My old friend Naomi has been dead a long time. Luckily I didn’t kill her. I didn’t actually even try but it may have looked as if I had. When we were about 8 years old, living two houses apart on Aldine Street in Newark’s Weequahic section, I had gone over to play with her early one summer evening. She had recently had an appendectomy and was recovering Then we had a fight. A bad one
I don’t recall what we fought about but it turned physical. That means I actually kicked the girl in the abdomen. It’s about 70 years later and I still remember her going down, bent over, crying and bleeding through her clothes.
Her mother came running in and sent me home She was very angry. As she should have been. My own mother got a phone call a bit later and, wow, I was severely hollered at and sent to bed without my supper (one of Mom’s favorite punishments for really terrible offenses).
What my mother didn’t know was that Pop, our grandfather, her father, who lived with us, had a sweet custom of knocking on the door during punishments, bearing a tray of food, with a crisp $10. bill attached.This was to make the screaming girl feel better. And it worked.
But you can tell by the amount of time that passed since this happened, and that it is still fresh in my mind, that i feel and felt tremendous guilt about the bloody abdomen. Maybe this memory doesn’t go back as far as our Temple and other Jewish catastrophes, but I remember it well.
In short time Naomi forgave me. More surprising was that her mother allowed me back into their apartment. And then came the unbelievable and true second act to Naomi’s appendix. We didn’t argue but we were playing a bit too rough and, lo and behold, I accidentally opened the appendix stitches again. And I left again with Naomi bent over with a bleeding through the clothes injury. I recall walking down the stairs and looking up at Naomi and asking, Are you mad at me? She said No.
I don’t remember my own three daughters, or my son for that matter, playing so wildly Their battles were not that frequent and invariably they argued with words not body parts. Safer that way.
I was not what you’d call a tough kid. I grew up in a genteel home where there was never physical violence (except for our dog Caesar who liked to bite us when he was irritated).
But there was one more series of events where I could be physically feisty. That was when Dr Brotman, our general practitioner, came to make a house call when I was sick. In those days doctors came to the patient’s house, carrying their little black bags. The moms always felt that the sick kid should not go outside. Like the air would be fatal? More likely that the sick one would get chilled and then get pneumonia. Pneumonia was the key word here. I think it meant anything more severe than a cold, accompanied by fever. We didn’t have tests to determine virus or bacteria in those more primitive days.
My mother always threatened that if i didn’t do this or that I’d get pneumonia. Those categories included wearing gloves, boots, extra sweaters, scarves, and protection against the rain. .She got this from her father who would tell her, even when she was 50 years old, to put on an extra sweater,and so forth. This even when the weather was quite comfortable. My mother didn’t get pneumonia. She listened to her father.
I must have been about 10 and my group of friends from the YM-YWHA had a trip planned to a camp somewhere. I was super excited! Unfortunately the day that the last planning meeting was called for turned out to be a very very rainy, gusty day. And I had a nasty head cold. My mother said that if I went to the meeting I’d get pneumonia. So, as I was a child with an independent and somewhat rebellious streak or two, I went to the meeting. And then I got pneumonia! Good and sick, and I missed the camping trip.
So, back to the story. Dr. Brotman would come to the house and I didn’t like that at all. I didn’t like him examining me and I certainly didn’t like to take off any of my clothes. So his visits had to be coordinated with Aunt Rose who lived in our four family house. Aunt Rose looked like you could sweep her away with a dry mop. She was no taller than 4’10 and weighed in at well under 100 pounds. My mother could have chosen one of my two aunts who lived in the same house. Both of them were average sized but they looked like giants next to Aunt Rose. For whatever reason, it was Aunt Rose who was called for. And she was tough.
The two ladies, Mom and Rose, were needed to hold me down so the examination could proceed without Dr Brotman needing a doctor of his own. I was placed on the kitchen table and Dr Brotman would take out his tools while i fought like a she-devil. Kicking, Squirming. Screaming. Punching. Anything except cooperating. Eventually it would end and I would have some syrup or other prescribed and Dr Brotman would breathe a sigh of relief and hobble out the escape route.
You know what’s sad? Not a single living person ever witnessed any of these events. My sister, long may she live, was never around for Dr Brotman’s visits to me or my playdates (which we never, in those days called playdates) with Naomi. Dr. Brotman is dead. Aunt Rose is dead. My mother and father are dead. Naomi and her mother are dead. My grandfather is dead.
Is there a lesson to be learned? Maybe that your kids can turn out to be respectable even if they’re impossible when they’re little.
And that death comes for each and every one of us.
And as we commemorate the Ninth of Av I write this because we all have memories of things that happened in our lives and this applies to our collective Jewish lives as well. If something memorable happened to us, or to our ancestors, we need to be haunted by the chanting of Megillat Eicha as we sit on the floor in a dark room. So I remember the Temple and I remember Naomi and I remember my bygone relatives and I adjure you, Jews of the world, to keep your personal history and the history of our people, wrapped around each other in perpetual remembrance.