Sandi Sonnenfeld is Founder and Managing Editor of The Lyon Review. Her short stories and personal essays have appeared in more than 30 literary magazines and anthologies, including Sojourner, The Story Teller, ACM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. She is also the author of the 2002 memoir, This is How I Speak (Impassio Press), for which she was named a Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. “About Lime Jello” originally appeared in Volume 9, #1-2 issue of The Raven Chronicles: A Journal of Art, Literature & The Spoken Word.
Last Saturday, my husband Warren and I attended his aunt and uncle’s golden wedding anniversary party on Whidbey Island, an island located about ninety miles from Seattle. Though the happy couple, Dot and Wes, are close to Warren’s mother, I have spoken with them only a half-dozen times, and nearly always at some gathering similar to this one.
Married less than three years, I’m impressed by anyone who has managed to stay together for so long. As we pull into the driveway to the Catholic Church where the reception is to be held, I look at my husband’s profile as he negotiates the parking lot. I look at him for reassurance, hoping for a brief smile or a mild squeeze of my hand that tells me everything will be all right, to ignore the tightening in my stomach that I always get when I have to face a crowd of strangers. He does not return my look; his eyes are fixed on finding the right parking space, one that is reasonably close to the lot’s exit so that we don’t have to wait in a long line of cars when we leave.
Still this is why I married him. Ten years my senior, I thought that surely a man who carries a compass with him wherever he goes would be useful for a person like me who tends to get lost inside her head. I who cannot stop wandering around those messy crevices of the brain’s limbic region, ducking in unexplored caves, picking at half-buried wounds with a prospector’s axe, only to re-emerge moments later, blinking in the sunlight as I readjust to the external world.
As we enter the reception hall, Warren thoughtfully helps me off with my coat, before going to embrace his mother and sister who have also just arrived.
Because Dot and Wes have no children of their own, Warren’s sister Bonnie and I have been given the honorary role of serving the guests punch. Why, at the start of the twenty-first century, it is still deemed more appropriate that Warren’s wife dole out the orange juice and ginger ale concoction instead of my husband doing it himself is something I know better not to ask.
Actually, I am grateful for something to do, freed up from the arduous task of making small talk.
The party has been underway for thirty minutes, and nearly two hundred people fill the crowded hall. Dot and Wes, in fact, Warren’s whole family, are immensely popular in this small town. From good hearty Dutch ancestry, Warren’s maternal family settled in Washington State in the mid-1800s. Five generations of Zylstras have worked this land, have cut down its mighty trees, helped build its schools and roads. On this large, rather remote island, Zylstras are considered among its founding fathers and nearly everyone (at least those over 60, which is the majority of people here) reminisce about the time Warren’s great uncle served as House Speaker in the state legislature, or when Warren’s mother Annabelle was Miss Holland Days Queen in 1936.
I agree with the woman next to me serving tea who comments that Dot looks stunning in a blue and green watered silk dress. And despite having suffered a stroke several years earlier which left him partially paralyzed, Wes proudly stands by Dot’s side, leaning only occasionally on his cane, and greeting each person as they come through the reception line.
In the background, a woman singer belts out rather antiseptic renditions of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” and “Sentimental Journey” and tries her best to get everyone to sing along while they stand in line for the smorgasbord. Any moment now I’m waiting for the Lawrence Welk dancers to appear while hundreds of soap bubbles fall from the ceiling.
I keep such thoughts to myself, because I also have deep respect—or perhaps it is merely envy—that a half-dozen lime Jell-O molds stuffed with crab salad, orange segments or cottage cheese, thirty pounds of cold cuts, crepe paper carnations and “wedding bell” decorations that glitter with gold sparkles can bring Dot and Wes so much genuine happiness.
At least I think they are happy, as I watch them toast each other with alcohol-free champagne and kiss each other’s lips.
Bonnie comes to relieve me of my duties so that I can go eat. I eschew the Jell-O molds, and fill up my paper plate with fresh cut carrots, celery sticks, potato salad and a couple of slices of provolone, then join my husband at the table.
As I eat, people stop by the table to greet my mother-in-law and tell Warren for the umpteenth time that the last time they saw him he was only “this high…” As they stop by, I’m startled to realize that I am related by marriage to nearly everyone there. There is Joan McCabe who is Warren’s cousin twice removed. And John Zylstra who is Warren’s mother’s third cousin. Barbara Swenson McCabe. Buddy Zylstra. I’m getting a headache from trying to keep track of everyone’s names and their ties to the family.
“Pretty overwhelming, isn’t it?”
I look up from my chair. Standing just above me is an attractive brown-haired woman in her late fifties. She is dressed in a red knit pantsuit, with a pair of kittens appliquéd onto her shirt. She has bright brown eyes that sparkle pleasantly.
“I’m Warren’s cousin Linda,” the woman says.
I stand up to shake her hand.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I say.
“A lot of new people, huh?” Linda says.
“I know some of them came to our wedding,” I say, praying that I inadvertently hadn’t forgotten that Linda had been one of them. “But that was a while ago. And there are so many relatives and quasi-relatives. As you know, Annabelle is really into genealogy, and has already tracked the family back about nine generations. She says that on Warren’s father’s side, the family is even related to Jesse James. I guess that I’m just still amazed that I married into a family that has a road named after it.”
Linda laughs, “What about your own family?”
“I’m lucky that my family even has a mailbox with their name on it. Where we came from the authorities didn’t exactly keep accurate records.”
“What country are you from?” Linda asks.
“I’m from New York,” I say, which I know to Linda probably is a whole other country. “My grandparents are from Hungary. And from what used to be parts of Czechoslovakia. But when my grandfather came in to Ellis Island, the immigration inspectors couldn’t spell his name, so they Anglicized it. When you leave a country to escape persecution, you tend not to look back.”
“But your family got out okay, right?”
I pause. I look over at Warren, whom I can see is now listening closely to our conversation. His body is tense, taut, waiting for my answer. I know that I am supposed to say that all in my family made it out of Europe just fine.
Maybe it’s the giant wooden crucifix that stares down at me from across the other side of room, a guilty reminder that I haven’t set foot in a synagogue in nearly ten years. Or maybe I’m tired of people asking my husband about his career, but never thinking to ask me what I do for a living. Or that despite my love for Warren, I’m starting to miss what it feels like to make my messy way in the world without always having to first check to see if the compass is pointing me in the right direction. Or maybe the writer in me simply wants to see where this narrative might go.
“No, they didn’t all get out,” I say. “One day, the Nazis knocked on the front of my Great Aunt Hermana’s exquisitely-carved big wooden door in Budapest. When she opened it, they shot her. Bang, bang. No more Aunt Hermana. My grandparents and parents didn’t want us, me, to forget, so I’m named after Hermana; my middle name, Helen, is for her and my grandfather’s mother and sisters and all the others who died in the camps.”
I see the pleasant smile on Linda’s face fade.
“Well,” Linda says, slowly backing away from me. “Well, these things happen.”
I watch my husband gulp down a spoonful of Jell-O.
“Yes,” I say. “Things happen.”
But I am talking to thin air. Already Linda has vanished, disappeared into the crowd of happy well-wishers, back into the world of feel-good America, the land of paper carnations, lime Jell-O, and marriages that last fifty years.