I was lighting the candles for the last night of Chanukah, The Festival of Lights, when this memory plunked into my consciousness. Plunked with such Maccabean might that I dropped the candle setting a Chanukah card on fire. Unfortunately for my neighbors, the flaming card set off the smoke detector. A saner head than mine pulled the glass of wine out of my hand before I fully reenacted the family saga of celebratory mishaps.
“Hah, I am my mother’s daughter. There is a genetic memory of Yes you are repeating what your mother did and probably her mother and her mother’s mother before her …
On the remembered Friday night, Mom, beautiful and hard to forget with her bright red hair and twinkling blue eyes, was wearing a powder blue dress, probably highly flammable. It was the seventies. I wore a hair band. The family had been to IHOP for dinner (a Friday night tradition) and we were ready to pray in temple (Jewish synagogue). Mom was lighting the Sabbath candles on the Bimah (synagogue stage) when the event happened.
It had been a good night with minimal fighting among the siblings. No one was expecting what happened next. I was sitting in the last row of seats with my sister and brother. No major faux pas had occurred like the time my sister let one rip in the middle of a sermon or the time my brother fell asleep tumbling out of the row into the center aisle with a soul-shaking clunk or the time I tripped in Mom’s borrowed heels inadvertently performing the Heimlich anti-choking maneuver to hurl scrambled eggs and pancakes over the entire row. You get the idea. Mine is a long line of the etiquette challenged.
Back to my memory, Mom was standing on the Bimah about to light the last candle on the Shabbat menorah (think ornate candelabra) when her sleeve caught fire on an already flaming candle. Trying to pat it out with a certain je ne sais quoi, she knocked the candle out of her hand. The lit candle sailed end over end to pole vault over the waist high gate separating the people on the Bimah from the rabble. The flaming missile arced towards the new burgundy carpet. Not quite shag. Flammable. Near the audience (congregation).
A little curl of smoke started up towards the ceiling. Mom’s eyes got very wide. The periwinkle blue polyester of her dress smoldered. My sister nudged me in the ribs. I sat up straight. Paid attention. My little brother snorted.
The curl ate the nylon carpet in a zigzag pattern turning into a flame zipping around the Bimah. I thought, Ah, a burnt sacrifice. Mom was yelling, “Oops, please somebody do something,” in her perfect British boarding school voice used only in situations of I am in so much shit or You are in so much shit.
The President of the temple rushed down from the Bimah into the fire. He stamped and stamped. The head of the religious school came over to spit on the fire. The fire continued despite the stamping and spitting. My mother threw the ceremonial wine on the spiritual fire. Poof. The President’s tie caught on fire. By my count, two people and one carpet were on fire. One woman was out of spit. I sucked in my gut trying not to laugh too conspicuously. With a unified Oy Vey, people in the front pews hastily moved towards the back of the sanctuary.
At the point when it looked like either the fire department or a miracle was called for, the Rabbi pulled a fire extinguisher from under the podium. With a few oaths unseemly for a spiritual leader, he jumped over the gate and sprayed the fire into submission. The Rabbi turned to the congregation.
“Please be seated. Let us continue with our service on page … “ he said motioning my mother off the Bimah where she was never asked to perform another thing, read another line, or get anywhere near an open flame on synagogue grounds.
Then the sprinklers turned on.
The three of us kids sat in awe, sweat-producing awe, of yet another Young family fuck-up. We were doubled over with laughter. And a little embarrassment as the Jewish community’s wrath rained down upon us.
This year, with all its tragedies, I hope your holidays are full of laughter and light.