Thursday, March 24, 2011

It takes a village (unless the villagers are selfish and loud-mouthed, in which case I'd rather go it alone) (part one)

Growing up, my father was the cantor of our synagogue. Now, you need to know that being Jewish and going to synagogue is nothing like the one-hour church service so many of you are referencing in your minds. Synagogue services are two to three hours on a regular Saturday, and four to five hours on a major holiday like Rosh Hashanah, which is when this particular vignette takes place. And when you're, oh, four or five years old and you sit in the second row so your mom can see your dad on the bimah (raised stage-like platform in the front of the sanctuary) and 78 different old ladies with 78 different gardenia-drenched perfumes have already kissed you and the sunlight is making you warm and sleepy, that's really not just five hours long, that service. It's all-of-your-life-until-the-end-of-time-when-will-we-ever-get-to-page-514-long. And your tights are itchy and you hate this turtleneck your mom made you wear under your jumper.

Oh, and you're not supposed to talk.

The thing about sitting in the second row is you can't be too fidgety, because 78 grandmas will scold you afterward. They will also wonder why you don't sit up straight and later, why you leave the house while your hair is still wet. They will meet boyfriend after boyfriend and eventually husband, whom they will take in as one of their own, and straighten his tie. They will delight in your children on the few times they appear in that sanctuary, though you will never make them sit in the second row, and the grandmas will have dwindled in number by then (but not a mite in ferocity). That's how the village is supposed to work, especially for a fidgety four-year-old with no local blood-relation grandparents.

The hero on this particular day, though, happens not to be a grandma, but my parents' insurance agent, a man named Alan. He has kids just older than I am, and must have felt a daddy-recognition of my impending disaster status, woe is five-year-old me. Somewhere in hour four or so, when the sanctuary was overheated by the midday sun and I was absolutely not sitting up straight and definitely no longer not pulling at my confining turtleneck, he wordlessly handed me a roll of Lifesavers candy.

These instants of memory – they stay with us. Children remember when they are shown grace and when they are shown scorn.

Immediately I was distracted from my misery and quietly set about unveiling the treasure. Before I could lose my positive momentum into the frustration of being unable to pull that red string from the protective cellophane, he reached over a second time and began the unraveling for me. And then this long, lanky man sat back and let me work at it myself. He leaned his ridiculously long arm across the top of the pew, not touching me, but cradling me anyhow from the heat and the exhaustion of being at the front of the community.

When I needed shelter, he gave it, even though I was too young even to know to ask for it.

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This has gotten so long that I think I'll post the second half in the morning. Please come back tomorrow, won't you? Pin It