February 27, 2020

The Baker: Chapter Thirteen

Ernie stands to the right in this photograph, with the cap on his head. His younger brother is to the left and his mother in the middle, along with an unidentified woman.

PREVIOUSLY: Daughter-in-law Marianne is the only person who stands up to Ernie and get away with it. How?

Marianne remembers the first time she ever met the irascible Ernie. 

The year was 1984. Marianne was nearing the end of a year-long visa to the U.S. She’d come from her childhood home in Casablanca, where her father was a criminal lawyer.

She knew all about strong men.

Marianne went to a party Ernie threw at his house in Oakland. But the host was too busy to talk. He was in the kitchen making donuts.

So she was introduced to his son, Morde.

“He looked good,” she said. “He was sharp, very strict in his talk.”

If this was a match-making effort, Marianne wasn’t interested. Morde, the son, was cute, she thought, but as a petite 103-pound firecracker who’d only just arrived in America, Marianne was interested in having fun, not settling down.

Also, Morde was there with his soon-to-be ex-wife. Not terribly romantic.

That day, she was more transfixed by Morde’s father, a master pastry chef who commanded his kitchen like a field general. “Not only was he making these amazing cream puffs, he was doing everything so fast it made you dizzy.”

Sitting in the kitchen was a woman Marianne later learned was Ernie’s latest girlfriend, who clearly adored her baker boyfriend.

“Yes, sweetheart,” she told him.

When Morde’s wife left the party, the soon-to-be bachelor approached Marianne.

“Aren’t you eating my father’s donuts?” he asked.

“Not right now,” she said. “We’re having dinner soon.”

“Well, you could certainly eat them if you wanted to,” he said. “You look really good.”

He handed her his business card. He was a limo driver.

“I’d love to give you a tour of the city.”

Marianne rolled her eyes. 

Later, after dinner, the father held center court: Ernie led the table conversations that ranged from religion to politics; you name it. Marianne saw a man who could discourse on most any subject. 

But food, it was clear, was his passion.

Marianne also got a bird’s eye view of Ernie’s approach to women. 

It wasn’t pretty.

“The soon-to-be ex-girlfriend’s name was Vicki, and she doted on him,” Marianne recalled. “The problem was that she had three kids. Ernie wanted all of her attention. He wasn’t there to be the father of anyone’s kids.”

That day at the party, Marianne decided she wasn’t going to pursue a married man. 

What she didn’t know was that Morde’s mother, Helen, who had been divorced from Ernie for years, had other ideas.

Helen, who was remarried but also lived in the Bay Area, had seen Marianne at the local synagogue and had quickly decided that she was perfect for her son.

Then, as fate commands, Marianne ran into Helen at a wedding.

“I’d like you to call my son and take him out,” Helen said. 

At this point, Marianne had no idea that she’d already met Morde at Ernie’s party.

But Helen was persistent. 

After weeks of calls from the older woman, Marianne relented. She called the number Helen had given her and left a number with the answering service.

Morde called right back.

“I spoke with your Mom,” Marianne began.

“My Mom?”

“Yeah. She gave me $500 to take you out.”

They both laughed. Then they set a date.

When Morde arrived at her apartment for their date, Marianne gasped.

“I thought ‘Oh my God — I get it now. This is the same guy.’ But he looked great. This time, the connection was immediate.”

The couple dated six months before they got engaged. During that time, Marianne got to know Helen. She had so many questions about the mysterious baker.

It quickly became clear that Helen was the love of Ernie’s life — the one one who got away. He was obsessed with her, even after she remarried.

The feelings ran both ways.

Helen described how she and Ernie had started their life together in Israel after their release from the British camps in Cyprus. 

At one point, Ernie opened a bakery, and the couple lived in a unit right upstairs. Helen rarely saw her husband, because Ernie would not let her help in the kitchen.

Then she got pregnant with Morde. 

What happened next was a precursor of what was to come.

When she was in labor upstairs, Ernie was so busy with the bakery that he couldn’t take time to be by his wife’s side. All day, he ran back and forth up the stairs, from the bakery to the bedroom and back.

When Morde was finally born, Ernie was downstairs in the bakery.

For the young couple, there were other misfires.

Helen loathed Ernie’s rudeness. She hated how he talked to her, in the kitchen especially, in front of employees or even when the two were alone. 

He made her feel stupid. 

When Morde was still young, Helen’s older brother Max approached her about emigrating to the U.S. He’d never liked Ernie in the first place — said he was too tall for Helen — and he knew his sister was unhappy.

And so, on a lark, she accepted his offer, leaving Morde behind with his father because visas were so hard to come by. 

Once in the Bay Area, Helen got a factory job. She learned English. At the synagogue, she stood out. Men competed for her attentions. They took her dancing and to the movies. 

For the first time in years, Helen felt attractive again.

“I realized that I wasn’t that stupid after all,” she told Marianne. “Men wanted me.”

Helen soon bought her own car, got an apartment and became even more independent. 

By the time Ernie arrived in the U.S. a few years later, sponsored by Helen’s older brother Max, who apparently relented in his dislike for his brother-in-law, their relationship had irreparably changed. 

Ernie took her to dinner, tried to win her back. But Helen loved her new life. She slowly broke the news that things were different between them.

As Morde got older, Helen playfully criticized him: “Don’t be like your father. Treat women like they’re a queen.” Or she’d say, “Look at that. You’re just like your father.”

Then Helen met Maurice, a 48-year-old Polish immigrant who had survived a hard-labor camp during the war. He was Ernie’s opposite: Very religious; a smooth talker. And he didn’t like the way Ernie treated people, especially Helen. 

They dated eight years. Finally Helen’s brother told her: He’s not going to wait forever. Ernie was crushed when Helen announced her wedding plans. All these years, he’d secretly hoped that Helen would return to him.

Still, even after Maurice and Helen were married, Ernie stayed in the picture. 

He was invited to all the couple’s social functions. He and Helen spoke by phone most every day. She even offered advice on women Ernie should pursue. 

Helen told the stories, how Ernie was always considered part of the family.

“My God!” Marianne told her one day. “You’re still in love with him!”

“I love him very much because he was my first,” Helen told her. “But am I still in love with him? No.”

Ernie was a hard man, she’d repeat. But he was a good man. 

NEXT: Ernie returns home long after the war to find wounds that haven’t healed

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