Photo: Elizabeth Fagan
By Louise Farmer Smith
One winter night after closing time at his florist shop, Yankel Kline and his employee, Owen Flannery, stood side-by-side at the counter wrapping the stems of nosegays for little ballerinas and filling the cones for the tussie-mussies preferred by the old ladies—orders which had to be delivered before nine o’clock the next morning. Except for the whisper of their fingers on the flowers and the purring of their adopted cat, coiled on the counter, the shop was silent.
Suddenly a pounding on the door caused the two men to scatter the flowers. “Oy gevalt! Vos tut zikh?”Yankel gasped.The cat yowled and leapt down, and Yankel saw through the front window that the jeweler, Isaac Goldblum, was hammering the door with the urgency of a man pursued by the devil. Yankel, a small dapper man, grabbed the neck of a heavy crystal decanter he kept handy to clock any intruder over the head, and Owen, a burly red-headed Irish immigrant, reached for a baseball bat he kept for the same purpose. Yankel unlocked and opened the door.
The jeweler pushed into the little shop. “Mr. Kline, you’ve got to help me.” He was breathing heavily inside his great black coat, and there was a sheen on his forehead as though he’d run all the way down Germantown Avenue.
“Goodness, Mr. Goldblum. What is it?”
“Rachel’s young man,” the jeweler panted. “He has just asked me for her hand in marriage.”
“And she wants a big wedding. Oh, Mr. Kline, you know I’ve lost my Freda!” he wailed. “I know nothing about weddings.” The jeweler sank into the only chair in the shop. Owen, always handy, flipped over an empty flower bucket and set it down as a footstool for the jeweler who heaved up one foot at a time, then adjusted his yarmulka and began to press his forehead with his handkerchief.
Yankel had known of the jeweler for years. He had regularly created bouquets for the jeweler’s wife, and when she was struck down by the influenza of 1918, an epidemic that hit Philadelphia more heavily than any other American city, he had created the spray of sweetheart roses that adorned her casket. She’d left a grief-stricken husband and a daughter of sixteen.
“You’d like me to do the flowers?” asked Yankel.
“Yes, yes, and a—” The jeweler began to swing his handkerchief in great arcs.
“Ah, you want a chuppah.”
“Yes, yes, a very special chuppah. The best. Something wonderful. And what else will I need?”
“Ah,” said Yankel, “probably a million things, but there must be fifty women in this city who will be eager to help you with all that.” Wealthy jeweler, he thought to himself — maybe five hundred women.
“You are right, Mr. Kline. There are a dozen women inquiring every day about my health and my diet and my daughter. I will have plenty of advisers.”
“Yes,” said Yankel, “but you must choose one, just one.”
Mr. Goldblum frowned and then nodded with his whole body, yes, to the wisdom of this.
“Your daughter will be married at your home?”
“Yes, she wants to hold the erusinin the garden in the back. I’ll have it mowed, but you must make it special. Make it look like a wedding.”
“Ah, Mr. Goldblum, you have nothing to worry about. It will be the most beautiful chuppah Philadelphia has ever seen.”
“Oh, Mr. Kline, Mr. Kline, you are just the kind of man I need to ensure that I delight my Rachel with a grand wedding.”
Yankel Kline had established himself within the business community of Philadelphia as hardworking, honest, and sober. His personal life was also without blemish. In middle age he had married Lilly Singer, the nineteen-year-old only daughter of a furniture merchant, and at that time he’d worked as an accountant for The Mechanics National Bank. After young Lilly died in the same catastrophic epidemic that took the jeweler’s wife, Yankel channeled his grief into caring for her parents until their deaths from pneumonia in 1921 and 1922.
Using his inheritance from his in-laws, Yankel bought a small townhouse at the end of a block near Logan Square, as well as a building on Germantown Avenue in the heart of Philadelphia commerce. He interviewed a long line of immigrants before choosing Owen, a man who still had the smell of steerage about him and the wild eyes of a lonely man who missed his home. Owen was younger than Yankel, though no child. “Why you choose this Catholic,” Yankel was asked many times, “when there are so many nice Jewish immigrants needing work?” Yankel wasn’t sure. Owen had a body for labor, yet a wise and sympathetic nature. Yankel’s instinct told him that this man would stay. With Owen’s help, Yankel opened a flower shop from which he provided flowers for happy and sad occasions. His immaculate clothes and erect demeanor recommended him as just the sort to depend on for a lovely bouquet.
Twice a week before dawn Owen drove the horse and wagon into the countryside to bring back cut jonquils, potted tulips, hyacinth, and crocus in the spring, and carnations, dahlias, daisies, zinnias, and roses in the summer. Owen also took care of the horse, and drove Yankel home after work to Logan Square in the Ford Model T sedan. Owen kept his things and slept in a small room above the carriage house but took his meals in the main house.
Tonight at dinner, almost five years after the shop opened, Yankel raised his glass of port to toast the most challenging order they had received since making fifty large and politically competitive wreaths for Governor Sproul’s funeral. Besides, this chuppah for the jeweler’s daughter’s wedding was better, happier. Yankel himself had of course been married under a chuppah, a simple canopy in his in-laws garden, so he understood its function and basic architecture, but this!This was a chance of a lifetime. Be artistic, be flamboyant, is what the jeweler had meant. Spare no expense. The jeweler was a civic leader, and the photographs of this wedding would appear in The Jewish Exponent and the society pages of the state-wide newspapers.
Yankel and Owen pushed their plates and glasses aside and snuffed out the candles. Yankel brought the electric lamp and set it on the kitchen table. As he began to describe a chuppah, Owen sketched on the heavy watercolor paper that was always handy on the sideboard. Four supports with a “roof” of silk. Silk banded in gold. Ivy to climb the poles. They could hide vines rooted in pots at the bases of the poles.
“Perhaps lilies, nestled in the ivy,” Yankel said as though he had already decided.
“But won’t the ladies be complaining that the strong odor of the lilies makes them faint?” Owen asked.
“It’s going to be outside, Owen. Besides, the last lady to make that protest was the governor’s mother.”
Exchanges rough and easy continued as the skillet sat in the sink and the cat looked on from atop the sideboard. Where could they get enough lilies in June? And shouldn’t the couple have a curved path laid with flagstones? What about other vines, more exotic than the English ivy people saw every day on the university buildings? “Morning glories?” Owen asked.
“Never! Out of the question—too flimsy and the chance of their staying open through the afternoon, nil.” The two men argued, suggested, and insisted, their voices sometimes raised, and sometimes especially wonderful ideas were whispered.
Telegrams must be sent immediately to suppliers all the way north to Vermont and south as far as Georgia, asking for projections of their peak bloomings of pink lilies as well as irises, delphiniums, and long-stemmed tulips—tall flowers to line the path to the chuppah. There would be plenty of hydrangeas and camellias locally to fill in if worse came to worst. But the jeweler would want rarer flowers. These must arrive on the train the evening before. They would work through the night to be ready for the morning wedding.
“Oh my,” said Yankel looking at the watch he had inherited from his father-in-law. “It’s two o’clock in the morning.”
Owen grinned his closed-mouth grin hiding the gaps in his teeth. “Good thing, isn’t it, that we’re still having three full months to work on this!” The two men, so different in their bodies and coloring, laughed and clapped each other’s hands, exhausted yet still wide awake.
The wedding was to be held on the second Tuesday in May. For the next three months Yankel and Owen thought of little else, so the temptation to whisper to each other in the shop was very great, but they were both disciplined in retaining the behaviors of proud merchant and employee and resorted to both written and mental notes to hold their thoughts until they could share them within the curtained privacy of the kitchen. Once they were there, their ideas tumbled out, colliding with each other as Yankel cooked: The supports would not be painted gold, but silver. Then shouldn’t the silk canopy also be trimmed in silver? Perhaps all the flowers should be white. No, no. The bride and groom will be in white. Nothing should compete with their glowing raiment.
“And why a Tuesday?” Owen asked.
“Genesis,” Yankel answered. “It was on the third day of the week that God surveyed His work and saw that it was not only good, but double good. It’s in there. Twice.”
“And you think shopkeepers will be wanting to close up on a Tuesday to attend this fine wedding?”
“Owen, we are Jews. We love laws, rules, precedents.”
Yankel, who was not a devoutly religious man and rarely attended synagogue. But now he spoke often with Rabbi Shafsin, and reported to Owen on the meanings of the various stages of the ceremony.
The jeweler dropped in often to reassure himself that his daughter’s wedding was uppermost in the florist’s mind. A month after the jeweler commissioned the chuppah, he dropped in just as Yankel was locking up. “How is everything?” he asked. “You’ll have plenty of flowers on the special day? Very fresh.”
Yankel glanced at Owen who was behind the counter doing the sums for the day. Owen nodded his agreement and took out from under the counter the delicate watercolor sketch of the chuppah. Yankel handed it to the jeweler.
“Ahh,” the jeweler breathed. He looked into Yankel’s eyes with an unaccustomed, childlike gaze.
“You can do this?”
Yankel nodded and took back the sketch. There were no more nervous visits from the jeweler, only hearty waves and smug smiles from a man let in on a glorious secret.
One night when Yankel was cooking fish, and Owen was sitting at the kitchen table, the cat in his lap, Yankel reported the details of what transpired under a chuppah: how the groom, attired in white to denote the fresh start the couple were making in their life together, promised the bride food, clothing, dwelling, and pleasure. Owen listened, mouth ajar at hearing this promise. “Sweet Jesus, they’re using very plain language spelling all this out. We Catholics pretend weddings have nothing whatsoever to do with pleasure.”
Yankel continued. “When the bride enters the chuppah, she circles the groom to symbolize her as a protective being who will illuminate their home with understanding and love from within and protect it from harm from without. In this way the bride and groom create their own new world together.”
“Faith, it’s beautiful to think on,” breathed Owen, who lowered his eyes to look into the darkness in the corner of the room.
The poor boy looked so serious, thought Yankel. He was so unlike the typical Irish immigrant, the picture that most Jews in Philadelphia imagined when they thought of an Irishman: a rowdy, irresponsible vilde chaye who abandoned his family every night to go out drinking and brawling. But Owen wasn’t like that at all. He never went out.
Yankel also thought of his poor little Lilly, dead so young, and wondered for the hundredth time if a different husband might not have carried her out of the way of the epidemic. But then his head immediately clattered with worry about the chuppah, as it did every day, anticipating the difficulties of working with fragile living things and the vagaries of weather. Concentrate on the cod in your skillet, he told himself.
On the day before the morning ceremony, the trains from both the north and the south were delayed. “I am a dead man,” Yankel muttered as he paced along the platform at the depot, checking his pocket watch, while Owen, across town, unloaded all their other materials onto an oilcloth in the jeweler’s garden. The bride’s bouquet as well as the flowers for the tables awaited in the icebox back at the shop. The skies were dark, a light drizzle was falling, and a capricious wind had come up. And worse, it was well into the afternoon before the lilies and baby’s breath were unloaded from the trains. To attempt to twine flowers and ivy in the wind was futile, and the gusts could tear the canopy off its frame. Yankel and Owen agreed to lay the flagstone path across the spacious, brick-walled garden from the back of the jeweler’s house curving between the elms to the far corner where the chuppah would be placed. They would anchor the supports but hold off on attaching the canopy and flowers until the wind died down.
After these tasks were completed, they waited. Owen, perched on a rung of their stepladder, glowered at the evening sky. Yankel, pacing the edges of the oilcloth on which all the makings of the chuppah lay in orderly patterns, groaned, “These flowers will be used for my funeral.” Then he allowed his thoughts to stretch out into the future. For the first time in his life, he felt the weight of time was against him. Not the quickly vanishing light, but the years ahead. Just this morning, he’d discovered that his black curling hair, of which he was so proud, was peppered with more white than he’d imagined. He saw that Owen’s powerful shoulders were showing the first signs of rounding, and his own stomach had grown soft. What did the future hold for them, with neither of them having any kin?
As soon as the evening sky cleared, the garden began to fill up with intruders, each group more sure of its own importance than the last. Yankel and Owen had anticipated that they would be alone in the garden to build the chuppah, but as the wind whipped up, men and boys hurried around them setting up tables and lining up chairs, delivering firewood and wooden boxes of glasses and plates. Some of Yankel’s buckets holding the tall flowers were overturned by careless laborers.
“Gottenyu, a bulvon,” Yankel muttered to himself, then yelled, “You’re crushing the petals!”
“Watch yourself, fancy pants!”
The loud voices brought the jeweler out of his house just in time to see the little florist shouting in the face of the ham-fisted laborer. Owen jumped in front of Yankel, and the lout gave him a push in the chest that sent him sprawling backward into Yankel’s arms. Both men fell onto the grass, red in the face and scrambling to get up. Owen was fuming, and Yankel pulled him back by the sleeve.
“Forget that brute.”
The brute shot back, “By golly, me thinks we have here an old married couple.” Owen lunged, but Yankel still held his sleeve, which began to tear, and Owen stopped himself to save the shirt.
“Everyone, hurry up!” the jeweler shouted. “Finish and clear out of the way of the florist!” He walked over to see that the florist was unharmed.
“This wind,” gasped the florist. “This wind will make a sail of the canopy. We’ll do that last.”
The jeweler nodded and went back inside.
By the time they were finally alone, the garden was completely dark. Yankel held a flaming torch as Owen, standing on the ladder, pounded the four supports further into the rain-softened ground. Then Owen held the torch as Yankel sank the pots of wisteria he had transplanted from his own trellis at home. With green twine, he gently attached lilies to each snaking stem and worked his way spiraling up the wooden poles, twining lilies and wisteria vine, tucking in roses and baby’s breath, anchoring the twine with a tap of his small hammer onto brass brads.
The lights from the windows of the jeweler’s household slowly went out and the shades were drawn. The garden was still. The flower arrangers didn’t speak. Their work was difficult and exhausting after a trying day, and they changed places often as their fingers wearied. Finally, the last flowers were attached, and the silk canopy was lashed on with needle and heavy button cord. Each corner was tied with many narrow white ribbons left to hang loose.
The chuppah was finished but, as though by an unspoken agreement, except for quick checks for craftsmanship and stability, the men ignored it. They didn’t gaze at it or speak. Silently they collected their tools and shook out the oilcloth. Then, each taking up two corners, they folded it, lapping and meeting, one handing off corners to the other, lapping and meeting, growing closer and closer. Just as they tossed the tarp on the handcart, the moon came out, and they could no longer keep their eyes off the chuppah. Yankel walked toward the house to stand at the start of the flagstone path and view the chuppah as the bride would first see it. A gentle breeze lifted the moonlit ribbons to dance at each corner of the glowing silk, which seemed to vibrate and call to Yankel with an energy that sang in his bones.
Owen poked the burning end of the torch into the dark, moist earth of a flowerbed, then came to stand beside Yankel who could not look at him. Still wet and shining in the moonlight, the path curved between the elms on its way to the beckoning chuppah which now seemed alive. In stride, and without touching, Yankel and Owen walked to stand beneath it. The silk shimmered above their heads, then went dark as a cloud crossed the moon. Yankel held his breath. He could tell that Owen was trembling and took his hand.
“No rabbi,” Owen said, and squeezed Yankel’s hand.
“Nor ring,” whispered Yankel.
“No family,” said Owen.
“Nor friends,” sighed Yankel. “Not even our cat as a witness.”
They stood a few more moments, looking up at the chuppah. Then they turned their backs on each other and silently loaded the wagon.