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Coming of Age

Eddie's father was gone almost six months now. It was hard to believe it was that long since he died. It was hard to believe that the man who had so firmly guided the family had left them almost six months ago. And, it was hard to believe his mother had absorbed this latest blow.

Eddie's father was once a giant, although certainly not in size -- he didn't top 5’5” but his authority was never questioned. His word was the law and his approval represented the pinnacle of success. He wasn't an easy man to please. Eddie had endured plenty of spankings when he was young and groundings when he was older, but his father loved his three sons and adored his wife. The cancer that weakened him before Eddie's eyes was a cruel demon that sapped his father's strength and finally his ability to live. 

In the months since then, 1948 turned into 1949. Fall had turned to winter and winter had slipped into spring. Eddie's mother at first had seemed to shrink under the weight of her sadness, but then with the lengthening days had summoned some secret store of will that gave her the ability to go on. Her sons needed her. Eddie didn't trust it, though. He lived in fear of her breaking down. He couldn't bear for her to suffer. So, Eddie never mentioned his father in front of her. He pretended as though nothing had changed.

Privately, Eddie wistfully thought back to the years before. The years when his biggest disappointment was striking out at a pickup baseball game. He remembered when Friday nights were for going to the movies on Fordham Road, not for going to synagogue. He remembered when he only went to synagogue for the High Holidays and he and the other kids were shooed out when it was time for the Kaddish. Only those who'd lost a family member stayed for the mourner’s prayer. He once snuck back in to see what the fuss was. He listened as the congregation intoned the Hebrew prayer he had never heard before. Now, not only did he stay for Kaddish, he, too, intoned the mourner’s prayer that he had come to know by heart: “Yiskadal v’yiskadash shemay rabba…

Six months had passed and Passover was now upon them. Eddie loved Passover.

In years past, the entire extended family came to their apartment for a Seder, the traditional Passover ritual. His mother spent days preparing brisket, potato pie, gefilte fish. She bought matzoh, sponge cake, and Manischewitz Concord Grape wine.

The house was scoured even cleaner than usual. "Cleanliness is next to Godliness," his mother would say. The large folding table was opened and set down the two steps in the sunken living room. Chairs were crowded around it so that there would be room for all. The best dishes sat on a soft white tablecloth edged in lace. Candles glowed in their brightly polished silver sticks and the house was scented from caramelized vegetables and roasted brisket. His father would lead the Seder using the Haggadah, the book that guides the readings and the prayers for Passover. The grocery store gave Haggadot away for free “Compliments of the Coffees of Maxwell House.” Sitting at the head of the table, telling the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, his father would recite the prayers and perform the ancient rituals. The fact that it was the same, year after year, made it all the more meaningful.

Eddie worried about what it would it be like this first Passover without his father to lead the Seder. Would they even celebrate or should he just pretend it was a day like any other? When his mother started making plans, calling all the relatives to invite them, Eddie was glad. When his mother started cleaning and cooking in the days before the holiday began, she almost seemed happy. Eddie took out the large table and began unfolding the chairs. All of the aunts and uncles were coming. 

Eddie's mother, Rachel, was the oldest daughter and second oldest child. She was the matriarch and the soul of the family that had journeyed in groups from Poland to the Lower East Side more than thirty years earlier. When there were celebrations, it was to her home they came. When there were troubles, it was to her they turned. During the depression, when things got really hard for her siblings, her nieces and nephews came to stay for months at a time. This year, her Passover tradition would go on as usual. 

Uncle Sam, Uncle Jack, Uncle Moe. All of the imposing Uncles with their wives and children came into the apartment. They were skilled laborers, tailors, printers. They had calloused hands and stooped shoulders. They spoke English with a Yiddish accent and still held many old school beliefs. Children were to be seen and not heard. Children should respect their elders. A smack on the bottom for a minor offense was appropriate. To them, Eddie was still the little kid who routinely got into trouble. They looked at him reprovingly and eyed him warily, as if they expected him to act out at any moment even though he was now almost twenty. It didn’t matter that he worked full time and, like them, was supporting his family. Eddie had decided it was easier to steer clear of his uncles at these family gatherings rather than be made to feel, once again, like the errant child.

The sun was setting and it was time to begin the Seder. The family moved to take their seats. Uncle Sam, as the eldest, walked towards Eddie’s father’s place at the table. Rachel came out of the kitchen holding the Seder plate. "No, Sam," she said quietly but definitively. "Eddie will lead the Seder. Eddie is the man of this house now."

Eddie took his father’s seat at the head of the table. He put on his yarmulke and opened the Haggadah. He began by asking the traditional question of Passover: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"  

September 11, 2021 22:23

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