Thursday, February 28, 2013

We Have Guests

About a week ago, our older sons made an astute observation. While walking through the yard, they noticed that the vent covering the attic fan had been pried open. This, we knew, could not be good. On the other hand, we were amazed that two individuals constitutionally incapable of noticing dirt could be so observant.

At first, we attributed the damage to Hurricane Sandy. Perhaps a tree branch had flown through the air, bending the metal as it slammed into the side of the house. But we quickly eliminated that possibility from the running since we’d done a thorough post-storm inspection of the exterior months ago.

After a brief moment of panic about what might be the actual culprit -– something had surely come to roost -- I made a mental note to have the vent tended to posthaste. Then the thought slipped from my sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled brain as if it had never been there.

You see, I’ve been busy making a bar mitzvah for our middle son, who first arrived into this world on the eve of Pesach, which means of course that he becomes a man at the very same time thirteen years later. The scheduling isn’t wonderful, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Although we could not switch when he will first be called up to the torah, we did decide to keep our sanity intact and book his party a month earlier. With centerpieces to construct out of assorted Nerf balls, I only vaguely recalled the open vent issue. And then that most awkward of jobs -- table arranging, which requires stealth tracking of who is not speaking to whom right up to the last moment before the event – completely flushed it from my mind.

We had guests coming from far and wide to celebrate, to laugh at my son’s jokes and to partake of a carefully selected brunch buffet. Who was thinking about silly things like vent covers and Animal Planet?

Well, shame on me, because the afternoon following the party, which was lovely by the way, I finally collapsed from complete exhaustion onto the living room couch. And then I heard it, moving its hairy little self across the floorboards in the unfinished attic. These were not the footsteps of a clomping teenager on the prowl for food. These belonged to a member of the rodent family on the prowl for food.

Moments later, the same teenager who does not hear me call him to take out the garbage heard the padding of the beast’s paws in transit and shouted as if I’d stolen his Mac.

We clearly had company.

I called the exterminator’s emergency hotline, but it was Presidents’ Day weekend and no one was available. I could not believe the company’s level of irresponsibility. What was the point of the emergency hot line? Was there no on-call doctor, I mean exterminator? This was, after all, a crisis.

Over the phone, the operator tried to reassure me: “It is very unlikely that whatever is up there will find its way into your house.” I was not reassured. It was already IN our house!

On edge, we all slept with one eye open, except my husband – G-d bless him – who can sleep through more or less anything. Our youngest, however, was so excited about the prospect of meeting whatever was up there that he stayed completely awake, afraid to miss the yet unidentified animal as it burst through a soffit.

The next morning, as promised, Brian the exterminator came to lay traps. I greeted him as if he’d arrived to redeem a city under siege, my checkbook in hand. His initial inspection hinted at nothing specific, but he has a sixth sense for this kind of thing. This, after all, is what he does.

“You’ve either got a raccoon or a flying squirrel,” he told me, as if he’d announced a school closing on the morning of a snow day.

Flying squirrels and raccoons? You could have knocked me over with a feather.

One day later, Brian – whose visits I began to treat with enormous trepidation – crawled out of the attic to report evidence that proved his raccoon theory. There were prints in the dust. At first, I got defensive about my housekeeping skills, but it’s not like I was expecting guests to stay up there.

The traps in place, the bait set (cat food on day one, tuna on day two), we went on with our lives and waited for the raccoon to find his hungry way into the cage. Brian warned us how that would sound, but I’ll spare you the details. Throughout the day, I heard things – walking, thumping—until suddenly, it went silent. Brian quickly sealed two of the vents with screen and said the raccoon had probably hidden in the insulation.

Yet another night went by with nothing doing in the traps. Brian told me not to worry, assuring me that “we” would take care of the problem. I assured him that “we” would be doing nothing of the sort. “He” would be taking care of it and “I” would be paying for it (and a pretty penny, too).

Certain that it was up there, lying low, our youngest refused to go to school. He didn’t want to miss seeing the raccoon in the cage being carted off for a road trip at least fifteen miles from here (that’s the required distance according to whatever authorities determine such things). But we employ a kind and understanding exterminator, who promised to do his daily inspection after 3:30 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning.

The week nearly over, Brian arrived on Friday and noticed that the one unsealed vent had been pried open. Apparently, our raccoon had seen the writing on the wall and fled. We were the underdogs, but we’d won this round.

While reveling in that short-lived window of victory, I suddenly recalled the ground hog that burrowed a country home under the bay window last year. And there is the family of deer – all seven of them – who take their breakfast under the swing set in the yard and the squirrels who hang out in the garbage cans.

I don’t live in the suburbs. I live on a wildlife preserve.

Meanwhile, Brian strolled off onto the horizon, empty metal cages in hand. Though I wished it weren’t so, I knew in my heart I’d not seen the last of him.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Embracing My Tfoo-Tfooing Heritage

It should come as no surprise that someone as compelled by kaparot as I am would also spend a great deal of time dodging the evil eye. But I’ve often wondered about this avoidance aspect of Judaism that requires SWAT-like tactics to maneuver around the sheydim lurking in every corner.

This tfoo-tfooing habit of mine, ingrained in me by my mother and grandmother, has not been plucked out of thin air. It is rooted in Jewish ritual and Talmudic tradition and arrived from Europe with my great-grandparents. I presume that Old World habits initially cushioned their adjustment to America’s newness, but they died hard, sticking with my predecessors -- and by extension, our family -- for generations.

My first experience with the evil eye occurred beyond my range of memory, when I was a mere infant swaddled in my crib. With my mother out of sight, my paternal grandmother stuck a knife beneath my pillow to ward off the approach of the other-worldly villains waiting to snatch me. You can imagine what the knife’s discovery did for mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations. Today, though, the pillow would be considered just as deadly, but that’s neither here nor there.

The tfoo-tfooing came later, when I was old enough to realize that relatives were not exactly spitting at me, but instead aiming to create a force field that would shield me from all shades of invisible doom. The expectoration followed something that sounded like keninahurrah to my young ears, a pronouncement preceded by shaynaponim and an often violent pinch of my cheeks.

While trying on a new dress that needed altering, I was required to chew on a piece of thread, a trick meant to send the Angel of Death walking. This always flummoxed me. I simply could not fathom how my mother would allow me to place in my mouth something that had been at the bottom of her sewing box, yet she forced me to throw out a cookie that had been on the spotless kitchen floor for mere seconds.

But there was more, all designed to keep us one step ahead of the bad guys – the ones ready to snatch our souls, our money, our belongings, our good luck, our future. There were every day proscriptions, too, like not walking around the house in socks, especially white ones, taking care not to trim our toenails in order, and never, ever, ever sitting on a table.

And G-d bless the pregnant, for there was an entire orchestra of tfoo-tfooing composed for that nine-month period alone. But my favorite, the one to which I adhered to the letter of the law when my turn came, was the prohibition against entering a zoo, for if my sons had been born hairy and funny-looking, I would have had no one to blame but myself.

I know from discussions with friends that I am not altogether unique in this way, that many of us, in fact, have a shared history in this business. I find it remarkably comforting to know that I have compatriots in the fight to scare off the ayin harah, the sheydim, and the dark angels. In the spirit of camaraderie, I have even incorporated friends’ techniques into my own already extensive repertoire. So I no longer leave water uncovered overnight and always take care to line up pairs of shoes in the correct position.

Genetically predisposed in this way, I worry about even the slightest of missteps. And I wonder, too, whether this approach is, at its core, a healthy way to live in an otherwise fragile world or if, perhaps, it is nothing more than shtetl-minded superstition best dropped in the spirit of modernity.

In the end, the arrival of the daily paper convinces me to keep at it. It offers reports of endless tragedy and suffering, natural disaster, man-made disaster, economic decline, and celebrity dysfunction, with only an occasional feel-good story about an adorable rescue dog in Montana. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a force field that keeps the scary world out, even if I appear to be a bit of a superstitious ninny.

Long-term, though, these traditions, whatever their authentic origins, seem to have found their end with my children. The boys walk around in white socks all the time and toss their shoes haphazardly about. When asked, they will tell you the reasons I’ve asked them not to: Socks get dirty. Shoes get lost. There will be no mention of the evil eye or ghosts or the satan. That part slipped unnoticed through their memories, the genetic trait through a generation.

I presume they will eventually find their own way to ward off the unwanted and to protect what is dear to them. Or maybe, just maybe, when they have children of their own, they will need the comfort that a little knocking on the kitchen table and some hearty tfoo-tfooing can provide. I may yet, one day, hear them mumble an incantation they recall from their childhood, and perhaps thoughts of their superstitious mother – their fellow soldier in arms -- will bring a smile to their faces.