Was In A Name?
In 1972, in the fourth grade, I did not think about my name much—Catherine
Reidt—it seemed fine to me. Besides singing “The Name Game” in
music class and occasionally teasing a kid with an obviously odd name,
like the boy named “Neafiey” or the girl with the last name “Woodchuck,” names
were not very important to an elementary school kid. After all, what
was in a name? My name did not contain information about who I really
was or what my best friend, Jackie Goldstein,
thought about me.
Her parents, on the other hand, proved to have a very different opinion.
Jackie and I did everything together at school, and although Mrs. Clock usually
did not allow friends to sit within a paper airplane’s soaring reach,
she seemed to realize that Jackie and I brought out the best in each other
and allowed us the special privilege of sitting in the same group. Jackie was
a pretty girl, a little stockier and shorter than me—although, everyone
seemed to be. I was called the class “string-bean”—tall and
skinny. She had beautiful, curly, black hair that I envied, especially when
my “carrot-top” looked so stringy after gym class. Her bright blue
eyes resembled the sky on a clear day. I liked my eyes though; they were big
and brown, like a sad Cocker Spaniel’s. Jackie told me they were difficult
to resist when I wanted something. She and her big “pumpkin smile” had
no problem cheering me up, even on the dreariest days.
Together, Jackie and I enjoyed many of the same
things. School was fairly easy for both of us; we were good students and favored
the same subjects. We would dream, during geography class, of visiting other
lands and the interesting people we would meet. Our history class did not include
much more than reading about the Pilgrims and Indians and studying current
events, but often times, we—unknowingly—chose the same newspaper
article to bring in for our oral report. On Thanksgiving, although, Jackie
always wanted to be the Indian donning the fancy
feathered headdress while
I just had to be a Pilgrim wearing a fancy, ruffled, white collar and buckles
on my shoes. We both loved to draw—especially cartoon figures. At recess,
we brought our baseball cards and compared our collections (we knew more about
the sport than most of the boys did). Our personalities were much the same, as
well; we stood up for what was right and did not like to see anyone needlessly “picked
on.” During the holidays, her parents invited me to their home to get to
know the “Catherine” that Jackie spoke of so frequently.
The Goldstein family had a cute, little, one-story house in a nice neighborhood.
Jackie did not have to live with her grandparents and great-grandmother as my
mom, younger brother, and I did. She lived with her dad, mom, and one older brother.
They all gathered together in the kitchen when it was time for dinner. Each family
member had a special job to do; setting the table was like an assembly line.
Devout Jews had special dishes for certain things. I received a cold stare when
I requested milk to drink with my dinner. I did not understand—it was the
only thing I usually drank at home with any meal. Then again, meals at my house
were kind of a “free for all.”
I had known that Jackie’s culture was different from mine. After all,
she did not go to Catholic school on Wednesdays, as I did; she would come in
to class chanting Hebrew folk songs. I liked that about her. She even taught
me how to play a dreidel game once. We played every day for a week on the school
playground during recess. I even won a few times! She wore a “Star of
David” around her neck; I wore a crucifix, but she was my best friend.
That evening, however, was different. When her
father asked me for my full name, I felt as if I had been summoned to the principal’s
office without cause. “Catherine Sandra Reidt,” I told him. He
looked at Jackie’s
mom as if he knew something about me that I did not. Dinner was very quiet
after that; even Jackie did not say much. I hoped I had not used the wrong
fork or forgotten and put my elbows on the table or something. “That’s
a German name, right?” he asked, almost ten minutes later. “Yes,” I
told him. I did not know what else to say; I lived with my French speaking
relatives since my parents divorced. Was Jackie’s father a language major?
I could probably rattle off a phrase in French if he wanted to hear words other
than English or Hebrew at the dinner table, but something told me to keep my
mouth shut after that, except for eating. The lox and matzo balls, that Jackie
spoke of often, were different from my grandmother’s baked ham and homemade
sour dough bread, but tasty. Mom came to pick me up shortly after dinner.
Jackie and I said our good-byes, but—suddenly—I felt we were as
different as “The Frog and Toad” in our reading book we read in
Mrs. Clock’s class.
The next day at school, things had changed. My teacher had moved our desks
around—I was now to the far right of the room and Jackie to the far left.
My sad puppy
dog eyes could not reach her now. During recess, she had no big “pumpkin
smile” to instantly cheer me up on that dreary day. My teacher sympathetically
suggested that I
play dodge ball with some of the other girls. Mrs. Clock sadly shook her head
as she walked off—somehow, I knew it was not she that wanted Jackie and
me to be separated.
That evening, I lay in bed with tears in my eyes unable to fathom why I had
just lost my best friend, Jackie Goldstein. My 9-year old mind did not understand
the term “Anti-Semitism” or the horror that Hitler had inflicted
on so many families, leaving fearful memories for generations to come—in
the name of his one “superior race.” I eventually realized it had
nothing to do with using the wrong fork or placing my elbows on the table.
It was what was in our names.
In 1940, Neville Chamberlain summed up his feelings for the harsh Nazi ruler
in a speech to the House of Commons where he simply stated, “Hitler has
missed the bus.” However, the aftermath of his tyrannical ways sent a bitter
chill throughout the yellow school bus on that cold December morning in 1972.