Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm
At the end of the summer when my brother Hap told our family he was converting to Christianity, the first words my father said were, "There's probably just one Baptist girl in all of Hyde Park, and you pick her to date! Way to go, son!"
My mother laughed and then got serious, not because we were a religious family but because, I believe, she thought Hap was way too young to be thinking of marriage to Beth Ann Hopkins.
"You're just seniors in college," my mother had pointed out. "You need to graduate, get your first jobs, get out into the world. It's not that we don't like Beth Ann or even that we'd prefer you marry a Jewish girl, because you know we don't. But you're so young to be thinking about getting engaged. Live together for a while. Take things slowly, for Pete's sake."
I liked Beth Ann, too, but I definitely agreed with my mother for once. Hap was really rushing into things, and I told my second oldest brother exactly that.
"I don't need advice from a 14-year-old!" he'd said.
This was the problem with being the youngest, with having three older brothers, with being the only girl. I left the patio where we'd been having dinner as quickly as I could and went up to my room, where I proceeded to text my best friends Ruthie and Sarah: Hap's so in love with this girl, he's going 2 convert 2 Christianity!
Ruthie, whose parents were very conservative, called me in less than five minutes. "OMG!" she practically shrieked. "What did your parents say?"
"Well," I said, "you know my parents. They're pretty liberal. The whole Christianity thing doesn't really bother them. It's the fact that Hap and Beth Ann—I told you about her, remember?—are so young."
"You mean they're engaged?" she asked.
"Not yet, but Hap told my parents he's going to use the money he earned this summer to buy a ring. But then—get this!—he asked my dad if he could also loan him three thousand dollars. I guess diamonds are pretty expensive."
"What'd your dad say?""
"Same thing they always say: We'll think about it."
"So do you like this Beth Ann? Do you think you'll be a bridesmaid? Do you think they'll get married right after they graduate? She's not pregnant, is she?"
"As far as I know, no. She stayed with him in his room when they stayed over during the Fourth, so I know they're sleeping together. I guess she's not one of those 'I'm going to stay a virgin until I get married' Christians like Mary Louise Whitcomb."
Suddenly there was a knock on my door, and I told Ruthie I had to go, that I'd talk with her later. It was my youngest brother Jason, who would be a senior in high school. He was gay and had just started dating a classmate named Simon. My parents were totally cool with that, but I didn't care for Simon that much. Every time he came over, he made some kind of comment like, "I'd love to get my hands on your wardrobe before you start high school, Lanie. And maybe your hair, too. It's a brutal world out there, kiddo!" As if I didn't know high school wasn't going to be tough! Especially for an average-looking girl who had no discernable talents.
Jason came in and plopped down on my bed, asking, "So what'd you think about Hap's big announcement?" He was the brother I'd always been closest to, probably because we were closest in age.
I asked him if he meant the Christianity part or the ring part, and Jason responded, "Both."
Essentially I told him I felt the same way as Mom and Dad. "The Christianity part doesn't really faze me," I said, "but I agree with Mom: they're both too young to be thinking about marriage."
"You do remember Mom and Dad got married when they were in grad school?" he reminded me. "I think they're really being a little hypocritical. And what exactly does converting to Christianity entail? It's certainly not necessary for marriage, I don't think, although I don't personally know any Baptists. Other than Beth Ann. We've only met her twice, but she didn't really seem like the proselytizing type. I know our family's not super religious, but what are Leaf and Button and Masie going to think? The whole changing your religion thing seems utterly drastic to me."
I had to agree with him. I hadn't really stopped to think in terms of all the religious stuff Hap might have to learn and profess to believe in.
"Are Baptists one of those religions totally against same-sex marriage?" I asked Jason.
"I don't really know for sure," he answered. "I think maybe they're leaning against it, but there are members of every religious sect who form their own opinions about things like that and abortion and other hot-ticket issues regardless of what their church doctrine decrees. I wish Hap could have stayed around after dinner was over, so I could have talked to him some more."
I agreed with him, noting that even though our brother went to the U of C, we didn't see him all that often. We saw our oldest brother Randall about as much as we did Hap, and Randall, who was only a year older than Hap, lived in Santa Barbara.
"Do you know if Randall knows?" I asked Jason.
Jason told me he had texted him, but Randall hadn't responded yet. Both of us looked up to Randall, who had graduated from Stanford and now had a great job. Randall didn't have a girlfriend and didn't tell us much about his social life, but unlike Hap, he was wise and discriminating and practical, so it would probably be a while before we heard about any engagements as far as he was concerned.
"Well," I said, "I like Beth Ann okay, and if they're really in love, I guess it'll be okay."
"Yeah," Jason said, "but sometimes I worry about Hap. He's not that rational. I think Beth Ann is, what most straight guys would say, 'really hot,' and I suspect our brother thinks more with his penis than his brain."
Now if Sarah or Ruthie were to be having this conversation with their male siblings and they said penis as casually as Jason did, they'd probably die of embarrassment, but as I said, at our house, we're all pretty liberal. I think I was about eight when I found condoms in the bathroom I shared with my three brothers, and when I'd asked Jason what they were, he'd said matter-of-factly, "Oh, Mom gave us those. It's so we'll have safe sex. You don't have to worry about it."
At that age I wasn't even thinking about sex, but Jason was only three and half years older than me, and when I got to middle school and sex was all everybody talked about, although not explicitly, I remembered my conversation with Jason and I wondered if he'd been having sex at age twelve.
Now I was 14 and about to start high school, and like Ruthie and Sarah, I was a virgin with no real prospects for a boyfriend. Ruthie liked Sean Stafford (who wasn't even Jewish, a fact that could send her devoutly religious parents to an early grave), and Sarah liked Adam Cushman, and I liked Herbie Jakowitz, but those guys probably didn't know we existed. Of course, Sarah, who was Size C in sixth grade, could have had sex with Peter Kim, who had a big crush on her, but Peter was like the biggest nerd in our middle school. All of us were hoping once we got to high school there would be lots more males to choose from and those same males would find us super attractive.
Well, we didn't hear anything from Hap for a while since he had a summer internship, and once school started, Hap was busy with classes. Unlike Randall and Jason, Hap wasn't super smart, so he had to study pretty hard. But he was definitely my best-looking brother. He was tall with great thick dark hair and kind brown eyes, a generous mouth and somewhat "goyish," as Masie might say, features.
Speaking of Masie, she texted my mom right after school began and said she was coming for the High Holy Days. Masie was my paternal grandmother who lived in New Jersey and believed my mother adored her. My mom called her parents in Boca Raton right away and invited them for the High Holy Days, and they said yes immediately because, even though both sets of grandparents had prestige and money, it always seemed to be a competition for them as far as pleasing and gifting our family went.
Of course, after my mom finished talking to her mother, she remembered for at least one meal, second oldest son Hap would probably be here, possibly with Beth Ann, and that was sure to cause a little friction, especially if Hap mentioned marriage and religious conversion. Still, my mom did not like facing her mother-in-law alone, and so she planned to e-mail Hap beforehand and provide him with a list of allowable topics to discuss. Otherwise the headline was likely to be: Before brisket served, grandparents drop dead.
I was just thankful Randall was staying in California, and so Button and Thread could have his old room and I didn't have to sleep on the sofa in the den. Yes, Button and Thread were my maternal grandparents. They had let Randall name them, and the story went something like this: When my oldest brother was about one and a half, my grandparents were visiting, and since my mom hated to do certain domestic tasks like cooking, cleaning, and sewing, she had a bunch of button-needy shirts and skirts for my grandmother to tackle. My grandparents put little Randall on the sofa between them, and then they proceeded to explain and to show how a button is sewn on. Apparently Randall was fascinated and learned the words button and thread very quickly, and since my maternal grandparents felt they were way too young to be grandparents and to be called grandparents, they decided on the nicknames Button (my grandmother) and Thread (my grandfather)—I know, Freud would have had a field day with the phallic innuendo—so that's what we've always called our maternal grandparents.
Of course, once she heard the other set of grandparents had cute names, our paternal grandmother (Dad's father was deceased by that time) would have nothing to do with being called Grandma Houseman or even Bubbe. She let Randall pick her nickname, and he decided on Masie, which was the name of the neighbor's dog when my parents lived in Brooklyn.
And now Button, Thread, and Masie were coming for the High Holy Days. And also Hap and probably even Beth Ann because he'd want to see his grandparents and introduce them to the love of his life.
After a few texts and calls between my mom and Hap, it was decided he and Beth Ann would come for dinner on Rosh Hashanah. We all thought it was better to get the introduction to Beth Ann over early rather than wait until we were all grumpy after fasting (or semi-fasting, as we did in my family) on Yom Kippur. Also, Rosh Hashanah food was generally better than the food served at the large meal before sundown prior to Yom Kippur or to break-fast food. But, more importantly, driving up for Rosh Hashanah fit with the class schedules of Hap and Beth Ann.
So I said quite innocently to my mom, "Is Simon invited to Rosh Hashanah dinner, too?"
She glared at me and responded, "I didn't think you liked Simon."
That was a good one, Mom, I thought.
"He's okay," I said. "I'm cool with him."
"Well, why don't we just plan your grandparents' funerals right now," she said. "Hopefully they'll keel over before they can change their wills."
"Maybe if Jason told them he was gay, they'd be okay with it," I suggested.
"Well, we're sure as hell not trying it out now. You know, Lanie, maybe you could ask that nice Herbie Jakowitz to join us? I really like his parents, and he's a very good-looking boy."
"Gee, Mom!" I practically screamed. "Maybe we should ask Herbie's whole family over, maybe his grandparents and his aunts and uncles and his cousins. Maybe it can be like the Middle Ages, and I'm betrothed to him right now. You know, back then when a girl turned 12, she went to live with the husband she'd had since age three. Hell, I'm already fourteen. Maybe I'm past my prime."
My mother just laughed, and I was about to leave the kitchen, where she was loading the dishwasher, when she said, "You know I love you, Lanie. You're the smartest and wittiest of my four kids. I'm sorry I said the wrong thing. I'm just worried about everything. And you know how having Masie in this house makes me crazy."
I didn't say anything; I just left the room and went up to my bedroom to finish my homework, wondering how the hell she knew I liked Herbie Jakowitz.
Since my mother couldn't get out of work on the afternoon Button and Thread were flying in, my father announced he and Jason would switch cars and Jason could take the Lexus and pick them up at Midway. And because my mother believed the runways at Midway were too short and it was too easy for planes to skid off, I got to ride shotgun, promising to be extra vigilant of planes swooping down as we approached the airport.
"I don't know why they don't fly into O'Hare?" my mother always lamented.
It's because Thread found a cheaper fare into Midway, Jason and I wanted to yell, but we knew we had to keep Jewish stereotypes to the minimum.
On the way to the airport, I got one text from my mother reminding me of the bullet points we'd discussed earlier: Jason stays in closet; Hap has a girlfriend, not a fiancée; don't even mention CONVERSION.
So after we got our grandparents and all their luggage into the car and were heading north to Glencoe, and after we told them all about school this year and what activities we were doing and grades we were getting and what colleges Jason was applying to, I asked in my sweetest voice, "Did Mom tell you Hap's bringing his girlfriend for dinner on Rosh Hashanah?"
Of course, we knew this would be a surprise to both of them, and it was, but instead of asking about her, Button said, "How 'bout you, Lanie? Any boyfriends in your life?"
Quickly Jason answered for me, "In today's high school milieu, Button, very few teenagers date as couples. There are so many more group activities, and rest assured, Lanie has a very active social life with lots of friends who are both male and female, as do I."
"The person you should ask about a girlfriend," I continued, silently thanking my empathetic brother, "is Randall. He doesn't tell us anything, and he's so picky. You should Skype with him. Then let us know all the dirt."
"We can't get that to work half the time," Thread said. "You've got to come down to Florida and show us again how to Skype. That's the trouble with having grandkids who live so damn far away."
"So tell us about Hap's girlfriend," Button said, and we were both shocked and a little frightened to be back on the trickiest subject.
"Well," I bravely began, "she's really very nice. And obviously she has to be smart because she's at the U of C."
"And she's very good-looking," Jason added.
"So I take it you've all met her?" Thread asked.
"Oh, yeah, everybody but Randall," I said.
"What's her name, and where's she from?" my grandfather asked.
"Beth Ann Hopkins," I said, letting Jason concentrate on driving. "I believe she's from some smaller city in Wisconsin. Let me think of it. Oh, I remember, Eau Claire. You know, it has a pretty French name."
"Is she French?" Thread asked.
"I don't think so," I answered. "We only met her briefly a couple times, so we really don't know that much about her. Plus they haven't been dating all that long."
"Well, what kind of a name is Hopkins?" Thread persisted. "All I can think of is Johns Hopkins? She isn't Catholic, is she?"
"Benny," Button interrupted, "you're getting that university mixed up with Georgetown. One's in DC; the other's in Baltimore. You always do that."
Now it was my turn to shine. Someday I hoped to become a contestant on Jeopardy! because my mind was full of arcane trivia.
"Did you know," I began, "that the founder of Johns Hopkins was really named JOHNS Hopkins, and not JOHN Hopkins? Johns Hopkins was a Baltimore merchant and he was also a Quaker and an abolitionist." (Who can find fault with an abolitionist Quaker?)
"Damn, how do you know that stuff?" Thread marveled.
"We're going to get you on Jeopardy! someday," Button chimed in.
"So do you know who founded Yale?" Jason asked, hoping to turn the conversation to one of the schools he was applying to but would not probably get into. (Even his guidance counselor had said, "They're only going to take so many Jewish kids from the North Shore.") But I knew that Jason really wanted to go to Pomona or UCLA, to go to college in California like Randall did.
And so for the rest of the ride to Glencoe, I filled my grandparents in on the lives of Elihu Yale, John Harvard, Nicholas Brown, and our favorite, Louis D. Brandeis. We had just gotten my grandparents' luggage up to Randall's old room when Jason got a text from our mother asking if everything was okay. Back in the hallway while my grandparents unpacked, Jason punched his message into the phone, saying for my benefit, "We're alive! No planes overshot the runway! Safe and sound in Glencoe." I knew as soon as my mom got home, she'd want to know what we'd told them about Beth Ann; I could proudly report that about all they knew was her name.
The next day our father took the afternoon off to pick up his mother at O'Hare, and my grandparents spent the next couple of days shopping and cooking and arguing about recipes. For example, they disagreed about the spices that went into Lekach. Also, Button, who was 11 years younger than Masie and rail-thin, was a picky eater and hated raisins. Masie insisted on adding golden raisins that had been "plumped" (a word that also described Masie) in hot water to her Lekach. She also brought her own loaf pan to bake the cake in, while Button insisted a round pan made for a nicer presentation. You can see where this is going: each grandmother made her own Lekach.
For Rosh Hashanah itself, they generally divided the duties of preparing each dish, which, as you can imagine, my mother appreciated greatly as she sat in her work lab trying to find the cure for cancer. Since Button was not fond of most types of seafood except shrimp and scallops, Masie handled the preparation of the whole fish with its head intact (a presentation that freaked out not only Button but also my mother, Jason, and me), while Button made her well-liked brisket for those of us not fond of staring a dead fish in the eye. Masie baked challah while Button, who thought Whole Food's challah as good as anything home-made, churned out the vegetable and apple dishes. Thread, who usually spent his time at our house doing three things (dropping off Jason and me at school, driving Jason's Prius to Jewel and Whole Foods so Button and Masie could shop, and watching CNN and the weather channel) was enlisted to help fry the leek fritters.
Prior to the arrival of Hap and Beth Ann, my mother had broken the news to my grandparents that his girlfriend was not Jewish. Since my father had not yet lent any money to Hap, he had not purchased a ring yet, so we didn't have to worry about Beth Ann showing up with new jewelry. My mother had also warned Hap she didn't want him talking about getting married and changing his religion. "And remember," she told all of us, "politics and religion are strictly off-limits around the dinner table."
When my brother and Beth Ann arrived about 7:00 PM, all nine of us sat down at the big mahogany table in the formal dining room of our Victorian home. Since my grandparents were used to eating at about 5:00 PM every day, all the food was ready and they were eager to partake of our Rosh Hashanah meal. The table was set with our best china (Limoges), St. Louis crystal, and the family sterling. I noticed right away that Hap and Beth Ann were both wearing jeans, but they were nice jeans and didn't have any holes or rips. Still, they were a trifle underdressed compared to the rest of us, who had all been to synagogue earlier. On the plus side, Beth Ann wasn't wearing around her neck one of those gold crosses like Mary Louise Whitcomb did almost daily.
The dinner conversation began with Thread's giving a basic intro to Rosh Hashanah for the benefit of Beth Ann and also his grandkids since, as I mentioned before, my parents were not very religious. He recited a prayer before we started passing the food. Then Thread told us, as he had done every night since arriving, what the weather was like at various cities around the United States.
Next the conversation segued into a good topic: the explanation of my grandparents' "names of endearment," as Masie liked to think of them. After my father had gotten finished telling the story of little Randall and the sewing scenario and then Randall's selecting Masie as the name for his own mother, Masie barked just like a dog and declared, "Thank God the neighbors' pooch wasn't named Rover!" We all laughed, even my mom, who had heard this quip several times. I knew Mother believed the dinner was off to a good start.
"Are your grandparents living?" Thread then asked Beth Ann, who told us all four of them were alive and very healthy for being octogenarians. She added she was so blessed to have always had them in her life. "They all live in Eau Claire," she said, which surprised all of us, as we were a far-flung family.
Then Button declared she'd never been in Wisconsin, and so Beth Ann told them a little bit about her state and her hometown.
"You may remember," Thread said to his wife, "I had that client who flew a bunch of us guys into Green Bay once for a Packers game. It was Packers versus Bears, a big game. I suppose you're a Packers fan?" (This question was being directed to Beth Ann, of course.)
"Oh, everybody's a Packers fan in Wisconsin," she answered, "unless they're originally from Illinois."
"Actually," Hap interjected, "both Beth Ann and I have become very cognizant of the controversies in the NFL because of so many retired players and their resulting health problems due to past head injuries, so we've chosen not to follow professional or college football."
Since Thread now doted on the Dolphins rather fanatically, my mother quickly asked, "So how are classes going this semester, Hap? And Beth Ann, I don't seem to remember what you're majoring in."
"They're always hard for me," Hap confessed, "but Beth Ann has a very high GPA. She plans to go to graduate school in social work and probably stay right at the U of C. That will be great because I hope to start an MBA program, probably at DePaul or Northwestern or the U of C, after I work for a year or so, hopefully at the firm where I did my internship this last summer."
"Oh, Horatio, that sounds so wonderful!" Masie exclaimed. "I love that my grandchildren are such career-focused individuals."
"Say, Beth Ann," my father quickly said, perhaps so Thread could not declare once again how he found Jason's choice of a future profession in screenwriting rather risky, "I suppose Hap's told you the story of his nickname?"
Of course, I thought this was an extremely lame attempt to change the conversation topic—I mean, they've only been dating for nine months, so don't you think the first question any girl, and especially a smart one like Beth Ann, would ask would be about Hap's name?
But Beth Ann just smiled and said, "Oh, I think it's an adorable story that Hap was such a happy child and his older brother couldn't pronounce Horatio, which is actually a very nice name. I just love unusual, or meaningful, names."
"I'm named after my great-grandmother, Elaine Houseman," I stated. "And Randall Houseman was Elaine's husband."
"Oh, Lanie," Beth Ann said, "that is so nice that your parents passed on family names, and I just love your nickname. If I had a little sister, I'd want her to be just like you."
I began understanding more and more that Beth Ann liked to please people, and she was always super polite, but I wondered if she was being sincere. I'd have to keep a close eye on this one.
Beth Ann's declaration of affection for me led Masie to ask her if she had siblings, and Beth Ann reported she had only one younger brother, Eric, who was a junior in high school."
"Does he know where he wants to go to college?" Thread asked.
"He's not sure yet, but unlike me, he prefers smaller towns and smaller schools. He's thinking a lot about Carleton."
I had just taken a big bite of brisket when Beth Ann said this and almost choked because that was one of the schools I'd read about that seemed sort of interesting to me. I, too, wanted a smaller school. Then she said Haverford, and I almost spit out the sip of water I'd taken because that was another college I liked. And I hadn't told anyone I was thinking a smaller school might be good for me, not even Ruthie and Sarah. I wondered if Beth Ann possessed some sort of ESP that helped her say just the right thing.
After that my parents inquired about the college plans of our New York and New Jersey cousins, and then Masie began quite a long story about my Uncle Jonathon's "bout with gout," ending with the fact she told everyone—and I mean complete strangers—"Has Hap mentioned to you, Beth Ann, my birthday's next month? I'm going to be 92!"
"Oh, that's wonderful!" Beth Ann gushed. "I can't really believe that—you look terrific! What an inspiration you are!"
"I don't use a walker or cane or anything," Masie bragged. "And I just feel the same way I felt at fifty! You should see half the people in my condo building. You remember Elda Lederman, son? She's five years younger than me and starting to lose it up here." (Masie pointed to her silver blue head.) "I have to order for her when we go out to eat. When I get back to Jersey, I'm going to have to call up her kids and tell them they've got to start making plans for poor Elda."
"It's so wonderful you've got such great genes," my mother said, and all of us, except Masie and Beth Ann, knew she was being sarcastic.
"So what do your parents do in Wisconsin?" Thread next asked, and Beth replied her father was a lawyer and her mother a high school chemistry teacher, two excellent professions as far as our family was concerned since Thread had been an attorney and my mother was a scientist. "What kind of law does he practice?" Thread asked after he had explained he'd been with the same firm in New York for 52 years.
"Oh, Eau Claire's just a small town," Beth Ann replied. "He's in practice with my grandfather, and they handle a little bit of everything. Did you concentrate on litigation or corporate law, Mr. Bernstein?"
I had to hand it to Beth Ann; she was so polite and pretty and good at conversing, I sensed if my grandfather had to give a marital blessing, he'd be honored. With her long blond hair and blue eyes, Beth Ann was actually so beautiful she could be a model or actress. Then I wondered what she was doing with Hap, who, as I said, was good-looking but not exactly Zac Efron. I mean, even if our family was well-off, it wasn't like we were the Crowns or Pritzkers.
Now they were talking, for some reason I missed and despite my mother's admonishment against talking politics, about Bernie Sanders, a man whom my grandparents mostly admired and whom Hap and Beth Ann greatly admired. All of a sudden, Thread just up and asked, "Young lady, I know you're not Jewish. What religion are you?"
"My family has always worshipped at a Baptist church," she answered. "I'm afraid since I've been in college, I've not had much time to attend religious services on campus. Unlike what Hap told you earlier, I'm not so smart that I don't have to work hard to get good grades. And I know you know about Hap's self-deprecating side. He's really the most intelligent guy I've ever known. And certainly the kindest."
After she said all this, she gave him the biggest smile, and he reached for her hand and squeezed it.
"Well," Thread proclaimed, "I think she's a keeper, Horatio!"
But I could tell the jury was still out as far as my grandmothers were concerned. Then suddenly Masie said, "Jason dear, you've been so quiet." She pretended to whisper to Beth Ann, "He's always been my most serious grandchild." Then she looked right at him and said, "Tell us, is there a special girl in your life?"
"No, not at this time," he replied swiftly. "The first half of senior year is really busy. I think I counted I have 23 essays to write for my college applications."
"Oh, goodness dear!" Masie exclaimed, "I knew it was hard to get into the good universities these days, but I had no idea! Thank goodness that's all behind us." She directed her closing statement to Button and Thread, perhaps, in the process, insulting Button, who had never completed college.
Since we'd finished eating, my mother then asked me if I'd help her clear the table, and Beth Ann and my grandmothers offered to help as well, but my mom said, "No, ladies, please sit. Lanie and I can get this. I'll start the coffee, and we'll have dessert as soon as that's ready. In the meanwhile, Jason, why don't you tell everyone about some of those essay questions and maybe they can give you some good ideas?"
In the kitchen the first thing my mother said to me was: "I think things are going pretty well. What do you think?"
I told her I agreed with her, but then I added, "I really think Jason needs to tell them he's gay. It's the 21st century, and really, I think being LGBTQ is no big deal. I think Masie and Button and Thread would surprise you. They love us, and they're compassionate people."
"Of course, you're right, Lanie," she said as she rinsed off the dinner plates, "but tonight's not the night. They're still going to be here for all the High Holy Days, and your father and I will talk to Jason and see if he wants to tell them. Maybe before Yom Kippur. It's got to be his decision, and I don't think he's ready yet."
"So, do you think Beth Ann's always sincere in what she says?" I asked. "Sometimes she seems so perfect."
"Well, I think she's being honest. I like her, but I still think they're too young."
"Yesterday after school," I blurted out, "a boy in my Honors English class asked me if I'd like to go to the Homecoming Dance with him. I told him I had to ask my parents and I'd get back to him."
I hadn't planned on even saying anything to my mother tonight, and now I had just opened a whole new can of worms. The dance was a little over two weeks away, and although Ruthie hadn't been asked yet, Sarah actually said yes to Peter Kim when he asked her, and I almost fainted when I got asked.
My mother laughed and said, "You don't really need our permission, Lanie. If you like the boy and want to go to the dance with him, then I think you should."
Then she told me to take a plate of cookies into the dining room and find out if everyone wanted cake. When I returned to the kitchen she asked, "So, do I know this boy?"
"It's not Herbie Jakowitz," I said. "This boy is in my Honors English class, and we worked on that group project about Antigone together. He's really, really smart and seems pretty nice." He was also quite good-looking, with caramel-colored skin and dark, penetrating eyes, but I didn't tell my mother that.
"What's his name?" she asked, as she cut pieces of cake and put them on dessert plates.
"Niranjan Patel," I said. "He didn't go to grade or middle school with me."
"So he's Indian-American?" she asked.
"I think he said his grandparents came from Pakistan. His parents are both doctors with Northwestern Medicine."
"If you want to, you should go to the dance with him."
"Okay," I said. "I was planning to tell him yes."
She smiled and said, "That's good."
"I know it's busy right now with everybody here for the High Holy Days, but do you think we could go to Nordstrom or someplace and I could get a new dress?"
She told me she thought that could be arranged, and then we carried dessert and coffee into the dining room, where everyone still seemed to be giving Jason ideas for his essays. Apparently one essay asked the applicant to select a favorite word and explain why. They then asked my mom and me, and she selected evolution, explaining Darwin's theories had inspired her since she was a youth.
"So what's yours, Lanie?" my father asked.
"First tell me what words everybody else chose," I stated.
"I haven't picked any word yet," Jason said, "but I enjoyed hearing everyone else's selections."
"I picked comity," Thread declared. "It basically means civility. I believe in all peoples getting along. And it's also a legal term which decrees that the courts of one jurisdiction respect the laws and decisions of another. Believing in comity is essential for a law-abiding society."
"My word was very humble," Button said. "I picked peace."
"And I picked TRADITION!" Massie blasted out, singing it just the way Tevye does in Fiddler on the Roof.
"My thoughts went along with yours, Mother," my father said. "I picked family, the most important thing in my life."
"So, what'd you pick?" I asked, looking at Beth Ann and Hap, who were sitting next to each other, almost leaning in to each other.
"Exuberance," Hap said. "My goal is to live up to my name: to be happy, in high spirits, full of life. I think that's basically what it means."
"And mine was choice," Beth Ann said. "I believe in free will, and I'm very appreciative of all the choices I've had in my life, and I believe making sure others have the right to make good choices is something to strive for. I guess that's the social worker in me talking."
"But do people have the right to make bad choices?" Jason asked, "And who decides what's good and bad? I think we'd all agree if I chose to shoot heroin, I'd be making a bad choice. But there are so many other choices everybody makes that fall into very gray areas. Beth Ann, I don't think you'd get into Skidmore, or whatever college it was that had that question!"
We all laughed at his last statement, realizing he was attempting to turn the mood light after he'd started out by sounding so philosophical.
"Well, I'm just thankful we've got such bright and reflective children," my dad said. "And what would your word be, Lanie?'
I told them I didn't know, that I'd have to think about it some more. When I'd first heard the question, onomatopoeia had popped into my head, but now that seemed silly.
We had all finished dessert, and I saw Hap was looking at his watch. "Traffic will probably be slow, just as it always is," he said, "and Beth Ann's got an eight o'clock tomorrow, so I'm afraid we're going to have to hit the road."
He and Beth Ann began rising, and we all did so as well, with my grandmothers and mother heading into the kitchen while Beth Ann and Hap went to use the bathroom. Then all nine of us congregated in the foyer to hug Beth Ann and Hap, who also shook our grandfather's hand, saying, "Thread, I appreciated your lecture, Rosh Hashanah 101." And Beth Ann gushed, "Oh, yes, it was all so fascinating! I thank you all so much for your warm hospitality. I can't wait for you to meet my family!"
After they had left, Button said immediately, "I didn't know they were that serious. What'd she mean about meeting her family?"
"Well," my father began, "you just never know. Tissa and I got married when we weren't that much older than Hap and Beth Ann."
"Don't you think she's a really lovely young woman?" my mother added.
"Well, she's attractive," Button said, "but she's not Jewish. My mother would have called her a shiksa."
"Thank you for pointing that out, Barbra," Masie said. "I thought she was a sweet girl, but she might not be the right match for Hap. She just seemed a little too naïve and idealistic to me."
I couldn't believe my two grandmothers, who usually disagreed about almost everything, were united on what should be a non-issue.
"Oh, Mom," my mother said, "you know being Jewish doesn't really matter."
"Yes, don't plotz, Barbra!" Thread cautioned. "It's not as if they're engaged. We'll probably never meet that girl's family."
"But what could we possibly have in common, for example, with her grandparents, that she'd be so eager for us to meet them?" Button continued. "I'm sure they don't have a symphony in Eau Claire. They probably don't play bridge. I'm sure they don't have any Jewish friends."
"Oh, Mother!" my mother said again, even more demonstratively.
"I'm going to work on my homework now," Jason announced, and as he left, Masie said, "Hap's got a good head, so I'm not going to worry about the woman he eventually chooses to marry. Now let's do the dishes. If we all help, the kitchen and dining room will be cleaned up in a jiffy."
Normally I would ask to be excused, too, to plead a ton of homework. That was one of the sins I knew I needed to ask forgiveness for. It was always preferable to be up in my room with my phone and computer and TV and the music I liked to listen to. It seemed as if more and more our family members sought out separate spaces. We rarely ate together. Mom retreated to the library to read at the end of the day. Dad watched TV in the den. Jason and I went to our rooms where we had our own electronic devices to entertain us.
At this time of the year, I had always had a hard time figuring out what I needed to ask atonement for, as I hadn't killed anyone or robbed any banks or committed any major sins I knew of. I knew I had faults: sometimes I was jealous of my classmates; sometimes I thought I was superior because I was smarter; sometimes I was apathetic about social injustice.
As we all walked toward the kitchen and dining room, I knew it would be easy to say, "I've got lots of homework tonight, too, so can I be excused?" But when I got to my room, I'd text or call Ruthie or Sarah right away. I'd watch TV or listen to music. I'd dream about Niranjan Patel kissing me.
Beth Ann had commented about how lucky she'd been to have had her grandparents live in the same town where she grew up. I'd never lived in the same place with Thread, Button, and Masie. I usually saw them about twice a year, and usually they didn't spend almost two weeks with us, as they were doing this year for the High Holy Days. And Masie was really old!
As I helped my grandparents and mom take the dishes and glasses into the kitchen from the dining room, I said to Thread, "Hey, you've always promised to teach me how to play bridge. How about after we get the kitchen clean, you and Button and Masie and myself sit down and you can teach me the basics; that is, if you're not too tired or don't have other things to do."
Masie had heard what I'd said, and she was the first to respond, "Oh, Lanie, that'd be wonderful! Don't you think so, Benny and Barbra?"
"Yes, I do!" Thread declared. "You know I don't ever go to bed before eleven." He looked at his watch, "It's only 9:50 in Boca right now." (Thread kept Florida hours even when he was in another time zone.)
Then my father said, as he was washing the crystal, "You four take off now. Your mother and I can finish up in here. There's not that much more to do anyway."
"Well, I've got to take these heels off and get comfortable," Button said. "If you don't mind my caftan, I can play bridge for hours."
I gave all three of my grandparents big smiles, adding, "I'm with you, Button. I'm going to go put on my jammies, and I need to text a friend about something, and then I'll be right back down."
I raced to my room, picked up my phone, and texted Niranjan to tell him I could go to the dance. He texted me back right away: Great! Then I told him I'd see him in school. Communicating was so easy in the 21st century. And some time, I promised myself, in the next several days, these holiest of days in the Jewish faith, this start of the Jewish New Year, Yom Teruah, I'd share with my grandparents the news of my imminent first date.