Richard Thompson: Pharoah
Katharine and I are making our first seder tonight, and I decided to post this piece I wrote for my writing class in 2004 about the seders of my childhood. We will be using Bubby’s china, and some of Nanny’s traditions and recipes, but tonight will be different, but also the same:
We would squeeze into the back seat of my parents’ car, straining to hear the Knick game on the tinny speaker. Earl the Pearl was my father’s favorite player, which was confusing because he was playing against our beloved Knicks, the Knicks of the flashy Clyde, the cerebral Dollar Bill Bradley, the solid DeBusschere and the powerful and inspiring Captain, Willis Reed. Leaving our big house in the brand-new neighborhood hacked out of the forest. A neighborhood inhabited by refugees from the City, with curving streets named for the trees that had been cut down to create lawns, ancient woods which were replaced with decorative shrubs and spindly excuses for trees held up by wires. We would inch down the crowded highways to Nanny’s house.
The game was interrupted by the stories of the Passovers of my parents’ youth, big raucous gatherings in apartments in parts of New York that were no longer home to anyone we knew, no longer safe. Stories about quirky relatives who, through annual repetition, seemed familiar, but who were gone. Dead for years, or moved to Florida.
Sounds of the playoff game painfully seesawing back and forth wafted to the back seat as we drove down the numbered streets of attached two family houses, their basic similarity poorly masked by the occasional siding job, window box, garden, statue or awning, until we pulled up in front of the one familiar house. We sat in the car until halftime, while my mother shot glances at my father, who appeared oblivious to the message.
Finally, it would be time to gather up our jackets, books, crayons and other paraphernalia, leave the cozy car for the cool street and dusty gray sidewalk, and walk up the stairs into the house. In the dark, carpeted hallway, the faint smell of onions insinuated itself into the back of your nose. It got stronger as we would walk past the ground floor apartment, where Bubby had lived and died, to the basement where Nanny lived during Passover. The sweet, musky smell of sautéing onions and the ancient odor of meat being overcooked mixed with cigarette smoke became the thick atmosphere of Passover. It would comfortably envelope us as we walked down the bare wooden stairs back, it seemed, to the Polish shtetl where Nanny was born.
At the bottom of the stairs, the low ceiling made everyone look taller, and added to the claustrophobia. My cousins would be running and crawling around, my uncle would be eating at the huge table set, for once, with the good china, my grandfather was, as always looking uncomfortable and sitting impassively in the corner, and Nanny, all business, would be stirring a pot on the stove, a cigarette in her mouth, with an inch of ash precariously levitating over the pot. With a cry of delight, my aunt would come over to hug and kiss us, followed by my short, bleached blonde Nanny, in her housecoat and apron, smelling of chicken fat, onions and smoke. She was the hub around which all activity revolved, she set the tone and made the rules that we all followed. Although she had been doing this forever, each year somehow seemed like the first time, and at the same time, there were the comfortable, unchanging routines that everyone fell into, like a bicycle tire slipping into a muddy rut on the side of the road. Within minutes, we would be sitting and eating. Matzoh for me, brown, greasy looking chopped liver and sulfurous yellow and white egg salad for my parents. A snack to tide us over until the main event.
The basement, filled with three generations, a huge table, the kitchen and, strangely, a shower, caused unexpected and uncomfortable intimacy. My older cousin, who lived down the street from me and was still my best friend, and I would run off to find the usual toys and games, worn smooth from the years of use, toys that no one remembered buying. We would pick up some game from the last time we were together. The men sat, the women cooked, and they smoked their last cigarettes before Shabbos, when Nanny wouldn’t allow it anymore. The heat from the stove and the oven and the furnace was palpable, but there was a small, cool breeze in the back from where someone had propped open the screen door with a misshapen chunk of wood. The same door that we would later open to allow Elijah to join the seder.
There was no television in the basement. When the adults were involved in conversation, eating, cooking and changing diapers, my cousin and I would sneak upstairs to rejoin the 20th Century. We would inch up the wooden stairs, so that the grownups wouldn’t stop us, slowly opening the door, hoping that it wouldn’t betray us, and gently closing it behind us. Giddy, as if we had escaped from Alcatraz, we stood, briefly, in the dark vestibule, breathing the cooler, cleaner air, while we pondered our next move. Flush with victory, we would run up the carpeted steps, heedless of the racket, and throw open the door to Nanny’s upstairs apartment.
Past the living room, filled with pictures and old people furniture covered in plastic, cut glass candy dishes that we knew were off limits during the holiday, and other tchochkes, we would run into the TV room. The big, old console TV always took a while to warm up, and eventually, we were able to see a fuzzy picture that might have been a basketball game. Slowly, the picture sharpened, and there was Clyde, Willis and the rest, and Red Holzman, with his cheap suit and sleepy hawk’s eyes on the sideline. Suddenly, Pearl had the ball, and he stuttered down the court, with Clyde wearing him like one of his fancy suits, until he reached the foul line, spun and without looking, passed the ball to Wes Unseld for an easy layup. Tie game, 2 minutes to go and the crowd had passed beyond frenzy to some other place known only to sports fans and new lovers.
And yet, again, that smell. I sniffed my sweater, and then my cousin, but it wasn’t there. I turned around and saw my mother, sweat beaded on her forehead, and an amused look on her face. Poppy had risen from his seat and declared, after conferring with Nanny, of course, that it was time to start the Seder. So we would have to leave the game, no waiting for the buzzer, no waiting to see whether Clyde or Pearl would triumph, because it was time to hear, again, about the Jews fleeing to freedom—or at least the parts that were in English, not the mumbled, strangely accented Hebrew that my grandfather spoke and which no one understood. Time to turn off the TV and head back down the stairs into the heat, into the smell, into the past.
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