Hot freyd on a shir far undz beyde gebrakht[i]
It may have had a different title, back when some tin pan alley cat transliterated the lyrics, but Granny and Poppa called it The Anniversary Waltz, and they made it their own and danced to it once a decade in front of two hundred and fifty inebriated friends and family; and sometimes, on a Sunday night, in their Yellow Rose of Texas kitchen, and never in front of the servants, he grasped her tiny waist and twirled her around the scuffed saffron linoleum and she mock protested, “Cookie, you’re frightening the budgie!”
And they danced and they danced until the bird shrieked from beneath his threadbare toweled cage and the spinster-next-door rapped her cane on the adjoining wall and they collapsed laughing and played tile rummy for five cents a point and split a bagel and lox with cream cheese; and later, while she sat entranced at her tripled reflection in the wing mirrors of her powder blue dressing table, he sneaked out for a Rothmans in the stairwell and polished his dentures and perfumed his moustache before creeping back in to her creamed and cossetted boudoir.
An entire tribal epoch was marked by their anniversaries. Once a decade, on the fourteenth of January, the far-flung family migrated from the diaspora for the ingathering of the clan: Saul from Sweden, Ellie from Aberdeen and their only daughter, our mother, on Skype. I remained the African child, plucked from the nuclear fallout of a toxic divorce and transplanted back to the soil of my geriatric ancestors.
Mommy had rejuvenated her prospects with a traumatic divorce from Our Father Who Art in England. Poppa had rescued us. Flew to London for the weekend, got Daddy tanked up on cheap whisky, extracted his dronk verdriet permission, stashed our passports in his Boxers and whipped us from the frozen tundra of England’s green and unpleasant lands to the fenced-in frenzy of South Africa’s suburban oblivion.
Daddy said he stole us; Poppa said he saved our lives. Mother didn’t say much until her jaw healed, after which she rose above the parapet just in time to snare another unsuspecting paramour: William Smith of Gilmore City, Iowa, so stoned on vodka at the time he’d met, proposed, married and migrated Mother and the sibs that he woke up one night three weeks later in a cabin in East Texas and croaked to his cowering bride, “Who the fuck are you?”
On the fourteenth of January, for three hours, the DNA-carrying members of the Orlowski tribe congregate in the large, wood-paneled function room of the Hebrew Order of David in Orchards, admire how much we’ve all grown, scoff smoked salmon and latkes ‘til we gag and tolerate the endless iambic pentameters penned by Poppa himself, who cares not a whit for metre or enjambement and insists, coyly, on comparing himself with ‘that other bard … who rhymed just as hard.’
For those who don’t already know it
I am Labe, the Orlowski family poet
The tribe has travelled from far and wide
To celebrate with me and my beautiful bride
And on and on for pages and pages of faux iambic pentameter. Poppa’s jagged couplets frequently evince a titter among the seasoned cousins in the false hope that the speech is over and they can knock back another triple Johnny Walker Blue with Appletizer. Pop waters down the Chivas and decants it back into the bottles, but the Orlowski’s are no fools and schlep their own, siphoned into hipflasks inside camera cases secreted under the table.
To Solly and Molly and Polly and Dolly
I say you should fress and be gay and be jolly
And though Ray says, keep schtum, I think that I ought-a
Say hello on the computer to my talented daughter
On the giant screen above our heads, Mommy freezes in a rictus of absent stage motherhood. Poppa pauses for breath and a sip of cola tonic, a smattering of applause punctuating his assonance. “I’m not finished,” is a legendary in-joke in the inner circles of the Orlowskis who have created a drinking game out of who can predict the end of the sermon and are mostly nicely plastered by the time Labe actually rounds off his speech and we can get to the meal. Our family motto: Ess, Fress, Gezunteheid. Or, back-translated from the Yiddish, They Tried to Kill Us; We Won; Let’s Eat.
This time, Granny adds her shekel’s worth. Even though she eschews speaking in public she can spin a heady yarn and always delivers a pungent punchline.
“Oy, did it rain that day,” she muses rhetorically when pressed with the microphone. “We had to have the chuppa at the Ninth Street shul, and everything got sopping wet. And as I’m sitting and weeping into my dress, my Phina wipes a damp tissue over my streaming mascara and says, ‘Don’t cry, Miss Ray. In my culture, we say for the wedding day, the rain, it’s the good luck.’ ‘That’s all very well for you,’ I sniff, ‘I’ve been working on this veil for six months and it’s going to be soaked.’ ‘Hawu, Miss Ray,’ she says, ‘uMapule, the rain goddess, she is making for a blessing for you and Baas Labe.’ Oy, did I cry. It was the same when my monogrammed cutlery arrived from Sheffield and they got the initials wrong.
“And then on the way to our honeymoon in Vereeniging, the trunk containing my trousseau, my beautiful tray cloths and petticoats I’ve been embroidering for years with my future monogram, falls off the back of the dickey seat. And we don’t notice it’s gone until we’re past Benoni. I had to start from scratch. And later, on our wedding night, Labe takes up the needle and tries to embroider my spare pair of knickers. He’d never worked on women’s garments before. And the mamzer sews the legs together.”
And Granny starts to laugh. An infectious chortle she reserves only for self-ironising that begins deep in her belly and emerges on her lips in a great guffaw. The cousins begin to snigger and the friends to giggle and eventually the whole family is falling about their seats, the air cleared of Poppa’s pompous poetry, pissing themselves in a heaving hee-haw of shrieks.
“But … wait … stop … in the end I think Phina was right. Mapule the rain goddess did indeed bless our union. Stand up, Phina.”
Granny gestures to the woman who has been with her since the beginning, a beret-bedecked, mottle-faced nonogenarian. Thunderous applause. Phina half stands, half sits, covering her toothless mouth with her shawl.
“People ask me what the secret of our marriage is and I always tell them two things; never go to bed cross. And, wherever possible, always make your husband think he’s had the last word.” Sniggers from those in the know.
“I’ve had a marriage full of joy and abundance … and Labe has been the best husband any woman could wish for. And in her thin, pitch-perfect voice, she starts to croon, “Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed … we danced and we danced coz the room had no bed…”
And the family, not a dry seat in the house, wipes their collective botoxed brow at Granny’s heartfelt lyrics, knowing full well that she alone has permitted Labe to wear the pants in the O household for three score years and then some.
Poppa spent the rest of his life compensating for that trousseau trunk.
Even in the sixties, at the zenith of his powers, his place on the committees of various philanthropic hues, from the depths of the new Zionist cause to the heights of the handicapped, Mister O took to the streets as hustler and philanthropist; door to door, phonecall to phonecall, he toiled for the cause of The Chosen, felled only by the tin-pot tirades of his diminutive wife, who rained on his parade at every opportunity and rationed his charity drive to three calls a night.
“Cookie, get off the phone, the chops are shriveling in the Echo.”
“I’m coming, Cookie, I just need to see if Ivan Lazarus has made a transfer. I can’t carry his brother around in the boot of the car for another week.”
“The girl wants to go home, Cookie, come on already.”
“Gotta go, Iv, so it will be in the account tomorrow? First class! Now how about that UJF donation you were always threatening to give?”
They stand in the paneled corridor, she with her incapacitated senses, he with his stubborn refusal to admit infirmity. Poppa has created ingenious gadgets for opening doors and jars with his pincer like fingers, drives according to the binary system – if the robots aren’t red, they have to be green – but the homespun doodads are failing him now and the only way he can get through this proof of life is to make it through the performance.
“So which way are we walking in, Cookie?” he says.
“I don’t even know which way our party is…”
“Don’t worry, one of the kids will come and get us.”
“What’s the time, cookie?”
“I can’t see my watch anymore, Cookie, you know that.”
“But we’ve been standing here for hours.”
“It’s not hours, Cookie, don’t exaggerate.”
“It feels like hours; my feet are killing me.”
“Say a little prayer, Cookie.”
“Don’t be a schmuk, Labe. The last time I prayed was when Nyryska left Bill.”
“Please, Cookie, don’t bring that up at a time like this.”
“How can it be? How can our only daughter have disgraced us like that?”
“You know Bill was hitting her regularly, don’t you?”
“Oh come on, Cookie, don’t you think she exaggerated, just a little?”
“One Mississippi,” he counted under his breath.
“But I can’t hear any music!”
“Three Mississippi. You’ll hear the introduction, Cookie, they’ll turn up the volume on the computer.”
“Labe, you know I can’t see so good …”
“Five Mississippi. I’ll be holding you, Cookie, just hold me tight.“
“Hmph. Like at the Osrin’s barmitzvah. You were schvitzing like an ox.”
“Jesus, Cookie, will you ever let me forget that barmy?
“Relax, Cookie, I’m pulling your leg …”
“That was the night I didn’t know I had shingles.”
“I remember, Cookie, and we danced all night and the next morning you booked yourself in to the Gen.”
“I still don’t have any feeling in my right eyebrow. It’s like water dripping down my scalp.”
“What if we trip, like at Shirley’s wedding? Oy, did I have to put the high heels on?”
“I won’t let you fall, Cookie, I’ll hold you round the waist, clasp my hand, here, like this.”
“Oy, Cookie, I know how to dance. We’ve been doing this for seventy years.”
“Then why are you asking me, Cookie?”
“I’m not asking you I know where your hand goes, … come on Labela, not now.”
Phina shuffles into the foyer, moist-eyed with pride and glaucoma.
“Miss Ray, Baas Labe, the children, they say it’s time.”
“Where are they? They said they would schlep us in.”
“Baas Saul, he is trying to fix the computer. Miss Lindy, she is talking to the microfilm.”
Ellie scuttles through, gesticulating wildly. “Pop, Gran, everybody’s waiting, we’re ready, we’re just having a few problems with beaming Mommy through on Skype.”
“I still don’t understand why your mother’s not here.”
“We’ve been through this, Gran, Mommy has to stay in America to look after her cat.”
“She lives in America?”
“You know she does, Gran. She’s lived there for thirty-five years.”
“You know she has, Gran. And she has trouble walking.”
“She has trouble. That’s a good one.”
“Let’s not go there now, Cookie, what’s done is done,” he says.
“This way, my darlings,” Ellie repeats, shepherding the ancients towards the crowded function room. Phina swabs her eyes and trails the family, a limp rag, abandoned in the shadows.
The opening strains of “The Anniversary Song” travel light years into the paneled foyer, buffering our imaginary mother into virtual reality.
The ancestors come into each other’s arms like depolarised magnets, clasping and grasping their emaciated bodies together, Bacchus and Philemon, their mutual humanity holding them upright. Poppa wraps his right arm around Granny’s waist.
“1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3 … listen to me, Cookie, we’ve done it a million times. “
“But I can’t hear, Cookie … Cookie, I can’t see …”
The musical introduction strikes up again. Mommy, impatient for her star turn, mindful of Internet costs from ten thousand miles away.
Granny grasps his leathery outstretched hand. Seventy years float to the floor like dust in the wind. The door heaves open. Granny turns her sightless eyes towards her husband’s face.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Cookie.”
For once, Poppa has the final word. “Oh, just shut up, Cookie … and dance.”
[i] “Waves of the Danube”, translated from the Yiddish: “Oh, how we danced on the night that we wed/ We vowed our true love though a word wasn’t said.” Commonly referred to as “The Anniversary Waltz”. Composer Iosif Ivanovici (1880), English Lyrics by Al Jolson and Saul Chaplin, Yiddish Lyrics by Chaim Tauber. Parody by RG.