The Daily Think: THE HOLIDAYS

When I was younger there was a grumpy conversation that my parents would have each year in late August or early September about what we were going to do for THE HOLIDAYS. THE HOLIDAYS were always hanging there in the Spring and Fall, like some giant cobweb in the basement that you could only duck around so many times before you had to get to the washing machine or the box of extension cords.

Being Jewish in a primarily non-Jewish world is inconvenient. Holidays fall in the middle of the week and you don’t get time off. If you want to take time off, it means taking a vacation day from work or missing a day or two of school. I was raised mostly a-religiously; my parents didn’t care much about the religious aspect of THE HOLIDAYS. The discussion was more about how to make their parents happy, coordinating time off in the middle of the week for a schlep to Baltimore, or disappointing their parents who wanted all of us to be together. Some years one or both of them would fast on Yom Kippur, mostly out of guilt, some years not. I had a Bat Mitzvah mostly to appease the older members of my family.

“You’ll be glad you did it when you’re older,” my mother would say, as I argued against taking part in what seemed like a ridiculous production. “It will mean something to you then.” This went on for months with no effect – I didn’t foresee myself finding a Bat Mitzvah meaningful and I think she knew I was right. As the big day drew near and I was ready to bail, her argument changed to, “If you don’t do this, I will never hear the end of it from your grandparents, so would you please just do this for me?” I couldn’t argue with that logic.

Behold, over two and a half decades later, at a time in life known for its nostalgia and longing, I have no attachment to my Bat Mitzvah. The only thing I got out of it, other than some money that I eventually put toward car insurance when I was seventeen and bonds that matured in time for me to use for a deposit on an apartment after my first divorce, is one really funny picture of all four of my grandparents. My grandfathers are both staring at nothing with conciliatory, stiff smiles, while my two grandmothers are leaning across each other gesturing wildly in opposite directions and ordering someone around somewhere off camera. That picture is still packed, but I can see it in my head and I’m smiling just thinking about it.

So, the grumpy conversation would happen late every summer, and a few weeks later we’d pile into the car on some weirdly hot September morning and make the two and half hour drive from Philly to Baltimore for THE HOLIDAYS. For a day, I would witness my parents transforming back into teenagers (although I didn’t know then that was what was happening). My mom helped make things nice while muttering snarky and usually hilarious, un-momlike things, my dad would get sullen and awkward, my grandparents would be happy, the TV would be too loud, and I… I have no idea what I did. I was just along for the ride. I think I read. Or moved from TV to TV. I half listened to the conversations around me and gave short answers to inquisitive relatives.

Two of my grandparents are gone now. The two who are left didn’t even ask about the holidays this year. I don’t miss the grumpy schleps and I don’t miss being a teenager. I’m still not religious, but the culture of my upbringing feels like home in a way that nothing else does. Today I was at my desk from 9:15 to 6:50, with breaks to have a bagel, let the dogs out, and do some laundry. It felt empty. Kind of sterile, like being in a model house. Low, as if all of my energy were being taken up by some alternate universe version of me, who instead of dating men who found Jewish women to be a novelty, met a nice Jewish boy in my mid-twenties, had three kids and now lives in a comfortable house in Mt. Washington, content.

Model houses always have kids’ rooms set up. With all the times I’ve moved, I’ve walked through a lot of them. They also have nice furniture and upgraded molding and appliances, but there is always, always a kid’s room, sometimes two depending on the size of the house. That’s how you sell a home.

What model houses don’t have are cobwebs in the basement. The basements are clean and empty, a space where, at the end of the tour, you can imagine a playroom, or a workshop, or an exercise room, or an office, or a place where you swear this time you won’t stash all of your junk, even though you probably will.