I brought Moshe Bat-Lev, my love, my squeeze, my I-hoped-to-God future husband, home to Somerville for Thanksgiving. We arrived two days early from Cornell, giving us time to relax before the extended family arrived on turkey day. The weather was great. No snow yet, and mild.
Moshe parked on the curb in front of the house. It’s an old, two-family, two-story structure on Chetwynd Road, built in 1925, still in great shape. We lived downstairs while I was growing up, but my parents bought the upstairs when I was in high school. They rented it out for a while and then my dad renovated, merging the two floors into one home.
My mom and dad came out onto the porch to welcome us while we pulled our packs and duffles out of Moshe’s vintage Volvo. The house had a fresh coat of paint, pale yellow, and it felt good to be home, nervous as I was about my folks meeting my fiance for the first time.
“I can’t predict how this is going to go,” I said to him in a low voice. Moshe gave my arm a squeeze.
My dad was home for lunch, and he greeted Moshe with a formality that should have been ludicrous, but, for me at least, was just embarrassing. Moshe shook his hand in that serious but totally cool way he has.
“I’m Seamus,” my dad said. “This is Molly.”
“Mr. O’Reilly,” Moshe said. “Mrs. O’Reilly.”
“Welcome to our home, Moses,” my mom said. I opened my mouth to correct her, but Moshe winked at me and I bit my tongue. We all went inside.
My mom directed Moshe to the guest room upstairs. I got a cot in my old room downstairs, sharing the room with my younger sister Sheila, who inherited it when I left for college.
We freshened up and sat down with the parents for lunch. Mom and Dad were glad to have me home, but focused mostly on Moshe.
“How was your trip?” Mom asked him, as if he had driven the three hundred and thirty miles from Ithaca to Boston alone.
“Very pleasant,” Moshe said. “Your daughter is great company. Doesn’t keep asking if we’re there yet.”
I hurried us through lunch because Moshe and I had an appointment at the Semitic Museum at Harvard that afternoon, both of us taking advantage of the holiday to access research materials at the museum for the day.
We got back to Somerville late. I showered and put on my PJs and almost made it to bed before my mom intercepted me.
“How old is Moshe?” she asked me in the bedroom, after some chitchat.
“You’re only twenty-two.”
“When he’s ninety, I’ll be eighty-six.”
“You know what I mean. You’re still very young.”
“I’m in graduate school. So is he. We have a lot in common.”
We left it at that.
The next day, Moshe and I drove down to the Cape to visit an artist friend who lived out in the woods in Truro. We hiked down to the beach. The day was warm for November but the ocean turned winter-gray every time a cloud passed in front of the sun. I took the bright and friendly autumn sun as my omen for the day, not the clouds.
“We’re not spending much time at home,” Moshe said to me on our way back that evening.
“You know why,” I said. “I don’t want any fights breaking out.”
“Between me and your parents?”
“Of course not. You’re much too polite and so are they. Between me and my parents.”
“I’m the first guy you’ve brought home. We’re engaged. They’ve got to be worried. Who is this guy? Is he right for our daughter? They’ve got questions. We need to be there so they can ask them.”
“It’s my dad I’m most worried about. He won’t say anything to me. He’ll talk to my mom. He’ll also talk to you.”
“I hope he does,” Moshe said. “Let’s get everything straight, right from the start.”
“My mom thinks you’re too old for me. She told me so last night.”
“I feel a little guilty about that myself. You’re so young. So innocent.”
“Very funny. All right. But that museum work was a must and I was determined to get down to Truro today. We’ve still got tonight and Thanksgiving and the weekend to spend with them.”
That night, it was my sister Sheila who wanted to talk.
“You’re taller than him,” she said.
“I mean, do you ever wear heels? You must tower over him. What’s it like when you dance?”
“Haven’t you ever gone out with a guy shorter than you?” I said.
“Eddie Granger, but I was doing him a favor. He wrote a report for me.”
“You meet a guy you like, you don’t care how tall he is,” I said. And couldn’t resist adding, “Did you notice the size of his arms?”
“Are you going to sneak down to the guest room tonight?” she said.
“Sheila, Moshe and I are living together.”
“Oh my God. If Ma ever finds out. Or Dad. It’s hard enough around here when a guy picks me up for a date.”
“I’m trusting you to keep quiet,” I said.
Later that night, my mom cornered me in the bedroom again.
“I’m just going to say one thing and you already know what it is, I’m sure,” she said.
“When you marry your own kind, your future chances are a lot better. You marry someone different, it’s much harder on you+. You can’t know exactly how they think. They have different values. It’s hard even to argue with them. It’s like your husband would be a stranger, in a way.”
“And you know this how?”
“I read. I watch TV. I stay informed. Plus, there’s your Aunt Rose.”
“I knew you’d bring up Aunt Rose,” I said. “Aunt Rose is a handful. She was always a handful. The man who married her was going to have his hands full. You predicted it. Everybody predicted it. Please don’t throw Aunt Rose in my face. I am not anything like Aunt Rose.”
“Alright, alright,” Mom said. “Take it easy. Calm down. You’ve gone all red. I wasn’t… I’m just telling you something everybody knows.”
“I don’t know it,” I said. I stormed out of the room and waited in the bathroom until I heard her leave.
The next day, everyone showed up. My brother Tom. Aunt Fiona and Uncle Clancy. Aunt Meara and Uncle James. Grandma Joyce, born in Galway.
They were introduced to Moshe as they arrived. Every time, it seemed to me, glances were exchanged. This got me steamed. Moshe has a heavy Brooklyn accent and when they first hear it, some folks think that he might be putting them on. My relatives managed somehow to ignore their own heavy South Boston accents.
With all present and accounted for, and all the men fitted out with drinks, I left Moshe and went to help the women with the dinner’s final preparations.
Moshe got questions at dinner from Uncle Clancy and Uncle James, who were sitting on either side of him.
“You are studying what?” Uncle Clancy said. “Summersology? What the heck is that?”
“Sumerology,” Moshe said. “I’m translating ancient clay tablets from the kingdom of Sumer, It’s the part of Iraq nearest the Persian Gulf, only back three thousand years ago.”
“How did you get interested in something like that?” Uncle James said.
“I was over there. I learned something about the history of the area. When I came home, I thought I’d like to learn more. Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences has a Near Eastern Studies department.”
“What were you doing over there?” Uncle Clancy asked. “Something with your religion?”
“I’m not religious,” he said. “I was in the Army, stationed in Kuwait.”
“The Army? What were you doing in Kuwait?”
“I was in the Engineering Corps. I spent most of my time in oil refineries.”
My uncles digested this while I got up to help with dessert. They both worked in the trades.
When the meal was through, Moshe and I helped clear the table.
“Go join the men,” I told him. “They’ll think I’ve got you whipped.”
“You do have me whipped,” he said.
“Later,” I said.
“Ladies,” my mom said as Moshe was leaving the kitchen, “we’re going to wash everything by hand. The dishwasher is on the fritz again.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Moshe said.
“The top rack don’t get cleaned.”
“I can fix that for you,” Moshe said. “There’s a little filter screen that’s clogged up. Water can’t get into the hose to the top. It only takes a couple of minutes. Once it’s cleaned, it’s good as new.”
My brother fetched him a screwdriver and watched as he cleaned out the filter. It didn’t take long. We washed all the dishes in the meantime, but my mom was delighted to get her dishwasher back.
“Thanks, Moshe,” Tommy said. “Ma, call me the next time it gets plugged, now that I see how to fix it.”
He and Moshe left the kitchen to join the men. My mom gave me a look.
“What?” I said.
“He’s good with his hands for a guy studying old Arabs,” she said. “Your dad’s been saying he’d fix it. A plumber, he can’t do ten minutes work at home?”
“They weren’t Arabs,” I said, “but you’re right. He’s handy.”
“Just the same,” my mom said. “He isn’t… you know… He don’t go to Mass.”
“Ma, I don’t go to Mass.”
“You’re young. Sew your wild oats. I was the same way. But later, you’ll come to your senses. You marry a nice Catholic boy, there won’t be a problem.”
“When I come to my senses,” I said, “I’ll convert him. I checked. He’ll complete the Pre-Cana. We can get married by a priest. Don’t worry about it.”
“I like a handy guy,” my mom said. “It’s one thing attracted me to your father.”
“And is my guy handsome? Or is he handsome?”
“He’s got a nose on him, but yeah. He’s a dish.”
Later, before sunset, Moshe and I walked down to the Tufts campus at the end of the street. We strolled around, letting our dinner settle. Canoodled a little in the shadows by Barnam Hall.
In the morning, we got up early for breakfast with my dad, before he went off on a call. He was counting on my brother to help him during the holidays because some of his regular guys were off. This morning, however, Tommy called to say he was sick. I could tell my dad was disappointed.
“I’ll come help out,” Moshe said.
“You’re not done at Harvard,” I said. “The Akkadian artifacts.”
“Will you reschedule that for me?” he said.
“That’s all right, Buddy,” my dad said. “No offense but I’m already gonna have my hands full without babysitting somebody.”
I could feel my face get hot but Moshe just grinned.
“What are you doing today?” he said.
“Replacing an old steam boiler,” my dad said. “It’s going to be a real pain in the a… pain in the neck.”
“You work with steam?” Moshe said.
“What do you know about steam?”
“I mentioned to your brothers last night that I was in the Army Engineering Corps. I trained at Fort Leonard Woods and shipped out to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. I was detailed out to an area refinery project as part of a support crew. There were a number of steam systems installed. I scraped some knuckles on them.”
“Well…,” my dad said, “yeah, why don’t you come along then… Did you have any trouble with those Arabs, you being… you know… in the Army and everything?”
“Not once I learned Arabic,” Moshe said.
They took off and I went out in my sweats and jogged along the Alewife, and then spent the rest of the day with my mom and sisters. My mom started up once, while we were having lunch at the Greek Corner on Mass Ave.
“It’s not easy, living with somebody,” she said. “You can’t practice in advance, so you’ve got to have other ways of knowing what they’re going to be like.”
“What other ways?”
“Oh, how they handle money, for example.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. Sheila and Colleen both told Mom to knock it off. They could tell I was seeing red and they wanted to head off anything serious.
“Now hold on,” my mom said. “I like the boy. I never said I didn’t. I meant no offense.”
“We all like him,” Colleen said. “Where do you get that stuff?”
“I’m her mother,” my mom said. “It’s my job to look out for her. If everybody says everything is fine, maybe everything is fine. Only, when I have doubts I’m going to speak up. I’m supposed to.”
So we made peace. I was more worried about my dad, anyway.
We had dinner late because Moshe and Dad stopped for a few drinks with the boys after work, at the Sligo Pub in Davis Square. The two men came home acting like bosom buddies.
“It was a good day,” Moshe told me. “We got to the site and I grabbed a tape and offered to walk the building and double-check his EDR ratings, just to made sure the new boiler had been sized right. That was OK with him. It’s SOP. When I finished, our figures matched. After that I just worked as a pipe fitter for most of the day, but I also consulted with him a time or two. In the Army, we’d get guys who showed up in the unit saying they knew hot water, so they figured they could handle steam. Steam is a whole different thing, though. Tricky. Your dad told me he’d had the same experience with guys who wanted to hire on with him.”
“Does my dad know steam?”
“Your dad knows steam.”
Later my dad said, “The kid is strong as an ox and he can hold a drink. I told him if he ever gets tired of the Arabs he should come work for me.”
Moshe went with him again the following day. When we left Sunday morning, there was a lot of hugging and promises about coming back, and a little sniffling by me and my mom.
Moshe and I didn’t say much in the car at first, as he negotiated his way down School Street and Prospect and Western and over the Charles onto the Mass Pike. As we headed west on our six-hour drive back to Ithaca, I punched him in the shoulder.
“Whew,” I said.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he said. “We’ve got Hanukkah in a month in Brooklyn. It’s not going to get any easier with my mom and dad, believe me.”