Although, Lisa's birthday was the middle of June, one week after school was out, her parents decided to celebrate her bat mitzvah on July 3rd. Friday night would be for Lisa and Saturday, Independence Day, would be, of course, be Uncle Simon's day. More out-of-town relatives would come, since there would be two occasions to come for. Irene thought the plan was perfect.
Things don’t always go as planned, though.
Sondra’s pink Princess phone woke her several minutes after six in the morning the second day of summer vacation. Before she could lift her head off the pillow the ringing stopped. Curious, though, Sondra pulled her robe on and made her way down the stairs, to the kitchen. The room was bright with sunshine and the smell of melted butter saturated the air. Helga stood frozen, her back to the stove, an open egg in her hand, trying to guess who was on the other end of the phone. Julius had taken his milking cap off his head and was wiping his brow with it.
“Uh-huh…. I see…. Yes, I’ll call Herbert…No, I’ll drive over to Mama’s as soon as I clean up…I’m sorry…Of course.”
Julius hung the phone up slowly and turned to face his women.
“That was Berta. Her father died peacefully in his sleep.”
Helga put her hands to her mouth. “Poor Berta.”
“How’s Aunt Sopha,” Sondra asked.
“I’m not sure she understands.”
“When’s the funeral going to be?”
“What’s this going to do to Lisa’s bat mitzvah?” Sondra asked her mother as Julius dialed the phone.
“That’s for Irene and Herbert to decide.” Helga spoke more sharply than she intended. Although her first response had been one of sympathy for Berta, she really envied her. She had had her father for sixty years. She would know the date of the anniversary of his death and be able to visit his grave. Helga stared at the egg in her hand and threw it into the frying pan. She quickly added five more. Just because Uncle Eli had died there was no reason for them to starve.
The Jewish section of the Lincoln cemetery was on a little plot of land that Uncle Simon had bought years earlier when Mamie died. There were only eight graves there and most of them were relatives. Sondra had been there once before, at her grandfather’s funeral. Then it had been spring and the pastureland that surrounded the cemetery on three sides had been in full bloom. There had been a slight breeze and Sondra had worn a light jacket. Now the air was still and even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning the sun was beating down on the small crowd gathered around the open grave.
Bernice had come in the night before. Several months pregnant, she had her hands full with her mother.
“Oh, if only Alfred was alive,” Berta sobbed. “Then he could say kaddish for Papa.”
Sondra stared at her older cousin. Was this the same businesslike Berta who never seemed to show her emotions or care about religious issues? Was it really so important to her that someone say the memorial prayer for her father?
“Don’t worry, Berta,” Uncle Simon spoke softly. “I’ll say kaddish for my brother.”
Poor Uncle Simon. This was the second younger brother he was burying.
After the services the family went back to Berta’s house to eat the mourning meal. Again Berta lamented the absence of her brother.
“Mama,” Bernice tried to comfort her mother. “Uncle Simon is Opa’s brother. A brother can say kaddish, too.”
“He’s saying it today. But what about tomorrow and the next day and the next? When is he going to be at a minyan? Once a month?”
“Will it make you feel better,” Bernice asked. “If I ask Robert’s uncle to arrange for someone to say kaddish for Opa every day.”
“Yes, it would.” Berta dried her eyes and began to eat from the food on the table. It was not long before she had her equilibrium back and was bantering with the relatives.
Sondra watched it all, amazed at the mood swings Berta was having. Now that her mother was calm, Bernice rose from her place and pulled up a chair next to Sondra.
“How are things in Lincoln High?”
“Fine,” Sondra smiled. Despite Bernice’s pregnant stomach and wedding ring, she was still the same Bernice.
“You’re becoming quite an actress, I understand.”
Sondra blushed. “It’s a lot of fun."
"Are you thinking about doing anything with it?"
“I've thought some about children's theatre, drama education." Sondra spoke diffidently.
"Have you started thinking about colleges?"
Bernice laid a hand on her cousin’s shoulder. “Don’t go to Lincoln State.”
“That’s what my parents say.”
“Listen to them,” Bernice instructed. “I grew up here and Robin Cohen and I were the only practicing Jews in the whole high school. When I got to Oklahoma University I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like almost every other person I met was Jewish. It was a whole new world. And it’s the same in Philadelphia. I have a community that I belong to.”
“I know what you mean,” Sondra answered. She explained to Bernice how good she felt being with the Kansas City youth group.
“That’s great,” Bernice nodded. “This summer is the time for you to start thinking about colleges. Talk to your friends in Kansas City and find out where they want to go. Go with some of them.”
“Maybe I will,” Sondra nodded. However, she could not see herself going all the way to New York like Debbie was going to do. She wondered what colleges Howie was considering. She would have to talk to him about it. They did not talk as much as they used to. Howie was still going steady with Patty, but Sondra noticed that he had not bought a car yet.
The following afternoon, when Helga knew that Howie and Lisa would be at the pool, she stopped by Irene’s. As the two women settled down at the kitchen table with their cups of coffee Irene, surveyed her kitchen with satisfaction. There were no dishes in the sink, the counters were clear, and the floor swept. Dinner was all ready to put in the oven. She deserved a half-hour of gossip with her sister-in-law.
“So,” Helga didn’t mince words. “What is happening with the bat mitzvah plans?”
Irene shook her head. “Herbert and I were up till all hours deciding what to do. Lisa's still going to have her bat mitzvah, but instead of the dinner we had planned to host beforehand, we’ll just have a simple oneg Shabbat at the house afterwards.”
“How does Lisa feel about it?”
Irene smiled. “She thought the whole thing was going to be canceled so she’s happy.”
“Good,” Helga nodded. “How did she react to the funeral?”
“Very quiet. What about Sondra?”
“She picked up on what Berta said about Eli not having a son to say kaddish for him. She wanted to know who would say kaddish for Julius and me. And it bothered her that kaddish wasn’t said for Julius’s father on a regular basis.”
“Oh,” Irene made a face. “That must not have been pleasant.” She stood up and brought a fruit bowl to the table.
Helga helped herself to a peach and changed the subject. “Is all the family still coming in?”
“I think so. Bernice is going to stay till afterwards. Her mother can use her and Robert will come in as planned.” Irene took a long swallow. “Howie wants to invite his girlfriend.”
“It’s that serious?”
Helga circled the rim of her coffee cup with her index finger. “Do you ever feel like we should pick up and move someplace that has a real shul and Jewish community?”
Irene sighed and rested her chin on her folded hands in front of her. “It was fine here when the kids were young. I mean, I think we gave them a real Jewish identity. I know Herbert taught the kids to read Hebrew and I taught them about the holidays…”
“Julius did the same with Sondra.”
“I know,” Irene nodded and rubbed her eyes. “It’s just so hard in high school with all the dating and parties.”
“From what Julius told me,” Helga disagreed, “he never got caught up in it. And neither did Lotte.”
“Neither did Herbert, for that matter. And from what I understood, neither did Berta or Alfred or even Uncle Nathan’s girls. But that was a different time.”
“You’re right,” Helga nodded. “And I guess that we’re stuck here.”
“We are. We just better keep working on the kids’ Jewish identity. It’s good that you’re sending Sondra to Kansas City so much. I wish I could get Howie to want to go.”
“I’ll speak to Sondra about it. They’re not together as much as they used to be, but they still talk.”
“Maybe she can find him a girl in Kansas City,” Irene laughed.