Hanukkah always made my mother crazy. She was a special-occasion Jew, working hard on holy days to wrest meaning from a religion she otherwise found sexist and illogical. One year, she freaked out on me while trying to make Hanukkah into a big deal.
Mom was independent and smart. She was a successful freelance writer who researched medical topics for trade journals in New York, an English Ph.D., Miami's first female cab driver, and an Emma Goldman anarchist. She was firm in her politics and distinguished herself by being more extreme than the extremists (I once took her to an "anarchist" meeting with some friends, where the topic was abortion. Everyone there was pro-choice, but Mom left them speechless when she described a fetus as a parasite living off a host). Which, thinking back, explains a lot about my relationship with my mom.
My parents were divorced early on, and it was just the two of us living in the first floor of a corner house in New Haven, Connecticut. We were close, but she had a way of alienating and sometimes frightening me as a teen, with her sharp intelligence and authentic moods. For example, she was so mad at me on my 13th birthday (because I was more interested in my friends and parties than my future) that I hid in the doorway of our living room, afraid to make myself comfortable in her house. But things were always worst on Hanukkah.
Mom's Hanukkah was laden with ceremony: It was a serious holiday with significant connections to a significant history. She would retrace stories about Jews as abused but triumphant underdogs. Then she would symbolically make up for historic oppression with eight days of gift-giving.
Just before Hanukkah in 1984, Mom asked me for her Polaroid camera, which I had borrowed and taken to school just before my school's two-week Christmas break. I had forgotten to bring it home and it was irretrievably stashed in my locker until classes started again in January. She fumed. She stomped her feet and threw a fork at the kitchen floor, which bounced and landed near my foot. She was very scary when she yelled (12 years after her death from bone cancer, I can still hear her nasally New York angry voice. It makes me sweat a little). Sometimes she smoked pot and would calm down. I wished she was high on the day I forgot the camera. She didn't talk to me for 24 hours.
Because it was Hanukkah, the punishment for my crime was exaggerated. She had me unwrap my biggest gift (a stereo with a turntable), which I loved. Then she returned it to the store. When I went back to school, I located the camera and brought it home. I don't remember what she said when I presented it to her, but she gave me the camera to keep.