Hanukkah Sameach, everyone! I want to thank Julia Kelly for being an excellent co-blog hop organizer/partner-in-crime, as well as all of the amazing authors who are participating in the hop. I’ve had so much fun reading everyone’s stories!
To celebrate the first day of the festival of lights, I decided to write a short story featuring Sofie and Ivan, who are celebrating their first Hannukah together. It’s 1964 and the couple, who met during Freedom Summer, are learning that sometimes life’s biggest obstacle can be the one closest to you: your family. Sofie and Ivan’s full love story will be featured in a novella, Let It Shine, coming out in the summer of 2015—it’s part of a special project I’m working on with Lena Hart, Piper Huguley, and Kianna Alexander. More news on that in the new year, though. </suspense>
For now: enjoy!
Sofie placed the to-do list on the freshly scrubbed laminate of the kitchen counter. Like everything else in the small room, it was a bright, buttery yellow; something straight from the 1955 edition of House Beautiful magazine. She’d hated it when she and Ivan first moved in, but it was actually nice to come home to something cheery when the neighbors all gave you the cold shoulder. She wondered if it was the afro she was growing out; when she’d viewed the apartment, her hair had been straightened with a hot comb so that it was limp and lifeless, nonthreatening. People had only been mildly rude then, not openly hostile. Ivan joked that it was because he refused to do their taxes. They both knew the real reason.
She scanned the list, or rather the complex groupings of items, complete with headings, sublists, and footnotes. The orderly rows of fastidious handwriting made her feel in control, even when she was so nervous that she was sure she’d sweat through the pretty pink A-line dress she’d sewn specially for today. Under the heading HANNUKAH she’d written little notes that she could reference if she got too nervous: Maccabee story; oil is important; mitzvah (need definition); berakot (blessings) – l’hadlik, she-asah nisim, she-hekhianu; do not blow out the shamash; ask Ivan’s dad to touch his horns.
“Ivan!” she shouted in amused annoyance. He liked to make his own additions to her lists, especially when he knew her nerves were frayed.
He stepped out of their bedroom, still in the process of pulling his simple white t-shirt down over his muscular chest and abdomen. She caught a glimpse of smooth skin and a dark trail of hair, and then he tucked the shirt into his Levi’s. His black eyes honed in on her as he walked toward the kitchen. Maybe it was his crooked nose, broken countless times over the course of his boxing career, that gave his approach a thrilling hint of danger. Or the way his full lips pulled up into the kind of smile that usually ended with her bent over the arm of the couch, the kitchen sink, or the dining room table. Everywhere but the bed, which good girls like her had been taught was the only place for such activities. She knew better now.
Sofie had learned a lot of things since Ivan walked into the meeting of non-violent protestors at her college two years before, bruised and skeptical but determined to help. He’d changed from the angry little boy her mother had nicknamed Stubb, short for Stubborn, when she kept house for the Friedman’s so long ago; Sofie had changed from the little girl nicknamed Goody, too. She’d learned how to fight for what she wanted. How to be her authentic self. How to accept that life might never be easy for her and Ivan, but being together would be worth it.
Now, Ivan walked up and gripped the counter on either side of her, hemming her in. The old Sofie would have been embarrassed at the way he made her blush like a sinner at a church revival. The new Sofie was still embarrassed, but leaned her hips forward, loving the contact with his muscular thighs.
“I’ve told you not to tamper with my lists,” she said, holding his gaze. His hands still gripped the counter, but now they slid along the metal trim, both of them reaching her hips simultaneously. His hands briefly cupped her curves as they moved upward, and then encircled her waist. The weight of them resting there was just as potent as a caress, maybe more so; it was a silent reminder of everything he could do to her.
Ivan grinned, heedless of the chipped front tooth that he was usually embarrassed to reveal; she found it so endearing her heart hurt. “And I’ve told you that if you intend to make me sit through a Hanukkah dinner with both of our fathers, I’m going to need something to look forward to besides malevolent stares from one side of the table and blatant disapproval from the other. I get enough of those as it is.”
His hands began to make small smoothing motions over her hips, as if he were fixing her dress or contemplating taking it off. She never knew with him.
He lifted one shoulder. “I figure you can ask my dad if he has horns under his yarmulke, I can ask your dad if he wants some watermelon, and they’ll both be so mad about those put downs they’ll forget we’re living in sin. It’ll be a gas.”
She made an incredulous noise and pushed at his solid shoulder, which didn’t budge. “If you even breathe the word watermelon in front of my father, he’ll stick that menorah where the sun don’t shine so fast it’ll still be lit. And I’ll help him.”
“Weren’t you the one who talked me into the whole nonviolence thing?” he asked, brows raised.
“Violence is never the answer,” Sofie replied solemnly. “Unless you sass my daddy. Then I’ll have to put a hurtin’ on you.”
He laughed. “Okay, then. I guess I’ll use my endurance training to withstand the family fun we’ll have to sit through tonight.” His smile faded as he ducked his head and looked into her eyes. He ran one calloused knuckle over her jawline. “Sof? What’s wrong?”
“I’m…I’m nervous.” She knew Ivan was too, which accounted for his joking, but this was important to her. She wanted Ivan’s father to like her. She wanted her father to accept Ivan. She wanted to have the fun family gatherings she remembered from her childhood, before her mother passed away, not an acrimonious night where everyone merely tolerated one another. Was that not in the cards for her, just because she’d fallen in love with a Jewish brawler instead of an Alpha Phi Alpha?
Ivan looked down at her, that crushing tenderness that was so at odds with everything else about him etched onto his face. “Listen to me. I’ve watched you stare down an officer with a rifle pointed in your face. I’ve seen…” He paused, closed his eyes briefly. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “I’ve seen you take a punch from a full-grown man that might have knocked me on my ass. You didn’t cry, and you never flinched. You’re the bravest woman I know. One holiday dinner with our fathers? Piece of cake, baby.”
Sofie’s eyes heated with tears. “You’re going to mess-up my make-up, you schmoe.”
“See? You’ve got the Yiddish down already. Dad’ll welcome you to the tribe with open arms.” She leaned her forehead against his chest as she laughed. He smelled like Ivory Soap and starch, even if he didn’t act like a man who would. “As for your make-up; yeah, you’re gonna have to reapply it.”
“What?” When she looked up, his mouth was already on a collision course with hers. Their lips met and the same sweet explosion rocked her, the one that lit her up every time. She’d thought kissing the same man would get boring after months and years, but the press of Ivan’s pouty lips and the slide of his tongue just did it for her. His fingers inched her dress up her thighs.
“This’ll help with the nerves,” he said as he pressed her into the counter and began kissing his way down her neck.
His mouth trailing kisses toward her breasts was far from calming, but she tugged his t-shirt out of his jeans and ran her hands over the warm swath of skin he had flashed earlier. “I’m willing to give anything a try,” she said.
Hours later, Sofie retreated to the kitchen in defeat. She opened the door of the Big Chill fridge and contemplated crawling inside.
Mr. Friedman was distant and overly formal, to the point that he seemed almost angry at her. When she explained that she’d had the menorah shipped from New York City by a friend she’d met during the protests, he hadn’t reacted with delight, or even been impressed. Instead, he’d critiqued her placement of the candelabra, saying it wasn’t public enough, and had responded with a huff when she placed it in the front window, despite the risk to her curtains. When night fell, Ivan lit the shamash and invited his father to light the candle representing the first night of Hanukkah and to sing the berakot. Mr. Friedman had put him off. The shamash still burned alone, a flickering reminder that nothing she could do would please the man.
Her father was just as bad. Every attempt at conversation Ivan threw out was rebuffed, or somehow came back around to how her mother was rolling in her grave knowing her Sofie was living with a man who hadn’t asked her to be his wife. It never occurred to him that Sofie was the one who didn’t want to get married; despite her running off to join in the protests years before, in his eyes she was still the good, obedient daughter, and wasn’t marriage what all good girls wanted?
The two older men didn’t speak to each other at all, as if Sofie’s mother hadn’t worked for Mr. Friedman all those years ago. As if there weren’t so many important threads of their lives binding them together. Perhaps her father still resented the time he had lost with his wife to this family, and now he had to share his daughter with them, too.
She left the three men sitting in tense silence as she went to prepare the final part of the meal. She had been so looking forward to this particular aspect, experimenting with batch after batch while Ivan was at work until she had the recipe down pat. She remembered her mother doing the same thing when she started working for Mrs. Friedman, who had been a kind but exacting woman. If you couldn’t make latkes to her specifications, you had to go.
As Sofie pulled the schmaltz out of the fridge, having hidden it behind the okra where Ivan would never venture, she thought of the standoff in the living room and felt like all her preparation would come to naught. But then she remembered all the times she had almost let despair win the day. If giving up was the way to go, the Civil Rights Act wouldn’t have passed just that summer, beginning what was hopefully a brighter day for the children she and Ivan might one day have.
Sofie reached into the cabinet and pulled down the little plastic recipe box. Her name, Sofronia, was inscribed on the label in fading black ink. The handwriting was so similar to her own that it still threw her off at first sight, until she remembered it belonged to the woman who was little more than a patchwork quilt of memories and emotions: her mother.
She pulled out the recipe and stared at it for a moment. That this was in her possession was, in a small way, responsible for Ivan having come into her life. She gave the creased index card a kiss for luck before reading the instructions she had already committed to memory. Her movements were automatic now: she lit the tabletop range, placed the cast iron skillet on the flames, and added a healthy coating of schmaltz to the pan. She began spooning in the mix of grated potatoes, onion, and egg a dollop at a time, spreading it out into flat discs.
If this didn’t appease them, at least she could say she hadn’t gone down without a fight.
Things were no better when she bought out the platter of piping hot latkes. Ivan shot her a look of desperate relief when she came back into the room, and rushed to relieve her of the bowls of sour cream and applesauce she balanced precariously on each forearm.
“Happy Hanukkah,” he said quietly as he took the bowls from her and dropped a kiss on her temple. There was no sarcasm in his voice; he meant it.
They sat at the table, no one making eye contact. The dreidel lay unspun. The shamash flickered away at the center of the menorah, the lone candle on the rightmost side still unlit.
“Well, dig in!” she said in her bright hostess voice even though she was tense enough that her jaw was starting to cramp. The men began stuffing their mouths, seemingly happy to have something to do to end the awkward silence.
Ivan made a sound of pleasurable surprise when he bit into his first latke. For a moment she thought she had made some miscalculation: too many onions or too little salt or the schmaltz had gone bad. But when she glanced at him, he was regarding her with such adoration that it seemed too intimate for the dinner table. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were wide as he slowly chewed, savoring the taste.
“Sofie.” Mr. Friedman cleared his throat. His eyes were glossy beneath his shaggy brows when he looked her full in the face for the first time that night. With his defenses down and his brow unlined, the similarity between him and his son was remarkable. “This tastes like…” He paused and pressed his lips together.
“Your mother’s,” her dad said quietly at the same time Mr. Friedman rasped out, “My wife’s.”
There was a silence around the table. Sofie dropped her hand into the space between her and Ivan’s seat. His hand was waiting, as she knew it would be, and the sweet relief that coursed through her when his fingers slid between hers made her throat tight with emotion.
Mr. Friedman stood and walked toward the menorah. He lifted the shamash with trembling hands and began singing the first blessing in a soft but commanding voice as he lit the first candle of Hanukkah. “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…”
When Ivan’s deep voice joined his father’s, when her own father reached across the table for both of their hands and joined the blessing on the only word he could make out of the Hebrew—Amein—she finally understood what that term “mitzvah” meant. It was the kindness that allowed people to overcome all the differences society had erected as walls between them. It was a shared memory of love that could bridge what seemed to be an insurmountable gap. It was being surrounded by those that you cared about most, and knowing that, against all hardship, you were going to make it.
Thanks! I hope you enjoyed the story! Be sure to check out today’s other story, from Rebecca Grace Allen! And if you’re so inclied, you can view the entire list of authors, with links and descriptions of their stories, here.