My holiday gift to you is a short story (OK, flash fiction) I wrote featuring characters from my second book, Being God. Malik Kaplan’s mother is Catholic and his father Jewish, so when the relatives get together to celebrate the holidays, festive is not always the right word.
If you read to the end I hope you enter the contest for a chance to get a free seat in my writing class on crafting diverse characters and situations – Adding the Spice of Diversity to your writing. The class begins in February, winners will be announced the second week in January.
“Hey there, rocket man.” Mom’s eldest brother, Willie (I would have been a priest, but…)tries to rub my head, like I’m seven instead of seventeen. His new girlfriend giggles.
I nearly barf.
Our house is the spot marked X for the last day of Chanukah, which comes on Christmas Eve this year. The whole Chanukah/Christmas thing used to confuse me. I mean, Catholic mother, Jewish father. Neither all that heavy into religion, what did they expect? I was almost six before I understood there was a difference between Mom lighting a tree and singing hymns, and Dad lighting candles and chanting prayers. The dual season gives me more of everything, including a mountain of Chanukah gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper to make them special.
I also get more relatives.
I’m surrounded by family; Catholics, Jews, and a few uninterested in the idea of a deity but wanting their own version of gelt: free food. Mom takes her role as the wife of a black Jew seriously, fixing latkes from a non-traditional recipe that includes jalapeño’s because Dad likes them. She put up mistletoe as part of her yearly impossible mission of turning us into an old-fashioned Christmas card family, shiny black and brown faces and cheezy smiles.
“Where’s your husband?” Tyrese, Mom’s younger brother, clutches a crucifix like he’s begging God’s forgiveness for even entering this house. “It’s dinnertime.”
The door opens, bringing a blast of winter air and Dad. I catch a whiff of motor oil as he passes me and leans in to kiss Mom’s cheek.
“About time, Dwayne.” Willie sounds like an unforgiving parent. “We’re starving.”
“Sorry, I had a last minute customer snafu,” Dad says.
“You’re the owner; don’t you have people to handle Christmas Eve snafus?”
“This was a special customer,” Dad says gently.
Tell him to stuff it, Dad.
He never does. His brothers-in-law aren’t hot stuff. They talk smack about Dad, as if running an auto shop makes him dirty. Dad knows all about engines; they can’t even change the oil in their cars. Uncle Willie asked me once if a hemi was a disease. I know Dad hears how they rip into him. Yet every year he smiles and invites them back.
“I’ll shower and be right down.” Dad runs upstairs.
Mom herds the guests into the dining room. Instead of following, her brothers move to a corner.
“She abandoned her religion for that jerk and he ignores her over some ‘special customer.’” Willie makes air quotes, just like the girls at school.
“Don’t disrespect my dad,” I say angrily.
“He disrespected my sister first,” Willie says.
“You just hate on him because he makes more money than you.”
“Anyone could make money if they’re willing to get their hands dirty.”
“Not in front of the boy.” Tyrese tries to cut his brother off.
“You’ve said worse,” Willie insists. “This kid’s the mistake that forced Sis to marry Dwayne.”
“Mistake?” I can’t be a mistake. My head spins.
“You’re the best thing Dwayne ever did,” Tyrese says. “No one blames you.”
“Take your blame and shove it.” Dad steps to my side. His hair is moist around the red kipah on his head; his eyes spit fire. “Neither my son nor my marriage was a mistake.”
“Maybe we should go.” Tyrese fingers his crucifix.
“No.” Dad’s lips tighten, hands clench at his side. “My wife wants you here. You’ll stay to make her happy.”
Dad and I enter the dining room together. “Would you perform the mitzvah berakhah?” The familiar scent of motor oil still clings to him.
“But…you always do that.”
“Not today.” He smiles. “You are the best thing I’ve ever made. You say the blessings.”
My hand shakes when I take the shamesh, the server candle, and chant the words I learned at Beth Shalom in Chicago; the blessings thanking God for miracles performed for our ancestors.
Baruch atah Adonai Elo-heinu Melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Chanukah
As I light the other eight candles of the chanukiah, I give silent thanks for my personal miracle, standing beside Mom.
There are no mistakes in our family.
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