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PASSOVER STORIES / American families and an ancient dinner : Fiction : Lord God, King of Universe and President of the Motion Picture Academy

March 24, 1994|DORIS SILVERTON | Silverton, who has published several short stories, is currently a television writer. This story is an excerpt of a longer piece of fiction published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968

My mother and father arrived in Los Angeles one afternoon in early September, 1968. They got off the plane, and it was just as I imagined: My father came out the front door--my mother, the rear. As if they were not related. Then, like two lines converging to a center point, they moved toward us.

At the age of 65, after a lifetime of uncompromising and dedicated service in the world of hardware, my father had sold out. The news of his defection spread through the Jewish community of Rushmore Rapids, S.D. Max Weiss, the traitor, was moving to Los Angeles.

"I need sunshine," he explained, as though he were a plant that had been living in darkness all these years, reaching out at last for a little light.

My mother begged and pleaded for him to stay put. A person should think twice before making such a drastic change.

So my father thought twice and then said it was final. He was leaving Rushmore Rapids. He was going to retire to California. Then, shyly, and careful not to overdo it, he said my mother could come along if she wanted.

*

We waited for my parents behind the wire fence: My sister Phyllis, her husband (whose father was president of a small but flourishing movie company), their child and I, Harold Weiss. We hugged and kissed and told my mother and father that it was wonderful they had come. Then we stood back and looked them over and did not admit even to ourselves that they were smaller than we had remembered. Small and gray and alien in the bright Southern California day.

Then my brother-in-law, Mark Berle, Jr., put little Mark Berle III into the Mark II Continental with its Mark IV air-conditioner, and soon we were out of the airport and onto the freeway, shivering a little in the artificial comfort of the big car.

Fade in, as my brother-in-law would say when he tells me the plots of those Grade-Z movies that he and his father produce. Fade in, pan your camera and know that it is eight months later and already April. I have been in Berkeley all this time trying to turn 10,000 index cards full of anthropological observations into a dissertation that goes by the catchy title of "Derivation of Personality Variables in a Rice-Growing Village in Northern Thailand."

But how can I pursue this when I see in my supermarket that the Easter Bunny is holding a giant-sized box of Passover matzo? That the exotic-food section now displays a Mother Feldman's Frozen Seder that features three pieces of chicken, two matzo-balls-with-soup-in-a-plastic-bag, half a shank bone, a sprig of pre-salted parsley, and a mimeographed prayer book?

A wave of sentiment rolls up and breaks into foam within me. With a silent apology to Mrs. Feldman and a promise to take a rain check, I put the frozen package back and decide that it is time to come home.

*

I think I am in the wrong apartment. But the lady in the bare feet and purple muumuu--frying a taco shell at the kitchen stove--assures me that she is my mother. I can't believe it. I drop my suitcase and kiss her anyway.

"How is the novel going?" she says, giving me a big hug.

This is no time to educate her about what I have been doing for the past eight months. She is too primitive in her flowing garment and silver-painted toenails. She is all sunshine and summer. Two months early. Even her hair is now a remarkable shade of gold.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of winter. There at the kitchen table my father sits in a sweater buttoned up to the neck. Otherwise, he seems to be wearing pajamas. It is 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Either he is ready for bed or has just gotten up. One way or the other he must be sick. Or is it only that he has taken on the 10 years that my mother seems to have shed?

He is surrounded by newspapers. All from Rushmore Rapids. They are two weeks, three weeks, a month old. He is reading them aloud and hardly stops to greet me.

*

"Don't let me interrupt," I say, pulling up a chair to join him.

He grunts, finds his place on the page and continues:

"Arlo Swenson, age 73, passed away February 10, please omit flowers . . . La Verne Hanson, 69, mother of Gracie, Shirley, Warren, Sigmund, sister of Twilah, Earl . . . ."

My mother is listening to him with one ear. With the other, she is tuned to "The Dating Game" on a small portable television set that sits on top of the kitchen counter along with the sugar, flour and other staples. As my father approaches the end of the alphabet of the dead, she moves back to the stove and transfers the television to the warming shelf along with the salt and pepper.

It takes me only 24 hours to discover the derivation of personality variables in an efficiency apartment in Hollywood.

*

My father can be summed up on a single index card. Max Weiss: once-in-hardware-now-retired- pusher-of-market-basket-reader-of-old-newspapers.

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