Coming Clean| March 21, 2023
Our seminary daughter came home to help – so why am I scrubbing on my own?
Ahh, midnight. That special hour when no one is talking to me, no one is awake, I should really go to sleep, but I end up staying up for an hour reveling in the silence. My time.
Curling up on the couch, I tuck the throw around me and crack open my laptop. I have zero interest in reading any emails from people or stores who want me or my money. If I squint, I can bypass all the work emails that I should be answering and go straight to Rivka Baila’s @sem email address. Midbar Yehuda!!!!! the subject line screams. I smile at the exclamation points, each one a little stick that says, “Hi, I’m in seminary, and I don’t use regular decibel levels.”
I click on the attachments. Rivka Baila with Etti Markowitz, her roommate. Rivka Baila with Henny Fisher, Rivka Baila with Etti again. I close my eyes, inserting myself mentally into the photo, surrounded by sand dunes and azure skies, the scent of summer wafting through my freezing living room.
March is still roaring like a lion in Flatbush, although it looks like in Eretz Yisrael it’s winding down like a lamb.
I click through the rest of the photos and then notice Rivka Baila’s hastily typed email: 3,000 girls waiting for computers! Love you! Wish I was seeing you soon 🙁
I sniff. I also wish I were seeing my eldest soon. I miss her every day. And not just because she’s my right-hand man, and I’ve had to relearn how to cut salads, pick up milk, and bathe the littles, but because she’s my best friend, and I miss having her around. Tickets are a fortune though, and half the reason Ari agreed to send her to sem in the end was because I’d promised him she’d be staying there for Pesach. No ticket, plus postponing the cost of a new wardrobe….
Stretching, I get to my feet, letting the laptop slide to the couch. Time for bed, a little sleep, and dreams of velvet mountains and perfect skies.
The morning starts off with a full-blown Leah panic attack. “I cannot find my math book. WHERE is my math notebook? If one of those loony heads used it to scribble in, I am going to SCREAM.”
I handle the situation with calm and grace (i.e., stuff the notebook in Leah’s hand with a glare and practically shove her out the door). I am not a morning person, but Leah makes me look like pure sunshine. Once the teens are out of the way, time to get the littles to their respective babysitters. I reminisce about the days when I could have called out to Rivka Baila for help before she left for her bus. I’m going to need to stare at those photos a few more times today.
The clinic is hopping today, all those winter viruses and runny noses, not to mention an oddly large number of dental emergencies. I scan insurance, fill out files, and enter names in a sort of organized frenzy. By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m exhausted and ready to blow practically an hour’s worth of pay on a garden vegetable panini and white macadamia cookie from Breakfast House next door. My phone pings, but I’m too hungry to look at it. Only after it starts sounding like my alarm clock at 6:55, then 7, then 7:05, do I rummage through my bag.
“Oh. My. Gosh,” I breathe, very aware that I’m in public.
Tzippa’s Chassy is engaged! My adorable niece, fresh out of sem, is engaged!
I step out of Breakfast House, hunger forgotten, and dial my sister.
“Tzippa!” I get all the juicy details on Avrum Weinshneider from Chicago. Chassan extraordinaire.
I hang up, breathless, cold, and grinning from ear to ear. My big sister is going to be a mother-in-law! My next thought is: Rivka Baila. I must call Rivka Baila.
Chassy is only two years older than Rivka Baila, a fact I am stubbornly putting out of my mind.
Rivka Baila shrieks for a good ten seconds straight before coming up for air.
“Maaaaa! I’m not handling! OMG, Ma, no! Omigosh whaaat? Ahhhh!”
I laugh, because Rivka Baila is just so… Rivka Baila.
But her next words throw me for a loop. “Wait, so Ma, can I come back for Pesach?”
Ari is resolutely not looking at me, and I know that’s because if he sees how upset I am, he’ll change his mind, and he does not want to change his mind.
“Atara, you promised me. You said she’d stay in Eretz Yisrael for Pesach, and we’d save the money on tickets and new clothing. You told me it would be kedai to send her, we need to send her, but don’t worry about Pesach. Atara, you promised,” he says again, like that will placate me.
And I know I did, but I also remember what it’s like to be so far from family.
We call Rivka Baila together Thursday night. Ari isn’t mad, but he’s nervous. I can tell by the way he keeps running his hand over his eyes. I just felt so bad for my daughter that I really wanted to make this work. Especially now, with Chassy engaged, Rivka Baila really wants to be here. Also, I reminded him what a help she was with the cooking last year. So we sat down to do the math, and figured that if we cut back Jeanine’s hours, we can use the money toward a ticket.
If I thought Rivka Baila screamed a long time when I told her about the engagement, this shriek broke new levels. And sound barriers.
I stuff my fingers in my ears and grin at Ari.
He just sighs and rubs his hand over his eyes.
Of course we greet her at the airport with balloons and the whole clan. We clamor over and suffocate her with love, and when she finally breaks free, we do it all over again.
She looks so good. Healthy. I see zero evidence of the freshman 15 she was moaning about. I smile to myself at the sight of the extra snap she has in her collared shirt. Ah, to be young and idealistic and just so certain that life is black and white.
Hold on to that, sweetie, I tell her silently. Don’t let go of it. Not yet. Not until you have to.
We schmooze all the way home, Rivka Baila regaling us with tales of her Nesher and the flight and how she managed to say almost the whole Sefer Tehillim — it’s such an amazing feeling.
The little kids talk all at once, and I spy the worshipping looks Leah is throwing at her big sister. My heart swells.
“Oh, and Ma, I made up a plan for the cleaning, okay? I know you cut back on Jeanine to bring me in, and it’s going to be ahhhmazing. We’ll start with the basement, get that out of the way, and ANYONE who dares bring cookies down there is going to chometz jail,” she growls.
The kids scream, and Ari and I crack up.
My family is whole again!
The thing about Rivka Baila being home from seminary is that all of her friends and roommates and old classmates are also home from seminary. It seems like the girl has more plans than a Lakewood boy straight out of the freezer. She keeps “Eunning to 7-Eleven with Ricky. Omigosh, Slurpees!” and “hopping over to Henny’s.”
And don’t get me started on how often she’s been at Tzippa’s visiting Chassy.
I’m happy for her, I really am. But Pesach is coming. And it’s not cleaning for itself.
Ari is not amused. “We told her we only have Jeanine once a week, we both work, what exactly does she expect?” he keeps saying.
I tell him to let her be. She’s high on life, so glowing and happy and leaving sparkly fairy dust everywhere she flutters. I love it. My little girl is practically an adult.
She’s respectful, patient with her siblings, so thought-out. Friday night we stay up, discussing important life topics until both of us fall asleep on the couch. I love that she’s really listening to what I have to say.
But Ari’s right; we need to make Pesach. And my parents are coming to us for first days. I scrub the counter a bit harder than necessary. Rivka Baila blows into the kitchen, hair tucked neatly behind one ear, lip gloss and mascara immaculate but minimalist.
“Ma, good morning. How are you? Wow, everything looks so great,” she says perkily.
I don’t know why, but I have the sudden urge to bite my lip, really, really hard. “Good morning, sweetheart,” I say instead.
“I’m just hopping over to see Pessie and Bassie, Ma, do you need anything from Kosher Korner or that area?”
I brighten. “I do! Let me get you a list.”
We perch at the island as I go over it with her.
“So that’s white pepper. The silver foil that’s not too thin, because then it will rip when we put it on the counters, okay? The unscented detergent, because Yitzy gets a rash otherwise, and thirty pounds of potatoes, the grape juice that’s on sale, two cases, and four bags of apples.”
She smiles serenely, takes the list and the credit card and “hops” out.
Apparently, people decide to get winter viruses even more often when it’s spring. I don’t have a moment to breathe at work, then I need to run home, make dinner, and get right to cooking and cleaning.
The groceries are neatly unpacked when I get home, empty Kosher Korner boxes stacked in a corner of the kitchen.
I take a perfunctory glance at the pantry and freeze. “Wrong. Wrong, wrong,” I say aloud. I actually slam my hand on a cabinet door, that’s how frustrated I am. The detergent is not unscented, the grape juice is NOT on sale — in fact it’s the most expensive brand the store sells — and the silver foil is the thin flimsy type that will rip. And these are seasonal items that the store will only refund or exchange if I march over and beg, something I have neither time nor energy for.
I don’t tell Rivka Baila, I don’t want to make her feel bad that Ari had to leave work early to get the correct groceries, but I’m extremely annoyed. And maybe that’s why I task her with cleaning the oven and stove. Originally, I had imagined I’d run in for the badeken, then hurry back and have Leah and Rivka Baila assist me with the cleaning, with Ari attaching the Pesach burners sometime in the wee hours of dawn. It’s a big job, but not a hard one, and the picture I painted has the three of us singing and hyper with tiredness and pre-Pesach fun, like we did last year. Then, of course, there’s two hours of lining and fitting counter covers before we actually get to cooking.
But right now my darling daughter is just pushing all my buttons.
She blinks in shock, then her seminary training kicks in, and she nods with a big smile slowly spreading. I can practically hear the kibbud av v’eim shiur they must have delivered right before the girls left, and I silently salute her menaheles.
“Rivk, I need it done by the morning so I can start the cooking, okay?” I stress the words slowly and clearly so there is no misunderstanding. “I’m on a schedule, and tonight is the Weider chasunah, for some reason. You know I can’t miss the boss’s son’s wedding.”
She reassures me it’s tooootallly fine, and I head upstairs to get chasunah-ready.
I could have stayed at the wedding longer, but it is hard to enjoy smorgasbord sushi and carpaccio and a five-piece band (hi, I’ll take a raise, thanks!) when my to-do list is playing on shuffle in my mind. Not to mention the guilt for tasking Rivka Baila with such a huge although very, very necessary, job.
Ari doesn’t mind leaving; for such a friendly guy, the man abhors social events.
“You just want to help Rivka B, even though you told her it’s a solo mission,” he says shrewdly. “Mmmm?”
I laugh. “Fine. you got me. But also, I’m ready to take off these heels and put back on my shmettehs. I have like nine thousand things to do, I’m not even kidding.”
He nods. “I’ll get you hard workers Slurpees after Maariv.”
I smile at him. “Sounds like a plan.”
The house is very quiet. I thought Rivka Baila would be yapping on the phone while she cleaned, but the kitchen is silent, and once I enter, I find out that it’s empty as well.
There’s a note on the table.
Hi, Ma and Ta,
Hope you enjoyed the chasunah! Baruch Hashem for simchahs!
Chassy called that she has a last-minute sheitel appointment, there was a cancelation, so I hopped on over to her.
I will im yirtzeh Hashem do the oven when we get back.
Hope that is all right with you.
Love you so much, R.B.
No. No, it is not all right. It is 11: 36 p.m., she is not home, the oven takes a good three hours to clean before we can kasher and use it. Not to mention the counters and sinks waiting patiently for their turn to be boiled and covered with aluminum and inserts.
“No!” I say out loud. “No no no no!”
Ari walks up behind me, snatches up the note, and then crumples it in his palm.
“Unacceptable!” he thunders. “Absolutely unacceptable. We brought her home, we told her we need her help cleaning, she messed up the grocery order out of pure negligence, and now instead of doing the task we asked, she runs off to sheitel appointments, and leaves us in the lurch. Absolutely not!”
“Hops over,” I mutter.
“She doesn’t run off, she hops — forget it. So what should we do?”
I want to sit down, discuss it, kick off my heels, nurse a tea.
But Ari already grabbed his car keys. “I’m going to Tzippa’s and picking her up.”
And he’s gone.
Rivka Baila isn’t speaking to us.
I know Ari yelled at her and embarrassed her in front of “The Kallah.” But still, c’mon. Oh, she’s very polite, wishes us good morning and good night, and can I pour you a drink, but the casual chatting and DMCing is over. She cleans at my side with a shiur playing in her airpods.
And I know she’s a child, and I shouldn’t let it get to me, but I’m hurt. And annoyed. And frustrated. Did I cut off my nose to spite my face by tasking her with the oven? I spend the rest of my morning trying to retrace my steps to see what, exactly, we could have done differently so that I’m not making Pesach with a silent teenager stewing at my shoulder instead of the best friend I missed so much throughout the year.
All I can think is: Should I have done anything differently?
Tzippy Schiller, 43, Lakewood, NJ
I couldn’t help but smile at this story. This mom is adorable and highly relatable. The root-cause issue here is mom’s idealism. After a full year of Rivka Baila gone from home, all Mom can remember are all the positive elements that Rivka Baila contributed to home life. Her zest for life. Her social dynamics. Her carefree demeanor. Her assistance in the perfunctory role as the older girl in the household. Mom melts at the idea of bringing Rivka Baila home. A commitment to stay for Pesach is a commitment to stay for Pesach, and negotiating tactics can teach a child to develop manipulative methods that serve his/her agenda. Personally, in this circumstance, I, too, would cave. But my approach to Rivka Baila’s homecoming would vary from this mom’s, who left things more open-ended and vague. If cleaning help would be reduced, I would create a schedule of expectations per day that is clear and consistent. Before Rivka Baila can run off to play, the quota of expectations of the day must first be met. First work and then play would be my motto. We can be flexible with what Rivka Baila’s jobs are, but before frustrations can accumulate and reach a crescendo, we need to mitigate risks by creating an agenda, reviewing each day’s quota of help — what was completed and what remains outstanding — and communicating that all shopping, hopping, and bopping around can only occur after the completion of tasks. This way a modicum of accountability takes place before an unnecessary dysregulated reaction can occur, and everyone can enjoy each other’s time.
K.T., 40, Cincinnati, OH
When your daughter leaves for seminary, you enter a new stage in life: parenting adult children. If a child is old enough to go off on her own — she graduated high school and can handle herself away from home, making Shabbos arrangements (with or without her parents help…) — that means that she’s graduated to a new stage.
And that new stage requires a delicate dance and balance that constantly needs reevaluation.
This stage of life and the dynamics of this relationship can be so enjoyable and enriching if handled properly. But if mishandled, it can bring tremendous anguish and pain. And with foresight, those can be avoided.
Where did Atara go wrong? The decision to bring Rivka Baila home was the first mistake. She is an adult, and they should have approached her as if she is. Her parents could have said, “We would love to have you home with us during this exciting tekufah, but we can’t afford it. Would you like us to lend you the money and you can pay us back when you begin working next year?” Or they could have offered to split the ticket price with her. That would have automatically thrust her into the position of being a responsible adult, and given her that level of responsibility.
Later, when she didn’t do the job right away, Atara should have stated calmly that Rivka Baila is an adult, and we gave her a deadline — the morning. Even if she comes back from her cousin’s in the wee hours of dawn, she will still complete the task, because that is what adults do. It’s a part of the training process of walking into adulthood.
The real beauty of parenting adult children is that mature and developed communication can be used to repair ill will.
And side point: we never cut down on cutting cleaning help before Pesach! Making a decision to manage without, at a time when cleaning help is integral was not the wisest decision.
Mindy M., 40, Monsey, NY
What could Atara have done differently? Well, with the gift of hindsight, this becomes an easy question to answer! Communication is the key to almost everything — especially as it relates to relationships and expectations. I find that when we’re able to discuss things fully and teenagers feel that they can be part of the decision-making process, we can sometimes reach better outcomes. For example, before bringing Rivka Baila home, I would have a heart-to-heart conversation with her. I think it’s important for her to feel my dilemma, and then for us to come to a solution together. I would discuss the situation openly, saying something like, “I feel so torn! You know how strongly Tatty feels about you staying for Pesach. Now that your cousin is a kallah, it must be so hard for you to feel out of it, but we are responsible people, and this was the only way we were able to send you.” If, on her own, Rivka Baila offers to come and help, by taking responsibility for the cleaning, we’d need to think it through to the end, asking her, “Do you think it’s realistic? Will you want to go out with friends? I don’t want to cancel the cleaning lady and have Tatty spend the money unless you are fully on board.” Then, it’s important to figure out logistics beforehand as much as possible. (“So you will come home on Tuesday, and do X, Y, and Z by Thursday…. What should we put in place to ensure that this is working?”) With open, honest communication, and clear expectations, I think this could work.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 836)
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