"What's Going On?"
The orange seat is tattered around its edges, where cool metal meets cloth. Fabric threads hang off the side and Jason develops a clever game where he ties his dad’s tallis strings together with the chair's stringy fragments. The things an eight-year-old conjures up as he sits in a Yom Kippur service, bored out of his little skull cap.
Jason’s mom reaches down and frowns as she taps his hand. He stops, of course, but only until she looks away. He has to find something else to do. Eric, his seven year-old brother, peers out from around his mom’s other arm, grinning while pointing to his open prayer book. “Page 42,” he whispers. “Hank Aaron. 42 home runs next season.”
“Shhhh.” The man in front turns, shaking his head side to side.
Giggling, Jason flips his siddur pages like a roulette wheel, whipping it to a page 238 stop.
“Seaver.” He laughs as he turns to Eric. “Strikeouts next…
A grey shadow glides across the page, followed by a large hand slamming the book shut.
“One day, you two will understand the peace I feel when I come here,” the hand whispers. Jason twiddles tallis strings as he looks up at his father.
“You may not feel it now, but one day…”. His dad leans over and leafs through Jason’s prayer book, stopping at page 89, the proper spot.
“But we’re just …”
Thigh replaces face as his dad’s body glides upward – yet another standing prayer. This leaves a clear view to Eric and they giggle behind their parents. Synagogue is most certainly no place for energetic and inventive little boys. What are they supposed to do? Atone for their sins? What’s a sin, anyway? Still, it’s their solemn duty to behave and look precious in their crisp new navy blue suits, the results of a special trip to Barney’s in NYC just three weeks earlier.
The air is thick with smells of perfumes and after-shaves. The sweet and sour blend spins Jason’s stomach as he stares out through the fifty-foot high wood-paneled windows lining the left side of the Beth El sanctuary. As he watches maple trees sway in the autumn breeze, he wishes for one cool gust to miraculously enter the building and whisk away the nauseating smell. Finally, something to pray for.
“What is that?” Jason’s head turns. The sanctuary goes still as the choir hums softly. Jason’s eyes scan the room.
There it is again.
Someone blowing their nose?
Jason looks up and sees people holding tissues and handkerchiefs up to their faces. Hands brush cheeks. Eyeglasses are adjusted.
“What's going on?” he whispers to no one as he stomps his shoe. He tugs on his dad's suit sleeve as he glances up at his mother’s face.
At first he doesn’t see it. Mr. Fine’s off-key squealing causes Jason to twist away. But then, Jason turns back to face his mom. He squints, blinks, then stretches his neck up, grasping his dad’s sleeve even tighter. Black mesh material droops down from the top of her hat, covering most of her face. It’s tough to see. But something’s definitely there. Something shiny. Jason stares at the shiny spot as it moves down, leaving a wet trail as it rolls slowly to where cheek turns into chin. His mom lifts her hand, swipes her face, then holds the hankie to her nose where it rests. Her head is down and she’s reading, her body swaying gently from side to side.
“You okay?” Jason’s other hand now taps his mother’s leg. “You okay?” He presses his arm against his mom’s side.
“Is Mommy crying?” he asks, tugging again at his dad’s sleeve. Like a tennis spectator Jason turns to face his dad’s jacket. More sniffling. He looks up, then tilts his head like a puppy’s. As the choir hums, Jason loosens his grip on his dad’s sleeve. He watches his father touch his finger to his eye then feels his dad’s hand on the back of his head. Both of Jason’s hands slap down to his legs as he plops into his seat. He stares at the wooden bench in front of him as Cantor Shames sings with the choir. Sad melodic sounds fill the temple. No tallis twirling. No prayer book baseball. Jason sits and listens.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Crisp October air is tempered with the smell of multi-colored leaves coating damp ground. A hint of smoke fills the air, the product of leaf piles, burned after a hard day’s rake. Autumn in New England, there’s nothing like it. The experience embeds itself in Jason’s memory banks; it’s not going to budge.
As his family walks slowly home after services, Jason kicks an acorn which bounces off Eric’s leg, prompting a wince. Jason waits for and receives a return, “I’m okay” smile from his brother. Of course, it’s just a matter of seconds before a return acorn finds a Jason body-part. As they walk up the steps to their Trafton Road home, his mom hugs and chats with friends who have come to break the day long fast with their family. La Shonah Tovah’s are exchanged as tallis bags are stacked on the front lobby table.
“You and your brother go wash your hands,” his mom smiles and pats Eric’s behind. Jason looks up but doesn’t move. The black mesh gone, he now clearly sees her face.
“Yes?” she says.
His mom looks at Jason. He stares back.
Jason hasn’t forgotten what happened earlier and he’s quite adept at digging for answers – even at eight.
* * * * * * * * *
His dad’s hand is warm – it’s always warm. Jason leans back on the den couch while his father sips orange juice and reads the paper. People laugh in the kitchen as others arrive to join the family. Then his father sets the paper on the couch, turns to face Jason and takes his fingers in his hand.
“It's a special service,” his father explains. Jason stares down at the large hand as it wraps around his. “We say it four times a year and when we say these prayers,” he continues, “we think about the people we love. The people who have…”
A bang in the kitchen causes Jason to turn away. Then he turns back to his dad.
“Well, I love you dad, But it doesn’t make me wanna cry.”
His father smiles, drops his head, then looks at Jason, stroking his son's hair.
As his father speaks, Jason munches a bagel. A small chunk drops onto the brown carpet and his father reaches over to pick it up. Jason chews and listens, the sound of his dad’s voice caressing him as the explanation unfolds. People are already clinking glasses and scraping forks in the other room, but their racket is no match for his father’s soothing voice. You see, at that moment, on that particular October day in 1963, Jason is learning something important. He’s learning that living things “pass away.” They end. He’s learning that people die.
And at some point during the short den-to-dining-room walk, a cold, sad and terrifying feeling washes over Jason’s body. Thoughts of a very different world. A world without his rocks, his stability. A world without his mom and dad.
Food platters dart from side to side – piles of white fish and nova; huge blocks of cheeses – cream, chive, swiss and muenster; food frantically exchanges hands. Another plate passes in front of Jason’s eyes, loaded with bright red sliced tomatoes and purple onions. The next one is stacked with bagels and bialys. He watches his Nana Esther as she gobbles her food, knocking and reaching for things haphazardly. A little piece of creamed herring systematically finds it’s way to her lower lip and this bothers Jason. It’s his duty to point this “mouth-food” thing out to his grandmother which he does, prompting the traditional shooting of her head back in disgust, followed by a smile. As Jason watches her, he wonders about a world without his Nana. He looks at his sister Wendy, Eric, Emma, Mom, Dad, the Rubins, the Greenbaums, as they laugh and eat.
Later that night, as Jason’s mom tucks him into bed, it’s her turn to explain what happened in temple earlier. She fluffs the soft pillows and kisses Jason on his cheek. She explains how she and daddy were saying prayers for their own fathers, Papa Max and Grandpa Avrum. Jason hears the now familiar words, but few of them make sense. All he sees is his mom’s face. All he feels is her warm hand on his forehead. All her hears is her soft humming. How could it be any other way?
* * * * * * * * *
Jason, now forty eight, travels each year to be with his family for the High Holidays. The city and synagogue are different and the tallis strings he twists are now his own. But each New Year experience serves to reboot his soul, reminding him about what is most dear. And as he takes in the perfume medley, the music, and all that surrounds the annual event, he glances to his left and sees that beautiful mesh-protected smile. Then, he reaches to his right and touches a suit jacket. His father sits in his wheelchair, quietly reading his prayer book.
“Delgado,” Jason smiles, pointing to page 44. “Next year. Home-runs,” he adds.
His dad turns, peers over his bifocals then shakes his finger as he laughs, bouncing in his chair. Jason taps his father’s hand then stops, allowing his hand to rest on top of his dad’s, cherishing its warmth.
Then, as the congregation rises, a quiet moment passes until the Cantor - Jason’s brother-in-law - begins the next service.
Jason looks at the back of the wooden seat in front of him as he thinks about maple trees, burning leaves and special pickled herring moments. His hand curls around the smooth molding.
He remembers a particular Beth El day. The sniffling day.
The day he first experienced his parent's vulnerability and ... his own.