When I was 8, I went with my father to a carnival at our neighbor’s church. He gave me a quarter and I tried to decide how to spend it, fascinated by the colorful banners and tents with their games of skill and chance.
I settled on a game with a large spinning wheel with big numbers printed along the perimeter, mounted vertically so the crowd could see it from a distance. The man who was minding the game called out, “Place your bets!” He grabbed the wheel and pulled on it with all his weight, setting it into a rapid spin. A stationary pointer mounted above the wheel made a clicking noise as it struck the pins along the edge. It reminded me of the sound made by the baseball cards I had clothespinned to my bicycle frame so they slapped against the spokes of the wheel.
I placed my quarter on lucky number seven. The man called out, “No more bets!” I watched anxiously and listened as the wheel gradually slowed and the rapid clicking noise slowed to a discernable tap, tap, tap. Finally, it came to a stop, the pointer on number seven. I won! The man came to me and counted out four more quarters. Joyful with my good luck, I proceeded to bet the quarters in turn. I lost each one.
I found my father and asked, “Please, can I have another quarter?” He wanted to know why. “I want another quarter so I can keep playing,” I told him. “I know I’ll win.”
“That’s the gambling disease,” he replied. “No, you can’t have another quarter. Don’t catch the disease.”
I was frustrated and disappointed but I understood. I promised I would never gamble again and I didn’t, until many years later.
I was home from college for a visit, riding with my father in his old Willey’s Jeep. He drove, smoking a cigar, and we talked. We stopped at the local convenience store to buy the newspaper. A front-page story proclaimed the New York State Lottery reached a huge jackpot. And that’s when he told me, “I bet on the lottery.” Shocked, I interrupted, first to express my surprise that he gambled and second, that I had no idea how the lottery worked. He loved to explain things, and he was good at it.
After he detailed how the lottery worked, he explained the different ways to play: “There are people who buy a lottery ticket only when there hasn’t been a winner for several weeks and the accumulated jackpot is huge, when it’s on the front page of the newspaper, like it is today. There’s another category of people who buy lottery tickets regularly. They stop by the newspaper stand once a week, or even more often.” He paused for a moment and then added, with a sideways glance and a smile, “but there’s another category of people who want to make sure that they’re entered in every drawing, every week, without fail, so they buy a subscription.”
My father was in that category: He had an annual subscription so he was sure to be automatically entered in the New York State Lottery every week.
“Most people,” he continued, “have certain ‘lucky numbers’ that they play.” From the earnest tone of his voice, I sensed he was getting to something. He told me about a booklet you could buy that explained a system for extracting lucky numbers out of the daily newspaper, and another that told how to interpret lucky numbers from your dreams. “But most people bet on family birthdays and anniversaries. Me? I bet on my favorite psalms.”
There are 150 of them in the Book of Psalms, and they are known by their numbers, like the 23rd Psalm, which begins: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” My father chose his favorite psalms and bet on their numbers. I was so impressed by his “lucky numbers,” I wrote them down in the little notebook I kept in my shirt pocket.
Years later, at age 84, he died. In the Jewish tradition, after the death of a parent, a child says the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, three times a day for 11 months. But you can’t say the prayer alone. It requires a minyan, a quorum of at least 10 Jewish adults (in some congregations, men). So, you have to be at the synagogue in the early morning, 6:45 or 7, and again in the afternoon, just before sunset, so you can participate in the prayer services and recite the kaddish.
As a youth, I dreaded the prospect of going to synagogue. But after my father died, I felt the need to be in the synagogue every day to say kaddish. And having found the numbers of his favorite psalms in my old notebook, every morning during the minyan, I read those six psalms. As the weeks went by, I found myself wondering about these ancient psalms. How were they meaningful to me? But, even more so, how they were meaningful to him? Of the 150 psalms, why did he choose these six as his favorites? We had talked about many things over the years but never about psalms and, although I knew he had these favorites, I had never thought to ask him why.
I speculated. Perhaps at various times in his life—during specific events or crises—a particular psalm took on special meaning. I began to think about all the stories he had told about his life. My sisters and I used to complain, “Dad, you’ve told us that story already a hundred times!” But now I was trying to remember them all and match them up with his favorite psalms.
There was the story he used to tell about the summer when he was 10 years old. His older brother took him on the train to Atlantic City to earn some much-needed money selling newspapers on the boardwalk. When Sunday came, they didn’t have to work, and they finally had their chance to enjoy the beach. They swam out to a wooden raft anchored way out in the ocean. As he told this story, he would always say, “As soon as we got to the raft, streaks of lightning hit like you see only in textbooks and documentaries, lightning like you never saw before and wish you never had.” His older brother dove in and swam to the safety of the shore, leaving my father behind. My father was so scared, he stayed on the raft. But the sky got darker, the rain heavier, the waves bigger. Finally, he jumped in and swam. He couldn’t see his brother; he couldn’t see the beach. He swam and swam and became so exhausted he couldn’t feel his arms or his legs. He swam by instinct until finally he washed up on shore and just lay there, half out of the water, half dead. After a time—he had no idea how long—his brother said, “Sam, let’s go.” He would always conclude the story: “That was …” and he would pause to count on his fingers, “that was 67 years ago. It was the swim of my life, which I shall never forget.” I wondered if that’s when one of his psalms became a favorite.
Another story he loved to tell was about how, as a young man interested in music, he wanted to play the saxophone. He was an electrician, so he put an ad in the newspaper that read, “Will wire your house for electricity in exchange for a saxophone.” He received only one response. The man didn’t have a saxophone; he had a trumpet! My father took the man’s trumpet and it became his lifelong instrument. I wondered about that story, too.
There were so many stories. When he had that operation on his shoulder and the anesthesia almost killed him; when he got laid off from the Bulova Watch Co. and couldn’t find another job because, they said, he was too old; when the electrical inspector delayed his approval, expecting a bribe; during the labor strike when his wife was pregnant with their first child and all he had left in his pocket was $1.50; when gasoline was rationed during WWII and he refused to ride in a car because the driver had bought black-market gasoline; when everyone on the beach was laughing at a man splashing in the ocean and my father realized he was drowning and jumped in and saved him…
On and on, I recalled his stories and tried to match them up, story to psalm, psalm to story, but of course, there was no way I could corroborate my theory. So, I continued to wonder, why were these six psalms his favorites?
Because I was the executor of my father’s estate, his mail was forwarded to me and, some days, his post office held up a few days’ worth of mail and sent it together. One day I received a larger-than-usual bundle. I sifted through the envelopes looking for any that might require immediate attention. My eyes fixed on a business envelope, addressed like all the others to “Samuel Schuman,” my father, but with the return address from the New York State Lottery. My mind leapt to the possibility that my father’s lottery numbers had won and inside this plain white business envelope was the big prize check!
I held the envelope with great anticipation and forced myself to be calm. I sat down in my chair and pulled it close to my desk, the dark wood desk with the inlaid leather top, the desk that used to be his. I laid the envelope flat on the desk blotter, flap side up. I picked up my letter opener, the wooden one with the handle carved in the shape of a head, the one that used to be his, and inserted the tip under the open corner of the flap. With a steady hand, I glided it along the edge in one smooth stroke. I laid aside the letter opener, picked up the envelope, withdrew the contents, and stared. There, in my hands, was a renewal notice. His annual subscription was coming to an end and there, in the upper right of the form, in a bold, black ink, were six numbers. To anyone else, they were just six numbers, but to me they were my father’s favorite psalms, and they represented the stories of a lifetime—and they were about to expire.
I had never gambled since I made that promise as an 8-year-old. But I renewed that subscription, and I have renewed it every year since for now the past (I pause to count on my fingers) 29 years, still telling his stories, still wondering about his psalms, still gambling on his lucky numbers.
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