Saturday, February 25, 2012

Putting on the Ritz

By the age of 42 my Aunt Mindy was fed up with ironing her father’s handkerchiefs and reading the newspaper out loud to him every night. So when Sammy Fleischmann asked her “Will you?” she answered “I will.” They were married, and living in Queens, within the month.
After a weekend honeymoon in Atlantic City, Aunt Mindy was working beside her husband at Fleischmann’s Fish Market, up to her elbows in scaly things. From that day on she was known to everyone — family, customers and strangers — as Aunt Fishy.
She didn’t have an easy time of it. Sammy wasn’t a bad man, he just wasn’t a lot of fun. No movies, no theater, never a night out dancing. 

Aunt Fishy said she was lonely way out there in Queens, with everybody she knew still living in the Bronx. For a woman who had been so eager to get away from home, she was more than happy to have us come visit. Many a Sunday afternoon was spent in the Fleischmann’s house, a very tiny house, a doll’s house, my mother called it.
Even though they owned a fish store, we were never served fish in that house. Or meat. Or fresh vegetables. We never even got spaghetti. Aunt Fishy served only Ritz crackers. Crackers slathered with Skippy peanut butter or Philly cream cheese or Welch’s 100% grape jelly. Crackers decorated with slices of olives or pickles.  
Somehow Aunt Fishy got it into her head that Ritz crackers were classy. 

As soon as we left her house my father would drive us right over to the nearest White Castle restaurant so we could gorge ourselves on those square little hamburgers. Otherwise we would have starved.

Eventually, after a lifetime in the Fish Market, Uncle Sammy decided to hang up his apron and retire. He was getting too old to stand on his feet all day, he said. This was good news to Aunt Fishy. They planned their first real vacation since their honeymoon: a week in Miami Beach. 

But then, before they could even pack their bags, Aunt Fishy died. It happens like that, sometimes. There’s no rhyme or reason, and no one to complain to.
After the funeral service people crowded into the tiny house in Queens. There were trays piled high with deli meats; a carved turkey; bowls of herring, borscht, chopped liver; lox and bagels; knishes and danish. The mourners stood, shoulder to shoulder, balancing paper plates in one hand and plastic cups of seltzer in the other. 
“She was such a cheerful woman,” one of her neighbors said, “always ready with a how-di-do.” 

I wondered who she was talking about. I never heard a how-di-do come out of Aunt Fishy’s mouth. I tried to catch my sister’s eye but she was busy wiping away a tear with the corner of a cocktail napkin. I had to wonder if I was the only one who’d never gotten the “how-di-do” treatment.

After a while I realized Uncle Sammy was missing. Not that I really cared, but I figured he shouldn’t be ignored on this day, of all days. 
So I pushed past the cousins and the neighbors and some of the old customers, until I got to the little kitchen in the back of the house. 

That’s where I found him, hunched over the formica table, schmearing mayonnaise onto Ritz crackers, placing a single yellow raisin in the exact middle of each one. He held a cracker up to me, the first time he’d ever offered me anything, or even acknowledged my existence. 
We sat there, chewing noisily, until my mother found me and said it was time to leave.
We didn’t stop at the White Castle on the way home. Out of respect for Aunt Fishy, my father said. 

But I think maybe he was finally full, from all the herring and corned beef.