I didn’t grow up in a religious house. We were “High Holiday Jews,” which, in layman’s terms, are Jews who only attend synagogue on the most sacred Jewish holidays. On those days, we would solemnly pray and rend our garments and starve ourselves in worship of the Lord. But every other day of the year the Lord could go fly a kite.
As a child, I particularly liked Yom Kippur, when adults are not allowed to have anything to eat or drink all day. The official reason for the fast is to cleanse our souls of the sins of the previous year. I suspect the actual reason for the fast is to give Jews another reason to complain.
I used to make wagers with myself as to which elderly parishioner would faint each year from dehydration, starvation, or Metamucil withdrawal. After the first one dropped, the rest of the parishioners often gave up on their own efforts, viewing the unlucky victim as a necessary sacrifice to a merciless God.
“Oy, I’m not going like Ida, someone get me some rugaleh!”
Even more than the fainting alta cockers,* though, my favorite part of Yom Kippur was that, as a kid, I was immune from the ritual fast. I’m not quite sure why that is. Kids sin just as much as adults do, and often without guilt or awareness that they did anything wrong. My Hebrew School class alone was a hotbed of emotional torture and abuse. The Torah was no match for atomic wedgies.
I suspect the true goal of allowing children to eat while their parents starve, like the goal of most Jewish traditions, is to instill a sense of guilt in the children. Of course, most kids would probably have some sympathy for their parents on Yom Kippur. And I did, in those first few self-aware years. But by the time I was 9, I had grown weary of my mother’s constant guilt trip. Nothing too small or trivial was immune from its reach.
“You finished the milk? Oh well, calcium, shmalcium. Who needs a skeletal system?”
“Did you fill the gas tank? Last week you forgot, I almost ran out of gas on the highway. I suppose I deserve to be run down by an eighteen wheeler, huh.”
“Happy Birthday, Jo! Just about this time 29 years ago I was receiving my third blood transfusion and writhing in agony.”
It was almost calming, in a way, the stability of it all. The seasons could change, communism could fall, and my testicles could drop, but I could always depend on the eternal guilt trip. Still, you can only cry wolf so many times before the villagers stop come running.
So when Yom Kippur rolled around, I didn’t pay much attention to my mother’s complaining. Years of living with her had provided me with built-in earplugs, tuned into her frequency only. Most Jewish kids develop them, out of sheer necessity. It was either that, or become a momma’s boy. I already had enough to contend with without adding a Norman Bates complex to the mix.
But just because I didn’t sympathize doesn’t mean I instigated. You might not feel bad for a harpooned man-eating shark, but you don’t get near its jaws while it’s still thrashing about. Usually I just stayed out of her harpooned way on Yom Kippur, much like I did on any other day that she might be unstable, like her day of the month, tax day, weekdays. I envied my friends who had alcoholics for parents — at least their mood swings are predictable from the smell of their breath. Plus they always had good booze in their liquor cabinets. We had Manishevitz, which is only good if you prefer diabetic comas.
It wasn’t difficult to stay out of her way, for the most part. As the offspring of narcissists, I was almost entirely self-sufficient by the time I was 5 years old. I was the only pre-schooler with his own ironing board and first-aid kit. My sister did her best to shoulder the responsibility, but my parents had an effective divide and conquer strategy that Hirohito would have admired. In my house it was every toddler for himself.
Unfortunately, though I was self-sufficient, I was not very handy. Failure to operate the most basic household tools is the first sign of homosexuality. Gays often have difficulty working with their hands, and are prone to tripping over their own feet. Something about homosexuality impedes hand-eye coordination, which seems anomalous, considering our wonderful hand-eye-penis coordination. I’m pretty sure at least half of Jerry’s kids were actually just severe homosexuals.
Usually my lameness had little impact on my self-sufficiency, even when personal possessions would rip, tear, or break. It’s not difficult to work around physical lameness, once you realize that squares can actually fit inside circles and vice versa. You’d be amazed at how little masking tape it takes to reattach a stuffed Miss Piggy head to her body.
So masking tape, thumbtacks, and other primitive tools allowed me to survive without resorting to help from my parents. But when I turned 11, I developed an addictive taste for tuna fish. I never really liked tuna fish before; actually, as a kid, I avoided all canned foods. Something about eating food out of a can disturbed me. Despite our high-tech, modern world, we still eat food from cans. It seemed like a ritual from bygone eras, from before the days of computers and digital watches. It was an out-dated tool of survival. Like locomotives, or procreation.
Somewhere around prepubescence, though, I lost my sensitivity towards metal-encased food products. Which required me to use a can opener, the most enigmatic of all kitchen utensils. Have you ever examined a can opener? All those wheels and levers and intricate mechanical functions. And I’m not even talking about the really complex ones with all the extra bells and whistles. You know, the ones that cost the same as a studio apartment in Bensonhurst.
Suddenly, for the first time since the womb, I was dependent on my mother again. It was not a pleasant feeling. I tried to avoid seeking my mother’s help. First I tried to ween myself off of tuna fish, but that was no use. I have an addictive personality. Fortunately my addictions tend towards mostly benign activities, like bathing, or oral sex. But once I click with a certain food product, I can’t stop myself. I’ve single-handedly kept Frito-Lays in business for the past thirty years.
Next I considered asking strangers to open the can. I was sure I could find someone in the street to do it. I was a pretty cute kid.
“Excuse me, kind sir. Would you please open this can for me?” I’d ask a passer-by, holding out the can opener. I was so skinny as a kid, he’d probably think I was a starving child, perhaps being neglected by his parents. I considered the possibility that he might call Child Protective Services who would take me away, but that was a risk I was willing to take for a tuna fish sandwich. Plus I figured the boys’ home would probably serve tuna fish for lunch all the time.
It seemed like a good plan, except I lived in the suburbs, and there were almost no pedestrians. My neighbors were not an option either. We had alienated them long ago with our very constant and very loud arguments. I’m not sure who called the police on us more often. It was probably about half and half. Either way, it’s not easy to enjoy Wheel of Fortune with your next-door neighbor screaming at her husband at the top of her lungs for purchasing another laser disc player.
After a year of debating my options, I decided that either I had to learn how to use a can opener, or else resign myself to needing my mother’s help for the rest of my life, which was of course not without precedent. I’m pretty sure Carol Brady made her kids lunch when they were well into their 20s and 30s. But then again, I’m pretty sure she also bathed them when they were well into their 20s and 30s, and that did not appeal to me at all. Still, all things being equal, I enjoy a challenge, as long as it doesn’t require public nudity or anything sports-related.
So when Yom Kippur came around that year, it was a perfect opportunity for me to develop my can opening skills. My parents spent most of the day in their separate bedrooms, ostensibly contemplating their sins of the past year but more likely blaming each other for them, so I would have full reign over the kitchen to tackle the white whale standing between me and my meal. And it wasn’t just lunch that I was after — tuna fish is a wonderfully multifunctional canned food. Make a boy a tuna fish sandwich and he’ll have lunch. Teach a boy how to use a can opener and he’ll have dinner.
The coast clear, I reached into the kitchen drawer and extracted my mortal enemy from its resting place. It came willingly, without a fight. Its complacency only heightened my resolve.
“It’s you or me, Mister,” I said to the utensil. I liked calling inanimate objects “Mister.” Except my stuffed Miss Piggy, who insisted on being called “Ma’am.”
Next I took a can of tuna fish out of the cupboard and held it up to my nose. I could smell the bitterly sweet tang of the tuna inside. It struck me how just a few millimeters of metal made the difference between survival and starvation. The tuna called to me, saying “eat me” over and over again. This was before those words took on a different meaning in my world.
I placed the can on the counter and arranged the can opener above it in the most logical manner possible. The opening mechanism slid into place. Success! I reviewed the notes I had taken the last time my mom used the can opener. I had watched her carefully in preparation for this momentous occasion. She was opening a can of dog food at the time, but I figured a can was a can.
According to my detailed instructions, the next step was turning the knob clockwise. I estimated it would take at least eight to ten twists to open the can. Everything was going as planned. I felt energized, probably how a military commander feels when he leads his army into a battle he knows he will win. I was just a few moments from tuna nirvana. This wouldn’t be just lunch. This would be a personal triumph.
I gripped the knob with my left hand and began twisting. Unfortunately, I forgot to remove my right hand from the can when I did. The opener sliced into my index finger.
“Fucking shit!” Those words still have the same meaning in my world.
I ran to the kitchen sink and held my bleeding finger under the running water. My eyes began to well with tears. Not because of the blood — as a world-class klutz, I was accustomed to cutting myself with various sharp instruments. Even a fine-toothed comb can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.
No, I was disappointed in my failure. Did this mean that I was doomed forever to seek my mother’s help every time I wanted tuna fish? This had dire implications for my future. Would I have to go to a local college, just so I could come home every day and have tuna fish? Would I need to live with my mother for the rest of my life, to feed this addiction? And what if I developed a taste for other canned foods? I didn’t love canned corn yet, but my tastes were notoriously erratic.
“Jonah, what are you doing?”
It was my mom. After a day of not eating, she looked even more gaunt than usual. Her hair fell lightly around her shoulders, instead of being pulled into its customary stern bun. She was wearing her aqua blue housedress, one of three housedresses she wore on a repeating cycle. She owned a fourth one also, a pink and purple number with white trim, but she only wore that one when the other three were in the wash. I never quite understood why that one was the alternate. It was prettier than the other three. Maybe she was saving it for special occasions, but I doubted that the Queen was going to come over to watch my mom clean the toilets anytime soon.
“I was . . . I was . . .”
I couldn’t finish the sentence. I was frightened, not just that she would be angry at the mess, but that she would be angry at having a failure for a son.
She turned off the running water and wrapped my finger with a paper towel.
“Come on.” She led me to the bathroom. “Sit.”
She took out some rubbing alcohol and a bandage from the medicine cabinet, and started dressing the wound. Her eyes were half-closed, and her legs appeared ready to give out any second. I didn’t want her to fall on the bathroom floor, which was cold, unforgiving marble. (My parents had rejected out-of-hand my suggestion to install pea-green shag carpeting in the bathroom.) But she didn’t seem to notice her own weakness. As she wiped the blood from my fingers, she moved with instinct, not with deliberation.
She covered the cut with a Kermit band-aid. She wouldn’t buy me Miss Piggy band-aids — presumably, a pre-emptive attempt to curtail my sexual orientation — so I settled on Kermit. Which was fine with me. Something about his color struggle appealed to me. Plus there is something inherently antiestablishment about a frog who loves a pig.
She led me back to the kitchen. I sat at the kitchen table while I watched her prepare my lunch. Her hands shook while she twisted the can opener and dumped its contents into a tupperware container. She mixed the tuna fish with a little mayo and sliced some lettuce and tomato, which she placed on the bread — steps I was planning to skip in my attempt to prepare lunch, as they required handling a knife, and I was pushing my luck already. She garnished the plate with two chocolate chip cookies and slid it in front of me, along with a big glass of milk.
“Eat.” She kissed my forehead, and left me with my hard-earned sandwich. I watched her stumble out of the kitchen. She looked small and frail, the aqua blue housedress hanging around her like a potato sack, a few stray grey hairs around her temples belying her age. There was so little to her, without her force of will to hold her up. I imagined a day when she would be sitting at the same table, and I would make her lunch and kiss her on the forehead. I expected that day to come sooner than I expected, whether I wanted it to or not.
So I couldn’t operate a can opener. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. There were some good local colleges, and I could live rent-free. Plus, I hate moving, especially packing. There was always so much dust on everything, and reminders of times past that you wished were present.
Fortunately, by the following Yom Kippur I had lost my taste for tuna fish. And I knew how to open a peanut butter jar.