Commentary Magazine


Now They Bring the Matches!
A Story

The hundred or more guests invited to Sylvia Saroff’s wedding, in Brookline, Massachusetts, felt no strangeness, thought Mrs. Forbes. They entered the Plantation House like a relative’s parlor: eyeing all arrangements critically, and noticing what was new since last time.

“I like the new drapes,” a friend of Mrs. Saroff’s said. “That fringe is smart. The latest thing. You could see them at Painè’s.”

“Flowers in here, too, I see,” somebody else said. She walked over and scrutinized the card inserted among the roses and baby’s breath. “From the groom’s family,” she said. “A nice idea.”

The Plantation House had formerly been one of those Sunday-dinner restaurants for all, specializing in cinnamon rolls and peppermint stick ice cream. Now it was devoted entirely to Jewish functions like Sylvia Saroff’s wedding to which, at well past six-thirty, the time stated on the engraved invitations, the guests were still leisurely arriving. They met and chatted under the awning over the sidewalk, or in the reception hall as they checked their coats.

As for Mrs. Forbes, she stood, silent and alone, and almost wished she had not come to Sylvia’s wedding, she felt so much a stranger here. But she was devoted to Sylvia, who had been her baby-sitter for years, on Beacon Hill, and even though her husband was out of town on business, she had dressed in her best, to do Sylvia honor, and come by herself. She felt conspicuously Gentile: glances crossed over her like searchlights, and fell away.

She was just about to go into the parlor, where rows of chairs were set out, when another Beacon Hill neighbor greeted her loudly.

“So you made it!” Mrs. Allen said. Mrs. Allen kept the small grocery and newspaper store across from Mrs. Forbes, and knew everybody on the Hill well enough to talk about, anyway. She and Mrs. Forbes often chatted, and it was she who had originally found Sylvia to baby-sit, when the Forbes children were small and had to be walked out daily to the Public Gardens or the Esplanade.

“You’re looking good,” Mrs. Allen said, politely, but Mrs. Forbes felt drab beside the splendor of Mrs. Allen’s jetted black dress, and her sequin-sewn long gloves. Mrs. Allen had large, irregular features, and rather thin dark hair. Years ago she had married a Gentile and moved away from her native West End. But she had come back a widow, set herself up in her little store, and now she introduced her rather heavyset escort as Mr. Hymie Green.

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Forbes. “I wish I knew what to do. Do we just go in? I still have my invitation.”

Mrs. Allen laughed. “You come with me. Well look out for you.”

She began to push her way toward the thickest crowd in the middle of the reception hall.

“Not that there’s any hurry,” she said. “It’ll be an hour yet. But at least we could go in and get good seats.”

“Pardon me, folks,” said Mrs. Allen, and soon they were within greeting distance of Ben Saroff, and Mrs. Forbes’ invitation was taken from her hand, and she was swept into the main current of the evening.

“Mrs. Forbes!” Ben Saroff cried, when he saw her. “It’s good you could come! Enjoy yourself! I hope you wouldn’t feel strange—you don’t know so many people!”

The father of the bride was a small, pale, thin man, who worked for a wholesale drug concern down near the North Station. But tonight he was resplendent in rented tails and stiff shirt, and his four tall sons, banked behind him, and also in tails, collected invitations and gave back in exchange small white cards with numbers on them, explaining, “This is where you sit, after. Just find your number.”

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Waiting for Mrs. Allen, she watched the scene and wondered at Ben Saroff’s proud excitement and his beaming smile of the most perfect hospitality. After all, his elegance of dress and surroundings, also rented, was so transitory. The savings of twenty years were being burned like a taper, in one evening, as Ben Saroff looked on. Tomorrow he would sleep late, but the day after that he would go back to the work he was too old for, to the cold-water flat on Beacon Hill where he and his wife had raised six children, all of whom had moved away to Dorchester and Brookline. The daughter who had died was buried in Dorchester.

“Ben’s walking on air!” said Mrs. Allen, as she and Hymie and Mrs. Forbes went into the big double parlors where the ceremony was to be performed. As they found seats, Mrs. Forbes could not help remembering a story Mrs. Allen had told her about Sylvia’s father.

“When I came back to Boston,” Mrs. Allen had said, “Ben Saroff didn’t know me by my Gentile name, of course. I used to know him when we were kids, in the West End. So Sylvia talked about this Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Allen, and one day I met her outside the National D Store on Phillips. She introduced me to her father by my name. He was feeling good, so when she went inside for some herring, he gave me a slap on the bottom, a few words passed—you know what I mean—‘You’re a nice-looking woman, I happen to have a little free time this weekend, so how’s about it?’—kidding. Well, I passed it off, but I was surprised. So the next time I saw him, he couldn’t look me in the face. He didn’t know where to look. So he apologized to me, very nice. I respected him for it. Yes, I did. ‘Mrs. Allen,’ he said to me, ‘I never knew you was a Jewish lady, or I would never have passed such remarks, believe me!’ ”

Mrs. Allen, who had come from some part of what was once Galicia (prunes in the cooking, and she always called matzos “mutzies”) ended up the story with a point that seemed irrelevant to Mrs. Forbes.

“Russian Jews are very domineering,” said Mrs. Allen.

Tonight Mrs. Forbes had to look twice to recognize her Beacon Hill neighbors. Their Russian and Polish origins, their working lives in small tailor shops and grocery stores, their worries, were all left home, and here they were, resplendent as Ben Saroff. The women wore every kind of fashionable evening dress, mostly they had fur coats far better than Mrs. Forbes’ modest mouton draped over the backs of their chairs, and they had all had their hair just cut and set. The men were in rented tails, or their own dark business suits: a few of the younger ones had tuxedos, also their own.

People chose their seats with care, for a good view of the ceremony, and at the far end of the room a yellow brocade canopy, like a giant lampshade, hung suspended from the ceiling.

Mrs. Allen looked at the canopy with amazement. “What kind of a chuah is that?” she said.

Mrs. Forbes obviously wouldn’t know, but Mrs. Allen worriedly discussed it with Hymie, and with several people sitting nearby, though she didn’t know them.

“I never saw a chupah like that, never!” she said. Grudgingly, suspiciously, she said, “Maybe it’s something new they got.”

Confusion seemed well established. The women talked with their manicured workshaped hands, and the men, not used to waiting this late for dinner, looked weary and as if they wished they were at home reading the evening paper. Guests continued to arrive.

“Seven-thirty,” someone said. “That’s late enough. Now they should really begin.”

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Two things marked the occasion, as even Mrs. Forbes, the stranger, recognized. One was Sylvia herself. She was as naturally nice a girl as anyone could want to know, and people here had seen her grow up pretty, good-tempered, steady, and gay. Her mother was a sick, sour, suspicious, and ignorant woman, full of dark dreads, and Sylvia, the only living daughter, had had no easy time at home, as Mrs. Forbes knew. Like her father, she had managed for pleasure with a fortunate nature.

“A lovely girl,” said Mrs. Forbes, over and over again. “I hope she’ll be very happy.”

And the other person who added tone to the gathering, in rather a curious way, like a reminder, was a little old lady with her hair skinned back from her unadorned old-country face. She wore a false chignon of auburn-colored hair, attached to the back of her head with barrettes, and she was the groom’s grandmother. To have a grandmother, alive and present, was somehow to be enviable here, in this company. People had cars and small houses and these clothes, yet, for one reason or another, family went no farther back than parents. Other generations, other branches, were dispersed or buried in older, farther, poorer countries than this present Brookline.

The old lady wore a dark-blue taffeta dress, with long sleeves and a lace collar. She steadily also wore a pleased, bright-eyed smile, and she was quick and chirping, like a bird in a berry bush.

“Look at her! Isn’t she wonderful! At her age!”

Everyone was proud to see her there, enjoying a triumph second only to that of the bride’s father. Ben Saroff was untroubled by the lateness of the hour, his pleasure only lasted longer this way, and he had waited a long time for it. Forty years ago, he and his wife, from adjoining Russian villages, it turned out, had met at a social club in the West End. They had married, worked hard all their lives, worked like dogs. They had picked up wood in the streets, and carried groceries home in string bags from the market, late at night when things got cheaper. They had raised their children to drink milk, grow taller than themselves, and to work in insurance companies. Some even went to college and came out professional people.

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Now there were sudden signs of activity. The groom’s grandmother darted away, and a young photographer came and knelt on one knee at the end of the carpet down the middle aisle, formed by tall baskets of gladioli and satin streamers. Strains of music came from the back of the room and Mrs. Allen started so that Mrs. Forbes nervously wondered what now.

“No organ!” said Mrs. Allen.

It was true that strains of “Oh Promise Me” were definitely coming from a concertina in the hands of one of the three Plantation House musicians, available for all occasions.

Mrs. Allen shook her head. “I never heard of not having organ music for a wedding. Never!”

Colored waiters in white coats entered, deposited wine and glasses on a small stand under the canopy, where a rather pudgyfaced young rabbi had also taken his place. The waiters unrolled a long white covering for the carpet. Mrs. Allen leaned over and touched it.

“Cotton!” she said. “Now, that does seem cheap!”

“Why, the runner is always just cotton,” said Mrs. Forbes earnestly, on firm ground here. “Even in the most fashionable churches—it’s only to keep the bride’s skirts from getting dusty on the carpet.”

“The last affair I went to, some time ago,” Mrs. Allen said sternly, “it was a white velvet carpet. Gorgeous white velvet, all the way.”

Mrs. Forbes did not argue, though she herself thought white velvet fantastic, and though she knew at home Mrs. Allen, like the Saroffs, had linoleum on the floor.

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At about eight o’clock the wedding began. The groom’s grandmother came down the aisle, followed by the groom’s parents, and the bride’s. Mrs. Saroff was ghastly pale and Mrs. Allen leaned toward her neighbor. “I expect to see her faint before this is over,” she said. Then came the groom and best man, and the matron of honor, who made some sideways remark that shook the top-hatted ushers. At last came the bride, in a satin dress low on her young shoulders, and a veil, with white orchids in her hands. She walked slowly, looking straight ahead, and she, too, was pale.

The service was short, partly in English, partly in Hebrew.

“That’s Hebrew?” Mrs. Allen said. “I wouldn’t recognize it!”

Mrs. Allen, who actually knew very little Hebrew, was not the only one whose comments came fresh from the mind to the lips. Someone in back said, “He’s got the service all wrong! Again!”

Still, the marriage was performed. The groom stamp-stamped on the glass with a fine, cracking sound heard all through the room. The bride put back her veil, and the groom, who had kept glancing down at her with a faint, surprised smile, as though he had never imagined she would really tremble like that beside him, kissed her. Then they walked back down the aisle of gladioli under crossed tophats, held out at arms’ length, like sabers at West Point or swords in Graustark.

The photographer took pictures rapidly, at various points in the line of march. But before there were photographers, there were elders of the tribe, like these guests gathered at Plantation House, who watched everything with sharp care, for one minute. Then Mrs. Forbes was almost crushed in the stampede into the other rooms.

“Hurry!” cried Mrs. Allen, who seemed suddenly beside herself, all decorum spent. “Don’t just stand there!”

A bar had been set up in the reception hall, and there two barmen now worked in silent speed.

“Scotch! Make it two! Don’t you want an old-fashioned? They got everything you want! Just ask!”

Mrs. Forbes was glad of Mrs. Allen, and Mrs. Allen’s efficient escort, who looked after both of them. Finally they were pushed into the front parlor, to be greeted by the reception line. They held their glasses in their hands, and guarded them from other elbows. The groom had lipstick all over his face, and Sylvia was in possession of herself again, laughing at everything, kissing everybody. But almost before she got to kiss Sylvia herself, Mrs. Forbes was haled away into another room where everyone cried, “Hors d’oeuvre! Quick! Quick!”

There was a large second bar in this room, and people were drinking, too, but the main feature was the elaborate display of hors d’oeuvre, on tables around the walls, and on round, tiered, slowly turning chromium stands, lit by colored electric light bulbs, and with wine flowing from a small fountain in the middle.

“Look!” cried Mrs. Allen. “Did you ever see anything so gorgeous? Hurry! Here!” And she helped Mrs. Forbes to tiny fish-balls, little frankfurters, globes of chicken liver crumbling as it traveled to the mouth, delicious things on bits of black bread and crackers.

“But where are the knishes?” Mrs. Allen wanted to know. She looked for them, she sent her escort foraging, like the expert he was, but he only came back with more Scotch all around, and some caviar, and the report that there were no more knishes.

The hors d’oeuvre vanished, thousands and thousands of them, and everyone had more to drink before the bar closed, yet hardly three-quarters of an hour had passed since the groom had stamped on the glass.

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Mrs. Forbes encountered Sylvia’s boss, a Mr. Fitzpatrick, and found several common grounds for conversation, mainly Sylvia. Mr. Fitzpatrick said that with her disposition Sylvia wouldn’t have any trouble in her married life, and he was glad she was coming back to work for a while, after the honeymoon. “Not clicquey, gets along with everyone,” he said.

“It’s a fine wedding, isn’t it?” Mrs. Forbes finally said, and Mr. Fitzpatrick said, “Yes. I’ve been to many Jewish weddings, and many Jewish funerals. I like the funeral ceremony better than many.” Thoughtfully, he added, “A one-day wake is better than a three-day wake.”

Mrs. Allen interrupted them. “Hurry!” she said, when the first guest moved, and Mrs. Forbes, making her way in the crush, waved goodbye to Mr. Fitzpatrick, and looked back over her shoulder. She saw that the room they had just been in was labeled, simply and distinctively, with a brass plate. “The Hors D’Oeuvre Room,” it was called.

Nobody talked much at the long tables, miraculously set up in the long parlors since the bridal ceremony. Mrs. Allen, her escort, and Mrs. Forbes, as non-relatives, were seated at the farthest corner table, among distant friends, only a few of whom knew each other. The silence was weary, and almost hostile. There seemed to be a good deal of food already waiting on the table, also flowers, and four quart bottles of soda—orange, raspberry, grape, and one plain ginger ale.

Waiters appeared with silver dishes, and Mrs. Allen cried out, “At last! Knishes! I was sure there’d be knishes at an affair like this!”

The hot miniature meat pastries went up and down the table, but only once. The groom’s father, in business for himself, someone murmured, came over to the table, followed by the musicians. While the musicians played popular songs, by request, he read everyone’s name aloud, from the placecards, and this served for an introduction so that, after he had gone, there was a little less silence.

The pale, tired man opposite Mrs. Forbes now knew her name. He lifted a great glass plate filled with celery, pickles, and olives.

“Try the green tomato,” he said, earnestly. “I believe people of your race don’t eat these, but we consider them very tasty! Very tasty indeed!”

Mrs. Forbes said, nervously, “No thank you. I don’t believe I will—I’ve had so much to eat already. But I’d love a cigarette.”

Silently, a woman handed her a package from her gold brocade bag. There were no cigarettes on the table, and no matches, so the men who had lighters took them out, and left them on the table.

The musicians went away, and delicious chicken came. It was like no chicken Mrs. Forbes had ever eaten at a restaurant before: tender, and still hot. Around her, people ate quickly, expertly, but in a somewhat choosy way since no one was really hungry. Waiting for dessert, five kinds of ice cream in a tall glass, they smoked each other’s cigarettes, and used each other’s lighters, nodding in a friendly way as they did so. Yet it was plain to Mrs. Forbes that the absence of cigarettes had been noticed. Dessert over, speeches were made at the bridal table, someone yawned loudly during the rabbi’s long, nasal address, and the clink of glasses containing raspberry soda was heard in the room. Coffee came, and was welcomed: everyone was tired and sleepy now.

Just then, hurrying, the waiter brought in a trayful of wineglasses with white ribbons tied around their stems. In each glass, there was half a dozen cigarettes. Another waiter followed with a basket of white match folders printed in silver, with wedding bells, the date, and the names, “Sylvia and Morris.” The women all put several folders into their evening bags and at once rose to leave.

Now they bring the matches!” said Mrs. Allen, in scorn. “Now! Almost at the end!”

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Suddenly the women all began to pluck the small pink roses from the centerpiece of flowers, demolishing it quickly.

“Go ahead! Take some roses, too!” Mrs. Allen urged, and Mrs. Forbes, seeing it was expected of her, though it made her feel guilty, as though she had picked a flower in the Public Gardens, shook out two pink roses and pinned them to her dress.

Almost before they left the room, the waiters were at work again, whipping off cloths, putting tables away, because now there was dancing. The young people, Sylvia’s friends, were already dancing, down near the canopy. But most of the older people were talking family affairs and business in the other rooms.

How tired every one of these older people looked now, Mrs. Forbes noticed, wondering herself when it would be time to take her leave. The lights in the reception hall were merciless, no watts spared, and the fat older women in beaded dresses and corrugated hair, the pasty-faced men, seemed to have lost most of their earlier elegance. They were tired working people, up late. They had come, they had watched the carrying out of traditions that were curiously mixed between Bible times and something from Rose Marie, and now their feet hurt

As Mrs. Forbes waited in line to get her coat, she heard Mrs. Allen say, with envy and admiration in her voice, “They’re going away, by car! Two whole weeks for the honeymoon!”

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A rather sudden understanding came to Mrs. Forbes as to why Ben Saroff’s lifelong friends had watched so sharply to see he got his money’s worth from the Plantation House. They had not criticized their host, in demanding a white velvet carpet, or a different kind of chwpah, but only wanted to make sure that everything—canopy, hors d’oeuvre, rabbi, knishes, Scotch—was as it should be, that honor be satisfied. Only, traditions were so mixed, nobody really knew what was right. Everybody was a little nervous.

For Ben Saroff, tonight was the summation of a long series of steps upward, since he had come as an immigrant boy from somewhere around Kiev. Everyone else knew the steps so well, nothing could be omitted, and the elders of the tribe on Beacon Hill watched out, to see that his triumph was complete.

Under cover of a joke, one of Sylvia’s brothers, who played football at B. U., was wrapping up an armful of white gladioli for the groom’s grandmother to take home. Mrs. Allen’s escort had some knishes wrapped up in a napkin, for Mrs. Allen’s grandchild, and Mrs. Forbes went back and took half a dozen folders of the special wedding matches and put them in her black satin evening purse.

When she said good night to Ben Saroff, she saw that he eyed the two roses she wore from the table with pleasure, and, with a sudden glow of warmth, she held out her open purse for him to see.

“I’m taking all these matches home,” she said.

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