I reminded myself that I had no reason to worry. Maybe things would happen at the last minute, but my mother would help me pull this off, I knew I could rely on her
Nothing beats VIP seating.
Secure in the knowledge that my front-row seat at the Beineinu party would be waiting for me whenever I showed up, I took the chance to quickly peel the vegetables for the chicken soup, clean up the kitchen, and get Chaya and Asher bathed and into bed before leaving the house. My mother would’ve said to just skip their baths that night, but I had a soft spot for freshly bathed kids, and really, it took two minutes per bath, so it was no big deal. I also left clear instructions with Lali to make sure Avrumi and Yosef went into bed by eight o’clock sharp, or else, and Tziporah at eight forty-five.
Tziporah overheard that and whined. “Mommy always lets me stay up way later.”
That was probably true, but it was only because our mother didn’t have the headspace to deal with petty things like bedtimes. It didn’t make it right, and Tziporah knew that good and well.
There was no time to do my hair, but as my friend Raizy constantly reminded me, “Ha, ha, Malya, you’re taken, you don’t have to worry about bad hair days anymore.” She was wrong, of course. Who else, if not a kallah, should look amazing at all times?
The issue was that I’d forgotten to use gloves when peeling the vegetables, so never mind my casual ponytail, I was walking into Palazzo with orange palms.
I arrived at the very last minute, just as the emcee announced, “Mrs. Russie Heyman, it’s our greatest honor….”
Mrs. Russie Heyman noticed me slipping into my seat and threw a wink in my direction before wrapping her fingers around the mic. I mouthed, “Go, Ma!” and flashed her the proudest smile. If I was a teeny, tiny bit nervous for her, I knew there was no reason to be. My mother wouldn’t disappoint this audience. She never disappointed anyone.
It didn’t take long for her magic to take effect. With her inimitable storytelling skills, she shared the wrenching tale of a girl whose father collapsed and passed away the morning after her vort.
“So her grief, I don’t have to describe it to you, you can all picture it. She was drowning, totally drowning, and her chasunah was inching closer. She didn’t have the head to focus on any wedding prep, obviously. She told her chassan — a total tzaddik, I have to say. He was her anchor from the first minute, he didn’t leave the shivah house the entire week — to find them an apartment, whatever it was, she didn’t care. One of our amazing, absolutely amazing, volunteers reached out and connected with her, kind of became like her big sister, helping her hold her pain, guiding her to compartmentalize her sorrow and her joy during that intense, confusing time.
“But on top of all that, this father had been the primary breadwinner in the house, which meant that from one minute to the next, the family lost their parnassah. And they were making a chasunah.”
She went on to describe how Beineinu stepped in and covered the entire cost of the wedding.
“We couldn’t bring her father back. But with the help of people like you,” she pointed dramatically at the audience, who responded with polite applause, “who passionately and generously support Beineinu, who care for the yesomim and yesomos of Klal Yisrael, we were able to take this girl to the chuppah.”
After that, she thanked various volunteers who had “worked tirelessly to make this night a reality. And I also want to give a special thank you to my dear daughter, Malya…” She gave me a finger-flutter wave and grin, “for being my right hand at all times, for doing so much behind the scenes, for making it possible for me to devote my time to Beineinu.”
Okay, I had not seen that coming. Good thing they’d dimmed the lights, I was blushing furiously.
When the speech was over, I flung my arms around my mother, nonchalantly holding a fist to conceal my orange palms. “You were really, really good,” I told her honestly. “What did you go and talk about me at the end for? Ugh, Ma, seriously!”
“It’s the least I owe you,” she said. “I don’t know how I’ll manage when you’re married.”
After that, Zehava Hurwitz pulled her over to greet a circle of guests, and I knew that, for the most part, my mother was no longer mine that night.
I spied Raizy together with two other classmates, Naomi and Blima, and they shrieked when they saw me. “We’re famous!” Raizy cried, pumping fists in the air. “I can totally name-drop! You know my friend, Malya Heyman?”
I stuffed my orange palms into my sweater pockets. “Be quiet,” I said miserably.
“’Kay, what are we having?” she asked, leading us toward the buffet.
“You mean what are we having first,” Blima corrected her.
Raizy giggled. “Right, that’s what I meant.”
The buffet looked incredible, and my mouth watered for a plate of kani salad. But I didn’t have the luxury to linger. I was glad I’d been there for my mother’s speech, but I had to go do our Shabbos order now; I’d promised my mother I’d take care of it.
“Eat for me,” I told my friends. “And keep the calories, of course. I’m generous like that.”
“Come on,” Naomi whined. “What’s the rush?”
I shrugged, holding my palms tightly together. “A lot of behind-the-scenes work to take care of. Ha.”
They teased me a little more, and then I squeezed my way past the crowd and left the hall.
It was in the supermarket parking lot, as I waited for my father to pick me up, shifting bags around to keep them from tumbling out of my overflowing cart, that the thrill of the party waned, and I started stressing over all the things we had to take care of before my wedding in five weeks. We were really up to nowhere.
But as I sat in the car and repeated to my father how amazing Mommy had been, I reminded myself that I had no reason to worry. Maybe things would happen at the last minute, but my mother would help me pull this off, I knew I could rely on her.
This was Mrs. Russie Heyman, after all. And she never disappointed anyone.
* * *
Sundays were always the heaviest Beineinu days.
Many volunteers held down jobs throughout the week, so it was only on Sunday that they were free to meet with the directors to review their cases. I could totally relate to that, because Sunday was also the only day of the week that I was off from work. Being engaged, it was the ideal time to hit the stores.
Before my mother left to the Beineinu office, we agreed to meet at three to go shopping for sheva brachos clothes. Until then, my friend Raizy offered to go to some stores with me.
I picked up two pairs of shoes, a weekday top, and in our favorite knick-knack store, Raizy found the cutest placemats that would go perfectly with my milchig dishes.
“Towels next,” Raizy said when we left the store.
I laughed. “I feel like a Beineinu kallah. You’d make the best counselor.”
“Oh, please, Mal. Don’t say that.”
I hadn’t meant it in a bad way. I just kind of felt bad for my mother. I knew how much she would’ve enjoyed running around town with me, it was very her type of thing. Sometimes I felt like her responsibilities stole some of the basic pleasures from her life, even if she vowed that it gave her life so much meaning and she wouldn’t trade Beineinu for anything.
Three o’clock came and went and I wasn’t surprised when my mother apologized that she was running late. “I hope to be done here really soon. You want to start looking on your own?”
Once again, Mommy had been called upon to address the challenges of an orphan’s life, and once again, she rose to the call. When people told me how special my mother was, I always felt like telling them, you don’t know the half of it. You may know what she accomplished, but you’ll never know what she gave up to accomplish it.
I entered Tomorrow’s Times and a sweet saleslady immediately came over to assist me. It was a pity, because my mother had such good taste when it came to clothing, and I really didn’t trust my own opinion enough.
Four o’clock, I found myself in the fitting room of Tomorrow’s Times, frowning at my reflection in the mirror and wondering if the light-blue chiffon set I was wearing looked as flattering on me as the saleslady claimed or if it was too trendy, not really my type.
I called Mommy. “Give me another half an hour, sweetie, yeah? I’m just waiting for Zehava to come in, and she’s running a little late.”
What now? Stand in the fitting room wearing this outfit for half an hour, waiting?
I could do that, as long as people weren’t waiting for the room, but who was I kidding? Half an hour wouldn’t be half an hour, it could easily turn into an hour or even more. “I’ll leave it here for now,” I told the disappointed saleslady. “I need to come back with my mother.”
When that would happen was anyone’s guess, but I preferred to wait for my mother to be available and feel more confident with my choice. Meanwhile, I arrived home to a house that looked like, well, a house where the mother had been out the entire day. “Oh, Malya, great,” my father said when he saw me. “I’ll run and daven Minchah now.”
I felt guilty that he’d had to stay home to babysit all day because I’d been out shopping. But what was I supposed to do? I was getting married, after all, I needed the time to shop. And there was no one else around to babysit. Chananya and Dovid were in yeshivah, and Lali could maybe manage an hour on her own, but more than that was just too much for her. She was only 12.
Asher’s diaper looked like it hadn’t been changed since the morning. Dysfunctional, I couldn’t help thinking.
The issue was, Mommy wouldn’t be bothered by the mess. She’d say to leave it for Tuesday, when Grace would come and clean it. But I wasn’t waiting until Tuesday. I couldn’t live in such a mess.
Immediately, I snapped into take-charge mode.
“Tziporah and Chaya, the playroom. Let’s go, make it spotless, it’s going to be a huge surprise for Mommy. Avrumi, I want you to collect every book from around the house — remember to look under the couch — and organize the bookshelf nicely.” I promised a few tempting rewards for jobs well done, and then I dumped laundry from the dryer onto Lali’s bed. “Your privilege and your honor,” I told her, bowing.
She groaned and went right on reading.
“Lali…” I begged.
She stretched lazily, but then she stuffed a tissue into her book and started pairing socks.
Myself, I ran from room to room, picking up Shabbos shoes and ripped magazine pages, random boxes and shopping bags and a bunch of other stuff that belonged anywhere but on the floor.
When Mommy arrived home — at seven o’clock, completely bombed — the house was more or less clean (not thanks to Tziporah, Chaya, Avrumi, or even Lali — my pleading and rewarding were a spectacular failure, and at one point I realized it would be faster to do everything myself than to experiment with big-sister-parenting techniques and have everyone, myself included, end up in tears). The little kids were bathed and in bed, and there was fresh baked ziti and salad ready to eat.
“Wow, Malya,” Mommy gushed, helping herself to the food. “Reuven has no idea what a gem of a wife he’s marrying. I could just imagine what a mess the house was, and I’m really, really sorry I couldn’t make it to Tomorrow’s Times today. You’re a tzadeikes, you know that.” She released a profound yawn. “What a day… you can’t imagine what a day I had. But really, Mal, you did this all the way. I thought you were just going to order pizza for everyone. Not that I’m complaining. The ziti’s delicious.”
Later, I sat down to write up the reports from my Title 1 sessions the previous week. For a moment, I thought about the light-blue chiffon dress I’d left behind in Tomorrow’s Times. I was a little worried it would be gone by the time I returned with my mother, but that was nothing compared to my much greater worry.
I pictured this day a few weeks down the road. Mommy would arrive home late and drained to overflowing hampers, a flying house, and cranky kids in dirty clothes. She would be starving and there wouldn’t be anything normal in the house to eat, and slowly… slowly….
Slowly, our house would fall apart.
* * *
Then I got married, and our house didn’t fall apart.
I don’t know what went on the first month after my wedding, I was pretty much out of things. Maybe my mother took some time off from work, maybe she hired round-the-clock cleaning help, a cook, and a mother’s helper. Or maybe the house did fly, and I wasn’t there to see it.
But after a month, when the diamond dust started settling and Reuven and I got into some sort of routine, the first thing I noticed on a visit to my parents’ house was that Chaya’s bangs were completely obscuring her vision.
“Come here, gorgeous, Malya’s going to trim your bangies.”
Seven minutes later, her face looked fresh and neat, and her bright blue eyes glinted up at me gratefully.
It was Sunday afternoon, and my mother was actually home. But a quick peek told me that her being home wasn’t getting the laundry washed, because it’s hard to sort laundry while you’re conducting an intense conversation behind the locked door of your room.
I threw in a dark load and lined up the next three loads on the laundry room floor. While the load ran, I poked around the kitchen and found some leftover cholent in the fridge, but nothing more that resembled dinner.
“What’s for dinner tonight?” I asked Lali.
“No idea. Pizza? You’d be shocked at how much pizza we’ve been eating since you got married. I kind of stopped liking it.”
It was as though she’d stuck her fingers through my brand new sheitel and made an irreversible mess of its hair.
Was that really so?
My eyes traveled around the kitchen that was so familiar to me, I could operate it with my eyes closed. I took in the scorched backsplash behind the stove, souvenir of a small kitchen fire I’d caused years back, when I’d made a rash attempt at browning sugar for a Yerushalmi kugel. I saw the loose fridge-door handle, which you had to hold from a specific spot near the top to keep it from coming off. I saw the gold birds island centerpiece, a gift my mother had gotten from an indebted widow, and the plant on the windowsill that….
That was dead.
At that moment, as I dumped the plant in the garbage, the plant I’d religiously watered every Sunday morning since the Shavuos we’d bought it from Lali’s school’s sale, I came to the obvious conclusion.
My mother’s house wouldn’t fall apart.
I simply wouldn’t allow it to.
* * *
My mother called a short while later, as I stepped into the elevator of my building, to thank me. “You’re just too much, Malya! What a treat! It feels like the good old days. Thank you soooo much.”
I pictured the steam rising over the Betty Crocker, boneless thighs grilling in the marinade I’d quickly mixed together. It wasn’t much, only some chicken, and I’d told Lali to serve it over lettuce and tomatoes, with rolls on the side. But it was food, real food, and infinitely more appealing than leftover cholent.
The warmth of that steam filled me with a sense of virtuous satisfaction.
Mommy was still talking, but the reception in the elevator was choppy so it was hard to make out her words. I told her it was my pleasure, and I meant it, it really was.
Reuven arrived home from kollel five minutes after I walked into our apartment. He sniffed the air curiously and asked, “Hmm, what’s for supper?”
I thought for a second, and then I exclaimed, “Pizza!”
* * *
The thing with my Title 1 job — which I loved, for the most part — was that unlike an office job that you leave at five o’clock and forget about until the next day, you’re dealing with people, with children, and that meant that I had to make myself available to speak with parents to discuss concerns, progress, or any other matter related to the services I provided.
And some parents, like Mrs. Zenwirth, were only available to talk at the most inconvenient times. Like while I was getting ready to go to Reuven’s cousin’s wedding.
I could’ve ignored the call, but I did want to talk to her. Her Bashie wasn’t doing well in math; she was having a hard time grasping the basic concept of division. Personally, I thought she would benefit from one-on-one learning sessions, and I wanted to see if Mrs. Zenwirth agreed.
She didn’t. It took all my diplomacy skills to gently get her to see what I was seeing.
It also took all my time.
“Can you hang on just a minute?” I interrupted her, as I rubbed moisturizer on my face.
I put the call on hold and turned to Reuven, who was already wearing his hat and seemed to be itching to leave. “I think you should go ahead, I don’t want you to miss the chuppah. I’m going to finish up here, and I’ll come as soon as I’m done.”
“Uh…” he started. “Um, okay. Fine. I guess I’ll see you later then.”
He left the house, and I went back to Mrs. Zenwirth.
Twenty minutes later, the phone call was done — Mrs. Zenwirth halfheartedly agreed for me to talk to the agency — and I was ready to go to the wedding. I put my heels in a bag and slipped into comfortable walking shoes. I’d missed my car opportunity; this phone call had cost me a 20-minute walk.
I’d barely made it out the door when my mother called.
“Hi, Mrs. Trieger, how are you doing?”
I laughed. “Great, great. What’s up?”
“So here’s the thing. I’m starting a training class in fifteen minutes, and it’s going to take a good two hours. Problem is, Lali has to prepare a game for her class for tomorrow, for a history review, and she needs help. So I’m just trying my luck, would you by any chance be available to hop over and help her?”
I checked the time on my watch. It was eight o’clock, which meant I’d missed the chuppah. If I went to the chasunah a little late, it would mean missing part of the meal, which wasn’t such a problem. “Okay, I’m heading to a wedding, but I can stop in on my way.”
“You’re a doll. Thank you so much, Mal.”
A few minutes later, I was sitting with Lali, listening to her game ideas, one less realistic than the other.
“Really nice ideas,” I told her. “But maybe we need something with a little more, um, structure?”
She rolled up her history notes and frowned. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “But like, what?”
“Something classic, with questions and answers. Oooooh, I know! The Ice Game!”
I explained the game to Lali, and she loved the idea. To her luck, the secretary was my friend, so I called her quickly to ask if Lali would be able to use the school’s freezer. Then we sat down to work on the questions.
So the Ice Game was a great idea, except that we needed to come up with really challenging questions, and that… took time.
The minutes slipped away, and I kept an anxious eye on my watch. “You think you could finish up on your own?” I asked Lali after an hour.
A flash of panic crossed her face. “No, I have no idea how to come up with these types of questions. You’re a teacher, Malya, please?”
My heart went out to her. My mother would gladly have helped her, but she couldn’t cancel an entire training class because of a seventh-grade history review. So what if I was missing the entire meal? I’d go to the wedding for dancing.
But if I missed the meal, I had to eat something. I went to the kitchen and found some soup in the fridge. It was a cream of broccoli soup, the one I’d cooked at my mother’s house the day before because cream of broccoli took the least time of all soups to put up. Now, I popped the container into the microwave and thanked myself for my effort the previous day.
While the microwave hummed, I looked around the kitchen. The counters were cluttered with cups and pans and papers, grocery bags, and empty dinner plates. And the floor — ugh —my shoes were literally sticking to it.
Never mind the soup, it would have to wait. I whizzed around the kitchen, dumping things in the garbage, loading the dishwasher, scrubbing down the counters. I winced when a bit of Soft Scrub got onto my skirt and instantly formed a pink speck. It was a tiny speck, but yikes, it was my best black skirt, this was so, so upsetting. Would I be able to rescue it with a Sharpie?
I would try it soon, after I ran a mop over the floor.
When the kitchen looked like a kitchen again, I reheated my soup and went back to Lali and her history questions.
I got to the wedding as the second dance started. I was wending my way through the circle to try to reach the kallah when Reuven texted me. Ready to leave?
Well. He had told me he’d want to leave early, because he had to wake up really early for his fartugs seder. But I hadn’t wished anyone mazel tov yet. Five minutes, I replied.
After that, I treaded around the hall like a Pacman, looking for mechutenestes and bubbies and in-laws, air-kissing everyone and offering effusive compliments on how everyone looked that hopefully distracted them from their curiosity of my late arrival.
I met Reuven outside and followed him to his car.
“How was?” he asked.
“Beautiful,” I said.
That wasn’t a lie. The wedding had been beautiful, even if I hadn’t been around to see it.
It was only when I sat back in my seat that I realized: I’d left the bag with my heels at Mommy’s house, and I’d gone to the wedding in flats.
* * *
Raizy popped in to visit one random night when Reuven was at night seder and I was preparing his lunch for the next day. “I had an epiphany,” she told me, helping herself to cookies from my pantry.
“I’ll, um, go take a nap now,” I said.
“No, no, no! You want to listen to this. It’s going to change our lives.”
I ran water over a tomato and plunked it down on my cutting board. “I like my life as is, thank you.”
“But if you could like it so much more?”
“Your epiphanies scare me.”
“Just listen, okay?”
I cut the tomato into tiny cubes and listened.
“BCBA. It takes ten months, and then we earn, like, four times the amount we earn now doing Title 1.”
The speed of my chopping slowed as I processed what she was saying. Wordlessly, I swiped the tomatoes into the lunch container and picked up a cucumber.
“Tell me more.”
She described what the program entailed: basically, a lot of very hard work, the kind of work that would take over my life. But when I’d be done, I would gain tremendous earning power.
“Some of your epiphanies aren’t all that terrible,” I told Raizy thoughtfully. I sliced a pepper in half and scraped the seeds out. “But, Raizy, you know how my life looks. It’s a great option for you, and I’ll support you all the way through. But for me…” I flattened the pepper on the cutting board. “I just can’t do it.”
* * *
Beineinu had various group texts set up: one general group, for public announcements, one between volunteers, one between families, one that families and volunteers were both part of, for the purpose of exchanging resources or other technical information.
Then there was the group text that all families were part of, but the messages went to one party and one party only: Mrs. Russie Heyman.
That’s why it was only my mother who saw the text from a desperate Mr. Greenhut. My daughter needs new shoes, emergency. Is there anyone available to take her to the store?
I was over at my mother’s house, once again doing the Sunday laundry, when the request came in.
“I’m taking this call,” Mommy decided on the spot.
I could see the compassion on her face. She was personally pained by the Greenhuts’ reality. Although she could easily have sent any of her eager volunteers to fulfill this request, from time to time, she liked to jump in herself, do the actual chesed hands-on. “How could I pass up such an opportunity?”
She asked me if I could hang around for the next hour or two, and I automatically agreed. Her mitzvah was my mitzvah. I was doing my own share helping this yesomah by babysitting my siblings, and how could I pass up on such an opportunity?
Raizy texted me as I took a pile of folded pants to the boys’ room. Please please change your mind. It’s going to be so much easier to do this together.
I scrolled to find a wistful-looking emoji, but really, I wanted so badly to tell her, Yes, I want to do this.
My father came home and started rooting around in the fridge for lunch. On a whim, I decided to tell him about this program. “It’s such a smart investment of my time,” I told him. “But on the other hand, I feel like…” I swiped my fingers across my throat. “I feel like I’m going to crash. Is there something wrong with me that I’m just not coping?”
He laughed. “Shanah rishonah couples are the busiest people.”
“I know but, I mean… I don’t know!”
He settled for a bowl of cereal and brought it to the table. I abandoned the laundry and pulled up a chair next to him. “Tell me what to do,” I begged him.
My father poured milk over his cornflakes. “Many years ago, I got an offer to take over as English principal in Or HaTalmud. You and Chananya and Dovid were very little then; Lali was a baby.”
“You didn’t accept.”
“It was at the same time that Mommy had started Beineinu — although it wasn’t called Beineinu at that point, it didn’t have an official name. She just got involved with this family of orphans, she basically rescued them, and then one case led to another. She got really busy.”
He poked his spoon around in the bowl.
“Is that why you said no?”
“I didn’t say no. I kept telling them that I needed more time to think about it, and by the time I was done thinking, the position was filled.”
“Same thing as saying no,” I said grimly.
I hesitated for a moment, and then I blurted, “Do you regret it?”
“Sometimes I felt like I’d lost out on something big, but that was years ago. I’ve moved on since then.”
Moved on, or stopped moving. I didn’t want to say that, but really, how had he moved on? He still tutored kids most of the day and taught English in the afternoon, just like he’d done ever since Dovid was born.
I looked at his cornflakes pitifully.
At that moment, there was nothing I wanted more than to enroll in the BCBA program.
* * *
It was during a rare moment of quiet quality time that I brought up the topic with Reuven.
His night seder chavrusa had canceled — his brother was getting married that night — and Reuven and I took advantage of the opportunity to take a walk on the boardwalk.
We were schmoozing pleasantly — so shanah rishonah, as Raizy would tease — when I walked over to the railing and stared out at the black sea. Reuven joined me.
“Have you heard about BCBA?” I ventured.
“Rings a vague bell. Is it some sort of therapist?”
“Some sort of, but not really.”
I explained the basic gist of the program, and described how the job — and the compensation — looked.
“I really want to do it,” I finished off, surprised at the fierce thrum of my pulse, at how badly I wanted to hear his thoughts, but at the same time, how I feared them.
“If you really want to do it, why don’t you?”
“Because… because I don’t have time! Look at me, do you ever see me bored? I don’t have a spare minute in my life, I’m always racing everywhere and often not making it. I’m… I’m exhausted.”
Reuven drummed his fingers on the railing. “But, like, why is that? Why are you always so busy?”
I tore my eyes away from the water and gazed at my husband. “I work many hours….”
“And you help your mother a lot.”
The slap of waves filled the silence that followed.
“I’m so torn, Reuven. I know how much my mother relies on my help, and I want to help her, I know it’s the right thing. She tears herself apart to help those orphans, it’s the least I can do.”
“So is it right of me to sign up for this program if I know for a fact that it’s going to come at the expense of helping her?”
“What does she say about it?”
“My mother? I didn’t ask her, but I know she would never hold me back from doing what worked for me. She hardly ever asks for my help, you know that? And whatever I do for her, she’s always so grateful, she never takes it for granted.”
“Go on, Malya, I’m listening.”
I stepped back from the railing. We started walking again, at a slow pace.
“It’s an incredible opportunity. It makes so much sense for us. Think about it, I’ll be able to earn a really decent living, you’ll be able to stay in kollel for, like, forever.”
Reuven was quiet. He walked at my side with a weird gait, clicking his heel on the asphalt, then dropping his toe. Click, drop, click, drop. After a few minutes, he paused in front of a bench and sat down.
“I’m wondering about that,” he said slowly, rubbing his knees. “I’m wondering if it really makes so much sense for us.”
“What do you mean?”
He continued tapping his foot, heel-toe-heel-toe, on the same spot. “I’m not thinking about your mother now, about you spending so much time helping her. I’m thinking about us.”
I sat down next to him. “What about us?”
“If you go ahead with this, you’re going to be very, very busy. First with the very demanding coursework, which is going to basically steal all our shanah rishonah time. And after that, this whole career… It’s going to demand everything from you.”
“What are you trying to say?”
He stopped tapping his foot abruptly. A gust of wind came soaring over me, and I huddled in my jacket.
“You’re never home,” he said simply.
“I’m — what?”
“All these big goals, careers and everything… It works for some people. But there’s always a tradeoff, and I don’t know, I think we need to talk about that tradeoff.”
A chill that wasn’t related to the ocean breeze crept over my skin.
Reuven went on. “How is our family going to look with a mother who’s always being pulled in a hundred directions?”
The image of my father eating cornflakes Sunday afternoon, spending hours on end babysitting, doing the Shabbos order and various other tasks that my mother would normally have done but couldn’t, with all the pressing responsibilities that came along with being the founder and director of Beineinu, swam before my eyes. Random other scenes melded into that picture. Chaya’s overgrown bangs. Lali’s history game. Towering piles of laundry and leftover cholent.
“So this BCBA thing…” I said, falteringly.
“I have to admit, I’m really not excited about it.”
* * *
I was up all night trying to process Reuven’s words.
He hadn’t said much, but I’d heard it all. Slowly, the reality of the last few weeks sank into my conscience, and I couldn’t help feeling like a miserable failure. What had I done to the roots of our marriage? How had I allowed anything to come before my relationship with Reuven?
I fell asleep to the distorted image of myself entering a wedding hall wearing a bleached dress and fuzzy slippers, and Reuven’s voice echoing in my ears. “Liar, liar, liar.”
The next evening, Thursday, Mommy called, and I immediately heard the note of desperation in her voice.
“Zehava’s hosting a party for a group of volunteers in her house tonight, and I promised her I’d come over and say a short speech. But I’m just realizing, I didn’t start thinking about Shabbos yet. Like, I didn’t even do the grocery shopping yet, let alone cook a thing. Could you… I mean, are you busy tonight?”
Was I busy? I didn’t have any parties to attend, and I’d basically finished my own Shabbos cooking. I had to clean the house, which I could probably do on Friday, but really, it was Thursday night, I should probably just stay home and chill a little with Reuven, before he went out to learn. Right?
“I’m sorry, Ma,” I forced myself to say. “I’m not available tonight.”
The words sounded robotic, like they were prerecorded.
I heard an Oh escape my mother’s mouth, but a second later, she sounded perfectly nonchalant. “Oh, okay, that’s fine, I totally get it. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Go do your thing.”
Of course, after that, I realized that I didn’t have “a thing” to go do. Reuven didn’t even linger after supper; he went right out to night seder. The whole thing felt so stupid, and I wished I could just run over to my mother’s house and put up Shabbos.
The guilt escorted me around for the rest of the night and all of Friday. When I called my mother to wish her Gut Shabbos, Lali answered the phone. “Is everything, uh, ready for Shabbos?” I asked her.
“More or less. Mommy didn’t have time to cook, so except for the cholent that Tatty put up, we bought takeout.”
I couldn’t figure out if that was meant to be a reassurance or a barb. I didn’t comment, just waited for my mother to come to the phone, and when she did, I kept the discussion safe and short. Mommy didn’t seem to sense my discomfort. She said something about the mailing, and only after I hung up the phone, it clicked in my brain, Mailing, oh, I hadn’t realized.
Twice a year, Beineinu sent out a mailing to all of its supporters. They usually raffled off a few tickets to Eretz Yisrael, or the equivalent in cash.
The weeks leading up to mailing time were always insanely hectic. The organization recruited as many volunteers as possible, to handle all the tasks involved. In addition to working on the mailing list and organizing the actual mailing, there was the long list of solicitation calls to make, which my mother insisted on keeping “in-house,” rather than outsourcing to a fundraising company. “It’s just more personal, I’m telling you we get better results.”
Better results, and a ton of work.
On Sunday, I decided to go to my mother’s house to help. I was off from work, and Reuven was in kollel. There was no reason to stay away other than the self-doubt that accompanied me now whenever I devoted time to helping my mother.
To my surprise, my mother was home when I arrived, cooking in the kitchen, and the house was quiet.
“Where’s everyone?” I asked.
“Avrumi and Yosef are still in cheder, and Lali took Tziporah, Chaya, and Asher for ice cream.”
“Oh, I thought I would take care of the house before going to work. My Malya’s married now, baruch Hashem…” She laughed, a genuine, happy laugh, like she actually meant it as a joke. “I’m putting up some food for supper, for the next few days.”
I didn’t know how to react.
“I’m here to help,” I stammered.
“That’s so sweet of you. I appreciate it.”
Again, there was nothing cynical in her voice. It felt like she really meant what she was saying.
I spread out a counter cover and — after pulling on a pair of gloves — picked up a carrot and a peeler. Orange ribbons fell onto the plastic as I swiftly ran the peeler over the vegetable.
“How are things?” my mother asked. “I hardly get to talk to you these days.”
“Good,” I said. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I told her, “My friend Raizy enrolled in a BCBA program.”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
“She wanted me to do it with her. It’s an incredible opportunity, huge potential.”
“And you weren’t interested?”
“I was. I was very interested, actually.”
I dropped a peeled carrot into the sink and picked up the next one. “But I know how demanding the course would be. And later, the work. I… I mean, Reuven… Well, both of us, really, didn’t think it was the right choice for us.”
She stirred the onions in the pot. “The right choice, as in?”
“As in, it would take over my whole life. I wouldn’t have time for anything, and I would always be preoccupied with my work. It’s, you know… The tradeoff would be too big.”
My mother stroked the vegetables in the pot with her wooden spoon, back and forth, side to side, like the spoon was a musical baton and she was skillfully directing the sautéing onions.
“That’s…” she started. “You have no idea how impressed I am, Malya.”
My eyes watered, probably the onions.
She stopped stirring and swiped her hands in her apron. “I can only imagine what tremendous gevurah it took for you to make that decision. Wow.”
I picked up a carrot peel and wrapped it around a gloved finger. My fingers perspired in my gloves.
“Do you really think so?” I asked.
“You’re looking at me, Malya, I know. You’re wondering how in the world I, of all people, would say such a thing, right?”
I had no choice but to nod.
“I’ve made some tough decisions in my life,” she said. “And sometimes, I didn’t. Sometimes my decisions weren’t even made, things just happened, a chain of events, and I found myself in a situation I hadn’t anticipated. In those cases, I wasn’t always sure I was doing the right thing. I never wanted my family to suffer for my organization.”
“We didn’t suffer,” I said quickly.
“You know what I mean.”
I was quiet, because I did know what she meant. It was pointless to deny it.
“I don’t know if the entire Beineinu was a mistake. How can I judge? Families rely on our chesed…”
“You accomplish so much, Ma. You’ve rescued countless families. It definitely wasn’t a mistake.”
The vegetables lay abandoned on the counter. My mother toyed with her apron, and I leaned an elbow on the island.
“It’s kind of you to say that,” she said. “But we know it wouldn’t have been possible if you wouldn’t have been around to keep this house running. Even now, since you’re married, you’ve saved me so many times. And it isn’t right of me, I should really be telling you to stay away from my laundry, it’s not your responsibility.”
I was seized by an odd coldness. I didn’t know what to say.
“I can’t say I regret the choices I made,” my mother went on. “But I could tell you, even if this lifestyle worked for me, it’s a risk, a tremendous risk, and if you and Reuven choose to avoid such risks, kol hakavod.”
There was a faint smell of burnt onions. My mother went back to stirring the pot, and in slow motion, I picked up the next carrot.
* * *
It was the night of the grand raffle.
“You know how it goes when you get that robo call?” I asked as I brought some cut-up fruit to the table for dessert. “Tonight!” I cried in a screechy voice, “you can be the lucky winner…!”
Reuven smirked. “That’s what Call Block is for.”
“’Kay, so I actually grew up on the other side of that call. I wasn’t the one making those calls, but I was sitting there as we anxiously processed those last-minute donations. You’d be surprised how many people go ahead and take out their credit cards when they get those calls.”
Reuven dug his fork into a cube of pineapple. “Mi k’amcha Yisrael….”
I sliced through the pineapple on my own plate. “I always thought that helping my mother was my own brand of chesed. That I had a part in all of it.”
“Then I realized that chesed is a tricky thing.”
He chewed silently, waiting for me to explain.
“You can’t be in two places at once. You’re helping Party A, Party B suffers for it.”
“Why does it have to be that way?”
Why? Here I was, having dinner with my new husband, which was where I belonged. And at the same time, there was an excited frenzy going on at the Beineinu office. I had always been in the thick of things on auction night, ready and eager to help out in any way that was necessary. Sometimes it would mean spending hours in the office, processing payments, sometimes it was running out to buy drinks for volunteers, whatever it took. Other times I would help out at home, so my mother would be free to spend the time in the office.
Now, I sat eating pineapple.
“I don’t get something,” Reuven said. “If the auction is tonight, why aren’t you there? I’m imagining it’s a whole matzav. Don’t you all go over?”
“We… do. Usually.”
“But we’re having dinner now!”
“Oh!” He looked startled. “But, like, we’re kind of done here.” He speared the last grape on his plate. “See? Done. Finito.”
I smiled wanly. He knew what I meant. He knew exactly what I meant.
“I know what you mean,” he said, winking. “But I want to tell you something, Mal. I know I discouraged you from doing BCBA, but I have nothing against you helping your mother. I mean, within a sphere of normal, obviously. Aderaba, it’s a huge zechus. Her chesed is your chesed.” He paused. “And your chesed is my chesed.”
The fruit filled my mouth with an indescribable sweetness. I stood up to collect our plates, and as I quickly washed them, Reuven added, “And look, who knows? We entered the raffle. Maybe we’ll actually win.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 980)
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