Monday, May 17, 2010

Happy Birthday Ronnie Shapiro

In 1948, the tiny country of Israel gained statehood, President Truman defeated Governor Dewey, and my brother Ronnie became a man. While the first occasion was significant for Zionists, and the second for Democrats, it was the latter event -- Ronnie’s Bar Mitzvah -- that was the year’s highlight for the Shapiro family of Division Street.

Several months before my brother’s rite of passage -- which was scheduled for May 22, less than a week after his 13th birthday -- my grandfather visited us in our grocery store to discuss the ceremony, and a celebration. “Just the shul, Pa,” I heard my mother say to her father as they gabbed near the cash register. “Ronnie will read from the Torah, we’ll have a Kiddush with wine and sweets in the synagogue, and that’ll be it. We can’t lay out money for a hotel party.”

"Mashuggena,” Zadie said, leaning across Mom’s counter to shake her bony shoulder. “My first grandchild born in this country and we don't have a simcha? What will people think -- we’re too cheap to throw a party?” Wearing a well-worn shirt rolled up at the cuffs, and brown slacks stained by the wooden crates of ice-packed fish he schlepped into his store, my grandfather didn’t look like someone crazy for a fancy-dress fete.

“Let’s have a party,” I said, echoing my grandfather. I was standing at my mother’s elbow, wearing my store apron over a plain blouse and skirt, but I quickly envisioned myself dressed in fancy party clothes and dancing to the melodies of a Kay Kyser-like orchestra.

“Look Pa, look here,” Mom said, and pushed a copy of the Chicago Daily News in front of her father. “A&P, Jewel, National.” She was flipping through the newspaper’s pages, and paused to place a flat hand on several of them. “Full page ads. How long do you think our customers will shop at our small store when they can go across the street or down the block to a supermarket where they can have aisles of stock to choose from at cheaper prices?”

“Maybe you should listen to your father, Honey,” Dad said to Mom. “A little party, maybe we can swing a little party. I heard President Truman say on the radio that good times are ahead. All those returning GIs with money to spend, all those new houses being built for them.” Dad’s face brightened with his words and I could easily see him swaying to the music, living it up in a good-looking suit -- double breasted perhaps to mask his girth.

“Please, Mommy, a party,” I said, thinking such a festivity might cheer my folks, perhaps lighten the gloom brought on by the loss of old neighbors and store receipts.

Mother looked around the store that was now empty of customers, glared at my father’s hopeful face, and my smaller version, then shook her head. With one hand she brushed back loose hair that has escaped its nest atop her head, then pulled off a clip-on earring. She rubbed the sore spot the earring had given her and placed the plastic jewelry on the counter. Then, she moved the newspaper from Zadie’s line of sight and shoved it in front of Dad’s. I stood on tiptoes to see, too, and watched as she turned stacks of pages. When she reached the real estate ads, she slid the newspaper back and forth between her husband and father as if she were dealing a hand of Pinochle. “Vets down payment $1,000,” she read aloud. She looked up at the three of us bent over the ads and pointed to black-and-white photos of houses.

“Do you think these ranch homes, New England colonials, three-, four-bedroom houses are on Division Street?” she asked. Mother’s sarcastic questioning silenced me, but the men’s weak stabs at a response reminded me of one of our favorite radio programs, "It Pays To Be Ignorant." That silly quiz show was funny, though, and Mom was deeply serious.

“No,” she said, “the houses are in the suburbs. You think the veterans are going to keep their families in the city with the noise and the schmutz? They’re like everybody else--they want peace and quiet. They want better schools for their kids, garages, backyards.”

Zadie took the newspaper from Mother’s agitated, skinny fingers, closed its pages and turned the paper upside down so only the Sports page emerged. “I’ll pay for the party,” he said.

"No, Pa, no,” Mother said, shaking her head. She used her thumb and its neighbor to stroke her reddened ear, then used the other hand to return the earring to its lucky place.

“Only a loan,” Dad said to his father-in-law, then offered his hand, man to man, for a shake to seal the deal.

My mother looked at her father and mine, waved a hand in the air as if it were a white flag signaling surrender, and left the counter. I followed behind her and when I caught up, put an arm around her slim waist, and said, “Don’t be sad, Mommy. It’ll be fun. Ronnie’s party will be fun.”

“Deeper and deeper,” she said - more to herself than to me. She removed a balled up Kleenex from her skirt pocket and dabbed at the mascara that had escaped her lashes.

Ronnie’s big day was finally upon us. On the mild May morning of his bar mitzvah, our family walked in silence to the Austrian-Galician shul on California Avenue. My brother was wearing the new suit that Mom had finished shortening the night before, and I was in a stiff green dress with a Peter Pan collar and puffy short sleeves. We followed behind our parents, and I watched -- hoping that this time -- they might hold hands for the stroll. But Dad, in his double-breasted herringbone suit, held a cigarette in one hand, and used the other to remove bits of tobacco from his lips. Mom, outfitted in a gray silk shantung dress that shimmered with each of her high-heeled steps, kept her gloved hands tight on her pocketbook. With her black felt hat and veil (the “rooftops of Paris look”), Mother was the unquestionable beauty of the bunch.

Once inside the synagogue, Ronnie and my dad proceeded to the men’s section on the first floor and Mom and I went upstairs to join the women. After a long, tedious morning service, my brother went up to the bimah, then climbed atop a wooden Coca-Cola crate to reach the podium. Our grandfather stood at his side, and using his one good eye and a yad pointer to track the squiggly alphabet, guided Ronnie confidently through his biblical passage.

In the evening party that capped Ronnie’s coming of age, my dad -- exhilarated from his son’s morning performance and proud of the shindig he was hosting -- drank more glasses of schnapps than he could handle. We had all linked arms to form a ring for the hora Israeli folk dance and were whirling around the floor. Several of my young uncles took turns breaking from the ring to dance the kazatska in the center. With arms folded across their sinewy chests, they squatted almost to the floor, shot their legs alternately out in front of them, then hopped upright with a whoop. We clapped and cheered to egg the boys on. But when my shikker father leapt dizzily into the spotlight, I became alarmed. Didn’t the doctor tell him to watch himself? To stop smoking? To lose weight? Didn’t the doctor warn Dad that his diabetes could weaken his heart as it did his feet, his gums? He had almost lost a limb to gangrene, and I had already witnessed Dad’s false teeth floating nightly in a drinking glass. What other part of his body would be next to fail?

Yanking the elbow of his herringbone suit, and shouting to be heard over the orchestra’s horns and relatives’ hoots, I screamed, “Daddy, stop, you’ll get sick!”

With his brown eyes as bright as the morning’s Eternal Flame, Dad brushed my anxious hand from his sweat-soaked suit, and slurred, “I’m having a good time, Princess, let me have a good time.”

As for the Bar Mitzvah Boy, throughout the evening, partygoers stuffed cash, checks, and savings bonds into the pockets of his new suit. Afterward, when we returned home from the hotel, my parents and Ronnie went into our bedroom to count his haul. “You take it,” my brother said, as he handed them a stack of money. He was leaning against the pillows, looking exhausted from being onstage from morning to night. “You can use it to pay Zadie back,” he yawned. “I’ll keep the savings bonds.”

I watched from the door of the bedroom, toothpaste foaming in my mouth, as first my mother, then my father turned down Ronnie’s offer. “No, no,” they said -- both with tears in their eyes -- “it’s your money, you keep it.” After a few back-and-forth rounds, with tepid refusals on our parents’ part, Mother said, “You’re a wonderful son.” She kissed him on the cheek, then crammed the money inside a dresser drawer. “A real mensch,” Dad added, kissing his son’s other cheek. Then, with Ronnie and I looking on, our parents hugged and kissed one another. My brother and I stared at them: This was an unfamiliar embrace! It was as if Adonai -- mindful of Ronnie’s study and sacrifice -- had slipped into our Division Street bedroom, and performed a miracle right before our astonished eyes.

More Photos of Ronnie

Photo Identifications
1. At the Bar Mitzvah, Ronnie and our Uncle Hy, 22 years old at the time.
2. Irv's Finer Foods. Ronnie, our dad, me, our mom, and our Aunt Mary.
3. The shul. Photo courtesy of Robb Packer, copyright 2005. The Doors of Redemption, The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago.
4. A shikker dad with Uncle Hy at Ronnie's Bar Mitzvah.
5. Me, cutting a rug at the party.
6. Ronnie as an adorable baby.
7. Pvt. Ron Shapiro
8. Ronnie, second from the left at the book launch for "The Division Street Princess."
9. The cover of Ronnie's memoir, "Making Happy."
10. Ronnie and his wife, Norma, on a recent trip to St. Augustine, FL.