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Monday, August 21, 2006

Holidays with Uncle Phil

With the month of Elul bearing down on us, it won’t be all that long before it’s Rosh Hashanah 5767, followed by the Big Parade o’ Yomim Tovim.

Holidays are times for families to get together.  There has been a lot written in the American press about holiday angst, and it has been the topic of several films in the last few years...but, almost without exception, the major angst-inducing holidays are not Jewish holidays.  At least, that has been my experience.  Your mileage - and life story - may differ.

When I think about family get-togethers, I tend to think about Pesach more than, say, Rosh Hashanah, or Sukkot.  Or Tisha b'Av, for that matter.  Pesach is a family-centric holiday, and Pesach was a holiday that we never failed to celebrate, even if in our own half-baked (you should excuse the expression) manner.  And when I think about Pesach, I always think about my Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge.

Regular readers of my site may remember Uncle Phil, my mother’s older brother. My first experience of loss took place when Phil took his family and moved from New York to Florida...right about the same time the Brooklyn Dodgers made their move to Los Angeles: a double whammy! It was a real trauma for me at the time, because I loved my cousins – the move meant that we would see them once a year instead of every week. I can still remember watching their car pull out of our driveway for the last time. I was five years old.

But because our visits became less frequent, they took on the aura of something special...something almost exotic. Our annual weeks-long visit to Florida meant an overnight with my cousins and the chance to sleep in a bunk bed. A bunk bed! As a little kid, I loved bunk beds, probably because sleeping in one was a once-a-year event. Summer camp, and later, college dorm living, would eventually cure me of any nostalgic affection for bunk beds...but for the young Elisson, a night in a bunk bed was an adventure.  I’d be in one bunk and my cousin Andy in the other, and we’d swap stories late into the night.

Years later it was at Phil’s house that I watched the Apollo moon landing. And it was on Phil’s boat, out in Biscayne Bay, that I learned the truth of the proverb, “Jews are a desert people. They should not own boats.” But that’s a story for another blogpost.

Phil used to run a hobby shop, selling chemistry sets, stamps and coins, and what-not. The hobby stuff eventually disappeared as the business mutated into a scientific equipment exporting firm, but I loved that little shop. What kid doesn’t love a hobby shop?

My uncle had a neighbor back in the 1980’s who worked as an artist for the Archie Comics Group. And one day, Phil showed up as a bit player in a “Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch” comic book. The name of the story (from Number 76, the November 1982 issue) was “Professor Pither’s Pill” – an innocent enough title until you realized that the Professor had a lisp. So Archie Comics was not above slipping a little excretory humor into their books if you looked closely enough.

In the story, Sabrina her own self goes walking into Phil’s hobby shop and has a brief conversation with him. And, I gotta admit, Bob Bolling (the artist) nailed Phil perfectly. Too bad all this was before Sabrina got popular enough to have her own TV series.

Phil meets Sabrina, the Teen-Age Witch.

But we were talking about Pesach, weren’t we?

Those lengthy Florida vacations we took back in my Runny-Nose Days inevitably meant spending part of Passover with Phil and Marge, who would host a memorable Seder meal.  Already wound up from the excitement of seeing my cousins, I would eagerly await sundown on Seder night – a chance to drink a few sips of the Elusive Fruit o’ th’ Vine, to eat matzoh slathered with charoset, and to eat gefilte fish with a load of horseradish sufficient to water the eyes and shorten the breath.

I loved those Seders. Not that they were “ritually correct” in any significant way.  Yeah, we did the major stuff.  We read the Haggadah – well, the first half, anyway.  We ate the matzoh and bitter herbs.  We dipped the vegetables in salt water.  But I’m sure there was a lot we glossed over.  I mean, my family’s level of Jewish Observance was such that we would, like as not, order in a pizza for the second Seder – if we had ever bothered to have a second Seder.

But we always had fun Chez Phil ’n’ Marge.  One night, our cousins’ dog, an evil-tempered shtick dreck dachshund yclept Rembrandt, bit a chunk out of my kid brother’s hand.  Yes, Rembrandt: the model of the Temperamental Artiste, creating Living Sculpture.  It made for an exceptionally exciting Seder, and Bro still carries the scar.  Maybe the rotten little beast did not care for the brisket...

And, after all these years, I still carry the sense-memories.  Pesach, Rosh Hashanah - it matters not what holiday it is.  Every yontiff, as the perfume of simmering chicken soup wafts through the house and the pong of freshly-opened Gold’s horseradish attacks the sensitive nasal lining, those memories bubble up from deep inside me, and I remember with love all of those Seder meals long past.  All of those grandparents who no longer walk this planet.  My mother, SWMBO’s father, both of blessed memory.

And I think of the ones who are still with us - like Uncle Phil and Aunt Marge - keyn ayin ha-ra - and I treasure them.

Posted by Elisson on August 21, 2006 | Permalink


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"And it was on Phil’s boat, out in Biscayne Bay, that I learned the truth of the proverb, “Jews are a desert people. They should not own boats.” But that’s a story for another blogpost."
I just learned that lesson last week, when my father in law insisted it was a shame that I never went fishing before.

Posted by: Max Power | Aug 21, 2006 7:21:28 PM

Great post... To have and appreciate those family members who make a difference in your life is such a blessing. As is also remembering those who will forever in your hearts. Would love to hear about the boating lesson!

Posted by: val | Aug 21, 2006 10:07:19 PM

And it was on Phil’s boat, out in Biscayne Bay, that I learned the truth of the proverb, “Jews are a desert people. They should not own boats.” But that’s a story for another blogpost.

I hope that story is coming soon, because i still wish i had a boat.

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Aug 22, 2006 5:22:59 PM

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