“If you want to be true to life, start lying about it.”
Vintage Voices: Words Poured Out Redwood Writers 2010
You’re such a card, Mortie. A funny guy. Sixty-seven years of marriage you still make me laugh. I’ve never regretted a day of it–even though your father-the-Rabbi was against the wedding—too young, he said. But Grandmother Sigler and your aunt–what was her name? The yenta. They convinced him, and there we were smashing fancy cups at that new Max Strauss Center over on West Wilson. You remember the one—opened before the war.
So handsome you were in your tuxedo with that curly black hair slicked back and shining. And I was a queen in my gown—imagine, lace all the way from Italy. Shana maidel. That’s what you said when you saw me. Beautiful girl. And you promised me right then and there that you’d take me to all the beautiful places in the world, like Niagara Falls, because beauty belonged with beauty.
You’d just bought the butcher shop in Skokie and you had to travel for an hour on the streetcar to get to work. We were poor, then, weren’t we, Mortie? Too poor to go all the way to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon—but enough for Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin.
You bought that leather-covered suitcase, almost a steamer trunk it was so big. “What! You planning on shipping yourself somewhere,” I asked you? Big enough for both of us, you answered.
I remember it like it was yesterday, Mort. How the Siebkins welcomed us in and gave us the best room in the house overlooking the lake. All that clear blue water–what we saw of it. I saw a lot of you, Mortie, and so much to see! We said we’d go to Niagara Falls as soon as we saved enough money.
But God has his plans and two years later I was nursing our first bundle of joy, Rachel—you named her after your grandmother—and you shipped out to France with the United States Army, Mort, hauling that big brown suitcase. I ran the shop with Mr. Lipinsky. You did good with him as a partner. He was a charmer, that one. Soon we had matrons lining up to buy our meat. We always had meat what with Mr. Lipinsky’s connections. A real macher he was! When Cohen’s and Buchet’s barely had a side of beef, we had it all. And I saved every dime from the shop and from the upstairs apartment so when you got back from the war we could go to Niagara Falls.
Mama—may she rest in peace—kept Rachel after you were wounded. Neighbors at the synagogue took up a collection, flew me to London to stay with you while you recovered. Such kind people they were—people aren’t like that anymore, Mortie.
And you in that Army hospital. I was so worried. Won’t be dancing the Hora too soon, you said. You tried to teach the steps to the little English nurses, but I saw how that wooden foot hurt you. But you’re a funny guy, Mortie. You just kept telling the jokes about the landmines and the French and the Generals–making all those poor wounded soldiers laugh. And left foot or no left foot, you still had it in you. Or as you liked to say, you still had it in me.
You were behind the lines nine months later when the twins joined the family. Your father-the-Rabbi was so pleased that we chose his given name, Caleb, for the boy. And Mama, she told all the customers, “Such a fine son-in-law, naming his girl after his mother-in-law.” Oi! Gevalt! Who was to know that Judith would turn out to be a lesbian? It would have killed her grandmother if she’d lived to see the day.
Caleb was funny just like his father. Two comedians under one roof, I had. And he’s a doctor. A mother should be so lucky. So much love, so much laughter. We almost forgot about Niagara Falls, didn’t we, Mortie? Sparrow, you’d say—you always called me Sparrow. Said I reminded you of a delicate bird. You card, Mortie. After five children? But you said, Sparrow, we have everything we need. We have a good life, we have each other, Niagara Falls will wait.
After the war you bought-out Mr. Lipinsky’s share from the butcher shop. He moved away from Chicago, something about living closer to his daughter who had married a rancher from Colorado. I never did hear if he opened that new shop out in Denver, but I guess he’d have had a steady supply of beef. Buffalo too, I hear. Probably not kosher.
We had that little apartment at the back of Mama’s house. Remember how cozy it was with the children? Yes, it was crowded, if that’s the way you remember it, but we stayed there until Hannah came along in ’48. You were always gone working in those first years after Mr. Lipinsky left, and Mama played cards with her friends all day. Oi Vey! Me with only babies for company. I needed something to do and you, my generous Mortimer, agreed to give the upstairs tenants notice and move us in over the shop in time for Rachel to start school in Skokie. But all our savings went to fixing up the apartment and buying a car and we couldn’t go on vacation. Next year, you promised. Next year we’ll drive the whole family out to Niagara Falls.
That was the year your mother died from the cancer. We couldn’t go away and leave your poor father. I worried he wouldn’t make it through the funeral and it was the first time in your life you didn’t have a joke. Not until Little Mortie was born. That baby lit up your father-the-Rabbi like I never saw him. Gave him something to live for. Speaking of the funeral, you remember Anshe Zedek? I heard his wife just dropped dead in the checkout line at the kosher market over on Oakton. I’m not surprised, that man was tight. Probably squeezed her to death. What was her name? But Anshe was a good businessman you always told me. I wasn’t so sure about buying into his market on the other side of town. You cut the meat at both shops—all that running around you had to do. And with only one foot. I took over the selling in our shop as soon as the twins went to school. We made more money, but we were too busy to take our trip to New York that year.
Then we sold out to that chain. That was the year we went to the Catskills. Packed your old leather covered suitcase and put all the kids into the Chevy and drove across the country to that resort, what was it called? You remember, Mortie, everybody wanted to see that new comedian, Mel Brooks. Now he was a funny guy. You told his jokes over and over. And Rachel met her first boyfriend. How can we forget that. A goy, you said, and your father-the-Rabbi, tuning over in his grave. Later Rachel ran off with some poet to San Francisco. Did I mention we got a postcard from her? We talked about going to visit in San Francisco, but with two new shops, we couldn’t get away.
But, life was good, you always said, and we worked hard, didn’t we, Mortie? We saved and planned for our retirement. Little Mortie would take over the business. We would finally go to Niagara Falls for our retirement celebration. We’d take the kids and the grandkids. But when the time came, you and Little Mortie sold one of the shops and expanded into health foods. The wave of the future, you said. You said you couldn’t see yourself with nothing to do. Sitting down in front of a television set would kill you. You still using all those knives and meat cutters–and already missing a foot, but you two comedians just made a joke and went on with business as usual. I packed that old suitcase and flew to Miami to stay with my sister.
Hannah came to bring me home. Caleb sent her. He was worried about you. Little Mortie said you’d been acting funny at the shop. Said you were forgetting things, not making sense with the customers. You said, Sparrow, that’s a load of bunk. I’m fit as a fiddle and I don’t need you noodging me. You’re just mad because we didn’t go to Niagara Falls. I’ll tell you what Sparrow, you said, let’s go. Call and make a reservation tomorrow and we’ll fly out there together, just the two of us. But I told you to go to the neurologist before I’d go off on a vacation. “Call Caleb,” I said.
So what’s funny about a brain tumor? You were the only one making the jokes. The doctor said you didn’t have much longer, but Mortie, you said you weren’t dead yet and we were going to Niagara Falls. Marched right out of that medical office and called the airlines. Sparrow, you said, we’re going to Niagara Falls. You said, Promise me, Sparrow. No matter what.
Mortie, I promised, and the taxi is on its way. You’re packed in that old suitcase, but you took up so much room I could hardly find a spot for my nightgown. Our honeymoon suitcase, Mortie, do you remember? This will be our second honeymoon. Feh! A schmuk, the driver is. Mortie, he says it stinks in our apartment—like rotten meat. What’s the matter with the young people today? I told him to shlep your suitcase downstairs and mind his own business. He looked at the suitcase and asked me, “Are you cleaning out Dad’s things? You were supposed to call me to help.”
Genug es genug, Mortie. I told him to stop with the kvetching already! I said, “Just carry the suitcase to the taxi. My husband and I are on our way to Niagara Falls.”