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A Real Yom Tov

This isn’t the foil pans, Ma, I thought. You’re just overworked.

 

I

’ll always remember that Pesach as The Year We Skipped Shefoch Chamas’cha. And also as The Year I Found My Mother Crying in the Kitchen.

We had been married for eight years, we had four kids, and we had yet to make our own Pesach or Succos. Not because I didn’t want to, mind you — I would have been thrilled to make Yom Tov myself. But my husband Ari felt that as long as his parents and mine wanted us to spend Yom Tov with them, we should make the effort, even if it was hard for us.

And it was hard. In my parents’ house, there was one bedroom for our family of six; our older kids slept on mattresses in the playroom. We were a bunch of married couples, plus a few younger siblings, all of us sharing one bathroom, and the crowding was a challenge each time anew. When you spend two or three days of Yom Tov in close quarters, it’s hard to stay on good terms with the people you love.

Plus, my mother was often overwhelmed — by the nonstop cooking, by the noise, by the mess. I felt constant pressure to be on top of the kids and make sure they weren’t waking someone up, or spilling their drinks on the floor, or fighting with their cousins. I also felt obligated to help my mother prepare, serve, and clean up — which meant that I couldn’t be supervising my kids at the same time. So I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. Ari was good about watching the kids, but what ended up happening was that the two of us never had privacy or time together.

In my mother-in-law’s house, things were completely different. We were the only married couple, and my mother-in-law waited on us hand and foot. Happily.

Ari’s older brother Michael was doing postdoctoral work in political science, and his younger sister Eliana was studying to become a veterinarian. His youngest brother, Jack, was a sports-crazed teenager. Living in a different city, with no little children in the house, my mother-in-law looked forward all year to our Yom Tov visits. She always insisted that I sit at the table and relax, and she’d offer to watch the kids in the morning so that I could sleep and in the afternoon so that Ari and I could go out. We had her entire basement to ourselves, with enough sleeping space for everyone.

It was a dream vacation — in theory. The problem was that when it came to all things religious, my in-laws had, uh, a very different style of doing things. My father-in-law, a successful neurologist, would come to the Seder holding a Kermit the Frog puppet as a prop. (“Comes in handy for Tzefardei’a,” he’d say every year.) As he read the Haggadah, he’d tie the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim to contemporary issues and current events.

Ari didn’t seem to be bothered by his parents’ Sedorim, or by their general lackadaisical approach to Yiddishkeit. “This is how they were brought up,” he told me many times. “They keep halachah — at least the halachos they know — and they try to be good people. It’s not my father’s fault that his parents didn’t send him to yeshivah, or my mother’s fault that she didn’t go to Bais Yaakov. I was lucky that they sent me to the frummer school here in town, but what business is it of mine to judge them?”

And so, year after year, we continued going to my in-laws for Yom Tov. But last Pesach, even Ari agreed that things went too far.

The Seder began more or less the same way it did every other year. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” my father-in-law intoned. “And today, we still have human-rights abuses being perpetrated all over the globe — in Sudan, in Syria, in Guantanamo Bay. Slavery is alive and well!”

“Dad,” whined Jack, “can we hurry up? I want to get to the food already.”

“The Torah spoke about four sons,” my father-in-law recited, giving Jack a meaningful look. “A wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and a son who doesn’t know how to ask.”

Eliana rolled her eyes. “Why does everything have to be about sons?” she complained. “This is so chauvinistic.”

During the meal, Ari said a nice devar Torah, and everyone listened politely — except Jack, who was too busy slurping his soup. But immediately after the devar Torah, the discussion turned to national politics. With chatzos rapidly approaching, Ari and I chewed our afikomen to the backdrop of a heated debate about health care reform.

After bentshing, Michael spoke up. “Dad,” he objected, “listen to these words — ‘Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations.’ That’s so medieval and intolerant! I vote that we skip this paragraph.”

With that, Shefoch chamas’cha was duly excised from the Seder. I excused myself from the table, officially to open the door for Eliyahu Hanavi, but really to take some deep breaths of fresh air.

I barely lifted a finger all through the first days of Yom Tov, thanks to my mother-in-law’s solicitousness. But by the time we left my in-laws’ house on the second day of Chol Hamoed, I had made up my mind that this was the last time we’d be there for Yom Tov.

“Our kids are getting older,” I told Ari. “They can’t be exposed to these warped hashkafos. It’s time they experienced a real Yom Tov.”

From there, we drove the six hours to my parents’ house. We arrived at 10 p.m., with all the kids tired and cranky after being cooped up in the car for so long. We were all ravenous, too. But my mother had gone to sleep — “She was exhausted after cooking all day,” my father explained — and there didn’t seem to be any food around.

“Mommy left some supper for you guys,” my 18-year-old brother Gavriel piped up, “but I had a couple of friends over, and we got a little hungry.”

Oh.

Wearily, I opened the fridge, took out a bunch of eggs, and served my family scrambled eggs and matzah. By the time I got everyone settled in their unfamiliar beds, cribs, and mattresses on the floor, it was after midnight, and Ari and I were both exhausted. “Can we unpack in the morning?” he asked.

“It’s going to be a zoo here,” I pointed out.

“But we can’t see anything now,” he said. “We can’t turn on the light, because the kids are sleeping in the room. It doesn’t make sense to unpack now.”

“Okay,” I agreed uneasily.

In the morning, I made sure to be up early, so that my mother wouldn’t have to deal with my kids on her own.

“Hi, Mimi,” she greeted me, “how was your trip?”

“Long,” I said with a grin.

“I know,” she sympathized. “By the way, Mim, do you by any chance know what happened to the rest of the eggs? I wanted to start cooking before the breakfast wave, but every last egg disappeared. And I went to the grocery three times yesterday!” She sighed.

“I’m so sorry, Ma,” I exclaimed. “We used up the eggs last night. I’ll run over to the grocery and pick up some more.”

“Thanks,” she said. “And while you’re there, do you mind buying me some big kosher l’Pesach foil pans? I’ve gone through about a million already this Yom Tov, especially since I have to cook separate non-gebrochts for Leah’s family.”

I bought four dozen eggs in the grocery, but I couldn’t find the big foil pans, so I walked a few blocks to a different grocery. They had the right size pans, but not the kosher l’Pesach ones my mother wanted. I went to a third store, and finally I found the right foil pans.

When I came home, even before I could put down the eggs, my 15-year-old sister Kayla walked up to me, holding Moishy, my toddler. “He’s dirty,” she said.

“I’ll take him in a minute,” I said. “I need to put down this stuff.”

Kayla’s hair was unmade, and she looked half-asleep. “What are you up so early?” I asked. “It’s only 8:30!”

“Mommy woke me up to watch your kids,” she said. “She said she didn’t know what was taking you so long, and she couldn’t handle the kids and the kitchen all by herself.” Kayla didn’t look particularly pleased.

“Oh, no!” my mother shrilled. “You bought the regular foil pans!”

“Yeah,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

“These ones drip. Lately I only use the heavy-duty ones.” This isn’t the foil pans, Ma, I thought. You’re just overworked.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll ask Ari to exchange them when he comes home from shul.”

The minute Ari walked through the door, I handed him the bag with the foil pans. “Do you mind exchanging these for my mother I asked?”

He looked a bit nonplussed. “Right this second?” he asked. “Can I eat something first?”

“Listen, Ari,” I whispered, “my mother seems a little stressed. Maybe you’ll do it before breakfast?”

“Fine,” he said. “Can I at least put down my tallis bag?”

At that moment, my six-year-old son Daniel bounded into kitchen. “Bubby, what’s for breakfast? I’m starved!”

“Daniel,” I interjected, “Bubby’s busy. I’ll give you breakfast. Do you want matzah with butter, or cheese?”

“I don’t like matzah!” he whimpered. “I want an omelet, folded over with melted cheese, like Grandma makes.”

My mother looked a bit stricken.

“We’re not having omelets today,” I said firmly.

“That’s okay, Mimi,” my mother said. “I’ll make Daniel an omelet.”

Amazing how kids know to play one grandmother against the other, I thought. “I’ll take care of it, Ma,” I said. “You sit down.” I turned on the stove and cracked a few eggs into a cup. “Does anyone else want an omelet?”

My brother-in-law Shragi walked into the kitchen at that moment. “Sure, I’ll take one,” he said magnanimously.

“Mimi!” It was Kayla, calling me from the living room. “Are you taking Moishy?”

I quickly turned off the stove and headed to the living room. “I’m so sorry,” I told Kayla. “I just got busy here with breakfast. Here, give him to me.”

I took Moishy to my room to change him. As I was hurriedly closing his snaps, so that I could get back to my omelets, my four-year-old daughter Sarala sat up on her mattress and rubbed her eyes.

“Mommy, I need clothing,” she said.

“Soon, sheifeleh,” I said. “I just have to finish something in the kitchen.”

“But I can’t go out of the room in my pajamas! Daniel said it’s not tzniyusdig!” Tears welled up in her eyes.

I sighed. If Daniel had told her that, there was no point in trying to argue.

Holding Moishy in one hand, I opened a suitcase and started rummaging around for clothing for Sarala. I had packed tons of clothing, but now I didn’t see anything for Sarala to wear. There were the two outfits I had prepared for the last days of Yom Tov, but what about for Chol Hamoed?

I deposited Moishy in the Pack-’n-Play, opened the second suitcase, and started piling clothing on my bed. I quickly ran out of space, so I opened a couple of drawers and started to put away some of the stuff.

“Did you find me something to wear yet?” Sarala asked.

“I’m working on it!” I snapped.

Finally, I found her a skirt and a top, and I picked up Moishy and hurried back to the kitchen. I found my mother alone in the kitchen, sitting at the table, tears rolling down her face.

“Ma, what happened?” I asked in concern.

“Nothing,” she said, sniffling. “I just got a little overwhelmed when you left the omelets in middle and I had to start making them for everyone. Don’t pay attention to me, I’m just overreacting.”

I felt like crying, too.

Just then, Ari came through the door, cheerily waving a bag of heavy-duty foil pans. “Here you go, shvigger!” he announced. “Now, is anything left of breakfast?”

“How about some matzah with cream cheese?” I suggested, hoping that Ari would take the hint.

He didn’t. “I was thinking that maybe I’ll make myself an omelet,” he said cheerily.

My mother slipped out of the kitchen.

“You see?” I cried. “It’s all your fault!”

Ari looked confused. “What’s my fault?”

“It’s your fault that we didn’t unpack last night!”

“Huh?”

“Yes, and because of that, I couldn’t find clothing for Sarala this morning, and I had to leave the eggs in middle, and my mother ended up making omelets for everyone, and then I found her crying!”

Ari shook his head. “I didn’t understand any of that,” he said. “Can you start from the beginning?”

At that point, Kayla swept into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

I gestured to Ari to go into the living room, but Shragi was sitting there trying to learn. We headed to my father’s study, but he was in there, talking on the phone. We went down to the basement, but my sister Leah was there. “Hi, Mimi!” she said. “So nice to see you!”

“I’ll talk to you later,” I mumbled.

“Gosh,” Ari muttered, “you can’t even have an argument in this house!”

I didn’t laugh. “Let’s go out to the porch,” I said.

On the porch, I started to explain what had happened, but not two minutes into my tale, Kayla popped her head out the door. “Daniel hit Sarala, and she’s crying,” she reported.

We never did get to finish our argument, and Ari never did understand what our unpacking had to do with my mother’s tears. He did agree after Pesach, however, that we would make Succos this year on our own. We couldn’t invite anyone, because our house was too small and the space we had for a succah barely fit our own family.

“You’re going to make Succos yourself, dear?” my mother-in-law asked in consternation when she heard that we weren’t planning to join them for Yom Tov. “But how can you possibly do it all? To cook all those meals, and wash all those dishes, while taking care of the kids? You work so hard as it is!” She paused. “And what’s Yom Tov without the grandchildren?” She sounded so sad that for a moment my resolve wavered. But then I reminded myself about Shefoch chamas’cha.

I don’t care how much I have to cook, I thought stoutly. At least it will feel like Yom Tov.

My mother was similarly dismayed. “We’re not going to have you for Yom Tov?” she exclaimed. “It won’t be the same here without you!”

“We’ll come visit on Chol Hamoed,” I soothed her. “I really don’t want to burden you, Ma.”

Chas v’shalom!” she cried. “It’s my nachas! So it gets a little hectic at times. But this is what Tatty and I live for! What’s Yom Tov without you and your kids?”

And what’s Yom Tov when you you’re constantly tripping over other people? I thought irritably.

When my friends heard that I was planning to be home for Succos, they said, “Wow, you’re so brave to be making Yom Tov yourself.”

Brave? I thought. Try driving six hours to my in-laws and sitting at the Seder with Kermit the Frog, or squishing into my parents’ house and trying to stay on good terms with everyone.

“We’re not a young couple anymore,” I answered my friends lightly.

I’m looking forward to making my own menus, cooking in my own kitchen, and enjoying the privacy of our own little succah. Yet I can’t help but feel sadness that our parents won’t be part of our Yom Tov. I think about how calm and pleasant this Succos is going to be, and I tell myself, I’m not brave at all.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 529)

 

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