| Calligraphy |

Truth or Dare

Emboldened, and hoping he didn’t sound bitter, Ephraim persisted. “Yeah, but everyone has family and memories, there’s something else here”


"In our family, first cousins are like siblings,” Chaya said, “you know, ’cuz of—”

“ ’Cuz of Buttercup Street,” Ephraim finished, and then felt a bit bad, because he knew he sounded mocking.

He wasn’t trying to mock. Memories, he knew well, were hard currency, valuable as cash.

She sat down, her face colored by nostalgia. “I mean, Shmuel Chaim was the one who got us to pick all those berries, our hands were scratched like you wouldn’t believe. My fingers were the color of raspberries until Succos. He convinced us we would sell them at the farmers’ market in Spring Glen and make enough money for us all to get new bikes.”

Ephraim arranged his face to look especially interested, even though he knew the story.

“Turned out that the farmers’ market wasn’t just open to anyone who wanted to set up shop, and after we walked three miles carrying the huge tray of raspberries, we had nowhere to sell them, and some kindly farmer said he’d buy the whole bushel for ten dollars.”

“Yeah, I hear,” Ephraim said. “Just I have PTA Monday and Tuesday night, and Thursday is night seder with the boys. Wednesday is my only night off that week, but if you really want to go to the wedding, we’ll do it.”

Chaya brightened. “Yes, family simchahs are important. I’ll get a babysitter and be ready to leave when you come home from learning.”

  

Wednesday night, Ephraim Krohman sat at the Rubinoff-Granger wedding in Lakewood (all weddings, he’d concluded glumly, until the arrival of Mashiach, would be in Lakewood. That was just the reality and everyone else would have to go along with it and spend their galus years on the Garden State Parkway, heavy traffic around Exit 153). He was at the Granger-cousins table, and inevitably Buttercup Road came up — Gavriel Landa, a first cousin, pushed away the pickles because he was allergic and Mendy Granger, who lived in Baltimore, said, “Oh, we know it, don’t we? Remember the pickle barrel at Templeton’s Store and how you passed out there?”

And like they always did, they politely shared the background to the story, allowing the others around the table to share in the great hilarity and special atmosphere of those magical years on Buttercup Road.

Memories, Ephraim reminded himself, are hard currency.

Even if he’d been to see the house and it didn’t seem quite so impressive in real life. Big, for sure, rambling, yes, but also sagging and peeling and sort of sad, to be honest.

He’d kept that assessment to himself, of course, because Chaya saw only the splendor. One Chol Hamoed, she’d suggested they drive all the way from Queens to the mountains, just so she could take the kids on a tour.

The door had been locked, but she’d swallowed hard and called Uncle Ronnie, who told her the back door would open if she pushed hard, and, with sunlight flooding her features, she’d led them all inside, her words coming out in a rush, like a broken faucet suddenly come to life.

“The dinner bell Grandpa liked to use, we could hear it out to the meadow and he would shake it until we all showed up. My cousin Mimi lost her tooth and it fell into this hole and we spent half the night looking and really her brother Benjy had found it and hid it but we were sure there were ghosts. We walked to the lake and forgot our towels — we were freezing, but the fireplace… wow…”

Ephraim had been a sport, laughing along, and the kids had certainly enjoyed the memories.

They didn’t have a country house. He and Chaya tried to take them out of hot Queens every summer — Niagara, Lake George, Lancaster — and that would create memories, too.

There was summer beyond Buttercup Road, no?

  

Once, at a bar mitzvah, Ephraim sat next to Danny Granger, Chaya’s first cousin. They were talking about the renewable energy business, and Danny made a cynical joke, apologizing that he didn’t sell on Amazon like everyone else, and Ephraim thought it might be a chance to make a cynical joke of his own about flipping real estate. The joke worked, so Ephraim doubled down and asked, “What’s up with Butternut Road stuff, like it was the only country house ever and no one else ever summered? I love your family, but it isn’t a bit much?”

(He never said Buttercup Road, it was either Buttercup Street or Butternut Road, his little rebellion at the relentless flood of memories.)

Danny squinted at him, even though they were sitting right near each other, then smiled gently.

“Ah, you ask good…. Listen, you get it. Family, memories, lots of stuff going on here.”

Emboldened, and hoping he didn’t sound bitter, Ephraim persisted. “Yeah, but everyone has family and memories, there’s something else here.”

He hoped he sounded contemplative and detached, as if he was talking to parents of a talmid and suggesting a touch of ADHD, no big deal, but Danny caught something else.

“Ephraim. Look, you got to understand. We didn’t all have the easiest childhoods. My parents were divorced at a time when no one’s parents were divorced. Your father-in-law… You know he wasn’t the easiest person, right?”

Danny studied him, and, comfortable with what he saw, he continued. “Uncle Ronnie was on the fast track to success, completely immersed in college and then his career, and Uncle Dovid was always sick, so ten months a year, life was complicated for all the kids. There wasn’t that much to celebrate, but the summers were our time. Lots of kids didn’t have grandparents back then, but our grandparents were American and they had been going to the Catskills forever and they were determined to give us those summers. They bought that house in Ellenville and we would all pack in, cousins and more cousins — for two months a year, we were the privileged ones, the ones other people were jealous of. It was like having fifteen siblings and Grandpa and Grandma were the two loving parents. Then we went back home.”

Ephraim swallowed, and since the person to Danny’s left looked poised to slide over and join them, Ephraim asked if they could step outside. “I really want to hear more,” he said. “Don’t stop.”

Danny cast a longing look at his bowl of mushroom-barely soup, but he got up and followed Ephraim into the lobby.

“You know, Grandpa and Grandma had some money, none of our parents did. Once upon a time, ‘Leonard and Betty Granger’ was a thing.” Danny laughed, a bit uneasily.

This was true. Over the years, Ephraim had seen plaques in different shuls and yeshivos noting the donation of Leonard and Betty Granger. When Ephraim had been a chassan, the rosh yeshivah had told him about going to the coat factory for money. “To see an American’eh Yid with hasagos was a chiddush. A varmeh Yid,” the rosh yeshivah said. “Your kallah has zechus avos.”

“In the summer, in that huge house, we ran around with a million cousins, feeling Grandma’s love and Grandpa’s… I don’t know, solidness? And we were okay. It was special.”

“So I guess that’s the whole story,” Danny concluded, self-conscious again as people started a minyan for Maariv around them, encircling them as if they were the bimah. “The long and short of it.”

Ephraim nodded. “Memory is real,” he said in his rebbi voice. “Hard currency, for sure.”

  

On Chanukah, the menorah fell over and the wooden shtender almost caught fire, but Levi pulled it away in time and that made Chaya remember when they were roasting marshmallows in the yard on Buttercup Road and some twigs caught fire and her cousin Mendy had jumped up so fast and gotten the hose, even before anyone else chapped what happened, and put it out and that whole summer they called him Fireman Mendy and it was pretty funny that now he was on Hatzalah — did the kids remember him? He lived in Baltimore?

Ephraim closed his eyes and imagined his wife as an eleven-year-old girl, the safety of summertime in Ellenville threated by those errant sparks, and her cousin rising to the save the day. Heroism, takeh.

For two months, we were the privileged ones.

Over midwinter break, he took the kids snow tubing and the chalet had a wraparound porch that caused Chaya to remember the house on Buttercup with the porch that never ended and how on Motzaei Shabbos, they would play hide and seek till all hours, her cousin Malka setting up mirrors at each corner of the house so they could spy.

The privileged ones.

And when a parent sent a gift of a large, potted plant (weird, but not as weird as the electric drill someone had given Rabbi Honig or worse, the gym membership presented to Rabbi Baldinger), Chaya remembered the huckleberry bush in Ellenville and how the plumber from town insisted that the small bluish berries were medicine and could cure any illness, and once, he’d swallowed a whole handful and then made a muscle, as if to show how vigorous he was. What a great joke that had been, Grandpa suggesting they “take some huckleberry medicine, like Wally showed you,” if any of them got hurt.

  

Deep in the winter, the ad appeared on FrumClassified.com and in a local Five Towns newspaper.

Someone in the extended Granger family noticed it and forwarded it to someone else, and it ended up on Chaya’s siblings chat.

Large, beautiful home in Ellenville, New York, for sale. Walking distance to shul. Needs TLC, rich past as family estate/rich future. On 1.3 acres, large pond, nature lover’s heaven, magical view. Call Marianne@Remax…

One of the cousins had called the broker who confirmed that yes, it was 27 Buttercup Road. The cousin had called Uncle Ronnie, finally, who didn’t even apologize.

He didn’t have to. He was Grandpa and Grandma’s only surviving child, and during the first few years, the cousins had continued to share the house. The Landas had their room, with the life jacket that sat in the closet from year to year. The Queens Grangers had the basement with three bedrooms, and the Canarsie Grangers had their World Encyclopedia in the living room. It worked, Shabbos a happy jumble of foods and recipes and Aunt Judy’s cholent that they talked about all year long.

But then there was the first flood and Uncle Ronnie sighed and took care of it. The coat factory had been sold for parts, small little trickles of yerushah flowing this way and that, but Buttercup had become a liability.

Uncle Ronnie lived in Florida (the only one of his generation to make a real living, according to Chaya’s father), and he carried the house alone for years, paying the taxes and maintenance, enjoying a long weekend each summer and letting the rest of them come by for a week here and there.

But then came the second flood and then there was a problem with the wiring and Uncle Ronnie announced his intention to let the whole thing go. It was before email was a big deal and he sent a letter to every one of the grandchildren that he couldn’t do it anymore, and he was planning to sell it, and of course he would share whatever profit there was after he was reimbursed for years of expenses. But he never advertised it and cousin Eli Landa drove by in August and saw Uncle Ronnie on the porch and all such talk was forgotten until now, when Uncle Ronnie was already retired and planning to make aliyah and enough was enough.

Chaya showed Ephraim the ad and he smiled sadly, with what he hoped was an appropriate mix of empathy and understanding.

There was another ad in late March. “Open house, priced to sell, Sunday April 18th, from 11:00 – 4:30 p.m. Buy now and have it ready for this summer!” and again, it was passed around from cousin to cousin.

  

At 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 18th, Marianne from Remax parked her green Honda CRV outside the house on Buttercup Road — the more cars outside, the better it would look. Avi Granger, on behalf of his father, came in from Woodmere to preside over things.

At Marianne’s insistence, they had invested in a paint job — “a few thousand dollars that will add tens of thousands in curb appeal.” Marianne had arranged for a gardener to clean out the yard, and two rockers, personal property of Marianne Colby, graced the front porch. The windows had been cleaned, but the apple-pie thing, Marianne confided to the seller, was a myth, and the smell of fresh country air was just as appealing, no reason to overdo it.

Avi Granger himself appeared to be all business, but his wife, Aliza, knew differently. He was running his hand up the wood-paneled wall in the basement and telling her about Grandpa’s annual talent show: Grandpa himself did a Koussevitzky imitation and he, little Avi, had thrown darts at a board positioned right here, where his hand rested right now.

The doors were set to open at 11:00 and by 10:45, cars lined both sides of Buttercup Road. Marianne peered through the newly cleaned windows and said it was a good sign, a very good sign.

At 10:55, the first visitors came in. “Yeah, we know we’re early, but you know what they say about the early bird,” the heavyset man with a goatee and floppy hat said. “Let’s roll.” He rubbed his hands together and instantly made Avi nervous.

By eleven thirty the house was buzzing and the buffet breakfast set up by Noshin’ Right was almost gone and Marianne was giddy. There were several potential buyers and a few who were very interested. She told this to Aliza, because Avi had gone out to the woods in the back to breathe.

Just after twelve, an Odyssey with a Proud Tiferes Yosef Parents bumper sticker parked at the corner. It was a full two minutes before the doors opened and a couple walked slowly up the block. Within half an hour, a red Sienna with Maryland plates pulled up and before one, two more minivans arrived.

Aliza texted her husband. A bunch of ur cousins are here, like some kind of party. Pls come back.

Then she started a new text. Doesn’t look like they’re here to buy. Weird, no?? But she deleted it.

  

Marianne was dealing with the Levi family from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, who’d always wanted a place in the country. Harold Levi had been a waiter at the old Nevele every summer as a teenager and this place brought back great memories. He could do cash too, he whispered.

Aliza was sitting with an intense couple from Monsey who wanted to open a small school for struggling teenage girls and had serious funding behind them. This looked like a great option.

Avi was in the basement with a small crowd of Grangers, Landas, Krohmans, and Schiffs. Elchanan Granger from Kensington was imitating Grandpa’s Havdalah and there was loud laughter, which startled a young chassidishe woman who’d been checking out the laundry room in the basement, thinking this might be just the home for her family.

“Remember Mrs. Schmidt, Grandma’s friend?” Chaya Krohman asked, leading to a new burst of hilarity, Devorah Gittel Schiff from Jackson actually falling on the floor as her husband, a mild-mannered accountant, looked around uncertainly.

Ephraim Krohman was taking it all in, things falling into place in his mind with a near audible clicking sound. It was a regular teaching day for him, before Pesach no less, but Chaya had never before asked him to take off: She’d gone to the hospital to give birth while he taught, but this was different, she said.

They all wanted one last look. One last touch. One last soak in the memories, before Uncle Ronnie did what he was entitled to do. This one was for Chaya.

Her sisters were all going to the open house too, and most of the cousins. The house had been locked forever and, after today, it would be gone forever too, so it was just these few hours, between eleven and four, that they would have the chance.

Dovi Landa opened the creaky door to the boiler room and came out with a boat paddle, a Sullivan County Fair cap, and an inflatable tube.

He waved the tube, blue-and-yellow stripes and the words King of the Rapids printed across the face, and asked, “Who remembers Truth or Dare?”

It was quiet for just a moment, and then it seemed like ten voices answered at once.

Esther Weingarten, who had money and actually owned a summer home in one of the fancy places in Fallsburg, was loudest, and she pointed to the tube.

“Yes, I remember that so well, Eli had to wear the tube over his clothing, all the way to Templeton’s and back, because he lost. He cheated, though — he walked through the woods instead of on the main road, so no one really saw him.”

“Oh, I remember those games… every single time it rained.” Elchanan Granger was wiping his eyes. “Tzvi lost, remember, he wouldn’t answer the question if he’d ever blamed another kid for something he did, and you gave the dare to Dovi. He had to bang on the table in shul and scream yaaleh v’yavo, even though it wasn’t Rosh Chodesh. Grandpa was upset about that, he said shul wasn’t a joke.”

It got quiet again, because Tzvi lived in Eretz Yisrael and was a sofer now and the whole thing was hard to imagine. Also, it was rare for Grandpa to get mad, but this was something that would have upset him, they all agreed.

“Avi always came up with the best dares,” Chaya remembered. “We were scared, but we also took ‘dare’ just to see what he would come up with.”

Aliza Granger came down the stairs then, and it got a bit uncomfortable, a reminder of the world upstairs, where Marianne from Remax was listening, answering, reassuring, and encouraging. Yes, for sure, a stone fountain back there would be lovely.

Avi looked at his wife. Aliza smiled politely at all the cousins, and said, “Hey, I didn’t mean to interrupt the game here, it looks like fun.”

But the moment had passed, and Dovi Landa said he should probably go give another look in the shed in the back to see if there were any seforim there.

Ephraim Krohman, who had not been part of this family during the Ellenville years and still found the house a bit disheveled looking, was speaking to Avi Granger, who looked very serious.

“Wait,” Avi suddenly said, “wait a minute. I like it, Ephraim. Hey, everyone, listen up. I want to play Truth or Dare.”

He looked at Aliza again, and something passed between them. She nodded, and he relaxed.

“Okay, I’m skipping the question and going straight to dare,” Avi said, “and the person I’m daring is all of us. Everyone here.”

He looked around the basement, the sagging ping-pong table and hand-crafted dollhouse and faded blue couch with the flowers on the arms, the bookcase with The Collected Teachings of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch and Magic for Beginners and the tilted globe, the Bud Light sign that was meant to light up but was missing the bulbs, and the faces — faces of people, his people, Grandpa and Grandma’s people — all around.

“My father is asking three-seventy, just to cover what he put out here over the years, and the house needs another hundred or so just to make it livable and safe again. Now, I dare each of you to come up with fifteen thousand dollars.” He looked around again, calculating. “And ask your siblings who aren’t here to do the same. That will cover the renovations. Then, I dare myself to go call my father and speak to him about his parents and what they would want and what they stood for, and get him to give up on the sale, to leave it be. I’ll take care of the realtor, and we send everyone home and get to work on this place.”

He looked around again, and he stopped at Chaya Krohman. “I dare Chaya to take the job of coordinating summers, every family should be able to get some time here, we have about ten families and the house easily accommodates three families at once. No reason this can’t work.”

Chaya Krohman spoke first. She exhaled, as if she hadn’t been breathing, and she spoke crisply. “Dare accepted,” she said. She turned to her husband and flashed a grateful smile.

Aliza Granger was beaming at her husband and Elchanan Granger, still the best imitator, did Grandpa again.

“Bah-beque on Sunday after Shabbos Nachamu,” he called out, “and I’d good and well better see every last one of ya.”

Oneofya. One word, like Grandpa would have said it.

For a moment, it was like Grandpa was back, and Ephraim Krohman felt something inside of him soften, and he looked over at his wife, the look of pure pleasure on her face, and even as he felt left out, he had never felt more in.

Privileged people.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)

Oops! We could not locate your form.