I jerk my head at the sound of my name, but continue to gaze out of our townhouse window at the twinkling Christmas lights which litter the houses of the block.
“Francine! We need to get to the synagogue in five minutes.” I sigh and stand up, trying to wipe the wrinkles out of my faded dress in vain.
“Francine, if you don’t come right now, we’ll leave without you!”
Carefully I restrain myself from calling down, “Wish you would!” Instead I grab my necklace with the tiny golden Star of David on the thin thread chain and race down the stairs.
When I get there, my entire family is gathered in our kitchen. Samantha, my elder sister, is staring at her own reflection in the mirror above the table, making minor adjustments to her newly styled dress and hair, Mama hovering dotingly above her. In a different corner, I see Papa kneeling down to fix the yarmulke, curiously askew on my wriggling brother’s head. I jump down off the last step and wait for the reprimand.
“Frankie!” Mama squeals as she rushes to my side, tugging on my dress. “This won’t do! It’s too short!” She looks down at my feet. “Those shoes!”
I look down at my favorite, worn-out, comfortable, green, and red converse sneakers. They are a bit eccentric and clash nicely with my old dark velvet dress. They have just enough space for my feet to move and enough holes for them to breathe. The perfect footwear for any occasion.
“What’s wrong with these, Ma?” I say, putting a defiant hand on my hip.
“Those shoes!” Mama whines. “Why always those shoes?”
I make no move, so the argument is over. I have won.
Mama looks at her watch. “We’re late! Let’s go.”
I can’t focus at all at the service. My mind drifts as easily as the flakes of snow which gracefully fall to blanket the synagogue roof above my head. I look down over the rail in front of me to the main floor at the men are singing a celebratory prayer. They sing loudly so their words can travel through the ceiling all the way to God’s open ears; to welcome Chanukah, the celebration of lights. I look further into the crowd until my eyes come to rest on the covered heads of my father and brother. Meticulously, Papa is following each word in his prayer book with his finger. He is teaching Bernie the ways of the laws and the men. Women are only ever able to observe, leaving Mamma, Sam, and me to sit on the balcony above. I glance over at my mother and sister. They are both sitting with heads bowed in prayer. As usual, I am the one left behind.
I didn’t want to be sitting in a stuffy synagogue. I wanted to be out watching the snow fall and the lights twinkle. I wanted to watch the Gentiles as they bustled about with their own celebration. Christmas.
We didn’t have Santa in our house. He was nothing but a “dirty gentile money-maker.” Christmas has always been a sore subject for Mama. When our neighbors decorate for Christmas every year, she mocks them and curses their ugly lights, gaudy figurines, and loud carols. Winter has always been filled with spite from my mother for other cultures that, according to her, don’t appreciate ours. But for me…
“Frankie.” A hoarse whisper penetrates through my reverie and my mother’s face comes into view. “Where is your head?”
At home I run up the stairs to my room and slam the door. I kick off my shoes and pull my dress over my head. In the corner next to my bed there is a small closet. I open the door and sit in my shorts and T-shirt looking in. I stare at my tree, a small pine branch I have propped up behind my hanging clothes. It is pitiful in the dark, decorated with small paper chains and only lit by the light coming through from the street. I lift my necklace over my head and hang it on a branch.
“Frankie! Come watch Papa light the Shamash!”
I stay where I am and I dream.
~ Ariel Mitchell, Gibson Island, Maryland