By Leslie E. Owen
At first it seemed cute. David was three or, more likely, four, and he’d gone to his cousin Amy’s princess party. Everyone got a crown to wear, even the grown-ups, and of course, Amy had a princess tiara. David wore his home in the car. Then he wore it to dinner, which he didn’t eat, being so stuffed with all the crap that Amy’s mother (her sister-in-law, Marcy, a woman who deserved that name) had served. When she came in to read him a story and kiss him good night, the crown, slightly smushed, now, was still on his tousled brown head. “Good night, sweet prince,” she’d said, and there was no irony anywhere in her voice.
The next day David wore the slightly flattened crown. And the next. And the next. Marcy reported that Amy had placed her princess tiara on her rocking horse, which she, as David's mother, thought was eminently more sensible of Amy.
David wasn’t sensible. Someone had given him a picture book of the story of the seven swan-brothers; maybe it was Hal’s aunt Rose? Whatever. Whomever. It was a beautifully-illustrated, wonderfully-written retelling of the tale, but way too old for David, yet it became his favorite book. “Read me about the swan prince,” he’d demand a million times a day. “Read me.”
Soon he’d memorized it, which she knew as pre-reading. If she skipped a line, he made her go back and read it the right way. The golden paper crown had disintegrated soon after Amy’s party, but David, with his Crayolas and washable markers, had made several hundred versions on his own. He took to wearing his blanket around his shoulders as his royal robes.
Back at Amy’s, because Hal had a business trip and she went too, Marcy filled him with a diet of nauseating Disney movies. His favorite (and she could tell Marcy thought this was odd, not funny) was “Sleeping Beauty,” because Prince Philip had the same color hair as he did, and got to kill the dragon in the end.
Her mother told her it was a phase, the exact word she used. “He’ll outgrow it,” she said in her smoker’s voice, low and gravelly. “Children do. Don’t you remember when Ellen refused to take off her red rubber boots for, like, three weeks? She was an explorer, I think, or maybe she was a fireman, I don’t remember.”
“Mom,” she said wearily, “David has been a prince for three months.”
“Well, maybe Ellen was a fireman for longer,” her mother said thoughtfully. “I know she was a wild horse for three years. It was embarrassing. Whenever we were in public she practiced her five gaits. Imagine, racking in the Cherry Hill mall.”
“I do remember that,” she said. “You’re right, it was embarrassing.” She was silent, remembering her older sister (not younger, how she wished Ellen had been younger) cantering to school every day. “This is embarrassing, too. Marcy thinks David is gay.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” her mother said, and hung up.
David apparently either was gay or didn’t care what his Aunt Marcy thought. “Sleeping Beauty” remained his favorite film, although he also cultivated a taste for “Snow White” and “Cinderella.” His one saving grace was that he hated “The Little Mermaid.” “Prince Eric is bad,” he’d said. “I’ll never be a bad prince.”
“You’ll never be a prince at all,” she answered in a temper, but her words fell on deaf ears.
Hal was never home, and when he was, he didn’t seem to care. He was not the kind of guy who wanted a kid who played football; football was not Jewish. He and David would throw a baseball in the back yard when he was home (baseball was okay – look at Koufax and Greenberg) and he had no problems at all taking David to shul in the morning.
He was tired of listening to her complain. “The kid has an imagination,” he said. “So what? Maybe he’s a writer.”
She smiled, the image of her son writing in cramped blue ink at his desk, long shaggy brown hair curling around the nape of his neck.
“Maybe,” she conceded. “He loves to read.”
David did love books, books with princes in them. He was still literal, though; the books had to really have princes in them for him to love them. He was not willing to concede that Max might have been a prince to his mother.
Marcy had the solution. “Amy’s going to Temple preschool,” she announced. “You should send David, too. He’ll learn about Judah Maccabee instead. It will take his mind off fairy tales.”
She paused, waiting to see if Marcy was being ironic, but apparently she wasn’t.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Give me the number.”
David was enrolled at Temple Beth Shalom preschool. He went three mornings a week, from nine to twelve. He still went to Shabbat services with his father at Or Shalom, but now she enrolled him at the Temple Sunday School too.
Hal objected. “Or Shalom has a perfectly good Sunday school,” he said.
“I don’t want David coming home telling me I should be kosher,” she replied. “I don’t want him learning that prayer in third grade.”
“Whatever. I didn’t say we should send him to Talmud Torah,” Hal said.
Talmud Torah was the only Hebrew day school in town. It was an excellent school, but to her mind, it was a little rough. What if the rabbi thought David was gay too? Besides, her son was not going to get up every morning and thank God he was not a girl.
David loved preschool, and he loved Sunday school even more. He came home singing “Kadima” and, during Pesach, a little song about frogs being in Pharaoh’s bed. He learned to sing “Hatikva” with his little brown arm over his heart. He learned to say the Ten Plagues in Hebrew. He learned to call his parents “Abba” and “Emah.” All in all she thought it was fairly successful in everything except the main: David still thought he was a prince.
She took him aside. He would be starting kindergarten in the fall. How could she send him to public school like this? “Look, you are not a prince,” she said harshly. “We are Americans. Americans got rid of the princes. That’s what the Fourth of July is all about. We shoot off fireworks because we told King George to go to hell.”
There was nobody home, so there was nobody to chastise her for saying “hell” to her only child.
David looked at her solemnly. “Okay, Emah,” he said.
She knew she had made no impression at all, so she brought out the big guns. “You are a Jew. There are no Jewish princes. No princess would ever marry a Jew.”
David had big guns of his own. “Moses was a prince in Egypt,” he said. “Jonathan was a prince. He was King Saul’s son.”
She had been at his height, holding his chin, and now she got up and walked away.
“You named me after a prince!” he yelled. “You named me after King David!”
She gave up. After all, Ellen had been a wild horse for three years. As David made his way through public school, and Hebrew school, and Sunday school, he would outgrow this, she knew. Maybe it was because she was so obsessed with it that he was still clinging to it anyway.
It didn’t seem to matter much, because then Miriam was born a couple of weeks early, and she was extremely preoccupied with making sure Miriam would be okay, and that she would be able to nurse as David had done.
She showed David the baby through the viewing glass window of the NicU. There was a card on the incubator that said Gordon, Girl. There was a little tuft of red hair on the baby that stood straight up.
“What’s her name?” David asked.
She helped him down; he was small for his age, and had to stand on a chair to see the babies.
“We’re going to call her Miriam,” she answered, smiling. “Miriam Rose, after your great-grandma and your daddy’s aunt Rose.”
“Oh,” David said. “I remember Aunt Rose. She gave me the book about the swans.”
“Yes. She loved you very much.”
David grinned suddenly, wickedly, looking all together too much like his father when he had a secret. “Miriam was a princess too,” he said, and his big brown eyes laughed at her.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, and it didn’t much matter: Miriam was going to be okay.
“Yep,” she answered. “I guess we’re just a royal family.”
David was a handsome boy, even though he was still on the small side. He took up playing the violin, and he played it fairly well for someone who had no musicians in the family. He played soccer in the fall, and baseball in the spring, which made Hal happy.
Miriam had a tendency to chest colds, but never developed anything truly terrible, just a little bit of viral-induced asthma whenever she got sick. She kept her red hair, which apparently had been from Hal’s Aunt Rose, and had a smattering of auburn freckles across her nose and David’s big brown eyes.
David had a few friends that he played soccer and baseball with, but he still preferred to read. His reading material had changed only slightly as he got older; instead of fairy tales he now read science fiction, and fantasy. She was a little dismayed when she discovered him devouring the Narnia books. “Those are Christian,” she said.
“So?” David responded. “I’m not likely to give up Chanukah just because I read about Christmas.”
He seemed to have become the sensible child she’d hoped for, so she let him read whatever he wanted. Like many intelligent children his age, he began to read the Harry Potter books. She waited for him to wear a wizard’s cape and carry around a magic wand, as some of his friends did, but he seemed to have left his dress-up days behind.
When David was in seventh grade, she agreed to chaperone the seventh grade dance. She stood by the punch table, watching the kids try to figure out what they were supposed to do. The girls were dancing with each other to some music she thought might have had its roots in funk, and the boys were sort of grouped around each other eating chips.
The DJ put on a slow record, something by Beyonce. She watched in amazement as David approached a little girl with honey-colored hair and asked her to dance in an almost courtly way. He took her hand as the other kids watched in silence. Leading her out to the middle of the dance floor, he reminded her of someone from an old movie – Humphrey Bogart in “Sabrina,” maybe.
“Isn’t your son the charmer,” one of the other mothers said. “You’d think he’d been raised like Prince William.”
She said nothing, but allowed herself a little smile as David attempted to slow dance without stepping on the little girl’s feet. She thought he did an admirable job.
Despite his old world charm, David was definitely not gay. There were a succession of girls from the Temple and from his b’nai mitzvah class, and, as he got older, an occasional Christian girl.
He took his volunteer work as seriously as his honors classes, and more than one person thanked her for raising a caring person, a mensch. She shrugged it off, because, as far as she could see, she’d had nothing to do with it. David had always done whatever he would do. Still, it was nice to see that he was “not-Amy,” who had grown up to be a Queen Bee and was suitably horrible. She worried a little that he would outshine Miriam always, but Miriam seemed content to be herself, a little dreamy, and more than a little artistic. David still played the violin in the school orchestra, but it was clear to her that he was no candidate for Julliard.
Finally David found a girl he really liked, one whose family had moved into town just in time for confirmation classes at the Temple. She joined BSY and since David was president, they were together a lot. Her name was, naturally, Rachel, and she seemed to be a nice girl, always laughing and very friendly. David was in love and it seemed Rachel was, too. There was no real talk of anything other than maybe attending the same college together, which was a relief. There weren’t that many out-of-wedlock Jewish babies around, but still, there was the worry.
Rachel’s parents were nice, and she invited them to Seder. Afterwards, Rachel’s mother came to her in the kitchen to help stack the dishes (no washing on Pesach, there was a girl who would come in tomorrow to do that).
“Your son is amazing,” she confided. “You remember when we took David and Rachel out to dinner that time, just before prom?”
“Mmmm?” She was bagging up the parsley.
“He opened the car door for me, and then for Rachel,” Julia said. “He held our chairs out for us when we got in the restaurant. Bill has never once even thought to do that. Does Hal?”
“No,” she answered. “David just wanted to impress you.”
“Well, he did,” Julia said. “You’ve raised a prince of a guy. I hope you know that.”
Was she entirely shocked when David said he was going to rabbinical school? No, not really. Hal was devastated. He had thought David was going to major in architecture and join him in the firm. She scolded him for letting his disappointment show.
“Miriam’s your architect,” she said. “Look at the way she draws. There’s no reason why it can’t be Gordon and Daughter, instead of Gordon and Son.”
Hal grinned. “We won’t have to pay the rabbi’s fee for Miriam’s wedding,” he said. “David can do it.”
David went to Israel and she was afraid he might not come back. She was afraid he would go to eat pizza at some little café in Jerusalem, or falafel at some outdoor market in Tel Aviv, and some crazed Palestinian teenager would blow him up. She was afraid he would take the bus from Netanya to Jerusalem and some crazed Palestinian teenager would blow him up.
David came home, and then he went to New York to study. He let his brown hair grow a little long, and started a somewhat wispy beard. Rachel had gone to study medicine at Vanderbilt; there would be no chuppah for those two.
Almost exactly as Hal had predicted it, David was ordained the summer Miriam got married. Of all the many boys that David had met in Israel, Miriam had fallen for Noam from Eilat; David was the rabbi at the wedding. Noam was getting his master’s in psychology so there was no danger of Miriam moving to Israel, for which she and Hal were eternally grateful. Miriam was interning at Hal’s firm, and Amy had gotten pregnant by some Mexican guy and moved to the Yucatan.
The call, when it came, seemed to be the last little strand in the tallit that David had been weaving his whole life.
There had been an explosion on a bus, the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She could just imagine the scene: blood and glass, body parts and a baby screaming. But it was not like that. Only one person had been killed. It seemed that one of the passengers on the bus had noticed a teenager who was acting nervous. He’d sat down next to him and begun a conversation. The conversation had been intense. Then the boy had gotten up and started to leave the bus. The young man had followed, still talking. As the boy got off the bus, the bomb went off, not because the boy had set it, but because it had been detonated by someone else, outside the bus. The young man had hurled himself at the boy and knocked him clear; no one on the bus had been badly hurt.
“I have to tell you,” said the army sergeant who had called her, “that the general consensus on the bus is that Eliyahu was sitting with that boy today, that it was Eliyahu who convinced him to get off the bus, and Eliyahu who saved the lives of everyone.”
She smiled as the tears streamed down her cheeks and splashed onto the kitchen table, even as she heard Hal retching in the bathroom.
“No,” she gently corrected him. “It was only David, the king.”
from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine