Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chapter Six of Sondra's Search: Finding a lost Torah scroll can be as difficult as finding yourself.

Chapter Six


     Once in ninth grade, Sondra remembered what Oscar had told her about his high school years at Lincoln High. “Everyone spoke English too fast for me to understand, and what they did speak about was all nonsense. Nothing about learning-just parties and football games.” Sometimes it seemed to Sondra that classes were not important to anyone. Howie did not mind. He was on the football team and was trying out for the swim team. He also ran for student council and became one of the two representatives from the ninth grade class. Almost every Friday night there were dances or sock hops after the football games, and Howie decided they were more important than the monthly Shabbat services at the university chapel. A new fad cropped up at the high school. Boys would give their ID bracelets, with their names engraved on them, to the girl they wanted to go steady with. When Howie went out and bought one, Sondra forgot the resolution that she had made two years earlier not to criticize her cousin.

        “What’s that for?” Sondra asked suspiciously the first time she saw him at school with the silver bracelet around his wrist.

     “I just wanted one,” Howie answered with a shrug.

     But later, in the lunchroom, Sondra saw him sitting with one of the ninth-grade cheerleaders and fingering his bracelet as he smiled at the girl.

     “Are you going to ask Alice to go steady?” Sondra demanded of him when they met in sixth hour biology. The two were lab partners and could whisper together unnoticed.

     “What’s it to you?” Howie responded.

    “She’s not Jewish.”

    “Who here is Jewish besides you and me?”

    “No one,” Sondra had to admit.

    “Maybe you just want to study while you’re in high school, but I want to have a good time, too ”

     “That’s really keeping the spirit of the Torah alive,” Sondra muttered sarcastically.

     Howie flushed angrily. “Don’t worry. Maybe I’ll go steady with her, but I’m not going to marry her.”

     “Fine, fine,” Sondra suddenly remembered her resolution. “I’m sorry for sticking my nose in your business. I just know how everyone was so upset when Brenda married out.”

     “I’m not Brenda and I’m not going to marry out.”


      Sondra let it go, but when she returned home an hour later, Helga could see that something was troubling her daughter. She put aside her books and was ready to be a sympathetic ear.

     “It’s Howie,” Sondra said with a sigh as she settled herself on the ledge of the kitchen window. “He’s changing and doing the stupid things the other kids do.”

     “What stupid things?” Helga asked calmly.

     Sondra described the ID bracelets, shaking her head. She wasn’t sure what bothered her most; that Howie was thinking about dating a non-Jew or that he was starting to date anybody when he was only fourteen years old. In most of the childhood classics she had grown up with none of the girls ever went steady. They didn’t even think about boys until they were much older. Then they usually ended up marrying the boy they had grown up with, like Peter and Heidi in the book. By rights she should marry Howie, but he was her cousin and cousins didn’t get married nowadays.

     “You never went steady with anybody when you were my age, did you?” Sondra

demanded of her mother.

     “I didn’t go to school when I was your age,” Helga reminded her daughter gently.

     “I forgot,” Sondra responded hastily. “I’m sorry.”

     Fortunately, Helga stayed calm. “You didn’t make me stop going to school. It was a long time ago anyway.”

     “Well, I think the way you and Daddy met is like a fairy tale.”

     “Your father certainly was like a knight in shining armor to me.”

     No matter how many times Sondra heard the story of her parent’s romance, she never tired of it. Not that it was a story of how they met. They had known each other always, growing up in the same small village. Helga and Lotte had been best friends and Julius had never really noticed his little sister’s playmate except to tease her or pull her braids. He left Mafdner when she was twelve and came back to Germany with the United States Army eight years later. He had a few days’ pass and came back to the village to see if he could find out anything about the others from the village and, of course, the Torah. Helga had come there from the DP camps to try and discover if any of her family had survived.

     Julius always described how he saw Helga from afar and would not have recognized her at all except for the defiant way she held her chin. Helga always said that she recognized him immediately. Of course, he hadn’t been in the camps. Together they went to Helga’s home and found that it had been stripped bare.

     That evening Julius had gone to the burgermeister. Old Hans Richter, with his bald, red head that matched his pulpous red nose, had been the head of the village before the Nazis, during the time of the Nazis, and after the Nazis. He swore up and down he had only done what he had been forced to do, but Julius knew better. Wearing his army uniform, Julius had handed him a list of things Helga needed and told Richter to get them for her. According to Julius, the burgermeister had scanned the list and looked back at Julius.

     “Where am I supposed to get all these things?” he had whined.

     “The people who helped you destroy the homes and synagogue can help you.”

     “But I have to be out in the field first thing tomorrow morning to gather in the hay.”

     At that point something snapped in Julius. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing the

Jewish cemetery in ruins that morning. Maybe it was seeing his kid sister’s best chum an orphan. Whatever the reason, Julius lost his temper. He pulled out his .45, and stuck it in the man’s gut. “You have everything here by tomorrow!”

     Even after hearing the story so many times, it was hard for Sondra to imagine her father so furious. Unlike Uncle Herbert, who lost his temper about once a week, Sondra could count on one hand the number of times she had seen her father angry.

     Still, the mayor had been sufficiently intimated by the Jewish soldier that he had everything on the list ready the following day. Julius made arrangements for Helga to go to America and stay with his parents. By the time he got out of the army and came home, Helga had put on weight and grown more hair, and he fell in love with her. They were married and moved into their own home. Helga had hoped to fill it with lots of children but, now, after six miscarriages over the years, she regarded Sondra as her miracle.

     “Sondra,” she spoke softly. “you and Howie are cousins and good friends, but you

have to realize Howie has a much different personality than yours. He doesn’t have your strength of character.” Helga held up her hand to stem her daughter’s protest.  “He can’t handle being different and will always want to be part of the crowd.”

     “I don’t think that’s true,” Sondra spoke resentfully. She had confided in her mother, and now Helga had spoiled it with her criticisms of Howie. It seemed that, lately, her mother was always saying the wrong things.

     Later, when she was doing her homework, Sondra thought over the conversation with Howie. She did not want to nothing but study for the next four years, but she was not sure what else she wanted to do. There were all sorts of school clubs she could join such as language clubs, Future Homemakers, Future Teachers the Chess Club, to name a few, but they all sounded boring. She was still on the newspaper staff, but that was almost like studying. Jane went to a lot of parties on the weekends with her church youth group, but that wasn’t for Sondra. She thought about doing volunteer work at the hospital. However, she had a squeamish stomach. Besides, while that might be a nice thing to do, it wasn’t for fun. Sondra wondered how Bernice had gotten through her high school years and agreed with Uncle Simon that it was a shame she and Robert were living in Philadelphia.

The next day at school Alice, was wearing Howie’s ID bracelet. For the ninth graders at Lincoln High “going steady” meant that they ate lunch together, walked together from class to class, sometimes holding hands, and went to the school dances together. Most couples went steady for about a month and then “broke up”. Sondra looked at Howie and Alice sitting next to each other in the lunchroom and wondered how long they would last. She was feeling more than a little resentful when Jane sat down next to her.

     “I’ve got a great idea!”

     “What?” Sondra turned gratefully to her friend, happy to have a diversion.

     “Let’s join the drama club.”

     “Can we?”

     Jane nodded her head and opened her bag of chips. “I spoke to Carla Brooks and she said the freshmen can’t do any acting, but that there was a lot more to a production than the actors. They need us to work back stage, paint scenery, gather props, and fix costumes. If we like it, we can take drama as one of our electives next year. What do you think?” Jane held the bag out to Sondra.

     “I can’t really see myself on stage,” Sondra hesitated as she took a handful of Fritos, “but it sounds like it would be really fun to be backstage.”

     It was! Sondra loved the teamwork involved in transforming a plain wooden stage and simple high school students into a whole new reality. There were two other freshman girls who joined the club, Christine Barnes and Joy Charles. Christine was from a large farm north of town where she lived with her grandparents. Tall and blonde, she was a classic beauty but shy. Joy had long, black hair and clear, light skin. She would have looked like Snow White, Sondra thought, if she didn’t have a weight problem. Neither Christine nor Joy was into dating, and the four girls spent a lot of time hanging out together, having fun.

     Between sports practice, student council, dating, and studying, Howie had little time for his cousin. Sondra watched him break up with Alice, give his ID bracelet to another girl, break up with her, and quickly find another girl to go steady with. One afternoon, Sondra overheard her mother and Aunt Irene discussing Howie’s girlfriends.

     “It’s so silly, this going steady,” Aunt Irene laughed. “Where can they go? Herbert carpools Howie and his latest girlfriend to the dance and the girl’s father picks up. It’s ridiculous. When I was in high school, the boy borrowed his father’s car to pick up the girl.”

     “So none of the boys dated until they were sixteen?” Helga asked.

     Irene shook her head. “Only if they walked somewhere. I would have been embarrassed to have my date’s father pick me up. Herbert can’t stand it. Howie and the girl sit in the back seat and the girl just giggles and Howie asks self-conscious. I don’t know what his hurry is anyway.”

     Sondra wondered why her aunt and uncle let Howie go out if they thought it was so absurd. She didn’t ask, though. She wanted to stay on good terms with Howie for the Hanukkah party. 

     In the spring, Mrs. Wiggs, the drama teacher, chose The Diary of Anne Frank for the play. Backstage rumors had it that Mrs. Wiggs had once been on Broadway and gave it all up to marry Mr. Wiggs. It was hard to believe, though. She was so heavy that her forearms shook like raw bread dough, and Sondra could not imagine her on the stage in any but the most absurd part. Still, the middle-aged woman knew the theatre and understood how to get the most out of her students for a professional production.

      Sondra became the unofficial expert on the Holocaust, winning her the respect of the whole cast. Enthusiastic about the play, Sondra tried to talk her parents into going to see it until she discovered that the first performance would be on the same Friday night as the monthly services. Sondra did not know what to do. She had been disappointed in Howie for choosing the dances over the services, but that had been a regular thing. She would only be missing once. Everyone missed services once in a while.

     “You do what you have to do,” Mrs. Wiggs spoke kindly when Sondra told her about her dilemma. “We sure would like to have you here, but we can cover for you if you need.”

       Jane had overheard the conversation and was skeptical. “She’s just saying that to be nice. She wouldn’t want anyone to think she’s an anti-Semite, especially if she’s putting on The Diary of Anne Frank.”

     There was no use asking Howie his advice. Sondra knew he would tell her to forget the services. Her parents gave her their permission to skip one month, but Sondra still hesitated.

     For as long as she could remember, Sondra had been taught that she was special because she was Jewish. She knew that she was different, but she really did not understand why. Her cousin Brenda had been different, too, but she crossed the line. What had kept Bernice form crossing the line? What, she wondered, would keep her and Howie from marrying out? Their kosher homes? The Hanukkah parties? The Passover seder? Family ties? Perhaps it was the monthly services. Sondra was afraid if she missed one month, it would be easier to miss the next month, and who knew where it would lead?

      That Sunday, Aunt Lotte and her family came in for the day and everyone gathered at Frayda’s house. As usual, the men assembled in the dining room, the women in the living room, and the children were on the front porch. When Oscar arrived he spent a few minutes inside and then returned to the porch.

     “How are you all doing?” He visited with the youngsters for a bit and then asked Sondra to take a walk with him. They headed out back, past the vegetable garden.

     “Your Opa sure loved his garden,” Oscar remarked.

     “Uh-hum,” Sondra agreed. “It’s hard for Oma to keep up with it, but Howie, Lisa, and I try to help out.”

     “You do,” Oscar nodded his head as he studied the garden for a while. “You are good kids,” he continued. “Real good kids. Your dad was talking to me about your predicament yesterday.”

     “Yeah,” Sondra waited for Oscar to proceed.

     “Well, I think you should know that there are going to be services twice in May.”

     “Twice?” Sondra asked. “Why?”

     “The normal Shabbos one and a special one for Shavuos.”

     “Really?” Sondra brightened. “Then I can work on the play and still go to Shavous services. Thank you, Oscar.” She planted a kiss on her cousin’s cheek and practically skipped as they made their way back to the house.

     “Do you really think that the monthly services are that important?” Howie asked seriously after Sondra had explained her solution to him. She just nodded her head.

     “Maybe,” Howie responded. “I’ll make more of an effort to go. I’ve kind of missed them.”

     Sondra's dimple deepened with her smile and inside she felt she could fly from happiness.


No comments: