73. An Angel at Our Table

73. An Angel at Our Table

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Matters


An Angel at Our Table

The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly.

~G.K. Chesterton

Aunt Felicia was a sour woman. The only person for whom she showed affection was my little brother, Mikey. It unnerved him. “What’s wrong with me? She likes me! What’s wrong with me?!”

I suspect it went against my aunt’s principles to demonstrate her true feelings for her own little brother. As a boy, my dad had been a prankster. As a man, he had donned the cap of the court jester. Yet each Passover it was my father who led the Seder service, even though it was held in his brother-in-law’s house.

Raised to become a rabbi, Dad had turned to socialist rebellion. He could recite the Haggadah backwards, forwards, with full expression, and at any speed he chose. One year, Aunt Felicia informed my male cousins that they could be excused from the table to watch the hockey play-offs if the service ended before the game did. Hockey play-off games go on forever—but the Seder service goes on longer. Auntie’s mistake was to make this promise within earshot of my father.

At first, the shift in rhythm was imperceptible. Dad began chanting more quickly than usual, and the uncles dutifully picked up the pace. Incrementally, his chanting grew faster and louder and faster still, until he was hurtling through the Haggadah at the tongue-twisting pace of a Danny Kaye patter song. Daddy kept his head down, his face straight, and his eyes fixed firmly on the Hebrew text before him. The uncles were forced to follow as best they could. Aunt Felicia fumed in helpless fury. The boys beamed. Before the evening ended, they got to see the last part of the hockey play-off game.

It is the role of the youngest child to open the door for Elijah—prophet, angel, and protector of children—so he can enter the household and drink from the goblet of wine that has been prepared for him. By rights that task should’ve been performed by my little brother, but when the moment came each year for the participants to dip their pinkies into their wineglasses ten times to symbolize the ten plagues that had befallen Egypt (this comes before the entrance of the angel), my little brother would cuddle up to our mother and merrily dip his pinky into her wineglass along with her. Whereas my mother would then wipe the residue onto a napkin like the rest of the grown-ups, Mickey would remove the wine from his finger by licking it off.

Ten drops of Manischewitz would knock out Mickey, and he’d spend the rest of a very long evening curled up on my mother’s lap, his pudgy palms clasped as if in prayer and pressed against a cheek, his yarmulke askew on his flaxen crew-cut and a beatific smile on his cherubic face. Thus, the role of gatekeeper fell to me.

“You mean to tell me that he comes to our house and to everybody else’s house all at the same time?” I would query when instructed to stand watch.

“Well, he’s an angel. He can do that. Except in Israel. In Israel, he gets there seven hours later because of the time change.”

As my aunts and uncles and older cousins remained at the long dining room table continuing the recitation, I was told when to open the door, when Elijah had finished his drink, and then when to close the front door to my aunt’s duplex because Elijah had just made his exit.

“But I can’t see the angel!” I complained.

“Look harder,” urged my father.

I squinted my eyes. “I still can’t see the angel!”

Daddy smiled his warm, gentle smile. “Shepsaleh, you have to look with different eyes.”

My big cousins snickered. The entire tribe insisted they could see Elijah clearly. It occurred to me that if I joined my relatives at the table, I’d be able to see the angel too.

“Why can’t I just come back to the table and watch the angel drink the wine? Why can’t he let himself out?”

“It’s not polite to let a guest leave alone. With an angel, you have to be a lady.”

I had no answer. Yet.

By the time I was eight, I was fed up with this game.

“I don’t care if I’m a lady or not! After I open the door, I’m coming back to the table! I want to see him drink!” I was adamant.

Daddy quickly improvised. “Okay, you can come to the table, and you will see the angel drink.” (Mikey still couldn’t hold his liquor.)

When cued, I opened the door for Elijah, as I did every year. I marched back to my aunt’s dining room table. Maybe I walked behind Elijah, maybe alongside him. If I bumped into the angel, I didn’t notice.

I stood among the adults in front of my aunt’s table, which held a large, ornate silver drinking vessel filled to the brim with a deep burgundy-coloured wine. The moment of truth had arrived.

“Okay,” my father instructed, “watch. The angel’s going to drink.”

I held my breath. My father slipped his knee under the table and shook it. The silver vessel shimmered under the twinkling crystals of the chandelier. Within the confines of the oval-shaped cup, the dark liquid trembled. I lowered my head and peered.

“It didn’t go down!” I scowled. “When you drink, there’s supposed to be less in the glass! It didn’t go down!”

My father’s frustration was beginning to match my own. He pursed his lips and pointed to the goblet.

“Watch again. The angel’s going to drink again!”

This time, my father kneed the bottom of the table with such force that the wine spilled over the rim and onto the tablecloth—my aunt’s snow-white tablecloth with the lace trim that she displayed only on special occasions. Auntie stared in horror at the deep burgundy-hued stain.

I gazed at the goblet in wonder and awe.

“Oh!” I gleefully clapped my hands, convinced at long last. “What a sloppy angel!”

Daddy was satisfied. Auntie sat stewing over the ruin of her finest linen. She glowered at her youngest brother. Daddy met her smouldering glare and reminded her softly, sweetly, and in accented English, “You can’t get mad from an angel.”

The last Seder my father led was held in his own home. Our last Seder was our last supper. A week later, Daddy was felled by a massive coronary. My mother found him. He was wearing a smile. He had been getting ready to attend a hockey play-off game.

~S. Nadja Zajdman

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