Seeing Rico| December 20, 2022
Babby promptly hired Rico the Clown for our Chanukah party
Back in the day when there were only three kinds of doughnuts (shudder-inducing custard, unnaturally vivid jelly, and plain), we used to have our Chanukah parties in my grandparents’ dining room. There’d be the usual fare: bagels and lox, lasagna, and blintzes. Sometimes there was soup (maybe a savory tomato soup with fermented cabbage), sometimes there was szilvas gomboc (a jam-stuffed dumpling coated in bread crumbs), but there was always a multilayered, chocolate-frosted dreidel cake for dessert.
We’d try to get there early to catch a game of dreidel with my grandfather and to hear him tell the latest adventures of Kiki and Lala. My mother and aunts would join my grandmother in the kitchen, while the teens would mill around, dissolving easily into laughter. Eventually we’d migrate to the table where conversations would splinter off according to age group. As the cousins chatted, the adult conversation drifted our way, punctuated by Hungarian phrases.
The party was most often at night, but for some reason no one remembers anymore, when I was 13, the party took place on Sunday afternoon. Because it was scheduled for daytime rather than night, the party was going to run a few hours longer than usual, and my grandmother was concerned that her toys wouldn’t sufficiently entertain the kids for such an extended period of time.
Cousin Mirca suggested she hire a clown.
She showed my grandmother the ad she’d seen in the Jewish Press, and Babby promptly hired Rico the Clown for our Chanukah party.
When Rico arrived, all of us followed him out of the dining room down to the family room where he was set to perform. In my memory, Rico was a young man in his twenties; my mind created a hazy backstory for him — a struggling student working as a clown as a side hustle to earn some extra cash. But my mother remembers him as older, maybe in his fifties or sixties. Definitely Jewish. Initially, I couldn’t recall the show at all; I was sure I’d chosen not to attend. But my sister Zisi confirmed I was there (she’d sat on my lap) and she reminded me how four-year-old cousin Rivky told Rico she was 14. Rivky remembers Rico, too. She remembers his first trick of the day — telling Babby upon arrival that he was at the wrong house, and then walking away. She also remembers how he shaped a newspaper into a cone and told my sister Mindy he’d pour a cup of milk onto her head. But when he poured the milk, it never spilled out. As we shared details, a murky recollection arose in my mind, and I began to remember a clown twisting balloons into animal shapes.
Memory is funny like that. While the mists of time hang over some of these details, the rest remains clear.
When the hour was over, Rico came upstairs, followed by all the children. The stairs in my grandparents’ home led directly into the dining room, and that’s where Rico stood when Babby paid him. She was a people person, my grandmother, and she began chatting with him.
I imagine as they were talking, Rico must’ve glanced at the table, still heavy with food, because my grandmother told him, “I’m going to pack up some food for you to take home.”
Rico protested, but she dismissed his words, and went to the kitchen. I looked at Rico, saw his discomfort, and I felt discomfort, too, imagining he did not want our food. Babby emerged with a big brown paper bag full of food. Rico took it, thanked her, and was gone.
“Why did you give him the food?” one of the kids asked. “He said he didn’t want any.”
“He was hungry,” said Babby. “I know that look from the ghetto.”
A hungry look, I remember thinking, and I conjured Rico up in my mind, trying to home in on which of his features gave it away.
“It was his eyes,” Babby said, as if she heard my unspoken thoughts.
What a thing it must be to recognize hunger in someone else because you yourself have experienced it. And what a thing, too, to say, despite protestation, “Here, let me give you some of what we have.”
Every year as we light our menorahs, we chant the brachos and songs in the same tunes I heard as a child and I am surrounded by memories of past Chanukahs. Maybe it’s the reflection of the menorahs in the window, one after the other, a visual echo of light, that send me straight back to the past.
As I look at the flames burning bright and tall, I remember how my grandmother looked at Rico and saw him, really saw him. The flames waver and spark, almost as if they whisper to each other. I wonder what memories flicker within them. I wonder if I can really see them.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 823)
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