Twelve flames glowed atop each cake. Mere moments remained before Ken and Nancy Eisenberg joined their twins to light the final candles.
During her last-minute conference with the caterer before the service that morning, Nancy had stood in the synagogue’s kitchen in her crepe suit and stared at the thick sugar-letters someone had squeezed through a pastry tube to spell MAZEL TOV AMY! and MAZEL TOV ANDREW! No question that the 200 guests would find their slices too rich. But Amy had begged them to use the place three towns over where “everyone” ordered their cakes. How could Nancy or her husband deny their only daughter anything on the most thrilling day of her13 years, the day she became Bat Mitzvah, “Daughter of the Commandment”? And how could they serve different cakes at the same reception? Andrew was indifferent on the matter, anyway. Nancy had asked him, to be certain. Several times.
Still guilty, she’d then offered her son the final say on the music, which was why the megaphoned voice that belonged to what was surely Westchester County’s most expensive deejay now boomed Let’s Hear It For The People Who Have Made This Day Possible! Why Nancy and Ken now stepped down from the dais. And why 200 pairs of hands competed with the Hava Nagilah as the parents approached their wax-wielding babies.
Nancy’s eyes grew moist. Again.
The photographer materialized from the crowd. His assistant followed with lights.
“Let’s get a nice shot of the four of you, first,” the photographer said.
It was perfect. Just as Nancy had always dreamed. Back when she was Amy’s age such a ceremony for a girl was practically unheard of. They wouldn’t have had the money for it anyway. There was talk of starting an adult class here, mostly for the women her age and older. Some of them would have to begin at the beginning — with the Hebrew alphabet. They’d have a group ceremony at the end. Then, Nancy, like her daughter, would be able to stand up there and read from the Torah herself. And just as she and Ken had blessed their children in front of the Ark that held the sacred scrolls, her own parents might even –.
Her parents. She tried to find her mother in the crowd just before she refocused on the photographer. Mother would most likely be standing near Aunt Shirley. Nancy’s father hadn’t made it to the service, or to the reception, and it was probably just as well.
“You understand, Nancy,” he’d said, when she’d called him the previous day to wish him a good Sabbath, a habit that had followed her from her first married days in Manhattan when LBJ was President to her current mornings in a very suburban, Reagan America.
“Of course, Dad,” she’d answered. For her entire life, it seemed, she’d understood. She’d understood that beyond the essential accident of her birth (“a beautiful accident,” her mother was fond of saying), her parents had little in common. That she couldn’t remember a time they’d all lived together. That the proverbial ink had scarcely dried on her parents’ divorce papers — and the get — before her father had married again. None of it was the second wife’s fault. As Nancy’s mother was also fond of saying, “The only thing I resent about Hilda is that she didn’t meet Ben before I did.”
All this Nancy understood, so of course she understood that her father would not attend the ceremony (forget about the reception). After all, Hilda had been sick for years (with what, exactly, Nancy had never quite understood), and Nancy’s father insisted that no one could take care of his wife as well as he could. So why would he leave Hilda for a few hours now, even if her own sister, who had always shown Nancy remarkable kindness, had volunteered to spend the day with the invalid.
There were flashes. Nancy blinked.
The photographer studied them for a moment, then began switching lenses. “Now, how about a nice kiss, Mom and Dad?” he suggested.
Nancy was still blinking, still seeing spots and colors and almost losing her balance. She was sure her mother, probably chatting with Aunt Shirley in the clapping crowd, hadn’t heard that request.
Thirty-something years earlier, Nancy had made a similar one.
In time, it had frozen into a memory, the way some moments did, Nancy had discovered, when she hadn’t expected them to fill the essential pages in the book of her life. When it wasn’t (for example) her first day of high school, or her wedding day, or that amazing autumn afternoon when from her body had emerged not one, but two living people. When something simply happened, out of nowhere, it seemed, and suddenly her life story possessed a new and absolute reference point, something that could never be erased but might still astonish when approached again, even from the incontestable distance of the future.
In this case, the day had begun just like any other Sunday. After breakfast, Nancy’s mother read articles aloud from the New York Times. It was an Expense, Mother said, and this was a big word indeed to Nancy, who wore mainly her cousin Clea’s hand-me-downs and who always ran into the bedroom she and Mother shared when their landlord knocked his angry knock. But this Expense was important and excusable, because it was educational.
At noon, Nancy’s father had arrived at the apartment to fetch her for their weekly visit. His wife was waiting somewhere else. At the park. At the movie theater. At the zoo. Wherever they’d be going.
Nancy was six years old.
Why it was that on this occasion Nancy spoke up, why it was that on this single Sunday she implored, “Daddy, kiss Mommy!” — this she didn’t really want to consider. Later, she decided that she must have surmised, as much as a six-year-old back in the days of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best could, that this is what a Daddy did when he came home to a Mommy and a Child. Other Daddies did precisely that, at her friends’ homes, and sometimes even on the television Nancy and her mother went next door to the Korngolds’ apartment to watch. The Daddies came home and kissed the Mommies. So in that instant it all seemed utterly reasonable, with her parents standing by the door, so picture-perfect, so handsome and beautiful.
Only Handsome did not kiss Beautiful. Both Handsome and Beautiful froze into silent statues instead.
The next Sunday, and every Sunday after that, Nancy was told to meet her father at the corner soda shop.
Nancy’s husband nudged her. She looked again into the sea of smiles. Her in-laws, she saw, were crying and smiling at the same time. And her own mother was, indeed, standing next to Aunt Shirley.
The photographer switched lenses. He grinned and looked at the crowd and called out again, louder this time, “Dad, how ’bout a kiss for Mom?”
Ken pulled her closer. The camera flashed; hoots and whistles joined the applause. Nancy steadied herself and squeezed her husband’s hand. In an instant a thirteenth wax wand illuminated each cake. She smiled at her children and glanced again at the crowd. But she avoided her mother’s eyes.