It didn’t take long for me to realize that my parents were not monarchs, let alone in possession of any supernatural powers. In fact, by five years old, I was already starting to fathom that they did not even hold a place of special importance in the cosmic scheme of things. . . and by extension, neither did I. Although I couldn’t have articulated such thoughts at the time, I was becoming vaguely aware of my own insignificance; I was beginning to wrestle with the existential void of human consciousness. On the other hand, as I hadn’t yet entered kindergarten, perhaps I was simply lonely.
My older siblings now attended elementary school and they brought other kids over to play at our house. They had friends and I did not. My siblings played with their new friends and often invited them to stay for dinner. And most perturbing to me, my Mom took an interest in these other children, asking them questions about themselves and giving them attention that I, of course, deserved more.
I took my jealousy out on Rob, my biggest competitor for Mom’s attentions. Luring him into the basement, I could torture him there without Mom hearing his screams. Things might have been different had we simply become friends and played together. However, I considered myself to be a sophisticated pre-schooler so a mere toddler like Rob was clearly beneath my friendship.
Not to be daunted by the blossoming social world of my older siblings, I developed a fantastic friendship of my own. His name was Joe, and we played together every day. Fortunately for me, Joe lived nearby. Specifically, he lived within the large tree on the boulevard in front of our house. More specifically, he lived in the vibrant universe of my imagination.
To my delight, Mom showed a great deal of interest in Joe. Frequently, she even suggested that I call Joe and see if he wanted to play with me. I realized that it must have been hard for Mom to stay in the house and take care of Rob by herself, without my help, while Joe and I played together in the backyard. But she never complained about it. She even invited Joe to stay for dinner sometimes and he sat in the empty seat beside me.
Although Joe sometimes dropped by our house to play, often Mom suggested I go to his place. I would ride my tiny bicycle with the fat tires thirty feet up the boulevard to Joe’s house. After knocking on his front door, we’d talk there for a few minutes, planning our next big adventure. Then we’d head into my yard where the real action took place. Joe and I were police officers one day and pirates the next. We were in the army, and though the odds were usually against us, we heroically rescued our captured comrades and defeated our enemies with stealth, might, and sheer bravery. One time, I managed to crawl back to camp, despite my horrific wounds, and warn Joe of an imminent attack of our fortress. Another time, as members of S.W.A.T., I daringly rescued a dozen hostages by suddenly leaping into their midst and kicking the automatic weapons from the hands of their captors while Joe somehow distracted them.
Of course, to a casual observer it may have appeared that a dorky kid with thick glasses and a piece of Kleenex taped over his eye was peddling his bicycle up to a tree on the boulevard, knocking on the trunk, and talking to the bark. To the uninformed, it may have looked like this same child was later crawling slowly across his backyard while moaning in excruciating pain or jumping off his front porch and kicking his feet in the air while yelling and waving his arms in all directions. But that never occurred to me at the time.
To my chagrin, Joe was not accorded the same degree of respect as the friends of my older siblings. I still remember my sense of outrage when, after Mom had clearly said that I could invite Joe to join us for dinner on Friday, she later offered his seat to my great aunt.
Great Aunty Jane was one of my favourite relatives in the whole world, but I felt it was my duty to speak up for my best friend. I considered Joe an honoured guest. After all, his family wasn’t Jewish, and he told me that he liked joining us in our dining room on Friday evenings when we welcomed the Sabbath. He enjoyed watching our candle-lighting ceremony and listening to us singing our Hebrew prayers. And I liked explaining our family’s rituals to him, from the kiddush wine to the braided loaves of chalah.
“You’re about to sit on Joe!” I announced loudly as my great aunt started to sit down beside me.
Aunty Jane bolted upright from her chair and twisted around. Seeing the empty seat behind her, she glanced at me with a somewhat puzzled expression. Always kind and supportive, she probably would have waited patiently for my explanation and then helped me resolve the dilemma. But my Mom, acting like the queen that she wasn’t, promptly intervened.
“Now Kenneth, that’s enough.”
“But Mom, he’ll be crushed. No offense, Aunty Jane.”
Mom must have been reading too much Dr. Spock or something. She suddenly gave me a knowing nod and said, “Joe can eat in the kitchen tonight.”
Aunty Jane still looked bemused (and Rob, of course, still looked dorky), but everyone else around the table was looking down at me with their condescending smiles. They all thought that they had cleverly resolved the problem. But all they had done, in my humble opinion, was reveal their callow and superficial natures. Clearly, they did not understand the true depths of real friendship. Perhaps some people would let their best friend be relegated to the kitchen like a second-class citizen. But not me. Rising from the table and storming out of the room, I yelled, “If Joe eats in the kitchen, I eat in the kitchen!”
“What’s the point of their stupid prayers, anyway?” I ranted to Joe in the kitchen. “I mean all their mumbo-jumbo about God is meaningless if they can’t even treat a great guy like you with respect!” On the verge of tears, I was brimming with righteous indignation.
Of course, to the uninformed observer, it may have appeared that the same kid who had earlier been talking to the tree on the boulevard was now sitting alone in the kitchen, red-faced, venting aloud to an empty room about the rest of his family who were dining together in the next room. But Joe and I knew better.
By Ken Andrews, 2003