I was cleaning out my parents’ house for the last time: the two-story stucco structure my father built in Northern California in the early 1960s, where I’d grown up, where my mother had died four years ago, and where my father finally left 18 months later when he moved into a retirement community. Dad had taken some furniture, books, kitchenware, and framed photographs to Baywood Court—“retirement redefined,” said the sign welcoming visitors to the semi-independent-living complex—but he’d left plenty behind: beds, carpets, desks, an out-of-tune upright piano. Now that we’d decided to sell the house, my father and my two younger brothers and I were going through what remained, deciding what was worth keeping, and what was junk.
But sometimes such a distinction isn’t so clear.
In the otherwise empty refrigerator, I found an odd heirloom: the three-inch-by-four-inch confectionery replica of the Ten Commandments that adorned my bar mitzvah cake 48 years ago. My mother had hoarded it in the butter compartment, and even after her death, it lived on. My brother Howard stuck a Post-it note on the fridge door: “Len’s bar mitzvah cake decoration in refrigerator (since 1965)! Do not disconnect without moving it to another refrigerator, please!”
On the last day in the house, as I stood alone looking into the fridge, I faced a dilemma. Those Ten Commandments had meant something to my mother, and I felt tugged to honor her; I could transfer them to my dad’s new kitchen, or I could schlep them on the plane back to the East Coast and keep them in my own fridge. Or I could do what no one in my family ever considered: throw them out.
Cleaning out the house was like rewinding chapters in my family’s history. I was the eldest of three sons. My father is a Holocaust survivor who fought with the partisans in Poland; my mother was a first-generation North American who grew up in an old Jewish neighborhood in Toronto. My brothers and I rummaged through all the possessions, but what touched us most was the family memorabilia, especially sepia photographs of ancestors from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. My mother threw out nothing, including cookie tins crammed with matchbooks from family vacation stops (OK, those were mine), letters, postcards, National Geographic magazines. And, of course, the sugary Ten Commandments from my bar mitzvah cake.
I also discovered a box of looseleaf papers with my mother’s handwriting. It included her assigned-seating arrangements at my bar mitzvah luncheon held at Goodman’s restaurant on Jack London Square in Oakland. My first-cousins and buddies sat at the head table. My parents, aunts, and uncles, nearly all of whom are now deceased, sat at “the parents’ table.” A luncheon invoice counts 97 people attending at $3 a piece. Twenty-four bottles of Chablis were ordered at $2.50 each; fruit punch for the kids. Guests started with a half-grapefruit, followed by baked fillet of chicken, mushroom sauce, rice pilaf, garden peas, luncheon rolls, and apple cobbler. A note to the restaurant staff warns: “no butter,” a nod to our kosher-style level of observance. Total cost: $365.04.
As a 13-year-old, I knew none of those details. What I remembered was the Shabbat morning service, in which I chanted the Haftorah and delivered a speech our rabbi wrote. He wrote every kid’s speech in those days—we just had to perfect the delivery.
It had been a busy week for my mom, the first major lifecycle event she had planned, not counting her wedding, held in her aunt’s Vancouver livingroom, and three brises, none of which she was involved in orchestrating. She was so excited as the days approached. Her aunt and uncle and cousins from Toronto arrived. I remember the phone ringing from the rabbi’s secretary with last-minute questions, probably about flowers or other details.
I jumped into Mom’s blue ’63 Plymouth Valiant, along with “Baba,” my maternal grandmother; my cousin Dana; and my youngest brother, Jeff. A couple miles from our exit, the car slowed ominously. “Uh-oh,” my mom said, realizing she had run out of gas. She had meant to fill up the tank that week, but with the hubbub, she never got to it. We sat in the far right lane, on a narrow freeway shoulder. I don’t think our car had emergency lights either. If ever we needed to pray, it was now, perhaps more fervently than during that morning in the sanctuary.
Cars sped by. We waited and waited until I heard a screech, though I may have imagined that. What I remember for sure is that on my way to my bar mitzvah reception, another car crashed into our car, rear-ending us. No one was injured. Minutes later, the California Highway Patrol was on the scene, followed by a tow truck. At least an hour after all the guests had arrived, as they all stood wondering where the bar mitzvah boy and his entourage could be, we pulled up in tow. The luncheon continued, as if released from pause, but that day has gone down in family history as quintessentially my mother—in the way she could put things off and the consequences that might ensue.
Over the years—after going off to college, moving to the other side of the country, starting my own family—whenever I visited home and opened the fridge, there sat the Ten Commandments wrapped in cellophane. I never asked my mom why she kept it for so long. Looking at it, I felt proud and honored, but whenever I’d tell friends about it, they’d look at me incredulously, as if there was something odd about it.
I made one last trip from the East Coast for a final broom-clean last spring before our real-estate agent listed and showed the house. I hired a company to remove everything that was left. The day after the workers cleaned everything out, I walked from empty room to empty room, surprised that I felt neither sad nor nostalgic. It was as if its soul had long ago soared away. The refrigerator was still plugged in, and I laughed and shook my head when I noticed still snug in the butter compartment those Ten Commandments. But that light-as-a-feather fluff also felt like a heavy burden, like carrying around a weighty kettleball, as I thought about holding on to it.
Standing in front of the fridge, I felt tested. As precious as the memento was to my mom, I decided that it could go. Throwing it out felt like breaking a family pattern of holding on to stuff just because we could; I wondered if that practice had enslaved us in some way.
But because I believe in ritual, I felt the Ten Commandments deserved more than a trip down the garbage disposal. I unplugged the fridge, pulling the sugary ornament from its home. I placed it, like a beating heart, on the passenger seat of my rental car and drove onto the Nimitz Freeway back to Jack London Square, to the scene of my bar mitzvah reception, to where the cake had been cut. This time, I noted, the car had a full tank of gas.
I thought of walking to the exact site where Goodman’s once stood, but I wanted to avoid tourists and crowds. Besides just as the waterfront area had changed, so had I.
Instead I walked along a little trafficked trail past moored boats and a group of men playing cricket on an open field. As I stepped down near the Bay Shore, I unwrapped the confection, surprised to uncover a layer of waxed paper neatly folded under the cellophane, folded neatly just like my mom had wrapped our school lunches once upon a time. I rubbed my thumb along the white sugary parts, noticing a pink rose design in each of the four corners. I tore one corner off and slung it into the quiet water as if it were a pebble. I was always good at skimming rocks on lakes.
I thought about breaking it up and throwing pieces into the bay one at a time, but I thought that might reduce the impact. So, I looked over my shoulder for park police and then, with abandon, hurled the rest into the water side arm. It plunked, barely splashing, and appeared to rise to the surface, but with the sun’s glare it was hard to tell. A plastic coke bottle floated nearby and two seagulls flew overhead. And then it was gone. I felt relief and emboldened. I’d taken this piece of family legacy into my own hands. I hadn’t even listened to my cousins who I forever look up to, when hearing a day earlier about the Ten Commandments still in the fridge, urged me to preserve them for posterity. “Maybe you could frame them,” one said.
On my flight back east later that week, I thought about what felt like a rebellious act. My default position in the family was usually to go along, rarely speaking out or doing what I thought was right if I feared it might roil others. But on that day, after more than four decades of inaction, I performed an act of liberation. For those Ten Commandments and for my soul.
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