Did I ever tell you about our seder when I was a kid in a mystical dreamland of coming home, now that I am in the midst of raging old age?
I remember so vividly the Passover as we celebrated it in our home on Seeley Avenue, Chicago, in the 1950s. I am 7 years old, proud of having mastered the Hebrew of the Four Questions, determined to stay awake until seder’s end and to drink all four of the ritual cups of wine. I never notice that I am the only child amid a sea of aunts and uncles sitting around a kitchen table made festive in an apartment so tiny that we have no dining room.
Pa, my grandfather, conducts the seder in the singsong of the Polish shtetl of his childhood. Grandma Ida fusses over dishes as consecrated as any divine law: matzah balls, carrot tzimmes, potato kugel, the lightest sponge cake.
Auntie Levin grumbles on as usual, with or without cause. It is understandable from a woman who once traveled the vaudeville circuit with a poodle act. Uncle Joe and Aunt Minnie put aside longstanding differences to harmonize lustily on the chorus of “Dayenu.”
By the third cup of wine, my ebullient mother does her yearly imitation of Little Orphan Annie, placing a cap from the Mogen David bottle over each eye. Even my straight-laced colonel father loosens up, providing the barnyard noises for the singing of the arcane “Chad Gadya.”
Pa puts another chicken leg on my plate because “little (120-pound) Maishe Chayim” (calling me by my Jewish name) did so beautifully in asking the Four Questions. By dinner’s end, I am sent off to bed.
I awaken the next morning to a buzz in my ears that I have not yet learned is a hangover.
This is the real Passover. This is home. And how I miss it.
But the years take their toll. Pa, Grandma Ida, Auntie Levin succumb to old age. Death brings blessed respite to my Alzheimer’s-ridden father. Joe dies in his prime from too many cigarettes and too much rare steak. Minnie, my mother’s soul mate, is killed by a reckless driver. My mother, so vital and good-natured to the end, finally succumbs to heart disease as a new century begins.
And “little Maishe Chayim”?
He has ventured too many miles from home to make himself a life, far too attentive to his transitory crises and myriad of maladies, physical and emotional, and not nearly attentive enough to the longings that inevitably tug at him at this heart-tugging season.
An edge of reality seeps into the bittersweet. There are many beautiful Passovers yet to be celebrated with a loving wife and now a third generation of Wilsons. I will chant the ritual to Pa’s ancient singsong. Linda will make the most outrageous kugel. Perhaps Ben or even little granddaughter Racheli will provide the barnyard noises.
Yet to be determined is who will perpetuate my mother’s memory as Little Orphan Annie, bottle caps deftly over her eyes.
Our kiddies and grandkiddies will whoop and holler in glee. Elijah the Prophet will surely pop in for a visit. Little Izzy will do an exemplary job with the Four Questions and will awaken most probably with a Mogen David-induced buzz.
An edge of reality seeps into the bittersweet but never overtakes it. Rationality says we are creating our own body of memories, our own melodies and customs. (Did you ever hear of whacking each other over the head with scallions while singing “Dayenu”?)
These will define our home. It will tug at our progeny the way that Seeley Avenue tugs at me. But who can be entirely rational when overwhelmed by an urge so compelling as the need to return to 1958 and to the life-giving source of warmth and nurturing that I call home?
As he approaches his 68th year, Marc Wilson (now “Rabbi Marc”) sits at the head of his dining room table, conducts his seder and works at creating a legacy of melodies and memories that his own children will inherit. But a little part of him that he cannot, will not, repress forever remains little 7-year-old Maishe Chayim, sitting next to a doting grandfather at an ordinary kitchen table lifted magically by the aura of unshakable well-being.
Don’t worry, Pa. I’ll be home for seder — if only in my dreams.
Marc Howard Wilson is a rabbi in Greenville, S.C., and is a former spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel.