Even though my parents are Holocaust survivors who left God behind in Eastern Europe when they emigrated, they retain two invisible creatures for us when we’re growing up: one, the Tooth Fairy, an American invention; and the other, Elijah, used only at Passover, the one thing in Judaism they can’t abandon. Being Jewish, Santa Claus is not on the agenda.
So even though I think there’s a lot of magic going on all the time - the magic of being one of seven sisters, and the magic of our parents surviving the Holocaust; the magic of dad’s 1954 Oldsmobile always somehow showing up years after he sold it, whenever our new car is in the shop for some reason; even though Skokie itself is magic with houses lined up like shoeboxes and every kid magically Jewish just like me; and even though it’s certainly magical that when we shoplift at the drugstore the owners never call the police, the cost of the items just appear magically on mom’s bill and she - magically - pays them; and even though there’s the magic of the big snow of 1967 and the magic of us getting out of our house even though it was snowed in like an igloo; even with all that, my parents don’t believe in magic.
They believe instead that their survival of the war years is nothing more than the chance of a stray bullet that didn’t hit my mom, or the Typhoid Fever that didn’t kill my dad. So there’s no magic in our household, except for their lumbering, stumbling attempts to adopt the American Tooth Fairy and to hang onto the Eastern European Elijah - certainly an odd couple - both adopted with no fanfare and no originality.
We’ve got a pretty typical Tooth Fairy scenario in our house. We’re to put our slimy tooth, the tooth that, once it falls out, looks like it could never have fit anywhere in our mouths, under our pillow at night and then our mother is to nab it and leave a quarter.
But there are seven sisters in my family, of course. That’s a lot of teeth losing and a lot of teeth to keep track of. It proves too much for her. Quarters show up under the wrong pillows, the teeth still where we put them the night before, the wrong sisters clutching the coin. Fights break out. And just like all kids, we want to ruin our own magic. We either want the Tooth Fairy to be really real, or we need to know the truth. And once we do? Then there’s no more tooth fairy and our mother’s purse snaps shut.
Since my father has no subtlety and he is our Elijah, it’s only a matter of time before we catch him drinking the wine. Until then here’s what we have: Passover Seders with my geriatric aunts and uncles droning on and on for hours at the adult table, complete pandemonium at the kid table. They trot out my buck-toothed, Bryl-creamed, cousin Arthur for the four questions, send him back, and then they eat for hours, while we grow restless. When it’s almost too late, my parents suddenly remember to “do Elijah,” to open the door and see if Elijah, who is to herald the coming of the Jewish Messiah, shows up and drinks the wine that's been placed at a spot at the table for him. They open the door to the spring air and we crowd around, sure we can see the ghost whooshing in. Dad surreptitiously gulps the wine and then we crowd around the empty wineglass in amazement. That is, until we eventually catch him too.
When they’re both caught, our Tooth Fairy Mom and our Elijah Dad, our parents are done with magic. And what’s left is what had been there to begin with - all the magic they can’t see: the magic of dad buying a station wagon that has a rear seat that faces backwards; of us going on a vacation and after we drive and drive and drive, we find out that people live in places other than Chicago. There’s the magic of a “for sale” sign popping up on our front lawn one day, like it grew there overnight. And the final magic, of a moving truck showing up and all the stuff from our house emptying into it from end to end, from dawn to dusk, and of us driving away.