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Thursday, December 25, 2014

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(On the 15th yahrzeit)

They were 10 cousins. The oldest was almost 13, the youngest almost four – eight boys, two girls. Somehow, they all seemed to fit at one end of a makeshift table that filled the entire length of the kitchen.

To a youngster seven years old, the kitchen seemed, like all kitchens, large enough to accommodate the 20 people who crowded around the table.

The Kelvinator fridge stood at one corner of the room, at the joining of the wall opposite the table perhaps 10 feet away, and the wall between the kitchen and the summer kitchen.

In fact he never did understand why that smaller room attached to the kitchen was called a summer kitchen. No one ate there at any time, let alone in the summer. It was poorly lit, damp and cold, and used mainly as a gigantic storeroom in which cans of food and other household supplies were stacked in jumbled asymmetry on homemade shelves lined with wax paper.

One walked through the summer kitchen and down the four or five wooden steps to get into the backyard, a small postcard patch of concrete and grass, the escape route to the laneway behind the house, the paradise of all playgrounds for the 10 cousins and their many friends.

At the other end of the table and around its middle sat their parents and grandparents.

Grandfather sat at the head of the table. Although he was not a stern man, he had a stern bearing, probably as a result of his slow gait, his ramrod straight-backed posture and the way he spoke. Even though he was essentially deaf in one ear, he generally spoke quietly.

To a youngster of seven years old, grandfather was the embodiment of authority. No one challenged his will; no one countermanded his instructions; no one questioned his advice – certainly not any of the grandchildren.

Sitting beside grandfather, on his right, was his son, the seven-year-old’s uncle. To grandfather’s left sat one of the three sons-in-law, the seven-year-old’s father.

The other aunts and uncles found their places around the table. Grandmother, two of her three daughters, her son and daughter-in-law sat on the side of the table closest to the fridge, the stove, the sink, the counter and the cupboards. The seven-year-old’s mother sat beside her husband.

That night however, the cousins did not charge through the summer kitchen to get to their fantastical laneway. They spent the entire evening inside.

It was Pesach. The extended family had gathered at the bubbeh’s and zydeh’s house for the seder.

More than four decades later, when the seven-year-old was himself a parent, and he missed his own father, and he wanted to “see” again some of the images of his father as a young man, he recalled the smells and the sounds and the sights of the seders at his grandparents’ home – a narrow, two-storey, semi-detached house in the “greener” immigrant neighbourhood of downtown Toronto in the 1950s.

How did we all fit into that kitchen? he wondered bemusedly. How did we not bump into each other whenever we tried to move? How did we have room even to bring the spoonfuls of chicken soup to our mouths without splashing the person next to us?

Though he carefully and lovingly peeled back more of the layers of his memory, he could not remember any scenes of bumping or splashing.

But the echo chambers of his memory did bring back to him the “noise” of the kitchen/dining room. It was always more than a din and never less than a commotion. Had there been a “noisometer” in the room, it would have surely been stuck between ruckus and hubbub.

How could it have been otherwise? At one end of the table were the 10 young cousins. At the other end of the table were the 10 adults: grandparents and parents.

Because grandfather was essentially deaf in one ear, the adults spoke to each other rather loudly, and because the adults spoke rather loudly, the cousins, simply to hear each other better, spoke even more loudly than their parents.

Adding colour to the volume of the sound was the cacophony of four different languages. The cousins spoke to each other in English; the adults spoke to each other in Yiddish. The adults spoke to their children in Yiddinglish. The children answered them in Engliddish.

But that was only during the meal part of the seder. During the narrative of the Exodus, there was only one language: the heavily Polish-accented pronunciation of the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Haggadah, and there was only one sound: the familiar, comforting, sweetly melancholy tenor voice of the seven-year-old’s father leading the family in the recitation of the story.

The boy never asked why his father led the recitation and singing. It seemed only natural and right. His father, after all, was a marvellous singer. He had the finest voice of anyone in the family. He loved to sing. But more important, it was obvious even to the seven-year-old that his father needed to sing.

Many years passed before the seven-year-old was able to see the images of his young father in their truer dimension. He finally “saw” that his father, and other sole “survivors” like him, were also remembering and searching as they sang at the seder.

His father, too, was searching for images from a former time. But his memories, barely more than a decade old when his son was seven, could not comfort. They still cut him deeply, the dull edge of recollection’s blade piercing his psyche and stabbing at his heart even as his sweet voice became part of the din and commotion of the seder in a new life in a new land.

MBD          

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