Edith Zuckerman was a stickler for verisimilitude, and in many ways, this Passover night was not so different from all other nights.
But on this night, unbeknownst to Edith’s guests, the blood on the Zuckerman front door jamb was not kosher, the roasted shank bone on the Seder plate was not lamb, and Herb Zuckerman was not “held up at the office.”
When they were growing up, the Zuckermans were the only kids at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate whose mother lit real oil lamps at Hannukah. She lined the glass bulbs along the front window behind the sofa. She used only kosher cold-pressed virgin olive oil from Israel. On the eighth day of the Festival of Lights, by which time both the bulbs and the windowpanes were an opaque, smoky grey, Edith Zuckerman would tell Maria to clean the glass and phone Sears to book the Zuckermans’ annual upholstery and carpet steaming appointment.
During the harvest holiday of Sukkot, Maria was instructed to serve all three meals of each festival day in the backyard sukkah, the temporary pergola’s ceiling of greenery festooned exuberantly with gourd and squash. Even when the temperature dipped below freezing. Even when it snowed.
But it was on Passover, the holiday that marked the end of 400 years of slavery and the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, that Edith truly shone. One memorable Passover past, on Edith’s instruction, the gardener released a vanload of frogs into the front yard (Plague Two of the ten plagues of Moses). For the next few weeks, frogs plagued Forest Hill, appearing in planters and fountains and swimming pools and—once—a martini glass. Another year, in the spirit of verisimilitude, Edith had Maria treat all four Zuckerman children for head lice (Plague Three), despite the fact that none of them actually had lice. Then there was the year she insisted the entire first meal of Passover be conducted without light (Plague Nine, when darkness fell upon the land of Egypt). That year, Herb Zuckerman put his foot down: he couldn’t very well lead an entire Seder service in the dark.
Edith allowed him an adjustable mini book light.
There was no boxed Manischewitz matzah in the Zuckerman household at Passover. All the unleavened bread for the eight-day festival—lunchbox staple for the week—was baked in the Zuckerman kitchen by Maria, the longest serving of the Zuckermans’ Filipina maids. The irony of Maria’s practically indentured servitude seemed lost on Edith—or perhaps she chalked it up to verisimilitude.
Each Passover, Edith had Maria swab the front door jamb with a liberal, Angel-of-Death-defying slick of real lamb’s blood from the kosher butcher on Eglinton Avenue. Josh Zuckerman didn’t know if his mother had ever contemplated a more drastic commemoration of Plague Ten—death of the Egyptian first-born—but he’d always been grateful he’d been born a Jew and not an Egyptian.
Still, this time of year made him anxious.
As he sat in his Mercedes in the bricked semi-circular drive of the Zuckerman family home, Josh Zuckerman took a deep, calming breath. It would be the first Passover that Elaine and the girls hadn’t attended with him. The separation was still raw. He hadn’t yet told his sister that Elaine had left; Rachel’s sort of support was likely to make him feel worse. He’d informed his mother only last week—and only because he wanted to spare her the social embarrassment of three empty place settings at the table.
Headlights flashed in the rear view. His sister’s elegant, spiderlike limbs unfurled themselves out the passenger door of Michael’s Saab. Then the back of the car exploded, and three boys tumbled onto the driveway. A few moments later, Michael ejected himself out the driver’s side door, his 240-pound frame still mostly muscle, though he now coached pro rugby rather than playing it. He tucked a boy under each arm and dribbled the third one up the front steps with his knees.
Josh lowered the window. Rachel bent towards him. Her perfume wafted across the front seat.
“She left, didn’t she?”