Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

All families have their inside stories. They become so familiar that family members don’t have to tell the whole story for everyone to start to nod or smile or laugh or shudder. Some of my family’s stories involve me. And they are not always complimentary.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me set the stage.

For Jews, no event says “family” as well as the Passover Seder. Families, such as my extended family in Savannah, Georgia, join together each year in small or large gatherings to celebrate the start of Passover and begin a week of matzo therapy. Families often have certain rituals that they follow during a seder—certain activities, certain melodies, certain foods, certain seating arrangements. Newcomers are blended into these family gatherings (especially significant others and in-laws), but they are expected to adapt to the traditions already established. Some of these traditions go deep and are carried on to next generations. The seder that Audrey and I hosted two nights ago is filled with mostly Savannah traditions, though Audrey still insists that her family’s melody for the song “Ki Lo No-eh” is the only right one to use, so we usually sing the song twice.

One of my first family Seders. I'm the second from the left,
with the extra-large yarmulke. I'm focusing on the food, not the camera.
One of those newcomers to my family was my cousin Debbie, who attended her first Savannah Seder after she began dating my cousin Joel when she was 19. That first Seder featured a dramatic event that has impacted on my place in the family’s Passover history. But it must not have traumatized Debbie since she later married Joel, moved to Savannah, and often hosts our family’s seders at their home.

Debbie is an important part of my story today, which is intended to set the record straight. According to Debbie, I have been improperly maligned all of these years. Just how have I been maligned? Exhibit 1: Just last week, my cousin Richard sent me an email wishing me a Chag Sameach (happy holiday) and hoping that I would not spill any gravy this year. That’s my reputation: I’m the person who spilled the gravy at a seder almost 50 years ago. I may never live down the event in the minds of most of my relatives, but Debbie remembers things differently, and I plan on calling her to the stand if we ever stage a family trial to clear my name on the charge of carpet defilement.

Here’s how I remember the event. The family seder that year was held at the home of my Aunt Dot (my mother’s older sister) and her husband Fred. (It is important to note that our hosts had recently installed new, bright white carpet in their living room-dining room area. You can probably see where this is going.) My part of the extended family (my mother, father, brother, and me) were seated in one corner of one of the connected tables and not directly in the center of the action. There were probably 20-25 people in attendance all together. We were far enough to the side that when the platter of brisket, covered in delicious, messy gravy, was passed to us, we had to reach out pretty far to grab the platter.

Here’s where memories fade a little. Either I reached out for the platter and handed it to my father, or he reached out for the platter and handed it to me. In either case, we didn’t handle it very well. The platter moved quickly from hand to floor, spilling gravy onto the white carpet. My Uncle Fred, a man noted for being meticulous, went into action even before the gravy reached the carpet, shouting to his son-in-law, “Bill, get the chemicals!!!” This meal was not about to progress any further until the carpet was treated with stain removers.

No one was laughing at the time, but for years afterwards my cousins would chuckle as they recalled the event, and no one ever handed me a platter at future seders without issuing a warning to me and a heads-up to the person passing me the platter. Hence, my cousin’s Richard’s email comment.

Brisket still on a platter and not yet heading toward the carpet

Here’s where the story gets interesting, at least in my mind. . . .

I decided to retell this story as my Passover blogpost this year, and mentioned my intent to my sister-in-law Sandy. She was at a different seder in town that year but knew about the event, as it turns out, because Debbie was staying at her house during her first visit to Savannah. “When Debbie got back to my house, she said, 'You won’t believe what happened,'” Sandy said.
So I called Debbie to check her memory of the evening, and she said, “Sure. That’s the night that Uncle Abe (my father) dropped the platter of brisket.” Uncle Abe and not me!!! Perhaps I was innocent after all. Perhaps I have been improperly maligned lo these many years. As Debbie recalled her version, I could at last chuckle about the event that had given rise, incorrectly it seems, to my reputation as the family gravy spiller. Why, I wondered, had my father never stepped forward to proclaim my innocence? I suspect that he never realized that comments were being made about me on the sly. Or perhaps he never even remembered what happened that night. Sadly, I can’t ask him.

Now I face a dilemma. I could try to set the record straight in order to avoid future “don’t spill any gravy” comments, but that would just point the finger at my father. And to be perfectly honest, I think both of us should share the blame for bumbling the brisket that night. And is it really possible to reverse a long-running family tale anyway?
If the Obamas invited me to their Seder,
would they worry that I might spill something?
Perhaps one Passover in the near future, our New Jersey branch of the family will travel to Savannah and join in the larger family seder. And perhaps I will proclaim my innocence then. But I’ll bet someone will still suggest that a sheet of plastic be placed beneath my chair to protect the carpet. And we’ll all laugh together. It's a family tradition.

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