Left to right: Leonard and Evelyn Pasternack; Bubbles and Gerald Rotstein
My mother and her two best friends, Evelyn and Bubbles, were inseparable. They knew each other as young wives in Chicago, having been introduced by their husbands who went to high school together. In the photo, Leonard is leaning in toward Evelyn, his wife. He’s smoking a Lucky Strike and smiling for the photographer.
A number ‘2’ sits on their table, perhaps signifying their turn to be photographed. It’s a fancy restaurant and I strain my eyes to find a hint that might lead me to its name or location, but all I notice is part of an ‘S’ on the wall behind Leonard, which doesn’t answer my questions.
They were still carefree. Only Teddy, Leonard’s oldest son, had been born when the photo was taken.
I remember coming home from grammar school and finding the ladies, my mother, Evelyn, Bubbles, and Ruthie (another friend introduced to the suburban mahjongg clique). They sat around our game table in the den, each with a card of various numbers in front of them and colors arranged like a secret code. They had Bakelite burgundy-brown and cream racks filled with ivory pieces. The click of red dice and tossed tiles filled the room as they shouted out mysterious names like “Four Crak! Three Bam! Eight Dot!” The game lasted until a winner announced, ‘Mahjongg’
I’d walk into the room and let the women hug me while they complemented my long thick ponytail, school outfit, and how much I’d grown. I’d pick at the cashews and eat all the toffee and chocolate-covered turtles sitting in porcelain candy dishes while listening to their gossip about people I didn’t know. They had a sense of familiarity with each other, like an inside joke that only they were privy to.
What they didn’t know that night at the restaurant is that Evelyn would have two more sons, Gerry, who played the drums, and Joel, the youngest and most mischievous, or that Bubbles would have a daughter, Lori, with hair the color of night, and a son, Fred, who would later care for their ailing parents. They didn’t know that Evelyn, my mother’s dear friend, would be diagnosed with lymphoma and die at the age of forty-five while her children were still young. That Lorraine, my mother, at age 73 would celebrate Passover with friends and on her way back to the car be struck down by an erratic driver as her husband of 52 years looked on in shock.
Left to right: Lorraine Lewis, Shelly Esko, Iriving Lewis, Ruth Esko
I gaze at the photo of my mother laughing–it’s a wide contagious smile and a healthy blush. They didn’t have a clue then about the Esko-Lewis breakup that would last forever or know how much Ruth Esko would mourn the loss of her dear friend Lorraine for the remainder of her years or what caused the riff between the families.
They didn’t know then that I would become a nurse and a writer who wrote about old photographs. They never knew my talent for sleuthing beginning in my thirties—a proclivity for bringing ghosts back to life with a clearer understanding of who they were and what influences they left behind. If only I appreciated their presence as a young child. If only I had talked with them about their lives. Maybe then I wouldn’t miss them so much.
From the time I became a teenager, I couldn’t wait to escape my home and be on my own. I wanted to be born again. I wanted to be new. I felt trapped and needed my own life without everyone’s stories in it–one that gave me a clean break from where I came from.
Now I crave for a deeper understanding of my earlier existence with the people who I ran away from.
I study the photo once more. I look at Gerald sitting next to Bubbles, looking like a hero in his army jacket. Bubbles, with her blue-black hair, tanned face and slender legs, always dressed exotically–always in the latest fashions looking like a movie star.
My eyes focus on Evelyn and I wonder why she never let on that she was ill. If I close my eyes, I can hear her voice asking me, “How was school today? Come over and give me a big hug.” Then she’d cup my face with her delicate hands, pinch my cheek and say, “You get cuter every day.”
As much as the couples were different, they were also similar.
Both Leonard and my father were devastated after their wives died. They were lost. Their spouses doted on them for years–cooking, shopping, and helping them choose the right suit or tie to wear. The two men were lonely widowers. They both married their secretaries within a year–women who were young enough to be daughters. Women who were childless alcoholics who distanced the men from their children.
They have all passed away—only the children are left. Some of us get together for dinners, sharing appetizers and talking about our parents, their friendships, quirks, and secrets like the collection of fortunes from Chinese cookies stashed in a kitchen drawer. Or a needlepoint my mother gave Ruthie after her death which her son found with my mom’s obituary taped to the back of the frame. Or the fact that Leonard was a great photographer later in life and that my mother and Ruthie’s friendship broke up in later years because of a rift between the husbands.
We sit around a large game table examining photos we have sorted through—studying them with the same concentration one has before taking an exam. Snacking on chocolates and cashews, we laugh, wanting to uncover, remember, and resurrect our loved ones.