Alright. I understand. Her mother’s voice had taken on the faraway, sighing tone — the aural white flag. We know you’re busy.
She wearily hung up the call, and gave herself a moment to collect her thoughts before going back to her desk. It was the first day of Chanukah, and her mother had finally acknowledged that she wasn’t coming home.
She settled into her chair and stared listlessly at the computer screen in front of her. My mother isn’t exactly original in her guilt-tripping, she thought. Since moving to New York, she had found solace in the friendship of her fellow Jewish expats — those other non-practicing twentysomethings who took refuge in the bustle of city life and the distance it put between them and their families. She knew they understood her reluctance to go home. The endless plates of food, the hordes of distant cousins piling into her parents’ living room, her mother’s constant line of questioning…it was all so claustrophobic. She felt more at ease walking through Times Square than she did in her childhood home.
Her thoughts began to race and she felt the familiar twinges of anxiety creep into her body. It’s okay to say no, it’s okay to say no. It had taken many years and some Upper West Side therapy to work up the courage to go against her mother. Technically, there had never been anything stopping her…but Mom just had this way of making everything sound voluntary, as if someone could actually say no to her without any consequences. It was always, only if you want to. No, of course you don’t have to miss homecoming to go to cousin Gerry’s bar mitzvah. Well, you’re not obligated to wear the frilly dress for school photos. But she always said yes — she would do anything to keep that devastated look off Mom’s face.
She had seen it once — the year that Chanukah and Christmas Eve had fallen on the same day. Chanukah was her mom’s favorite holiday, because it was one of the only happy holidays Jews had. Mom made latkes from her great-grandmother’s recipe, taught the youngest cousins how to play dreidel, regaled the guests with lengthy retellings of the story of Chanukah. The family owned seven menorahs — a few passed down through generations, and one or two that had caught Mom’s eye at thrift stores and yard sales. Every December her mother diligently polished each one, using her manicured nails through the oilcloth to scrape away the toughest stains. But public school had eroded her mother’s influence, and she started expecting gifts from Santa on December 25th. She was nine that year, and just tall enough to reach the cookie cutters her mother had placed on the high shelf in the pantry. Santa won’t leave presents for us if we don’t leave him cookies and milk!! Her voice had been shrill, a frenzied child on the verge of a breakdown. We’ll buy some cookies at the store, her mother said. Tonight, I teach you how to make latkes! But she had wailed and moaned — she wanted Christmas. So: Alright. I understand. Great-grandmother’s recipe was put off for another year. She remembered how overjoyed she had been, how she had watched the cookies tinge golden brown in the oven with anticipation. It was only later, on her way to bed, that she understood what she had done. She peeked into the dark dining room and watched her mother, silently lighting the first candle on each of her menorahs. The flame from the candles lit up the hazel of her eyes, but the light didn’t seem to penetrate them. There was a hollowness to her mother’s face that she had never seen, and would never forget.
After the phone call she didn’t hear from her mother for the rest of the day. None of the random texts and emails she had grown used to receiving at regular intervals. Instead her phone was conspicuously silent. The clock finally struck five. She usually got happy hour drinks with a couple of girlfriends from the office, but tonight she said her goodbyes at the elevator. She took a detour on her way home, peering at the holiday window displays that lined the avenue as she walked, and stopped at the grocery store to pick up some potatoes and applesauce. At home, her kitchen quickly grew sweaty with steam from the frying pan. Her arm ached from the endless potato peeling, but the smell of latkes filled her studio, warming her. She set the table with a plate for one, and unwrapped the menorah she had found at the resale shop a few blocks from the office. She brought it to rest in the center of her tiny breakfast table, and lit the first candle. She stood for a moment, and watched how the flame made the brass shine. She thought her mother would be proud of how well she had polished it.
Written by Lauren Patten with artwork by Pavel Gitnik