Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Remember that George Goble line? “ Did you ever think the whole world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes? “ That’s what I thought when I met my wife’s family for the first time.

Donna’s family was big. Mine wasn’t. Donna’s family was Jewish. Mine wasn’t. I am an only child; Donna’s one of four siblings. I can count with the fingers on one of my hands how many first cousins I have. Donna? She has enough first cousins to field a football team. Both the offensive and defensive platoons.

We celebrated Passover on Saturday. The seder was held at Donna’s brother Alan’s house in western Massachusetts. We walked into the house and the first person I made contact with was Mike, Alan’s daughter’s boyfriend. He’s like me. Majored in English, he’s not Jewish. And he’s shy.

I was very shy when I first met Donna. I remembered dreading my first seder.

“ I’ll have to read something aloud? “ I asked Donna

“ Yes, “ she said. “ My father will be the leader and you’ll be one of the participants. You’ll be reading a short passage. Nothing to it. “

“ Easy for you to say, “ I said.

“ You can do it, “ Donna said.

I went to my first seder. It was 1974. Donna was right. I could do it. But I wondered, when Donna’s father read: “ Why is this night different from other nights? “ I wondered if someone would point to me and say:

“ For one thing there’s this Irish guy here… “

But that didn’t happen. Nothing bad happened. I read my part. My voice didn’t shake. I wasn’t embarrassed. The shy guy passed the audition.

Passover 2007. I greeted Mike, who I had not seen since Lisa received her Masters last year from Brown University. “ Hi Mike, “ I said. “ Happy Easter. “

Then I thought: No, no. Wrong thing to say. Faux paux. It’s Passover for Christ’s sake. I took a step back. Then said to Mike:

“ Happy Hannukah. “

I felt like an idiot. Then again, who hasn’t in situations like this. You haven’t? You who live in this tuxedo world? You need to walk a mile in my shoes, which are sometimes brown.

Mike’s not one of the cousins. But he’s part of the family. A recent addition. Lisa and he have been together for about two years. I’m still trying to get to know him and vice versa.

That band of cousins I mentioned. I connect with them every now and then. At seders, weddings. Bar and bat Mitzvahs. And funerals.

Donna’s Uncle Mitch died a few days before the seder. He’d been sick for years. Parkinson’s Disease. I didn’t know Mitch well. He lived out his last years in Florida. But back when Donna and I were newlyweds, back in the 70s, we’d run into him at weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. It was at someone’s wedding that Mitch and I had a run-in. I’d walked up to the bar and ordered a drink. Mitch was up there. I was waiting for the barkeep to bring me my beer.

When Donna’s Uncle Mitch looked over at me, he said, “ Why doncha smile? This is a wedding. A happy occasion. Smile why doncha? “

I’d always been self conscious about my glum look. I wasn’t, and never have been a smiler, no hail fellow well met type am I. I could be having the very best of times, but judging from the look on my face you’d swear: This guy’s thinking about killing himself. Or someone else.

When I quit my job in 2002 as a counselor and human rights officer on a psychiatric unit in Massachusetts, a party was thrown for me. Among those who came to the party were the unit’ s medical director, program director and nursing supervisor. They gave me a card and wrote things down. Nurses, social workers and other counselors wrote things down on the card. The common thread that ran through the comments was my “sense of humor. “ How I’d made people laugh, staff and patients alike. I looked for the humor, and found it in stressful situations. That was the feedback I got as I left that job.

They knew I didn’t smile much. But they saw beyond the look on my face.

I pull out that card every now and then and reread those comments. Wow, I think. How in the world did a guy who majored in English, who was a reporter, then an advertising creative director, fit into THAT world?

How did I become a member, in good standing , of that kind of large family?

Where was I?

Sitting in the second row. Next to Donna, who was sitting next to her mother, who was sitting next to Estelle, one of the cousins. I was listening to Julie, Mitch’s eldest daughter, talk about her father’s last days. And she talked about how when she and her five siblings lived together on Brown Avenue in the Paper City, Holyoke. How her Aunt Bess and Uncle Doc lived upstairs with their three kids.

Mitch, Rae, Bess, Doc and the cousins. Julie, Estelle, Myra, Lonny, Steven, Jack, Philip Bonnie and Mark. A house thick with cousins.

The cousin I’ve connected most easily with, over the years, is Jack. Who knows why? I’m a shy guy. Maybe it was Jack who made me feel most comfortable when Donna and I went to the weddings, the bar and bat mitzvahs. And the funerals. Jack was an air traffic controller in Washington DC. He’s retired now. Retired young from a stressful job.

I think about this. I think about what it must have been like for Jack to have been in that house on Brown Avenue. All those cousins, and four full grown adults. Living in one house. Sharing the same space. Was it Jack’s role to keep them apart when they started getting too close? Was it Jack’s job to make sure they didn’t bump into each other? Collide on the stairs and in the halls.

Jack. I shook his hand the other day at the funeral. The funeral at which his father, Mitch, was the focus. But as I shook hands with Mitch’s next to youngest son, I thought: What you did for a living, and are being paid a pension for now. Air Traffic Controller. You went to school for that didn’t you? On Brown Avenue in Holyoke.

And, I thought, Jack's role was not unlike mine on the unit. I was the human rights officer whose reponsibilities included preventing collisions. Human collisions. And repairing the damage when colliding could not be avoided.

The funeral started right on time. 11 a.m. The rabbi spoke first. Alan’s his name, but for years we’ve called him “ Rocky the Rabbi. “ I’m not sure who started calling him that. Maybe Donna’s father, Danny. Me? I’ve never called him that to his face. I’m not even sure he knows that’s what some folks in the family call him.

Rocky’s married to Julie, Jack’s sister. Julie got up there and spoke, for thirty minutes about Mitch.

Julie was just about to wrap up her speech. Said her father, near the end of his life, liked to listen to music. She didn’t say what kind of music and I wished that she had. Maybe it was music that I liked. Sinatra maybe. Or Benny Goodman. Or Tommy Dorsey. Maybe Mitch and I had something in common. Then Julie said that her father, right near the very end, looked up at her from his death bed. She was weeping, and he said to her in a weak voice:

“Smile. “

I thought back to that wedding back in the 70s. When Mitch got on me for frowning at a festive occasion. I sat there, listening to Julie talk about her late father. She wept.

I smiled.

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