summer,
- archival film footage and sound effects of 1950s New York …. steam rising from the pavement, cooking smells wafting in through the doors and open windows, the sheer lace curtains blowing in and getting caught between the slats of the hissing, hiccuping radiator. Outside, the sounds of the city – fire truck sirens, laughing children and the constant whizzing of cars – competed with what was going on inside: heavily accented English mixed with the English of the new generation, each one in a constant state of motion and verbal outbursts. The adults would be in the living room, stuck to the melting plastic-covers on the furniture, each one trying to be heard, their speech slipping in and out of Yiddish. Tea was served in glasses held by filigreed silver glass holders which had been lovingly brought over by a survivor from the old country, but looking incongruous in the new world of chrome and linoleum tile. Some of the relatives held a sugar cube between their teeth as they sipped the hot tea. (Probably the Russian neighbour — the oddball in the group.) The good china would have been taken out to serve “some-tink a bisele sveet.” We kids would be in the fetter’s (grandfather’s) bedroom trying to kill each other, threatening the designated victim – usually my cousin Ruthie – with hanging out the window, three flights up. Her crime? Wearing a life preserver into the bathtub. To us, that was punishable. She was an only child and we craved that position. And if any one of us dared to complain to our parents, it would be as quickly ignored and dismissed. We would be sent packing right back. “Go back! Go back in derr und verk it out!” Talking quietly was never a part of this group’s DNA. Screams and temper tantrums were the designated modes of speaking. Convinced already that I had been kidnapped as a baby and mistakenly placed with this family, these family get-togethers only reinforced my resolve. I was definitely adopted….well, wasn’t the evidence there in plain view? I did not belong. My place was in Fred Astaire’s world — civilized, aristocratic. Only he, the white gentile hero could rescue me – a miscast Jewish girl.
She was very tall. And spindly. She lived in a 30-room ‘house’ with her cat. A cat she had rescued and was now so fat, its stomach dragged on the floor. That cat had fallen into a schmalz greeben. Her ‘house’, as she so humbly described it, was later converted into an old age home. In 1960, she was still driving her 1935 Buick. Mint condition. There it was, on the driveway, so chronologically out of place yet looking as if it belonged.
She wore ankle-length, pale pink organza dresses with satin flower appliques which rustled when she walked. Her gray hair, always set into teeny, tiny spit curls, was often still in mettalic curlers. But her most exceptional physical features were her hands. Perfectly translucent with each blue vein showing. They were capable of spanning two octaves with one hand.
Oh, yes. Miss Lewington — my piano teacher for close to 10 years.
She was 1920s, aristocratic Edwardian England; I was a 1950s immigrant kid just over from the Old Country. A greener.
Every week, I arrived, rang the bell and stood waiting in front of those massive mahogany double front doors. I could hear the Winchester chimes — what else — reverberate through the house. She shuffled to let me in, never rushed, each movement always deliberate. She lived in her own time zone. First the inner doors, then the outside one.
ML: Come in, Brenda. I’m not quite finished. You can wait in the front hall.
That so-called ‘front hall’ was huge. It could, easily, accommodate a 100 people, with no trouble. I sat there, swallowed up in the cushions of the tufted, brown velvet couch, clutching my piano books in my lap. Even chubby me was insignificantly tiny. Nervous, as usual. As usual, I had not properly prepared. Behind me, hung a museum-size oil landscape which her sister had painted, framed in the thickest, most ornate gilded frames I had ever seen — not until I stood in front of The Watch at the Rijksmuseum. Damask wallpaper. We were never poor but I had never experienced this grandeur lived by regular people who did not live in Buckingham Castle. If only I had had a camera or a cell phone.
She never once spoke an angry or impatient word to me. She knew I was gliding, faking it every week. She absolutely adored me. I could do no wrong. Whatever latent talent I had, saw me through — barely. The story of my life ….
ML: I don’t think we’re ready to do hands together, yet. Let’s practise hands separately. Shall we?
Then came the best part of the week. If I was her last student of the day, a special treat awaited me. Tea with Miss Lewington in her sunroom was the highlight of my new life in small-town Hamilton. Being a minority in a minority …. this was my escape. The sun, battling with jungle-sized Aspidistras shone through. Every single gew-gaw, lovingly passed down, had a story. Tchochkas filled every nook, every horizontal space, every shelf. In retrospect, it probably looked like a second-hand junk shop but, but that did not dim how I felt being there. It was here where I got the the tutorials I would need when I met my Fred Astaire.
I heard names like Royal Doulton, Wedgewood, Irish Damask, Hand Cut Waterford, German Silver Ware. (I never told her we did not have German products in our house.) She was on a first name basis with Mr. Birks. Something about their families …. She was descended from a British poet — the name escapes me now — who lived in a place called Drinking Water … and the stories went on and on. India came into it, as well. I was transported.
I learned how to pour tea and to serve it. Milk first. I tried hard to contain myself from eating the entire tray of impossibly small sandwiches. Who ate like this? White bread? Without the crust? Watercress? Water – crest? No matter. It was delightful. It became her mission to tame this young colt with wild hair that refused to be contained.
ACT TWO: NEGOTIATING THE DIVIDES
You’ve got such a beautiful face. Why aren’t you married?
What should I tell them? That I’m waiting for Fred Astaire? That every guy I meet is a jerk? — they probably think the same way …
I saw and met them all — chance meetings; blind dates; singles dances; matchmakers…. all disasters – until the ad in The Globe and Mail — but first:
Voice over: You’re no spring chicken. You should get married.
Visuals during this sequence:
In one month, I thought perhaps there had been a convention for all the losers in the city and somebody had written my name on a wall in the men’s washroom.
There was ‘The Twitcher’. Everything – and I mean everything – moved!
There was ‘The Security Guy’ — the guy who had an industrial chain wound around his steering wheel — the kind you see on the locks of chain link fences, holding back a snarling, killer German Shepherd. I thought I was in a scene out of a horror film.
There was ‘PeeWee Herman” the guy in polyester pants pulled up over his chest, wearing a wig — no, make that a rug — that was on backwards.
Voice over: (Whining and taking the girl’s hand) Isn’t this fun?
Voice over the phone: Hang on …. let me get a beer ….
Matchmaker: (over the phone) What do you mean – he’s not your ‘type’. You said you wanted to meet someone. Tell me why he’s ‘not right’….
BLC: Well …. (hesitating) …. you know …. someone who is more on my level…
Matchmaker: Your level? What does that mean?
BLC: I thought …. perhaps someone I could talk to?
Matchmaker: What you really mean is that you’re too good for these people? (Her voice progressively getting screechier and angrier.) Bruria, you are never going to find anyone if you continue with this attitude!
Ma, I Found a Jewish Doctor!
My best friend Goldie would sit with me for hours, commiserating about the quality of what was ‘out there’. Hadn’t we gone through this together — for years. Like a loyal girlfriend, she sat patiently, tsking in the right places, giving my agony a place to reside. Until one day, her husband, in his exasperation exclaimed:
Herb: Listen. I hear you bitchin’ but you do nothing. Piss or get off the pot. If one thing doesn’t work then try something else. Why don’t you put an ad in The Globe and Mail.?
SJF – 45 – Has lived abroad; is now seeking meaningful relationship.
Five people answered the ad. One sounded super — glamourous, exciting … there I was, falling into the trap … always going after the wrong guy.
One in particular stands out. We both agreed to meet on Bloor Street West, in front of a coffee shop. Didn’t ask what he looked like, didn’t know a thing. Coffee — that was innocent enough and who was going to get into trouble over that?
I rushed from work — dressed in my black linen Italian suit, feeling chic and hopeful. My weight was under control — sort of. I was doing something. Then out of the corner of my eye, someone came into my field of vision: a smallish man, sporting a peaked, baby blue hat with a matching polyester leisure suit — with — and wait for it — a woman’s handbag hanging from his neck!
I started making a deal with God.
BL: … please, please, please — I’ll be good. I promise! I’ll dedicate my life to good works. I’ll try not to be arrogant; I’ll be kind! I’ll even become religious! Anything! I’ll do anything! Just don’t make this my blind date….I beg you! Haven’t I had enough …. just one. good. one ….
Date: Hello (in a whining voice)…are you Bruria?
BL: Yes…yes, I am. Nice to meet you.
Over coffee, I heard his story. One thing he said stands out in my mind — He told me he had tried to commit suicide 15 times! He even looked crazy. He looked so crazy that the waitress kept coming over to our table, asking if I needed her to call someone. Was I okay? Yes, the rendezvous did come to an end and do you know something? I drove him home! I felt so sorry for this creature I drove him home. What could he do to me?
Goldie: Have you called that pediatrician?
I had thrown this letter to the corner of my desk.
BLC: No. And anyway, where the hell is Nepean? Isn’t it out in B.C.?
Goldie: No! — you’re thinking of Napa. You’re doing it again! Call him, already!
EMC: How will I know you?
BLC: Big hair, big eyes, big hips!
ACT THREE: PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Getting Married at 46
A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. – George Moore
Being a Stepmother
First, Cooney. I found him floating, belly up in his fish bowl. Then Stimpy, the hampster, showed no signs of life, as he lay there limp in his woodchips, little feet up, all curled in. All this happened while my stepson was away at camp.
“So, Jonathan, what happened when you were at camp?”
“My stepmother killed my pets.”
Travels With an Alien
Every year at Christmas, like clockwork, I headed south to Florida. Along with thousands of other middle-aged Jewish ‘children’, I joined my snowbird-parents in our people’s second homeland. I had made the annual pilgrimage for forever. The rest of the year I travelled to various other world destinations. When I got married, I assumed my sojourns would continue but with another person I could share my passion. (I assumed a lot of things….)
Our voyage as immigrants to Canada in the fifties was probably the beginning of my wanderlust. In the early years, flying and hotels were out of the question and so we drove everywhere. On one trip, we joined the various members of our clan from around North America, for a Bar Mitzvah in Chicago. Incredibly, we all bedded down in the living room of our host. It was an apartment. Every immigrant I knew did some such variation. In addition to our summer outings to Crystal Beach, we also visited friends and relatives in the States. The Grand Concourse in the Bronx became a second home. But over time and with economics no longer an issue, we expanded our tastes and horizons. In my twenties, backpacking through Europe was a rite of passage for every university grad before starting the serious business of adulthood. (Although strictly speaking, the backpacking was not exactly my style.) Clutching my dog-eared Europe on $5 and $10 a Day – kindly loaned by another wanderer – I was ready for any adventure.
As a teacher, I had the luxury of summers off. Hormonally-addled teenagers and uptight educational bureaucrats were tolerable as long as I knew I would soon be back in Europe. Back then, I even put up with the French. As soon as June meetings were over and every student was passed, I was boarding a plane, returning only as the janitors began airing out the classrooms for school opening.
Nearly thirty years ago, after living several years in Japan, I got married and I switched from being me to being we and travelling veered off in a different direction. The signs were all there but I was in a state of denial. Suddenly married and to a homebody who rarely ventured beyond the confines of his LazyBoy, he would would easily qualify as the star character for Lifestyles of the Not-So-Rich and Very Eccentric.
Single ladies: Beware and pay attention to the signs.
Like delicate crystal, my husband does not transport well unless he has sufficient cushioning and support. His travelling eccentricities had not yet been revealed on our honeymoon cruise. Like our courtship, the 4-day holiday was quick. It revolved around two major activities: my seasickness and watching hideously overweight Americans shovelling food into their gaping mouths. (For weeks, he would wake at 11:55 muttering, “Take me to the midnight buffet.”)
It was not until the following year that reality came crashing through. I mentioned casually – naively, it turns out – that it would be wonderful if we could go to Europe. Two weeks in London and Paris would be a lovely introduction to the wonders of travel. And more importantly, since my family had long given up on my ever getting married, this was an opportunity to introduce the new groom – a doctor no less – to the European members of the clan. His easy assent belied what was to come. Remember, though, I was a newlywed and new at this game.
The first warning bell was the glitch with the photos at the passport office. Time was running out and our trip seemed doomed. Don’t ask. In time, though, with our newly-minted passports in hand and lulled into a state of ignorance, I began to pack. A couple of days prior to departure, I spied something ‘foreign’ out of the corner of my eye. It was a fan perched on one of the open suitcases. I’m not talking about one of those teeny, hand-held toys sold in chatchke shops. No, I’m talking about a full-sized electric fan, Canadian Tire issue! The kind that revs up like a jet engine. The kind that carries a warning to keep away from standing bodies of water, the frail and the elderly. The kind that could easily blow away small children and pets. Having packed that, we then had to bring along a generator to run the damn thing. He had also purchased enough electrical adaptors to run factory equipment. I had once short circuited a boat on the Mediterranean, but that was nothing.
Next came the pillow and duvet. When he suggested I also include a set of towels and sheets, I nearly lost it. There was a lull until a few days before our departure. An empty suitcase suddenly appeared on the dining room table. For food, he said – just in case.
London. We had made it. Miraculously, we were still married and still talking to each other. Until I started unpacking. A few extra items had obviously slipped my surveillance. It seems that just before leaving the house for the airport, he had felt compelled to include some last-minute essentials: three, heavy-duty suit hangers (we had packed no suits); three travel clocks (one for him, one for me and one in case his broke); a stand-up, desk-model, metal eyeglass holder attached to a solid steel base, heavy enough to be used as a weapon. The rest of the trip is a blur.
Miraculously, we continued to travel. Quite often, in fact, but we restrict it to short-term family occasions. We arrive a couple of days early, do some sightseeing, I shop a bit, we attend the parties and four days later, we’re back home.
Nearly two decades into our marriage, I was still in charge of packing our clothes. Yes, he had cut down, somewhat, on his creature comforts but just every once in a while, I’ll find a surprise in his travel bag – it could be a mini toaster or a coffee maker – just in case.
My cousin called to suggest that that she and I, my cousin in Atlanta and our cousin in New York should meet in Europe for a girls-only vacation. She wanted to discuss it when we got together in L.A. Hmmmmm … Sounds tempting. But can one ever go back?
What are the chances? Me and my Machiteinistes
I got married, for the first time, at the age of 46. I had no children so when this opportunity came along, I grabbed it. The marriage package included one teenager – the two oldest were out of the house – two goldfish, Stimpy the hamster and a dog named Kafka. All I had to do was clean up and decorate. (No small feat.) The coming together of several tribes and sub clans was an adjustment but soon, family life took on a comfortable and comforting routine. That is, until the first engagement announcement. No – – it was not about the fiancé, or money or anything like that. It was, to put it bluntly, about me. As the psychologist in our family says, it’s always about me. (She’s right!)
Let me explain. To quote a trendy pop psych expression: I have issues. Well, I have ONE major issue: My weight. I have always had weight issues. Big, fat serious issues. Even when I’ve lost the weight – which has been many times – I’ve had weight issues. Images of delicate twelve-year-old girls in ruffled organza dresses, wearing their delicate femininity as if it were a birthright, still dance in my head. They looked like Gidget; I looked like Anna Magnani. Hips too big, hair too wild, eyebrows too thick – and that olive skin! I was an out-of-control weed surrounded by hot house blooms. Years of being a ‘chubbette’ – the euphemism Mr. Eaton favoured in the 1950s – have been irrevocably imprinted.
I have, conservatively speaking, lost the equivalent of a sumo wrestler. I have gone to a 5th Avenue doctor who injected his clients with god-knows-what. (I should have been suspicious when I saw him walk out of his Park Avenue office wearing a full-length mink coat and diamond studded Rolex.) I have tried everything at least once: group meetings, one-on-one. I have had the food delivered (it’s embarrassing when you eat the week’s worth of food in 2½ days); I have done it on my own, with a friend, with the computer, with the aid of books. One afternoon, for a brief moment in time, I was a perfect size. So weak, I still wonder how I could even stand up. But I managed to get into a bikini. I have a picture to prove it.
The reason for this craziness? Who knows. Professionals and quacks alike have weighed in on this subject. (Excuse the unintentional pun.) But I have my own theory – borrowed from a friend. I have no ‘appestat’. She has an ‘appestat’. My mother had an ‘apestat’ and couldn’t understand why my father and I could not suppress our appetities. I and thousands of other unlucky shmlemiels lack this thing-a-ma-jig. We are human garburators with no on-off switch. We do not know when to stop. I could regale you with horror stories of middle-of-the-night gorging fests but this would be the final frontier for me. I’m not there, yet.
My wardrobe consists of three sizes: normal, baby beluga and elastic, comfort waist. Don’t even mention the money spent in the quest to find clothes that fit my yo-yo weight. Legends are of mythological proportions. Those who have seen my closet —- does the name Imelda ring a bell? (What else do you buy when clothes do not fit?) And yet, I still never have anything to wear. My way of dealing with this madness? Humour, of course.
And so I lived in this quirky balance until I got married and moved to Ottawa in the coldest winter in recorded meteorological history. Away from family and friends, the Spring of 1994 found me coming out of hibernation 10 pounds heavier than when I went in. And so the ensuing years continued in this vein. Which brings me back to the first engagement announcement. The middle child. After the initial craziness and excitement and calls around the world, it was time to meet the family.
Allow me to backtrack with a brief but necessary lesson in the Yiddish language. One unique feature of Yiddish is the words it employs to identify your children’s in-laws who now become part of your family sphere. Your child’s in-laws are called machatunim. Not ‘ch’ as in cheese but ‘ch’ as if you are clearing your throat. The father-in-law is called a mechitn. The mother-in-law is called a machiteiniste – machatootsie when you’re trying to be funny. I return to ‘the meeting’.
There she was, my new machiteiniste – all 5’ 10” of her. Good looking – okay, I can deal with that – but thin! Lithe, willowy, svelte – choose your synonym but the fact was, she was thin. As for me – all 5 feet, 4 inches of zaftig curves – I was sent hurtling back in time to ballet class where everybody looked like my new machiteiniste and I looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Leaping swans? More like a turkey struggling to take flight. Never seen this? Trust me. This is not a pretty sight, especially when one tries to take off and smashes up against your windshield.
There was nothing for it but to go on yet another diet. When I announced the engagement to a committee I was serving on, after the usual mazel tovs, one of the men remarked: “I guess you’ll have to go on a diet now.” I rarely give men credit but this one surprised me. Off I marched determinedly to Weight Watchers. I had been one of their first customers way back in New York when its founder Jean Niddich was still leading the meetings in small intimate locations. It went well — except for those in-between days of binge and famine. Why not? I was on a mission. And so, thirty pounds later, I was ready for my debut. It felt fabulous. For one brief moment in time. One of the guests remarked on how the two machiteinistes looked! It was a FABulous affair. I have the pictures to prove it.
In the next two years – well, you know what happened. (My committee buddy had also said that we gain back all the weight.) Another of our brood announced her engagement. For the second time, off we trooped to meet our new machiteiniste. Wouldn’t you know it! Thin! (What are the chances?) Not as tall, but still good looking and thin! (There has to be some curse working against me.) GOD!!!! What did I do to deserve this??!???
This time, I was determined to lose the weight solo. Didn’t I know every calorie and every carb count for every food on the face of the earth? So in the next four months, after the usual fits and starts, I managed to take off not exactly thirty pounds but it was a respectable showing. Except for one or two hysterical hiccups, it was a FABulous affair. I have the pictures to prove it.
It was a FABulous wedding, of course — In the next two years – you guessed it – the weight piled on — once more. But this time it was with a vengeance. And once again – you guessed it again – the third child announced his engagement. We were pros at this ‘meeting’ business. If you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s next. Yes! Good looking and thin! Excrutiatingly so. My husband and I locked eyes. I knew, as every wife knows, exactly what he was thinking. (Our rule: ‘Say nothing, until we’re in the car’.) Still silent but bursting at the seams, we waved goodbye. Trying to pretend all was normal, we got into the car, closed the doors and waited a split second. We turned to each other and burst out — pish-in-your-pants laughing. All I could manage to splurt out was: “What are the chances? All three of them?”
A Tale of Horror-ding and Deprivation: Finding a Brisket at Passover
As the effects of Pesach begin to wear off, I can now look back and reflect more carefully about what really happened. When the madness began. It began innocently enough.
Having come to marriage late in life and still finding mystery in the intricacies of running a Jewish home, I did pick up one thing: Two weeks before the first seder, put in your kosher meat order, if not earlier. I was also aware that women across the nation had already been cooking and freezing for weeks.
There were, as well, those lessons I had intuitively absorbed from many years of watching my own mother. Rule #1: Nouvelle, shmoovell. Make enough food to feed no less than the thousands of Jews who escaped out of Egypt. Rule #2: Have a minimum of three starch-laden dishes. The only greenery required was the karpas on the seder plate. And Rule #3: A turkey, a veal, a prime rib. Order whatever you like. But no matter what you serve, you still need to have a brisket. Just in case. I can still picture my mother in the kitchen, the night before. While peeling onions or baking her famous 36-egg sponge cake, I could see her calculating in her head how much food she would need. By the hundredth count, she would turn to my father who was shlepping boxes of dishes and equipment up from the basement, declaring in that not-to-be-questioned tone of voice: “Favick, just in case, you better go to Saul and get a brisket. Just in case!”
Saul, my father’s best friend and the kosher butcher in Hamilton, was always there for us. However, this year, in my first year of marriage, in Yikhupitzville — I was on my own. Saul was not here. But not to worry. I still had enough time to put in an order with the kosher butcher. The call began well.
BLC: One large turkey…No large turkey? Okay, I’ll take the medium. A medium-sized prime rib … No medium? Okay, I’ll take the large … And give me a brisket……”
Clouds began to gather overhead.
BLC: No brisket?…
Voice of Butcher: No, no brisket.
BLC: What do you mean no briskets? … How could you run out of briskets? It’s Passover. Whoever heard of Passover without a brisket?”
Voice of Butcher: We ran out of briskets.
BLC: How could you run out of briskets? It’s Pesach. You need a brisket for Pesach. Whoever heard of Pesach without a brisket?
Voice of Butcher: I’m telling you. We ran out of briskets.
BLC: How could you…. (voice trailing off) …..not have briskets?
I couldn’t believe it. Ottawa, the nation’s capital. There have been Jews here since the middle of the last century. That’s a hundred and fifty years of briskets at Pesach. We’re less than two hours away from Montreal – brisket central. It’s not like we’re living in the Yukon. Though I know in my heart of hearts that Jews there had brisket for Pesach.
My husband who had been keeping his distance during this skirmish tried to interject a note of calm …
EMC: There’ll be enough food…What are you worried about?
Can we talk? Husbands do not understand. Besides not knowing how to load a dishwasher properly, they just don’t get it. My identity as a newly-minted Jewish mother was at stake here. I had 25 years of catching up — and I was failing—dismally! My parents would be there! The kids were looking forward to the event. The picture was incomplete without brisket.
I tried to convince myself it would work out well. Perhaps he was right. Wasn’t there always more than enough food in our house? Whoever heard of a Jewish house running out of food. Every year, my mother would end the evening the same way after we’ve all proclaimed: “Next year in Yerushalayim.”
Ema: We have so much food, we could have had twenty more!
The next day found me at the JCC for a UJA meeting. As business wrapped up, talk naturally turned to – what else? – Pesach preparations. The committee chair mentioned she had already picked up her second meat order in as many weeks. My stomach tightened. I asked her, trying hard to keep it light, if perhaps she had been hoarding briskets.
DK: (in a plaintive voice) But I only bought two!
BLC: Dianne (wailing) Ottawa was only allotted four!
We laughed, albeit nervously. We wished each other a happy holiday. Both of us left with thoughts unspoken.
Ten minutes later, in the change room, I ran into the usual regulars. After the customary pleasantries, talk turned to – yes, you guessed right again! – Pesach. Who’s coming; who’s bringing what. Never one to let a story go – at least to anyone willing to listen – I recounted for Reta, and anyone else within shouting range, my brisket dilemma. At which point, she herself shared own story of heartbreak. As she had done every year for more than twenty years since moving to Ottawa, she called her usually accommodating butcher in Montreal. This year, to her surprise, he begged her to wait until after the holidays. He could get her anything then, but not before Pesach. He was in tears.
Butcher: The butchers are very temperamental this time of year.
Feeling sorry for the man, she said it was okay. She would stick to turkey but, she informed me in a whisper, if I still wanted a brisket, she knew where I could buy one. Last time she checked, they had some left.
I rushed home and relayed the news. My husband had learned one thing during our still fairly new marriage. It was useless to argue. I taped post-its all over the house – down the stair banister, through the dining room and leading up to the phone – reminding him to call early the following morning. I could not handle the possible rejection.
The next morning, at 7:00 a.m., with one day left, he learned that yes, a brisket was available. And yes, we could pick up the brisket that morning! But we had to come that morning … later they couldn’t guarantee. Afraid this madness would continue until the high holidays, he insisted I leave immediately. Still wearing my sleepy face and sweats, I ran over.
I entered the shop and gave my name — sotto voce — a feat for me. The butcher disappeared into the back room. I waited with trepidation. I saw a familiar face, someone from the community but we both pretended we were just there casually. The butcher came out with the brisket already wrapped and in nondescript brown paper, tied up in string. No words were passed. No identifying marks, just — a brisket, I hoped. I paid and left.
I ran over to Loblaw’s to pick up my original meat order and finish up with other items missed the first three trips! Jewish housewives would commiserate. But for now I could relax. I strolled, I shmoozed, secure in the knowledge that I had a brisket hidden in the back seat of my car. I decided I had time to run over to a pump class at the JCC — mostly out of necessity, knowing the eating that was to follow in the next few days.
There, I spotted my husband in the exercise room on the treadmill.
EMC: (he yelled out) Did you get the brisket?
Upon hearing this, two regulars on either side of him, shouted, both talking at the same time, nearly falling off the treadmills in their excitement to get in their stories of deprivation. Their words spilled over each other.
You found a brisket?
My wife has been searching everywhere…There are no briskets.
Where did you find a brisket?…
Today you found a brisket?
Have you ever heard of such a mishegass in your life? It’s Pesach and there are no briskets! It’s a crying shame. How could you not have brisket???
Why are we paying dues to the community if they can’t even find enough briskets to go around?
Weeks before we tried but we couldn’t get a brisket!!!”
The brisket had now taken on a life of its own …
Reta appeared, adding to the already escalating dangerous level of pre-Pesach anxiety. She couldn’t contain herself. There had been a brisket-spotting. Just minutes earlier, she happened to mention my predicament to someone in the change room who also had had trouble procuring a brisket. After applying enough pressure on the right people — she belonged to one of the illustrious families — combined with a dose of guilt, this woman had been able to secure two briskets. When she heard of my plight, she volunteered to give me one of the briskets. It’s nice to see how people still rally together during the hard times …In fact, there she was. On her way home, no doubt, to cook her brisket. I went over and thanked her. She also had a brisket tale to tell. Why wasn’t I surprised?
I rushed to class, out of breath. As I was getting my equipment ready, out of the corner of the room came a small voice
I heard you had trouble getting a brisket.”
All hell broke loose. Everyone had a brisket tale from the trenches….“You think you had trouble …”
At the end of class, someone asked,
By the way. how are you making the brisket?”
I froze. I had never cooked a brisket in my life!
A couple of nota benes:
My American cuziner told me that a relative on her husband’s side could no longer even show his face at their kosher butcher because he had acted on behalf of the butcher’s wife in their divorce. I think he travels to the next town.
My father informed me that in Hamilton, they ran out of kosher turkeys. His best friend Saul gave me instructions on how to cook the brisket. The result was brilliant!
Life With an Alter Kaker
One day, my husband said the two sexiest things he had ever said in our twenty years of marriage. I was listening to an interview on CBC with an actress who was talking about taking off her clothes for a movie role. My husband, just entering the room in the middle of this, said, to no one in particular…
EMC: She could take off her clothes for me anytime….
… immediately followed by …
Honey, could you please clean out my ears?
EMC: How’s your thumb?
BLC: What are you talking about?
EMC: You said your thumb was sore …
BLC: I said my BUM was sore !!!