Bar Mitzvah Blues

Although we were assured that in her youth she had been a beautiful redhead, by the time we knew Nana, she was our well-padded grandmother, with a hearing aid receiver the size of a pack of cards tucked into her bosom, white hair, glasses and a letter-writing habit that kept distant relatives up-to-date on the most minute happenings of the family.  She was in her mid-fifties when I was born. Nana was easy to make fun of – she spent her life cooking, cleaning, shopping and gossiping.  To my knowledge, she never read a book, though she had a lifelong subscription to both Reader’s Digest and Cosmopolitan magazine.

She loved her family and her grandchildren as a matter of custom.  But she adored her only grandson as a matter of the heart.

Nana dragged Howard to her friends’ homes to perform.  One afternoon, he sang for a lady who was in bed with some middle-aged malady and Howard stood at the foot of the bed, singing while his audience of one clutched her tissues and cooed.

On the occasions of Howard’s command performances for Nana’s friends, I was invariably asked if I had some hidden talent as well.  Howard would make something up for me, “Sarah has a very pretty voice,” he’d announce.  But we all knew that Sarah’s very pretty voice would not be the equal of his and that everything about her made it absolutely clear she had no intention of letting her very pretty voice out in public.

Still, I did like going along.  And it was tough to get bitter when Howard spent so much time promoting me.  Whether he was acting out of love or out of guilt for his own shining status in the family, I never knew.

So I was thrilled when Nana announced that she was bringing Howard and me to a studio for a “real” photo.  A real photo was one that was posed in front of a paper backdrop and for which real money was paid to a real photographer.

The occasion was Howard’s Bar Mitzvah, which had occurred a month or two earlier. Howard’s Bar Mitzvah suit and my dress needed to be posed in before they were outgrown.  At ages 13 and 10, outgrowing ones clothes was a positive accomplishment.

The best part was that the excursion would include lunch at the Hutzlers Tea Room, a rare treat.  Hutzlers was one of Baltimore’s four department stores and a trip there meant a bus ride downtown with Nana, an exciting, though occasionally perilous, journey since Nana did not believe in looking both ways before crossing and her deafness made her oblivious to horns and cursing drivers – sounds Howard and I were all too aware of.

The tables in the Tea Room were draped in linen, the waitresses and the patrons were soft spoken and refined and the mood was that of a world that, even then, we knew was fast ending.   After lunch, the waitresses would wheel a dessert cart covered with sweets right up to the table, my choice of dessert was agonizing and always the same – a plate of three petit fours, covered in pastel icing and sugar flowers.

The professional photo studio was in the store and after lunch, we marched over for our appointment.  It was only then that we understood.  What Nana wanted was a photo of Howard – her Bar Mitzvah boy – alone.  “Not her,” she said, “Him.”

It sounds brutal and yes, it was.  But she didn’t win.  Because Howard wouldn’t let her have his picture taken unless I was in it.  There was an argument, I cried and Howard got stubborn.  Want my picture?  Take it with my sister.  Eventually, a compromise was found.  Nana got a picture of Howard and a picture with Howard and Sarah.

The point really is this - Howard was my childhood champion.  Not always.   We fought like brothers and sisters will, but when I needed him, he was my champion.

And that day, we both won.