| Double Take |

Comfort Zone

“Shidduchim, Ma? I just got back... I’m looking into college programs. One thing at a time, no?”

Devori: I need space and quiet, and Bubby’s house offers me that.
Chava: We need to think about your future, and not only about what feels good right now.

 

Devori:

Just when I was actually starting to enjoy the seminary experience, it was suddenly over.

I know I’m not the only one who had to deal with this, my classmates all went through the same, but still, it was different for me.

I don’t have an easy time getting used to new situations. It’s just my personality, I like what I’m used to, and seminary was a huuuuge step out of my comfort zone. I was excited to go, and the classes were incredible, but dorm life was hard for me on so many levels. My messy roommate, who left her stuff all over the room, the noise in the hallways that my sound machine barely muffled, and the food, with its strange, unfamiliar taste. I had crackers for supper pretty often.

And all that’s even before talking about friends. I don’t know, are my social skills lacking, is it introversion, is it shyness or anxiety, or is it just me? Building up relationships from nod-in-the-hallway to say-hello to stop-and-talk was a tedious, step-by-step process on my end. I’ll admit, I had a few flashbacks to those tutoring sessions years ago that Ma made me take, “tutoring” being a euphemism for “someone to help you learn social skills.”

But whatever it was, friends took time, adjusting to seminary took time, and then it was all snatched away just when I was finally getting into things.

At first, no one knew what was happening. We still hoped to go back to Israel to finish the year, no one really believed it could be over just like that. Then reality sank in, together with the extended lockdown.

I was back for good.

“Not for good,” Ma said brightly when I mentioned something to that effect. “Shidduchim is just a temporary stage, and then who knows? Maybe your chassan will want to live in Israel?”

I smiled weakly. I loved the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael, even now, the thought of the Kosel made something in my chest tighten — but living in a crowded apartment building, squeezing onto buses every time I had to go anywhere, and dealing with forthright Israelis and their questions in the supermarket? I didn’t think I’d do very well like that.

“Shidduchim, Ma? I just got back... I’m looking into college programs. One thing at a time, no?”

Ma pursed her lips. “You’ve been back three months already, Devori, it’s not too early. Look at your sisters, they all got engaged in their first year back home. But it doesn’t make a difference, you can look into college, start working. Leave shidduchim to me and Ta, and don’t worry about anything.”

But I was worried. The idea of starting shidduchim was... overwhelming. I wanted to get started on my degree, find a part-time job. I wanted to settle back down, maybe reconnect to old friends — right now, I didn’t have much of a social life. My two or three close friends from seminary lived far away, and keeping up long-distance wasn’t always so easy. There was just a lot on my plate, and I preferred to push off dating for at least a few months.

 

So I wasn’t too disappointed — or concerned — when things moved slowly on the shidduch front. Here and there, I heard a name tossed around, nothing serious, some said no before we had a chance to do much research, others my mother nixed right away. Weeks went by with no phone calls at all, and I was fine with that. I finally settled on a college program, one with a fast-track option; with all my credits from the CLEPs I’d done in high school, I’d have my degree within the year. Ma was happy, (“That way if he wants to live in Israel, you’ll be done with studying ASAP!” she said). And as restrictions eased up a little and people began venturing out again, I was able to spend some time with Bubby, at long last.

Bubby is my father’s mother, and we’ve always gotten along well. And by getting along, I mean better than usual, not like the other grandchildren. Zeidy was niftar when I was very young, but my older sisters still talk about how different things were then, and how lively their home was when he was alive. I know what they mean to say — Bubby’s a little quiet, doesn’t do chitchat, and my sisters find it hard to make conversation, with her. But personally, it doesn’t bother me at all.

When I go to visit Bubby, we don’t need to sit and talk. I help her with the housekeeping (Bubby’s closets are a marvel of organization), and we often play Rummikub (Bubby’s hard to beat, but I’ll have you know I’ve done it more than once). Sometimes we just sit and discuss what she’s read recently. We have similar taste in books — we both love reading true short stories — and that makes it fun to compare notes.

One Thursday, I popped by after doing a grocery run for Ma.

“Hi, Bubby, it’s me,” I called through the letterbox. I could’ve used my parents’ key to let myself in, but I know Bubby values her privacy. She’d rather stop what she’s doing and come to get the door herself. I’m like that, too.

“Devoirah’le,” Bubby greeted me. “I’m just about to water the plants.”

Watering the plants, for Bubby, is a whole procedure. She has a ton of house plants, window boxes, standing plants, the works. She has a system to the watering — she’ll fill the watering can upstairs, start there, and then carry the half-empty can downstairs to finish the job.

“I’ll wait here for you then,” I told her brightly. There was a new book on the coffee table, I was curious to flip through it.

Bubby nodded without another comment. I heard her bustling up the stairs to start her rounds, and I sighed in contentment. I love my family, but COVID-19 meant my younger siblings had no school yet, I was doing my college classes on Zoom, and we were spending way too much time together.

I’d tried telling Zehava, a friend from seminary, about how I felt in one of our sporadic phone conversations. But she hadn’t gotten it at all. Oh, she’d tried. “Oh my goodness, Devori, of course you’re going nuts, you hate noise. I’m going out of my mind too, I don’t want to look at my sisters anymore!” But all her sympathy notwithstanding, I’d hung up feeling so misunderstood.

This wasn’t just the regular sibling overkill everyone else was dealing with. For me it was more. I was suffering, really suffering, from the constant noise and mess and overstimulation. I’d always found school challenging, but home had been my haven. I’d come home, go into my own room, plug in earphones, and drink in the solitude I so desperately needed. But now, with all the kids at home and someone wandering into my room every other minute, I was going out of my mind. I didn’t see how I could start shidduchim feeling so unsettled. I knew I should try to explain this to Ma, but I didn’t think she would get it, and things didn’t seem to be moving along on the shidduch front anyway, so I let things ride.

But Bubby’s house was blissfully quiet. I felt the tension in my shoulders seep out and picked up the book.

Then my cell phone rang. It was Ma.

“Devori? Are you still at the grocery?”

I fingered the book. “No, I stopped at Bubby’s. Why?”

“Oh.” Ma paused. “You’ll be coming home soon?”

“I thought I would keep Bubby company for a while. Do you need the shopping already now?”

Ma sighed loudly. “No, it’s fine. See you later.”

I stared at the phone. Was she upset about the groceries? But she didn’t need the stuff yet. So what was the sighing all about?

She didn’t visit Bubby much. I know that they didn’t get along too well. Ma sent round baked goods at least twice a week when the lockdown was at its peak, but she hardly called or spoke to Bubby. I was the one who delivered the packages, greeting Bubby through the window and exchanging news. I bought her a couple of books too, and we had plenty to discuss when we’d both finished them. The isolation was hard for Bubby, not so much because she missed socializing — she doesn’t go out much in the best of times — but because of all the uncertainty. She didn’t like not knowing where things were standing. I was happy I could be there for her, cheer her up a little.

So Ma did her part with the baking and I did the deliveries, and we were all happy. And now that we were going out more, I was even happier to be able to spend time in Bubby’s house, not just at the window, enveloped in the quiet stability it offered me.

Ma was on the phone again.

“His mother was a Korfman, you said? Yes, yes, I got that…” she said, scribbling frantically. “That sounds very good. What did you say the father does for a living?”

I nearly turned and walked back out of the kitchen. Not this again. I just wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to start dating, and I didn’t know how to tell Ma that either. Was it so bad to just want some more time?

“Okay, I’ll be in touch,” Ma said, spotting me and hanging up the phone. “Devori! That was a very nice shadchan on the phone. She has an idea for you, I like the sound of the boy and his family. Want to hear?”

I really, really didn’t.

“I’m just rushing out…” I told her, even though I hadn’t had any such plans a minute before. I would go visit Bubby, it would be a nice escape from the pressure.

I was driving the familiar route on autopilot when the idea hit, so hard and fast that I nearly braked to a halt. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Bubby was all alone. I was under too much pressure. The two of us got along famously. Why shouldn’t I move into Bubby’s, keep her company at night, be there in case of emergency — and have a little breathing space from all the other stuff at home?

One thing was for sure: Bubby wouldn’t be pushing me to rush into shidduchim. She would probably just shrug and let the topic go.

I pulled into Bubby’s driveway, thinking furiously. The perfect solution. It would be so ideal for everyone. Me, Bubby… even Ma and Tatty. I’d heard them talking, they were worried about Bubby being alone. She was getting older, after all. It wasn’t simple.

I decided to float the idea by Bubby first. She valued her independence — and her privacy — fiercely. But I wouldn’t disregard that. I had my own needs, I’d be working in my room, I wouldn’t invade her space.

“You’ve been coming over a lot recently,” Bubby remarked. It wasn’t accusatory or grateful or even curious, simply a statement. I swept the Rummikub pieces back into the box, flipped the lid on, and affixed the rubber band around the box. Here it was, the perfect opening.

“I like to visit you. And it’s quieter than at home. I had a suggestion, actually, I was just about to tell you.” I explained to her my idea, only realizing at the end that I was breathless. I really hoped she would say yes. It would be so perfect for both of us.

Bubby thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. “It would be nice to have your company in the evenings, and you could have the room on the right of the stairs, that way we wouldn’t disturb each other later on.”

I nodded happily. We really did get each other. “That’s what I thought.” Then I remembered. “Um, I’ll have to check with Tatty and Ma, I haven’t told them I was thinking of this…”

Bubby clucked her tongue. “Well, better you than some goyish aide they were talking about. Like a night nurse, I tell you.” She lapsed into silence, staring off into the distance.

I gathered up my things to go. Ugh, back to the noise and bustle of my social-butterfly siblings, back to the pressure and the phone calls and the résumés and references. I really needed to set my plan into action.

“Good night, Bubby,” I said as I left. She followed me, closing and latching the door firmly.

I squared my shoulders and headed home.

“But why not?” I stared at Tatty in surprise. Ma’s reaction was expected, but why was Tatty against it also? It was his mother, for goodness’ sake, she wanted it too.

“Ma and I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “Listen, Devori, you’re in shidduchim, you should be at home, what if you’re dating at night? The boy will pick you up from your grandmother?”

“So those nights, I’ll be home. What’s the big deal? How often am I dating, anyway?”

“That’s the problem,” Ma said, stepping into the room from behind Tatty. “Shidduchim are not simple. And this is just going to complicate matters. A girl living by her grandmother? People will start to ask questions.”

I shook my head. “I’m doing a chesed. Bubby’s getting old and she’s all alone. The shadchan can tell the boy’s side, it’ll make me sound like a tzadeikes.”

But Ma just kept shaking her head. “Trust me, Devori, it’s not a good idea.”

Tatty picked up the ball. “Is there something else bothering you, Devori? Anything about shidduchim, dating?” A glance passed between him and Ma — it sounded like they’d planned this. “Maybe you want to discuss it with us? Or with someone else?”

“My friend Shevy recommended someone fantastic,” Ma chimed in, on cue. “A woman who helps people with shidduchim, you know, like a dating coach? Maybe you could talk things through with her?”

“It’s always better to face the problem than to run away from it,” Ta concluded. “It’s great that you like to visit Bubby, and we appreciate that you care about her, but to move in with her is putting your own life on hold. A shidduch could come up anytime, you could be engaged within the month, and then where would that leave Bubby? You need to focus on your own life first.”

I didn’t agree. “And it could be years and years before I meet the right one,” I countered, pretending not to notice Ma’s hand fly to her mouth in horror at the idea. “And in the meantime, why shouldn’t I help Bubby out? She’s happy, I’m happy, you don’t have to worry about her at night — what’s wrong with that?”

To me, it sounded totally logical. But my parents just couldn’t — or wouldn’t — agree to see things the same way.

If I could tell my parents one thing, it would be: Bubby’s house offers me the space to be myself. Why can’t you just let the two of us enjoy a win-win situation and be there for each other?

Chava

Devori is just not like any of my other kids.

I remember when I first realized it. We were at a family event, probably sheva brachos of one of my siblings, and the children were having a blast running around with their cousins. I watched my girls playing tag with my sister’s kids, who are pretty much the same ages, and smiled — it was so cute to see them all together.

Then I frowned. Devori — she couldn’t have been more than five or six years old — was sitting stiffly at the table with all the adults, pecking at some salad. She looked bored. Why wasn’t she playing with the other children?

I leaned over and pointed at her sisters. “Look, Devori, they’re playing tag, go join!”

But Devori shrugged and continued playing with her food. “I’d rather not,” she told me eventually. Even then, her language skills had always surprised me.

“Leave her, she’s shy,” my sister Dina advised. “She never sees her cousins, it’s normal.”

But it wasn’t. None of my others were like that. Devori’s older sisters were leading the game, my younger son running after them. None of the other cousins were sitting on their own, even two-year-old Kayla was tagging along after her older siblings, pacifier firmly in her mouth.

And it wasn’t just now. I noticed that Devori didn’t have many friends. When I picked her up from school, she was always waiting alone. She preferred to read than to invite classmates over on a Sunday afternoon. She would hang around me when we went to the park, never interacting with the other children. Sometimes one or another of her classmates would approach her, offer her to join a game or something, and Devori would simply shrug and not make eye contact. While my other kids were always getting phone calls and begging for playdates, Devori was content to keep to herself — unless I pushed her to go out, make a call, socialize a little.

When she was in fourth grade, I decided to be proactive about things. Her teachers weren’t concerned, they said she was just quiet by nature, but I knew better. It wasn’t just quiet, there were subtle things that just screamed out at me this isn’t okay. Devori didn’t seem to ever make eye contact with anyone. She blinked, confused, when someone told her to “dance up a storm.” The awkward things she sometimes did, laughing too loudly, missing social cues, answering a question like “how are you” with a long-winded monologue about her mouth ulcer.

And the more I watched, and the more I noticed about Devori’s behavior — the more I thought of my mother-in-law.

I’ve always had a bit of an… interesting… relationship with Yisroel’s mother. From the first time we met, I just knew something was a little bit off. She barely smiled through the whole l’chayim, and she seemed so stiff and solemn. When I called her that first Erev Shabbos after our engagement, she hardly said anything, and after a few painful minutes, said, “So why did you call me?” as if she’d never heard of normal etiquette. I’d mumbled something about “just to wish you good Shabbos” and she’d said, “Oh. Good Shabbos,” and put down the phone.

Although I dutifully kept up the weekly calls, our conversations were painfully awkward — and never longer than a few minutes.

Being the only daughter-in-law, I never knew if this was about me. Did she dislike me? Was I doing something wrong?

“My mother?” Yisroel said when I brought up the subject, a short while after we were married. “Of course she likes you. She’s just not the chatty sort.”

But it wasn’t just about chatty. I sensed there was more to the story, but no one ever really discussed it — not Yisroel, not his two sisters, and certainly not my father-in-law. Slowly but surely, though, I put the pieces together.

My mother-in-law simply didn’t have social skills. She had very few friends, and they were mostly acquaintances from years back. She didn’t like small talk or socializing or visiting. She didn’t appreciate surprise visits or coo over the grandchildren.

She was a good person, that was for sure. Her cooking and housekeeping were impeccable. She remembered everyone’s birthdays and sent a card saying exactly the same thing, for each person, every single year. She davened three times a day and learned seforim on the parshah.

But she also had an anxious side, a certain negativity. Yisroel once mentioned that he thought his mother had suffered from PPD after each of her births. Back in those days, it had gone undiagnosed and untreated.

Privately, I still thought she was a little depressed. Not terribly so — she had her routine, ran the house, came to family functions right on time. But on an emotional level. I’m not the psychologist type or anything, but it seemed to me that there was a certain… something… still present. She never seemed happy, not even at simchahs. She was stiff around the grandchildren, barely smiled when guests approached to wish mazel tov, and never seemed to speak to anyone when it wasn’t strictly necessary.

And watching my fourth-grade daughter decline playdates and retreat into a bubble of her own imagination with a pensive look on her face — I knew it was up to me to do something.

“There’s nothing wrong with being on the quiet side,” Mrs. Klein, her teacher, told me when I asked for a recommendation of a therapist trained in developing social skills. She peered at me over her glasses. “I know your older daughters are what they call ‘social butterflies,’ and it’s a common mistake to expect all our children to share the same mold. But Devori is simply her own, unique personality. That’s all.”

I didn’t appreciate the lecture. “Devori is my daughter, and I’m concerned about her future,” I said stiffly.

Eventually, she supplied me with the name of a competent child psychologist, and I did thorough research of my own before booking an appointment. The first session was just for me, and I spent a long time writing notes in advance, preparing how to present my worries.

Shelly Brown, the psychologist, was friendly and understanding, and I immediately warmed to her. Together, we formed a plan which included goals and milestones that I hoped Devori would reach. She explained that Devori wouldn’t change and become more sociable, but we could aim to help her navigate the social world and feel comfortable fitting in.

Devori went to “tutoring sessions” for a while, never really discussing them with me. I noticed that she felt more confident and competent around strangers, and even invited friends over more often. I suspected that Shelly was also helping her confront her tendency toward anxiety, and over time she seemed more relaxed, more open.

By the time Devori started high school, she had a small circle of friends, and she definitely held herself straighter — she looked people in the eye, handled small talk well. She was still quiet, still spent long stretches of time in her room reading or studying — but she fit in, she was normal, and I congratulated myself on having dealt with the issues promptly.

Seminary followed high school, corona cut the year too short, and suddenly I was thrown into the whirlpool of shidduchim. And then I started to worry.

My older daughters had both been engaged within a few months after graduating seminary. They had sparkling, easygoing personalities, were well-liked by their friends and colleagues, had run day camps and Shabbos programs, and things just seemed to go very smoothly. Devori was bound to have things more difficult.

For one thing, she was quieter. She never enjoyed camp, people didn’t know her as well, and she didn’t have too many friends. Then there was the next issue: dating itself. Meeting someone completely new – and a bochur, to boot – would be well out of her comfort zone. Would her shaky social skills and tendency to withdraw when uncomfortable turn any potential chassan right off?

“Maybe we should get her to see a dating coach,” I mused to Yisroel one night.

He thought I was blowing the issue out of proportion. “She’s still 18, Chava, maybe we should take things as they come?”

But I knew better. Why wait until she was much older to admit that there was something to work on? Why waste so much time, so many dates, when all she needed was a bit of guidance on handling a completely new social situation?

So I was busy: calling shadchanim, researching boys, and also making discreet inquiries for a dating coach who specialized in the social skills so necessary in dating — the small talk, reading cues, interpreting hints and body language.

“Devori’s a fantastic girl, and she deserves to give things her best shot,” I explained to Yisroel. “She’s kind, she’s hardworking, she’ll be a good wife; this is just about helping her get through the dates. Why should she lose out because she’s not a natural dater?”

He shrugged and left the subject alone. I knew that meant I could go ahead, but he didn’t really agree. Still, I knew what I was doing here. I’d been the one to notice Devori’s struggles back in elementary school, get her the help she needed. This was just a more sophisticated version of the same issue.

Unexpectedly, the next hurdle was Devori herself. She just didn’t seem interested in shidduchim. First it was all about settling down, her college degree, catching her breath from seminary. But time moved on, she was back for months already, and she was happy with the college track she had picked. So what was she waiting for?

“I think she’s avoiding the whole parshah,” I confided in my friend, Shevy, late one night.

Shevy thought maybe I should let Devori take her time. “She’s young still, what’s the big rush?” she asked me.

But I knew better. “If she’s scared of dating, it’s not going to change with time. If anything, it will get worse… we can’t just give in to it. Fears like that need to be tackled head-on.”

“I hear you,” Shevy conceded. “Hey, you know who you need? Mashi Blum, you know, the shadchan? She’s actually also a professional dating coach, and apparently she’s worked wonders. My neighbors sent their son to her, he was the cold-feet type, had been dating for years… anyway, she literally saw him twice and he got engaged to the next girl.”

I wasn’t so sure that the story proved anything, but I’d heard of Mashi Blum. She was a real powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with in the world of shidduchim, and she certainly knew her stuff. “She’s officially a dating coach as well, not just a shadchan?”

“Yeah, I think she trained or something, a year or two back,” Shevy said vaguely. I jotted down a note to call around, make sure this Mashi could do the job. I really wanted Devori to see someone, figure out what was bothering her, and just take the plunge to start dating. We’d had an interesting phone call the other day, if the boy said yes, she might need to do it sooner than she thought.

But Devori couldn’t seem to stomach the mention of shidduchim. I tried in vain to find a time to speak to her, but she was always studying, busy, or out. She was sometimes gone for a couple of hours at a time, and although I didn’t like to pry, I was curious. Devori wasn’t the type to hang out by friends. She didn’t like shopping that much, either. What were the daily excursions about?

“I was by Bubby,” she said, when I asked her casually what she’d been up to one evening.

I knew she was close with my mother-in-law, but… “Wait, you go there every night?”

She shrugged. “Most nights. Why?”

I backtracked. “Nothing. That’s nice of you.”

A smile tugged at her lips. “I enjoy it, too.”

Then she disappeared upstairs, just as the door opened and some of the younger kids piled into the kitchen. So much for a chance to talk.

A disquieting feeling followed me the entire next day.

She was visiting my mother-in-law. Every night. They were close, they got along well… maybe too well.

Yisroel’s mother wasn’t regular. That was the fact. The last thing Devori needed was to keep feeding into her social anxiety by avoiding her own family, friends her age, dating. This was too comfortable, too easy, too familiar.

Besides, how would it sound in shidduchim for Devori to spend so much time alone by at her grandmother? Wouldn’t it put boys off to hear that a girl’s one and only friend was her reserved, socially inept grandmother?

Besides, Yisroel’s mother just wasn’t a happy person. Devori had enough of her own stuff to deal with; she shouldn’t be immersing herself in an atmosphere of negativity or anxiety.

For a while, though, I tried to bite my tongue. Devori was a big girl, she didn’t need me to tell her what to do. But then she decided she was moving in with Bubby, to help her at nights. And that was when I marched over to Yisroel and insisted that — together — we take a stand about this.

It wasn’t about my preferences or gut feelings. This was about her future. And as Devori’s parents, we had to get to the root of the issue and not stand by while she ran away from real life. Because that wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor.

If I could tell Devori one thing, it would be: I know you’re close with Bubby, but I see the bigger picture, and getting too involved in that relationship will be harmful for you in the long run.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 713)

 

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