My father was born a Polish Jew; most of his extended family had been slaughtered by the Nazis. My mother was a German Catholic; her father had been in the German army. It was a union of two people clearly up for a challenge.
“Was he a Nazi?” I’d ask my mom, about my grandfather.
“He was in the army. You didn’t have a choice. You’d have to join up or they’d shoot you. Like what’s going to happen if you don’t do your homework.”
My parents’ backgrounds loomed over my childhood in 1970s Washington, D.C., generating a constant gravitational pull in opposite directions. My father’s mother, Grandma Sadie, reminded me every time I saw her that I must have a bar mitzvah when the time came, and slipped me five bucks to seal the deal. But my mother always made me give it back. “Never take bribes,” she’d say. My mother hated my pop’s favorite snack of gefilte fish, coated in gelatinous goop. My father was disgusted by the pig’s feet she would sometimes gnaw. On New Year’s Eve, my mom would melt leaden figurines on a hot spoon, then pour the residue into a pot of cold water – the resulting shape a predictor of what the new year would bring. My pop only worried about us all getting lead poisoning. For bedtime stories my father chose a standard classic like Treasure Island, while my mom would read me Der Struwwelpeter, a heavily illustrated book by Heinrich Hoffman in which bad German children were punished by “the shock-haired one” who set them on fire for playing with matches, cut off their fingers for thumb-sucking, and dipped them in tar for making fun of a black kid.
But if my day-to-day life was overcast by the cultural differences, the holidays were when the storm hit.
One year, when I was around seven years old, my parents’ everything came to a head in what turned out to be the Ali-Frazier of Hanukkah’s first-night fights.
After trying various combinations of traditions, my parents had settled on tying Christmas tree branches to the large, wrought-iron menorah that my mom had found on a “trashing trip.” The resulting “tree-norah” looked a bit like a candleholder in sniper camouflage. Besides ol’ twiggy, we were fully stocked with essential holiday provisions: jugs of Almaden Mountain Red Burgundy – the WD-40 of red wine – and cartons of Marlboro Reds I bought for my pop utilizing a note penned by him. My mom was decked out in her thrift shop black velvet dress and special occasion red lipstick. My father had on his fat wool tie and corduroy pants from his wedding suit, the legs rubbing together when he walked like a threadbare version of the whistling theme from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Even though my mother had converted to Judaism, my father’s parents had sat shiva when he married her, shunning him with the very dramatic, “You’re dead to us” clause, when your family suddenly avoids your whole existence. It was a sore spot, but my parents, in true survivalist fashion, created a new family made up of their Fellini film-like cast of unusual friends. The guests this night included the 400-pound gay opera singer with a glass eye – a forget-me-not from a hate crime that popped out when he laughed. There was the poet who lived in the cardboard box on which he wrote his poetry, a reporter with terrible psoriasis who left a trail of parmesan-like flakes on whatever he touched, a neighbor who yelled for her long-dead dog to come home every night, a farmer, a guy with a pet spider, a garbage man, and Bundi, an Indian college professor with an English accent and navy blazer adorned with a regimental club crest.
Everyone was admiring mom’s latest “treasure,” a chair she’d allegedly rescued from the trash. But I knew she’d bought it from the Romanian antique dealer who let her pay small increments on epically long layaways. My mother’s “trashing” was a source of tension between my parents, mainly because us being on food stamps did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for bringing home antique tchotchkes.
I guess we all needed distractions. Like during that one Christmas when my mom scaled the roof and threatened to jump – and my father stretched out of an open window to talk her down while our neighbors watched, and I thought about the GI Joe I wanted, the one with kung fu grip and lifelike hair. You could pull a string in his back and he’d yell, “Action stations!” There were presents under our tree-norah, but they were rarely of the quality of a Joe, and usually educational in nature or made of wood.
The gift-giving portion of the holidays was constantly being tweaked. One year there was a series of small gifts, one for each night of Hanukkah, swathed in Christmas wrapping – a fusion on par with General Tso’s risotto.
Conversation was burbling that first night of Hanukkah, the year of the chair incident. Mahler was cranking and Almaden was flowing when my mother lit the first candle. Bundi read a passage from the Torah, his upper-crust accent devolving into soccer hooligan slur – apparently the candle wasn’t the only thing lit up.
Right in the middle of it all, the doorbell rang. Who could it be on this holiest of nights?
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Standing on our porch was the Romanian antique dealer, looking grim. After a few moments it was clear he was here to repossess the chair. My mother had missed a payment.
My mom tried to talk to him. He shook his head. My father tried as well. Nothing.
Bundi appeared and took a swing at him, but hit the coatrack instead. There was a brief tussle until the farmer emerged carrying a big piece of wood with a nail in the end. He whispered to the Romanian, “I kill hogs with this here.”
That was that. The Romanian left. The chair went with him. There was a lot of heated discussion and more drinking until the guests finally trickled out – all of them except for Bundi, who lay in the corner, sobbing about how he wasn’t really a member of the club signified by the crest on his jacket. He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me close. “The bloody Brits wouldn’t let me in because I’m Indian,” he hissed before passing out on the couch.
My parents sat glumly at the table. “We have no money and you buy antiques?” my father yelled suddenly. “I have no job!”
“No money, no money,” my mother mocked his voice. “You think I don’t know that? We’ve been eating chicken all Goddamn week! Chicken, Monday. Chicken livers, Tuesday. Chicken salad, Wednesday. Chicken soup, Thursday, and now, more Goddamn chicken! I got us something beautiful, so what? All Jews do is complain about suffering! But they really love to suffer! Well, I’m sick of suffering!”
“Six million didn’t have a choice but to suffer!” he yelled. “The Goddamn Germans and your Goddamn lederhosen and your Goddamn beer gardens and your Goddamn grandmother, that whore who slept with the Russian soldiers!”
Once the six million figure and grandma turning tricks started getting tossed around, I knew this was going bare knuckle.
“What about your precious mother? The same mother who says you are dead to her because you didn’t marry a nice, Jewish girl from Rockville, Maryland? I CONVERTED but it’s never enough is it? My perfect little boy married a shiksa! OY VEY!”
“Nazi pig! Go kiss your fuhrer!” was my father’s parting shot as he stepped outside for a smoke.
“They should have shoved you and your mother in the oven!” She locked the door behind him.
The “oven” line set his eyes ablaze through the glass in the front door. He tried the handle, a Marlboro Red dangling from his curled lip. She had dead-bolted the door. He yelled at her to open it. She cursed him. He yelled at me to open it. I looked at her.
“Don’t,” she said. “He’s crazy; he’ll kill me.”
I looked back at him. He pounded the door like an angry bear. The whole house shook.
He pulled his hand back and punched through the glass.
“You better go, Mom!” I shouted. She hightailed it upstairs to the bedroom and locked herself in.
He reached down and turned the key with his mangled hand while glass shards tinkled to the floor. Inside, he grabbed a dishtowel and wrapped his hand in it, the blood already soaking through the blue and white stripes.
Maybe this was it – the end of us all, the end of the tiny world we’d created, a world of isolation, of opposite camps, of smoked whitefish and forbidden bacon cravings.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to. Just then, from upstairs came the music. The music my mom played whenever the gloves came off.
German music. Oktoberfest music. Yodeling. Military chants. Marching. Beer hall songs. Boots smacking the pavement. You could almost taste the pretzel dough.
My old man charged upstairs and banged on the bedroom door. The music got louder. He kicked the door and bashed his shoulder into it but it held firm and the music got even louder. The oompah-pah sound blared from the speakers like bells for Quasimodo.
Finally, my father retreated downstairs to his basement workshop where a vice held a broken antique table he had been fixing for my mother.
He smashed it to pieces.
As the hammer rained down destruction, I sat under the tree-norah and opened my present: a book of architectural sketches, cross sections of the small parts needed to hold great, big structures together. My father must have bought it before his last job at the bookstore ended, leaving him unemployed.
Books. Books. Books. I looked at the big bookcase blocking the fireplace. Maybe that was the reason Santa never came to our house. He couldn’t get in.
I fell asleep reading about supporting beams and buttresses under the single candle of the tree-norah.
The next morning I awoke to my father making his “trucker breakfast” of eggs and chopped potatoes. Eventually I heard my mom’s clogs clomping slowly down the stairs.
She walked into the kitchen, saw my father and said, “Hi” in her very sweet voice.
He didn’t answer, but instead turned to me and said, “Please tell that woman that breakfast is ready.”
She rolled her eyes and we both cleared some of the mess from the night before off the table to make room for breakfast.
My father sat in silence while my mother cut up the blindingly hot peppers she liked to sprinkle on her food.
She put her plate on the table, then playfully raised a fist up to my father’s face.
“C’mon,” she said. “C’mon, fat man. You wanna fight? C’mon.” Then she kissed him on the forehead.
He was quiet for a moment and said, “Eat your breakfast, Lully. Before it gets cold.” Then he put his shredded hand around her and they both smiled.
I knew that the worst was over, that there was an implicit truce. The house rule was that the stronger the preceding argument, the longer the patch of ensuing peace.
“Tell Bundi it’s time to go home,” my mom said to me.
“He’s still here?” my dad interjected. “Bundi, get up! Time to go home!”
Later, after he cleared his breakfast plate, my father turned to me.
“Why don’t you help me move that bookcase in front of the fireplace to the other side of the living room?”
Had I heard this right? Was this some sort of Christmas concession, a soon-to-be unobstructed fireplace, inviting Santa to come down for the approaching Christmas Eve? Maybe he would finally pay us a visit, accompanied by a GI Joe with kung fu grip and lifelike hair, who had been desperately waiting to spring into action.