It’s Christmas as I watch my brothers, two older, one younger, follow my father out the front door in their fancies. They’re leaving my mother and me home, heading to Chicago to spend the evening at Aunt Mary and Uncle Murray’s, where a ceiling high Christmas tree salutes guests as they enter the apartment from the carpeted hallway on the fifth floor. Mother’s side of the family was Jewish, I understood, but not in the same way my father’s side was. Dad grew up in an observant, kosher home; Mom’s childhood experience was pretty non-observant. Mom and Dad, I now believe, combined the two for our family.
Inside our Waukegan home one hour north of Chicago my mother, father, brothers and I were, if not kosher, definitely Jewish: we attended Friday night services and lit the candles at sundown each week. On Sundays until we moved to Southern California in 1970, my brothers and I attended Sunday School. My oldest brother went to Hebrew School, and would have soon been bar mitzvahed had we remained in Illinois. We celebrated Porum, and Passover, and the High Holidays; ate lamb chops instead of pork chops. I loved being Jewish; this is a deep truth I’ve carried with me into adulthood, even if the practices of religion were mostly left behind in Waukegan.
Once a year, however, the excitement of dressing up in velvet, with white tights, patent leather shoes, and my rabbit fur winter coat with matching muff was a happening I crazily looked forward to probably starting after Halloween.
Christmas evening 1968: I was sick. I would have to miss this once-a-year extravaganza. The one holiday a year that gloriously, colorfully, festively didn’t make any sense at all. It was a holiday celebrated for the sole purpose of throwing a kind of party. This event wasn’t interspersed with prayers spoken in unintelligible Hebrew, no special foods steeped in meaning, no underlying suffering passed down through the centuries to be recognized, honored, not forgotten. One holiday a year my Jewish brothers and I frolicked on the carpeted floors high up in a Chicago apartment gazing in wonder at the sparkling, decorated tree sending essential frivolity through my blood, where it became a part of who I would become—a woman unable to be bound by labels put upon me by anyone other than myself.
But … this particular December 25, I was too sick to go.
Sweet Mother, her Audrey Hepburn beauty, and her eagerness to stay with me—alone—the two of us, as she oversaw my fever and set about to take on the role of Madge—”You’re soaking in it”—to my tiny hands as they readied for a professional manicure. After the role-played manicure she got me cozy on her big bed in front of the TV and set about to heat up a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Then, she served it on a tray with a side of saltines and a glass of ginger ale.
I’d been too sick that year to join the fancy party in Chicago with the rest of Mother’s family. Truth be told: I was not sad. No, far from it; my heart felt big and bright like a full moon. For just one night, one complete night, I was my mother’s princess. And this was the only Christmas present this Jewish girl ever really wanted.