Word From the Weiss
Happy last night of Hanukkah! It may be a relatively minor holiday, as Jewish ones go, but considering that there are eight whole nights of it, I
hope that yours was happy.
I got some very interesting
gifts this year, from a novel back scrubber, flamingo pajamas, and a jar of posh truffle salt to a bright fuchsia mermaid blanket from my well-meaning husband.
But if there was one thing that I wanted
more than anything this year – anything at all – it was to not be able to spend my daughter’s
birthday or the rest of Hanukkah with her.
And no, that “not” was not a typo. I really didn’t want her to be anywhere near
me on her special day.
But before you jump to the wrong conclusion, let me tell you why.
Between Hanukkah, New
Year’s, and my daughter Allegra having been born on the 18th of the month, December tends to offer our family almost too much to celebrate (although one of my best friends from college was known to say, "Too
much is never enough!"). Now that Allegra is engaged to JP, who shares not just her upbeat personality but her date of birth, we have even more reasons to raise a glass or two.
Last year, we got to celebrate Christmas with the two of them as well. And
not just our usual Jewish approach to Christmas – dinner at a Chinese restaurant,
followed by a movie. JP cooked an authentic Chinese meal for us in our home, with Allegra pitching in as sous chef in a Santa
But this year, it was his parents’ turn to have them for the joint birthday and holidays. And his parents happen
to live far, far away. Halfway around the world, in fact. They spend this half of the year in Hong Kong.
Normally, JP’s family
convenes for the winter holidays in Sydney, Australia, where his brother and sister live. But this year they chose to gather in Hong Kong instead, in large part because it would be relatively easy for Allegra and JP to get there (if you can call the 16½-hour
flight from New York to Hong Kong “easy” in any respect).
Allegra couldn’t wait
to see her future in-laws again, especially her little niece- and nephew-to-be, who are 2 and 4 respectively. She and JP spent weeks buying gifts for everyone
and counting down the days till they left.
There was just one little catch.
JP, who is not a U.S.
citizen, applied for a work visa in the early
fall, soon after he moved to NYC when he and Allegra got engaged. In late
October, he was assured that the visa would
be mailed to him in about two weeks. But as of last week, it had
yet to arrive.
On Friday, he explained to his family and ours that if he left the country without it, he might not be able to return for several years. Yikes! His entire family was deeply
disappointed, not to mention livid that he
had failed to mention this before everyone else had booked their own flights. Allegra was heartbroken
that they weren't going anymore. She was also mortified
that they had offended her future machutunin.
JP’s parents had arranged to host a lavish luncheon on Monday to celebrate the joint birthday. JP and Allegra were the guests of honor, but they would no longer be there.
What were they
going to do?
Our own family was getting together in NYC to celebrate both Hanukkah and the birthdays on Friday night. But suddenly no one was in any sort
of celebratory mood.
was the fourth night of Hanukkah, and all the way to the city, I fought back tears. My heart ached with pity.
We had agreed to care for Allegra and JP’s lively little puppy Luna during the 11
days they'd planned be away. We had been kvetching for weeks about this daunting responsibility, and had even recruited our son Aidan and daughter-in-law Kaitlin to split dog-sitting duties with us. But now we would have given anything to have what had previously appeared to be a bit of an imposition. Yet we felt powerless to help.
Before leaving home, I'd grated potatoes and
onions to make latkes when we arrived. Allegra's tiny kitchen is too small to cook in, so we were going
out for dinner. In fact, we were going out for hibachi. No latkes were
likely to be there. But what's Hanukkah without the latkes?
I also had gathered
up the many holiday gifts
I had purchased for one and all.
Even though the kids are now grown,
I still give everyone in the family, including our dog Latke, at least one present for
each of the eight nights. In fact, with all the sales on Cyber Monday, I got a little carried away this year. Too much in
this case might really be too much. They may be unwrapping till Tu Bishvat. No
matter. With the travel-ban pall cast over the festivities, I hardly felt like Mrs. Claus, let alone Hanukkah Harriet.
With soggy snow falling all the way from our home in Connecticut to NYC, the drive took over five hours in relentless traffic. But that’s not the reason it felt as gloomy
as a walk to the gallows. We
arrived to find Allegra looking dejected, her
eyelids red and puffy. She admitted that she had been crying for hours. Some
Aidan and Kaitlin arrived soon after us, and everyone ate a latke smothered in applesauce. I brightened momentarily when Aidan said that they were my best ever. Whether or not he
meant it, he certainly knows the way to a Jewish mother’s heart.
there was no time to rest on my laurels as a ballabusta (that's Yiddish for “good cook”). We
were already late for our dinner reservation.
Dejected or not, we still had to eat. Between
the manic antics of the high-spirited hibachi
chef, who hurled morsels of food at us as if
we were trained seals and squirted streams
of cold, tangy sake into our mouths, things brightened up a bit during dinner.
Everyone also managed to put on a happy face when we returned
to Allegra and JP's apartment to exchange holiday gifts. Even when you’re
feeling blue, it’s a lighter shade of blue when the family is all together.
But Allegra and JP soon realized that they had no choice and called the airline and
cancel their Saturday afternoon flight. And that turned every's mood from blue to black again.
Early the next morning,
their apartment buzzer sounded off early. There was a special delivery downstairs for them.
Wait! Could it be?
Perhaps it could
have. But it was not. It turned out to just be a document from JP’s bank. After having their hopes raised, even momentarily, only to be dashed, they now felt even worse.
Then they got some news from Hong Kong. One of JP’s aunts was in the hospital and gravely ill. JP’s sister, who is a doctor, composed a letter to Immigration outlining Aunt Betty’s condition and saying it was urgent that JP be allowed to come home ASAP.
A friend of our family who is an immigration lawyer advised us that JP and
Allegra needed to get to the Immigration
office before it opened at 7 a.m. on Monday morning. There was no guarantee that anyone would even agree to meet with them, but that was their only hope. The lawyer did not sound at all optimistic. An ailing aunt, he said, would not appear as compelling as a sick parent, sibling, spouse or child. But it was worth
out that poor Aunt Betty was gravely ill indeed.
We woke up Sunday to the sad news that she had died. JP was desperate to get home to help console his mother. They would now ask for permission to attend the funeral instead.
Eager to console Allegra and JP, my
husband and I took them out for another birthday
dinner on Sunday night. Then my husband drove home to Connecticut. But I insisted on staying overnight on the kids' couch in order to watch little Luna while they went to Immigration
the next morning. It would help them get out at the crack of
dawn if they didn't have to walk her first. I also wanted to be there in the event that they got bad news. It was the least that I could do.
Allegra stayed up late packing her bags, just
in case there was good news
instead. It was the least that she could do.
They left the apartment
at 6:22 a.m. armed with every document that they might need. Even though they
arrived well before 7, they were
already sixth in line.
Finally, the office opened. They watched in mounting horror as the five people before them, including a sweet, pregnant
young woman who wanted to go see her sick grandmother, were brow-beaten mercilessly by the surly official
manning the only reception window that was open. Then, just as it was about to be their turn, an affable young man arrived and took over a second window, and
he summoned them to approach.
Examining JP’s documents, he
noticed right away that this happened to be his birthday. JP pointed out that it was his fiancée’s as well. Hearing this and the details of their plight, the man seemed extremely sympathetic. He readily granted JP an audience with the
next person up on the totem pole. At
least they would be heard.
“OK, we have an appointment,” Allegra texted me, sounding cautiously optimistic.
“But we might need proof of JP’s relationship to Aunt Betty.” The
couple in front of them had been told that they needed such documentation themselves. They began freaking out. What would possibly demonstrate this relationship? Would they
need to obtain both his mother’s birth certificate and Aunt Betty’s? How would they get those right away?
The woman who met with them next didn’t request any such documents, though. She just seemed eager to help. She checked JP’s application status in her computer.
That’s when she discovered that his visa had already been approved – last Friday. It was presumably already on its way, in
transit in the postal system somewhere. But they wouldn’t have to wait for it to arrive. She issued them
another one right on the spot.
Allegra texted me a little after 10. “It’s a Hanukkah miracle.
They phoned the airline, United, and managed to nab the last two economy seats on the 3:05 p.m.
flight to Hong Kong. Never mind that United would call them back soon after to say that there had been some mistake – that the only two seats left were
business class and cost thousands of dollars more. They had to go no matter what.
And so they flew into action, as though someone had
fired a starting pistol and actually shouted, "Go!" They raced
home and somehow finished packing within the hour. They crammed all the gifts into a carry-on bag. While I went out to buy them breakfast to go, they even packed for Luna, who would be spending
the next few days with Uncle Aidan, Aunt Kaitlin, and their cats.
Then we jumped into the car, and I drove them straight to Newark International
Airport. We arrived two hours before the plane left, with
just enough time left to check in.
Then I drove back to the city with Luna sleeping beside me on the passenger seat. Never mind that there
was heavy traffic all the way there and
even more on my way home. I was still only as happy as my least happy child. But with just a little help from the universe,
and her nice Jewish Mom, that child was now happily on her way. Although she had spent the morning biting her nails at Immigration and would spend the next 16½ hours sitting on a plane, she was having what might
prove to be the best birthday ever.
So I would say we definitely have too much to celebrate this year. Guess we're just going to
have to party on till New Year's, or even Tu Bishvat. Who cares if Hanukkah's over? Let the celebration begin!