Bertram stepped outside of his house, feeling the crisp, autumn air on his face. He ambled down the street to the corner deli as he had done so many times in his life, pausing to look up at the trees whose leaves were changing colors. Today was his 76th birthday. People always asked you on your birthdays if you felt different. No, he thought, I don’t feel different. He was determined not to feel any different, he wanted nothing to change. He had actively decided that he would not think of himself as an old man, not allow himself to think that things changed as you got older.
He reached the corner deli, Arnold’s Morning to Midnight, and went in. At the counter, Arnold, a man of about Bertram’s age, waved at him. Arnold was one of the few people he had told that it was his birthday. This made sense because Bertram had come to this shop everyday for the last 30 years, and most mornings they had a little conversation. Arnold loved birthdays and had finally got it out of Bertram when his birthday was. There were striking similarities between the two men. They had both grown up in Lower Manhattan, the children of poor immigrants who lived in tiny apartments, and they both had been recognized as extremely bright children. However, their lives went in extremely different directions, as Bertram went on to Stuyvesant High School and then college, whereas Arnold had taken over his family’s deli, eventually changing the deli to his own name in what he liked to joke was his one rebellious act.
Another difference between the two was that although both of them had been raised Jewish, only Arnold had kept his religion. Often, during their conversations, Arnold would pester Bertram to come to temple with him. He told Bertram that in order to keep sane as you got older, you needed a religion. Bertram’s birthday sometimes happened to fall during one of the nights of Hannukkah, and this year was one of those times. Arnold told him it was an extremely lucky thing. One year, not so long ago, Arnold had presented Bertram with a menorah as a birthday present. It was a beautiful menorah, perhaps the most beautiful one that Bertram had ever seen. It was very simple, gold with a slightly, curving, inexact, shape. It looked expensive and Bertram felt guilty about it, wondering how much money Arnold had spent on it when Bertram had only given Arnold a box of gourmet chocolates for his birthday.
Bertram hated the fuss over birthdays, his own and other people’s. It was just another mark of the passing of time; he already had enough of those, like the wrinkles on his face or his aching back. He hated the balloons and streamers, the birthday cards that tried to be funny but never were, and the presents that he would never have any use for. There was nothing to celebrate on your birthday, he thought bitterly; it was just that you were getting that much closer to your death.
Bertram bought his New York Times and a coffee from Arnold. Today was Sunday, which was a busy day for Arnold’s shop. There was a long line of customers behind Bertram, so Arnold couldn’t give Bertram one of his birthday lectures. Bertram was glad because he really wasn’t in the mood for another reminder that he was aging. All Arnold said to him was “Light all the candles you can find in your house and be thankful t your loved ones are close.”
Bertram secretly scoffed at Arnold as he left the store; even for Arnold, his comment was a bit sappy. He walked home, grumpier than he had been when he left a few minutes ago. His wife Rosa wouldn’t even ask if something had happened. By this point she was accustomed to his mood swings. She would just sigh and go back to whatever task she had been doing. Rosa was the reason Bertram was sane. She was the only person in the entire world whom he was not constantly annoyed by, a group that included Bertram’s close friends, who were gradually beginning to drift away from him. He could tell that they were put off by his grumpiness, his refusal to embrace his status as a retired, old man. There was nothing for Bertram and his friends to do together, when he refused to play bridge or golf, and nothing for them to talk about, when they wanted to talk about their reading group books. Betram wasn’t sure what he wanted to talk about. He knew that Rosa was lonely, since he had basically cut off all of their old friends. He often worried that his grumpiness would drive her away to, but then he would remind himself that he was being ridiculous. He and Rosa had been together for 50 years, they were in love. Weren’t they?
He took the elevator up to their little, sun-filled apartment with views of the river from their living room window. It was the first night of Hannukkah and to his surprise that on the windowsill, Rosa had put out the menorah that Arnold had given Bertram. He found her in the kitchen making a chocolate layer cake. It was the one acknowledgement of his birthday that he allowed her to make. Rosa had been the kind of woman who had loved birthday parties but 50 years of being married to Bertram had stamped that out of her.
“I called Max today,” she told him in her usual calm manor. Max was their grown son, now living in California. “He told me that he’s not coming home for the holidays. Can you believe that? I was pretty angry. I said, first your father’s birthday, now this?”
“ Rosa, it’s not a big deal. You know that I don’t want a big fuss over my birthday and we haven’t really celebrated the holidays in a long while.”
“ I know, but“
“ Rosa. Really,” he said, cutting her off.
Later that evening, Rosa lit candles on the cake and lit the candles on the menorah. He asked her what she was doing, pointing out that it was only the first night of Hannukkah thus she should only light one candle.
“ I know that,” she replied cheerily. “ But I couldn’t really put 76 candles on the cake so I thought that I’d light candles on the menorah so that we could get the amount of candles closer to the correct number.”
Without quite knowing what he was doing, Bertram abruptly got up from the dinner table and walked out of the building. Looking up from the street, he could see that Rosa had blown out the candles in the menorah.
Bertram was abruptly yanked from his reverie. Once again, he had gotten lost in his memories. He was not turning 76; it was his 97th birthday. Rosa was dead, and he was in the hospital, dying of a disease whose name had escaped him. He noticed that someone had put the New York Times and the local newspaper on his bedside table. For some reason, he picked up the local newspaper first. As he was flipping through the pages, something caught his eye. It was an obituary for Arnold Kravenski, owner of Arnold’s Morning to Midnight. “Beloved member of the community” was what the headline read. The obituary was very short, but something in it struck Bertram. “ Mr. Kravenski died 2 days before the start of Hannukkah, his favorite holiday, in his apartment, surrounded by his loved ones and lots and lots of candles, something he had specifically requested for his death bed.”
Suddenly, Bertram missed his son Max poignantly. Max kept promising that he would come as soon as he could and yet he had not shown up yet. He wanted Max to be here with him, to bring that menorah that had been in Bertram’s old apartment and to light the menorah’s candles.
It began to snow outside, and as Bertram fell asleep he could see a plastic menorah on a table in the waiting room glow with its artificial light.
Age 14, Grade 9
Saint Ann’s School