She was just a listening ear. It was a different role, and in time she would get used to it, but she missed being the problem solver.
The air in the car was heavy with unspoken words that both Reuven and Nechama lacked the energy to share. He could smell dissatisfaction, and clearly, he was opting to wait it out rather than ask her what was bothering her.
They had an afternoon vort in Brooklyn, and they had just eaten lunch, so no one was hungry. There had been a time in their life when an opportunity like this — just the two of them in the car, the sun shining brightly and the highway blessedly free of traffic — would be an invitation to really talk, away from the noise and constant demands of the children.
They had made a rule, back then. No discussing the kids on their trips, no reviewing PTA or running through what the dentist said. There hadn’t been many opportunities, but when they came, Reuven and Nechama were always ready: Sometimes they played word games, or even sang songs, but those private car rides to wherever had always had a special feeling.
But now life had become a private car ride and, if she was being honest, the noise and demands of the children would have been very welcome to Nechama.
The kids still called, of course. They still needed help. They liked to talk about their day, and no one said no to Nechama sending over supper or Shabbos, but they didn’t need her the way they once had, and when they unwound about their own children or frustrations at work, it wasn’t like they really wanted advice or direction.
She was just a listening ear. It was a different role, and in time she would get used to it, but she missed being the problem solver. When the girls were teenagers, she had listened to their social issues, the problems with this friend or the other, and validated them. Back then they looked at her like the smartest person in the world. When they’d been newly married, then new mothers, they had needed her advice at all hours of the day.
When money was tight for them, she would tell them about her and Reuven’s early days, how she’d stretched his salary and never ever let on to the children that they were struggling, happy to pass on this sort of thing to her children. She also wanted them to know that, even though you could look around and get the wrong idea, money didn’t grow on trees, and it took work to get to where she and Reuven had, years of making smart decisions and being strong enough not to buy/travel/join just because “everyone else” was. It was stuff like that that led to a comfortable retirement, and it was good for them to know this.
In time, the conversations with her children became more predictable; their crises either kept private, or worked out with their husbands. (Or between themselves? Did her daughters talk to each other and leave her out? she sometimes wondered.) She tried to be gracious about the shift, congratulating herself on the fact that her children had comfortably settled into marriage, child raising, and real life.
She knew why it was suddenly bothering her now. It was because Reuven had become all involved in community stuff. He’d been a quiet bystander for so long, interested in hearing her take, asking questions if he didn’t understand something, but that had been the extent of his involvement. He left running the family to her.
Now, with both their son and their son-in-law helping him with the rabbi search, and Reuven more determined than ever to get the job done, he was constantly moving from phone call to phone call, new messages piling up on his phone by the time he hung up. He watched videos of speeches and listened to shiurim, trying to get a feel for the candidates, and it was becoming very obvious that, at least in his mind, the whole success of his tenure as chairman of the neighborhood council depended on this one thing, finding the perfect rav. He was the one in the center and she was on the sidelines.
She couldn’t tell him that she felt left out, that it irked her that he was fully engaged in this and she had nothing to contribute, that she wasn’t the one updating him.
As Reuven flicked the turn signal in the quiet car, Nechama thought back to brunch after the weekly Alameda women’s shiur, when Chana Myers from Dublin Court, a talkative, honest sort whom Nechama liked, was telling a little group about her week.
“I had the nerve to get sick, can you imagine that? Like, I was totally out of commission for two days, barely able to move, let alone prepare breakfast, lunch, and supper for Shimon, like he expects. He was completely lost. He likes being taken care of, Shimon.” She laughed easily when she said this, and the other women — most of whom wouldn’t admit such a thing in public about their husbands, but who all identified with it, moved closer. “And he was just wandering around the house like he was a guest from another planet, asking little questions, ‘Chana, how long does macaroni go in the microwave for? Why isn’t the cheese melted? Is the yellow knife milchig or fleishig?’ ” She imitated the hesitant, uncertain voice and the women around her laughed.
“Anyhow, I got better, baruch Hashem, eventually, and guess what happened next?”
It was quiet around Chana Myers, the little group frozen with anticipation.
“The very next morning, like not even a few days later, but mamash the next morning, I was all back to myself, excited to get out and go back to exercise, to shop and restock the house… but no, Shimon gets sick! Boom! Fever, chills, back into bed, and he needed me home so badly, he was too sick to manage without me.”
Chana Myers rolled her eyes and the circle around her grew a bit bigger.
“Of course, right? I had broken the pattern by not taking care of him for a bit, I had the nerve to get sick, so he had to quickly make it right. That’s how men are. He needed a couple of days of being taken care of, just to restore the balance in the house.”
The woman who delivered the actual shiur looked over at Chana Myers and the little crowd around her and her eyes narrowed. She didn’t come over, though she looked like she wanted to.
“And then, once he was reassured, refuah sheleimah, Shimon! He was back on his feet just like that, all better now that someone took care of him, like things are meant to be, you know?”
Some of the women nodded, some smiled, and some, like Nechama, said nothing, but each one of them knew.
Chana Myers shrugged, winking at the other women and walked to the door. Nechama wished she could follow her and hear more. It had all made so much sense.
But now, as they turned off for the Verrazzano, Nechama realized something and she felt embarrassed.
She was like Shimon Myers. Reuven was changing the pattern in their marriage — she had always been the macher, the involved one, the decision maker — and now her husband was moving in and pushing her to the side and she wasn’t handling it.
That’s what was bothering her, she understood, and this insight made her feel very, very tired.
to be continued...
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 910)
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