Ephraim knew they were his cousins. But he’d prefer they didn’t exist, really
phraim was ten years old. He loved playing soccer, riding his bike, playing chess with his brother Bentzi, and collecting snails when the weather was right. He was a regular frum kid, growing up in a regular frum neighborhood, and he had a regular frum family.
Most of the time.
“Hi, Ephi!” Mommy greeted Ephraim as he wandered into the kitchen late one wintery afternoon. The kitchen was warm, steam condensed on the window framed with the cheerful pink curtains. Mommy was cooking, and a yummy smell filled the cozy kitchen.
“Hi, Ma,” Ephi said as he came over to the counter to see what Mommy was making. Thunder rumbled outside, background noise to the sound of his sisters playing in the den and a pot bubbling on the stove. “Yum, meatballs,” Ephi inhaled deeply. “Thanks, Ma.”
“I want to tell you something,” Ma said, and Ephi frowned. That wasn’t good. When it was something good, Mommy looked happy and she usually said, “Guess what?”
“What?” he said.
“You know Chanukah is next week,” Mommy said.
“Right, of course I know.”
“So, this year Chanukah coincides with my family’s midwinter vacation, and they’re coming for a few days.”
When Mommy said “my family,” she didn’t mean their family of Ma, Ta, Ephi, Bentzi, and the girls. She meant her parents, Grandma and Grandpa, and her sister, and her sister’s kids. Who, Ephraim knew, were his cousins. But he’d prefer they didn’t exist, really.
“All of them?” Ephraim squeaked.
“Not Grandma and Grandpa,” Mommy said quickly. “Just Aunt Molly, Uncle Jeff, Laura, and Ryan.”
“For how long?” Ephraim asked, dread curdling in his stomach like sour milk.
“Just three days,” Mommy said. “Then they’re going to LA for the rest of winter break.”
“Just three days?” Ephi repeated. “That’s… that’s a long time.”
A long time for Molly and Jeff and Laura and Ryan to hang around his house. A long time to share his room with Ryan, his nine-year-old cousin. A long time to put up with all the differences between the families and a long time to put up with Molly’s family’s questions. A long time to remember that he didn’t come from a regular frum family, after all.
“It’s not so long,” Ma said firmly, “and it’s a privilege to have family.”
“Not that kind of family,” Ephi mumbled under his breath, but Mommy heard him. “Excuse me?” she said, her eyebrows shooting up to her snood. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing!” Ephi turned and stomped out of the kitchen. This was going to be one whopper of a Chanukah.
Aunt Molly, Uncle Jeff, Laura, and Ryan showed up with knapsacks, two suitcases, and a lot of noise and laughter. Ephraim’s mother looked positively thrilled and was giggling with Molly within minutes. Ephraim managed a weak smile. He waved weakly at Ryan, who scowled back. Ah, so Ephraim wasn’t the only one who wasn’t too happy with the situation.
“Ephi, show Ryan your room,” Ma said cheerfully as she swooped down and gave Laura a hug. Six-year-old Laura squirmed away, but she was smiling. “Laura, come sweetheart, you’ll be staying with the girls in their room. We bought you a gorgeous set of princess linen to use while you’re here!” Ma showed Uncle Jeff and Aunt Molly to the guestroom and then headed to the girls’ room, Laura trotting behind her. Ephraim and Ryan were left in the now-silent foyer.
“Hi,” Ephraim tried again. He was the host, and he knew it was his job to make Ryan feel comfortable, even though he didn’t feel too comfortable himself.
Ryan scowled again and kicked at the carpet with his sneaker. “Hi, yourself,” he muttered.
“Wanna put your stuff down?” Ephraim asked, awkwardly.
Okay, then. Ephraim started walking towards his room. “Well, I’ll show you your bed, and then you can decide whether you want to put your stuff there or keep on holding it. Whatever floats your boat.”
Ryan snorted and followed Ephraim up the stairs. Yup, Ephi thought. Off to an excellent start.
At first, Ephraim ignored the ache in his stomach. But it became a little harder to ignore when he was trying to set up the candles in his menorah. He started feeling more and more queasy and before he knew it, he was vomiting up his lunch all over the table, the chair, and his shirt. Ma came running, his sisters and Laura squealed and ran out of the room, pinching their noses, and Ephi felt miserable.
After Ephraim showered and changed into cozy pajamas, Ma settled him on the couch with a blanket, a pillow, and a glass of seltzer. “Take small sips, it will help soothe your stomach,” she said. Ephraim groaned.
The rest of the night went by in a blur. Ephi slept while Tatty lit the menorah. He woke up to the sounds of a lively dreidel game, but fell back asleep quickly. He eyed the doughnuts and latkes being served at dinner, but found he had no appetite at all. And then, a few minutes later, he was throwing up again. Ma helped him clean himself up and took him to bed.
The next morning, Ryan started throwing up, too. Both boys lay in their beds, sleeping, tossing and turning. Both mothers came in and out of the room with tea, toast, thermometers, paper towels, and encouraging words. “I feel so gross,” Ephraim moaned. “The worst,” Ryan agreed. But they didn’t have much energy to say more than that.
By the time it was time to light the menorah, both boys were feeling well enough to go downstairs and watch. Ephraim watched his father make the brachos and light the candles. Then Uncle Jeff did the same, reading the words of the brachos slowly, haltingly. “Ephraim? How about you? You up to lighting tonight?” Ma asked.
Ephraim felt a bit wobbly, but he nodded. “Yeah.” He heaved himself off the couch and swallowed some lingering nausea. He said the brachos, lit the candles, and watched the flickering flames.
“Ryan? Want to light?” Ma’s voice was gentle.
Ryan was watching from the couch. Ephraim turned to look at his cousin. His cheeks were red and flushed, and in his glassy eyes, Ephi could see the reflection of the bright candles. “Sure,” he said. Ephraim went over to him and held out his hand. Ryan grabbed onto him and Ephraim helped him stand up.
Ryan took the candle Ma offered him. Ephraim’s father said the brachos with him, word by word. Ryan repeated the unfamiliar sounds, tripping over them, and lit the candles. Both boys fell back onto the couch, exhausted. Everyone else settled around the room to watch the candles and sing.
“Remember lighting when we were kids?” Ma asked Aunt Molly.
“Of course!” Aunt Molly exclaimed. She got a far-away look in her eyes. “Grandpa Isaac would come. He’d light that big, brass menorah and chant the blessings. Then he’d give us all chocolate coins. How could I forget?”
“I wonder where that menorah is today?” Ma said.
“Lost to the winds of time, I suppose,” Molly replied. “But not the memories.”
“No, not the memories.” Ma was quiet, pensive.
Ephraim didn’t know everything about his mother’s past. But as he watched her gazing at the dancing candles, he remembered a story she liked to tell. It happened when she was in university, unattached and unconnected to Yiddishkeit. And then one wintry night, on campus, she’d seen the flickering flames of a Chanukah menorah in a window. And, childhood memories leaping to life inside her, she’d knocked. She’d stumbled upon the Hillel house, where she’d met other Jewish students. Eventually, she had started attending classes about Judaism, and eventually, she’d landed in a seminary in Eretz Yisrael. And, Ephraim knew, the rest of the story included his father, and him, and their family. And their Yiddishkeit.
As the others started a somewhat off-key rendition of Maoz Tzur, Ephraim looked back over at Ryan. His gaze was still focused on the candles. Ephraim wondered what he was thinking.
But he knew, suddenly, that it didn’t really matter. ‘Cause these memories, these bright little flames, and the sweet doughnuts and shiny, gold-wrapped chocolate gelt, the perfectly-fried latkes… they’d be there, somewhere deep inside of Ryan.
Maybe one day, Ryan would remember them. And maybe one day, he’d want to learn more.
Ephraim looked at his cousin again, and the thought hit him like a wick catching fire: I am his connection. Reaching out, Ephi tapped Ryan’s arm. “Feeling any better?” he asked.
“Yeah, a lot better,” Ryan said, tearing his eyes away from the window where all the tiny flames flickered and danced.
“Me, too,” Ephraim said. “I’m really glad. That was pretty awful.”
Both boys sat there quietly.
“Maybe tomorrow we’ll be all better, and we can play a board game? We have some good ones.”
Ryan met Ephraim’s eyes. “Sounds good,” he said.
“Deal,” Ephi said, holding out his hand. “Deal,” Ryan repeated, and they shook on it.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 941)
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