Bar Mitzvah

Bentzman Suburban Soliloquy
Dancing with Clio

A celebration was held in a Riverside apartment for my cousin Joan, she having reached eighty years. Ms Keogh (my more significant other), my mother, and I drove up to be in attendance, to see family I have not seen in the last dozen years. To be sure, they are all good people, generous and loving, yet I suffered from a terrible awkwardness alienating me from those with whom I share a number of genes. I never feel as if I know them that well, not as I am supposed to, and I certainly don't believe they comprehend me, yet that doesn't prevent everyone from assuming familiarity. My mother had to contend with being the oldest family member, a role for which she is unsuited given her youthful inclination. It was repeatedly pointed out how much I looked like my father, fifteen years dead. Like him I am fat and bald. I have inherited my father's anatomy and my mother's anxiety.

There was a book Joan wanted to loan me to read. She left her own party to fetch it from her apartment a block away. She brought back a large red volume titled The Fox Saga. It consisted of 192 leaves with text printed on only one side. Because it was privately printed, and I suspect there are only a handful of copies, it was all the more precious. It was Louis Fox's autobiography, my British cousin. Cousin? He was my father's mother's brother's son. Why was I being entrusted with this rare and precious book, more importantly, why was Joan so insistent that I read it? She explained she wanted me to read it because I was the family's historian. How did she come by this notion?

This interest in family history is proportional to how much time I can afford my curiosity. There is also the problem that I avoid responsibilities because I’m afraid of failure. I never wanted to be labeled the family’s historian because that attributes responsibilities I'm not prepared to bear, like a good memory for names and an obsession for accuracy. I just like a good story.

I remember Louis Fox. He had the same name as my father. I've only met him once, maybe twice, but he made a positive impression on me. A quiet and gentle man, it was obvious that he was caring and considerate. My mother had once traveled to England with my Aunt Dolly and the two of them stayed with Louis. What my mother remembers foremost about Louis is that he owned a Bentley.

During the drive home, Ms Keogh sat in the backseat reading Louis’ book. She couldn't put it down. She said Louis Fox reminded her of me. Well, there is some amount of blood in common. She read passages aloud to my mother and me.

Now I’m reading the The Fox Saga, which I am finding delightfully intriguing. Although he was too young to remember it himself, Louis tells the story about his older brother, Pat. Pat’s name at birth was Isaac Joseph, but “Pat” was added while he was serving in Ireland during the Sinn Fein riots. He also served in the First World War. The family received a telegram from the War Office. Pat had been killed in action in France. They were still mourning this tragic news when Pat came home, still wearing his muddy military kit. Their mother could not stop embracing and kissing him long enough for them to explain about the telegram. It turned out, they learned later, the War Office had delivered the telegram to the wrong address, there being another Patrick Fox residing on the same street.

I’m only at the beginning of the book, but I did flip through it to look at the few photographs that had been included. They don’t mean anything to me yet, but because they are accompanied by a well-told story, they will come to mean something.

One is always finding old photographs disassociated to their stories. They turn up in box lots at auctions and flea markets, faces that at some time in the past stood in the way of light, reflecting that light into the lens of a camera. Those faces really existed, caught at that moment and now fossilized in emulsion.

During a recent major cleaning, Ms Keogh had pulled two fat albums from the garage. The white plastic bindings had been chewed by mice. The volumes contain eight-by-ten black-and-white photographs of my bar mitzvah. She then pressed me with the question, what do you want to do with them?

I honestly didn’t see the value in preserving them. I imagined the many similar bar mitzvahs that took place in 1964, each of them issuing plenty of photographs. What a burden to hand down to our descendants. What meaning will the pictures hold for them? My progeny will not know the names of the people in the pictures. My feeling is a very few folks want to preserve the pictures, yet everyone wants someone else to assume the responsibility. The question I ask myself is who will these photographs amuse, entertain, inform? The photographs take up room, possess weight, their emulsions need to be protected, and when I move they will have to move with me. What a wasted effort. The photographs are not art, they are not significant history, they provide no insights. Every few years those photographs come out of hiding and are presented for a few chuckles from a diminishing audience, but until recently they were lost in the garage and not missed. My mother said she would take them. I suppose, for her, there is a worthwhile story being told.

I browsed through the albums again. In the collection of photographs is one that showed me with six friends forming a chorus line and trying to imitate the Rockettes. We are trying to keep our pants pulled up above our knees and our knees lifted into the air as we rotate our legs - rond de jambe ala Can Can. We were not as perfectly in sync as the Rockettes.
bar mitzvah

On the far left is Richard, who would make his money as a computer programmer in the esoteric language of Mumps.

Next is Doug, sporting a bow tie. The story that has reached me is he became a conscientious objector after joining the Navy and while serving on a nuclear-powered submarine.

There I am, next in line, happy and silly, without any plans for the future. Even today I do not know what the future holds for Ms Keogh and me. I only know the future is not as far away as it once was.

At the line’s center is Scott, who as I remember it, coaxed us into this performance for my guests. Scott now plays piano in Stompy Jones’ six-piece jazz and blues band.

Next to Scott is Joel. A lover of puppetry, he strove to join the famous Jim Henson’s Muppets, and was possibly close until a tragic car accident, when a drunk driver landed his car on top of Joel’s. It left him crushed and in a coma. With expert help he recovered. Many regarded it a miracle, but it has cursed the rest of his life with double vision and ataxia.

Then comes my cousin Paul, who would grow up to be the Mayor of Teaneck, New Jersey. I haven’t seen him in thirty years.

Last in line is Stuart, Paul’s slightly younger brother, an environmental health expert for twenty-seven years. This I know because I looked for him on the internet this morning - and also learned that he died in 2007, at age fifty-four, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"