March 25, 2013 | by Max Ross
A holiday’s most assiduously followed rituals occur, usually, before the holiday itself: preparing the customary meal, shopping for the requisite gifts, configuring the most acceptable seating arrangements. So much must happen before the sun goes down and the first three stars appear in the sky.
During the month preceding Passover, my father spends several hours planning, revising, and rerevising his remarks for our family’s seder. It’s a tradition that began a few years ago, when his father, deaf and grumpy with age, decided to pass on the task of leading the premeal service. An attorney familiar with speaking in courtrooms, my father is meticulous with his preparations—offhand-seeming ums and you knows are carefully drafted; a stopwatch ticks as he practices his commentary. Generally his seders have been regarded as both witty and efficient, observing all the rituals while getting us quickly to the meal.
But last year didn’t go so seamlessly. As the holiday approached, he was nervous because, for the first time since their divorce, my mother had decided to host the seder. As she has no immediate family in Minneapolis (except her devoted, sympathetic son), this meant fourteen of her former in-laws would convene in her home—a home she shared with her new husband, Kevin, a Catholic from North Dakota whose existence my father was uneasy about.
“I’m not quite sure how to handle it,” he said to me the week before the seder. “I don’t want to come off like I’m marching into their home and putting myself in charge of everything while my entire family—which is, of course, still her family, too—eats up all her food. And I sense Kevin isn’t totally comfortable with me yet. But at the same time I do have to lead this thing.”
We were in his living room on a weekend afternoon, copies of the five or six haggadot from which he appropriates his service splayed on the coffee table. My parents have remained close since splitting up—they live just two blocks apart, and occasionally walk my mother’s dog together or go out for dinner; every year, in the middle of June, they commemorate their broken anniversary. Their marriage ended because, when he was forty-one, after eighteen years together, my father came to understand that he was gay; although this realization necessitated that he leave my mother, it failed to eradicate two decades of intimacy between them.
But now, in his home, as he surmised that Kevin wasn’t yet comfortable with him, I sensed, too, that my father wasn’t absolutely comfortable with Kevin. Until Kevin’s appearance on stage, my father had retained his status as the Most Important Man in my mother’s life—he was her confidant, her closest friend. When she remarried, though, he was usurped (“It totally reverses things, yeah,” he’d said on the weekend of the wedding); he was still adapting to his new, less influential role. It was strange not to be able to call her whenever he wanted, not to be able to ring her doorbell unannounced. Yet, at the same time, much of my father’s leftover guilt about having abandoned my mother had dissipated when she remarried.
I set down the haggadah I’d been leafing through.
“It’s a delicate situation,” I said, quite sagaciously.
My father nodded and, after setting his stopwatch ticking, began rehearsing his spiel.
My mother, too, was unsure if she was comfortable hosting the seder.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable hosting the seder,” she said, two days before it.
Her kitchen is a many-windowed room on her house’s second floor that gets good sun all day. Most years at this time she would have been ridding the kitchen of hametz, packaging unopened boxes of cereal and Stoned Wheat Thins for a foodshelf. But because of Kevin this year was different. Instead of throwing everything out or giving it away, she was making do by feeding me as much starch as she could. Dutifully I ate whatever was set in front of me.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She paused for a moment, waving her hand over the toaster to check its heat. Her hair, which had always been uniformly black, was just beginning to show a few gray strands, a couple of which were caught in the fluff of her navy blue bathrobe. “I’m just not sure it feels right. It’s so silly!” The toaster chimed quietly, indicating its cycle was finished; careful not to burn her fingers she maneuvered half a bagel onto a plate and began to butter it. Her dog, Z, disobediently watched. “I know I’m part of the family, but it will be so strange seeing everyone. It’s been so long. I’m just not sure that hosting was a good idea.”
She set the half-bagel in front of me, along with a gently used paper napkin.
Along with my father and his brothers, my mother is the fourth beneficiary of my paternal grandparents’ will. (I was moved when I heard this; it indicated, in some objective way, that she was still part of the Ross family. Financial inheritance as familial proof.) But she’s ambivalent regarding her status in the clan: while she’s appreciative of how open her former in-laws have been, the family serves as a constant reminder of a life she used to possess, and which was abruptly and unfairly taken from her. The prospect of having these reminders in her home was, understandably, both exciting and upsetting.
“Well I’m sure Dad would be happy to take over. Or Francie,” I said. “They understand the situation. Everyone understands. But you’d have to let them know today.”
“That doesn’t seem right. That would be such a burden to dump on someone.”
“So then host it.”
“I know. I should. But I feel like I’m stealing it from one of them. But that’s not it, either. It’s just—it’s difficult. I want to host it. I do. But I don’t know how I’m going to feel.”
At Passover we are obliged to retell the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. To save the chosen people, God turned water to blood and made frogs fall from the sky; He threw Egypt into interminable darkness and killed all its first-born sons. The holiday is a celebration of our peoples’ freedom, but also a reminder that freedom isn’t happiness—after fleeing the Pharaoh the Jews spent forty years wandering in the desert eating manna. Resonances: freedom, for the Jews, has of course included the Inquisition, countless pogroms, and the Holocaust, among other persecutions. Perseverance, then, becomes the theme. We celebrate, maybe, not because of happiness, but in spite of hardship. We set an extra place at the table, for the prophet Elijah, in spite of the fact that we know he will not come.
Among the seder’s other guests would be my uncles, Jacob and Daniel; some years ago Jacob’s wife—perhaps with reason, perhaps not—accused Daniel of hitting on her, causing a thus-far-intractable rift between the brothers; Daniel maintained his innocence, while Jacob was obliged to side with his spouse; the seder would be their first meeting in months. At this point the original conflict served as a MacGuffin, a main storyline on which my uncles heaped subplot upon subplot of accusation and vindication. Their children, my cousins, had taken their obligatory sides and become standoffish, acting painfully polite with each other. The whole affair had done much to damage the family’s structural integrity. Also, since the previous Passover, my grandfather, Paul, had become blind in one eye; he’d had a pacemaker installed in his chest to correct an irregular heartbeat; he developed, spontaneously, an allergy to the sun. Maybe as a reaction, he’d become preoccupied with preparing for his death; at family gatherings, he was intent on divesting himself of all his worldly possessions, and brought bags full of his belongings to distribute.
What can be done about any this I of course don’t know—my grandfather is mortal; given their personalities, my uncles’ feud is unlikely ever to be reconciled. But it doesn’t take much imagination to intuit that every seder table, along with its eggs and shanks of lamb, is laid out with similar stories of families disrupted. We don’t really need a new Tolstoy; the old one suffices just fine.
Yet unhappy families are families nonetheless, and at least there can be some solace in this. For ours, convening at the Jewish holidays isn’t an obligation, but something looked forward to by all: a salve. There is no reassurance, no forgiveness from an order higher than each other. Quarrels may not be resolved, but for the length of the meal they’re tolerated. Despite our grudges, everyone shows up. And that, it seems, isn’t nothing.
My grandparents were the first to arrive. I relieved them of their half dozen grocery bags (my grandmother, too, avidly divests herself of possessions), which were filled with Saul Bellow novels, innumerable spatulas and whisks, a small metal statuette of either Don Quixote or Don Juan, apples, old magazines, new magazines; one of the bags was filled with more grocery bags; all of this they would distribute to family members using tactics predicated on slyness and guilt. My cheeks soggy with their kisses, I led them upstairs to the unit of the quad-plex where my mother and Kevin live.
Soon thereafter the rest of the Rosses showed up: a burst of perfume and chatter and much stomping of shoes. One set of cousins brought a silver platter of chocolate-covered matzoh, the other set brought apologies. Kevin greeted everyone at the door and promptly poured them wine, as my mother had assigned him to do while she was busy overseeing various soups and meats in the kitchen. A clean, bald man in his early fifties, Kevin is an agricultural engineer and subscribes to a magazine called Wheat Life. He is quiet and reserved, and seemed not to know what to do with the surfeit of enthusiasm my family—shriekers, all—directed his way, as if he’d been handed a lamp without a bulb and told to turn it on. As more people entered, Z, an enthusiastic hostess, huffed enthusiastically at crotches and feet.
“Obama’s no good for Israel,” said Uncle Jake, as usual, a few minutes after taking off his coat. “They’ve got Iran breathing down their neck and the last thing they need is an American president telling them what not to do.”
“Who cares?” said Uncle Dan. “And anyway that’s bull.”
They missed arguing together, I knew.
It wasn’t bull; it was bull; it wasn’t; it was. They stepped nearer each other with each jibe, smiling. Their wives were both at home and so they, my uncles, were more easily able to put aside their spat.
Once again the doorbell rang: my father, in his Passover bowtie—the one with the frogs. It had been in his notes, I knew, to show up slightly later than the others.
As he had the other guests, Kevin greeted him with a glass of wine. They’d met maybe a half dozen times, at family meals in neutral locations. A manageable but unignorable tension informed their interactions. The only thing they had in common was knowing what it was like to be married to my mom—perhaps, too, they shared an affinity for each other’s willingness not to discuss this. Neither wanted to offend the other, yet like it or not they were engaged in a rivalry, and treated each other with exaggerated politeness. My father handed Kevin the bottle of wine he’d brought, and then tried to shake his hand. Kevin wedged the bottle between his elbow and his ribs and eagerly clasped my father’s palm. During their handshake, a vigorous affair, the bottle fell. Kevin made a reactive gesture to catch it, but missed. My father’s face brightened in surprise. The bottle landed on an oriental carpet, and remained intact.
“Thank you, Mr. Kevin, for opening up your place to us,” my father said. “We’ll do our best not to give you more than you bargained for.”
Kevin nodded, and both were visibly relieved to have made it through their first exchange. With a low-voiced “Excuse me,” my father made his way toward the kitchen and, on a pretense I don’t recall, I followed.
Something in the matzoh ball soup was confusing my mother; she looked down into the pot as if it contained a tricky crossword clue.
“The woman of the briny deep,” my father said. “Everything smells terrific. As if that’s any surprise.”
My mother, visibly startled, looked up from the stove.
“One of the matzoh balls won’t float,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t understand it. Hi.”
They embraced, kissing cheeks. Their eyeglasses clicked against each other. My parents are the same height—five-five—and the architecture of their bodies hasn’t changed for as long as I can remember. Whenever they hold each other like this, it’s a bit as if they’re stepping into one of my memory’s molds of them, some mental bronze casting come to life. While I don’t think I harbor notions anymore that my parents should get back together, whenever they’re in the same room—an increasingly infrequent thing—it strikes me as overwhelmingly natural. My mother’s husband serves a necessary purpose, but in my mind he will always be adjunct. I admit to sentimentality, but wonder, too, if any child (who’d grown up, as I had, with attentive, collaborative parents) could avoid this notion. As always, they held their pose for longer than etiquette dictated. My mother’s thumbs made indents on the back of my father’s shirt.
“I’m glad you decided to host. I hope it wasn’t too much all at once.”
“Holidays are hard,” my mother said. “But no. I’m glad, too. It’s good to see everyone. Everyone’s the same.”
“And following that thought, you continue to look wonderful,” said my father. “It’s a pleasure to be over.”
“Thank you,” my mother said.
A cousin entered the kitchen and asked, without looking up from his phone, where the bathroom was. In unison, my parents and I pointed in the same direction.
Soon the seder began according to venerated tradition: everyone wondered where to sit, wanting not to be the first to sit, waiting for someone else to sit, please. My father surveyed the room, and likely saw what I did: his family, his ex-wife and her husband and her dog, candles, tablecloth, a table set with symbols, everything familiar from an earlier incarnation of his life. It seemed to please him; he smiled briefly. He looked down at the paper in his hands and, with rehearsed impromptu, began to speak.
We washed our hands. We drank some wine, then some more. We recounted how the Jews escaped the tyranny of the Egyptians so they could wander freely in the desert. The soup was served, and then the meal. Conversations broke out about how good the brisket was, and how good the chicken. Uncle Dan said he’d voted for Obama because of his heart, but this time around would probably vote the other way because of his wallet. Uncle Jake said he would have to see who was more supportive of Israel. Heart, wallet, Israel, Iran. But then it became evident that my uncles’ larger disagreement was beginning to suffuse this minor one; they became louder, deriding Obama, deriding each other, until theirs was the only talk at the dinner table. My grandmother, a diminutive but influential woman, touched one of them on the arm, and they quieted down sullenly. Conversation didn’t easily spring up again; many knives scraped many plates. My mother urged everyone to get seconds, but received only silence in return; rebuked, she went into the kitchen. The buzzing sound from one end of the table was my grandfather, asleep. Throughout the meal my father kept trying to speak with Kevin (he’d memorized a couple conversational prompts), or maybe Kevin kept trying to speak with him, but they never seemed to get past a couple runs of sentences before looking wordlessly down at their food. And this was how it all progressed. And this was how it would all keep going. No, this night wasn’t much different, after all. When I realized my mother had been absent for nearly ten minutes, I excused myself to look for her.
She was at the kitchen table, petting her dog, staring out the window. On the street below a bicyclist coasted by, lit now and now and now when he went under streetlamps.
“Z’s been away from the table for a while,” I said. “She’s missed.”
“I think it was just a little overwhelming for her, all the people. Wasn’t it, Z?”
Our conversation was part of another tradition, wherein my mother and I communicated our sentiments through the medium of her dog. This charade could only go on for so long, though.
“Is everything okay?”
She wiped her eyes with the Kleenex in her hand.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’ll be out in a minute. I just needed a breather.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s nothing. I feel so stupid. I’m fine. Really.”
“Everything tastes great,” I said.
“Everyone’s having a good time.”
“I know. Thank you.”
She began to cry—a silent activity, betrayed only because her glasses’ lenses fogged up.
“Okay,” I said. “All right.”
And it was then, it was just about then, when the doorbell rang. As my mother and I returned to the dining room we saw Kevin, curious, open the door. A very short man in a long striped Turkish robe, rather like a muumuu, was in the entryway, holding a thin stack of index cards. He had on a beard that seemed to be made of white cotton balls; aside from this characteristic, he looked very much like my grandmother.
“I am the prophet Elijah,” the visitor read from an index card, “Here to share with you your feast.” He switched to his next card. “I have been gone four thousand years—”
“Three thousand!” shouted one of my uncles.
Elijah peered at his index card. “It says four thousand. Are you sure?”
My uncle, clapping his hands together, once, said he was sure.
“I have been gone three thousand years, but decided to return for this one night of celebration”—another index card was turned—“of the Jews’ liberation from Egypt.”
As Elijah took his seat—not the one we’d set for him, but my grandmother’s spot—there was a moment of silence, though a different kind of silence than had been prevalent before. Nothing so dramatic as uncle embracing uncle occurred, but in this moment all rancor and fatigue, I saw, was wiped from their faces, as they watched Elijah carefully tuck the fabric of his robe beneath his small, matronly rear before sitting down. My parents, too, were focused on Elijah, and Kevin, and my cousins, who looked up, finally, from their phones. Everyone’s face seemed comprised primarily of smiling cheek. My mother sat down at her place and Z settled at her feet.
“I have heard from afar,” Elijah said, “that it is time for dessert.”