Tzirel: How can you take away our daughter’s one chance of hope?
Yehudis: My daughter has needs too. Why must your daughter come first?
Esti was late again. I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure, but it felt like the seventh time in the past couple of weeks.
I sighed and dialed the school office.
“Detention,” confirmed the secretary.
It hadn’t always been like this. Looking back, it had probably only started a few months earlier. Lateness to school, unexplained absences from class. And the unceasing detentions.
Maybe it was the remaining vestiges of flu that were making her act out, maybe the teacher wasn’t understanding enough, maybe it’s just a phase, we should give her more attention. But we always gave her lots of attention — Estie’s the oldest, and the only girl. And the phase lasted over summer vacation and into a new school year with a brand-new set of teachers. And the flu bug was a distant memory already.
Shlomo agreed with me that something was amiss. The only problem was, who would figure out what?
Estie came home scowling.
“Hi, sweetie. Everything okay?”
She gave me a miserable look. She wasn’t carrying a schoolbag, just wearing a thick winter jacket zippered till the top although it was pretty mild for October.
“Are you hungry? Come eat something.”
She opened her mouth and closed it again, turned around and then, suddenly, spun to face me.
“Why aren’t you asking what the detention was for this time?” Her tone was accusing.
I was caught off-guard; I’d been avoiding the lateness issue, scared to trigger anything. Apparently, avoidance triggers just as badly.
“I— do you want to tell me?”
A minute later, I heard the bedroom door slam.
Estie seemed to spend most of her time there. After school, evenings, most of Shabbos. Sometimes, she slept through the meal on Shabbos day, which really annoyed Shlomo.
“Sleeping? At 12:30 p.m.? I really don’t think it’s necessary,” he said to me one week. “You tried to wake her?”
“I went in twice. I don’t think we should push her.”
We were talking in the kitchen, keeping our voices down so the boys wouldn’t hear. The table was set, eight perfectly folded napkins and the challos already out. Time was ticking on, but Estie was oblivious.
“I’m going to tell her to come down.”
Estie made an appearance a few minutes later, wearing some designer hoodie and the blackest scowl I’d seen all week. She sat next to me, her usual place, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t touch her food, either, and sometime around main course, she disappeared upstairs again.
Unreachable. That’s what my daughter had become.
I tried so many things. We took her out one night, a real fancy restaurant with dimmed lighting and tuxedoed waiters. Let her choose whatever she wanted from the menu, even though Shlomo looked like he was about to faint at the prices. She actually smiled when the food arrived. It did look pretty good. I got rib steak, mushrooms sitting in thick sauce, something made of potatoes and lots of green herbs. Shlomo’s plate was more exotic; I couldn’t pronounce the name of his main, and Estie had gone with lamb chops and fries.
“Want some salad?” I offered, nudging the portion of fresh salad over in her direction.
The background music flowed over and around us. It was so relaxing to just sit and indulge in the experience, a rare treat. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten out someplace like this. Maybe when Estie was a baby.
Shlomo cleared his throat and looked at me expectantly. Oh. Right. This wasn’t a long-awaited restaurant date with my husband, or even a fun night out with our oldest. It was a last resort, after too many phone calls from the school, a desperate meeting with our rav, and an icy silence that made me strain to remember what my daughter’s voice used to sound like.
I set down my fork, rib steak untouched.
“Estie,” I said, and stopped. What was I going to say?
Her eyes changed color, pale blue melting into a steely gray. I blinked. Was it my imagination, or did she just close up before I’d even started talking?
“Estie, Ma and I have been worried about you,” said Shlomo, sliding in gracefully. “We’re wondering if something’s bothering you — at school, at home. We want you to know you can tell us anything, anything at all.”
It sounded a little rehearsed. I rushed in, trying to speak fast, before we lost the chance. “Estie, sweetie, Tatty and I really want what’s best for you. If you need anything, a change, something new, maybe to speak to someone—”
Her eyes filled and emptied so fast, it was like one minute she was sitting open-mouthed over her food and the next she was gushing hot, wet tears all over it.
“I knew it! This whole restaurant thing… it was just to say all that, right?” She pushed back her chair. “I’m not interested in talking! I never was! You can’t think that you’re going to bribe me like this!”
I gave Shlomo a helpless glance. He leaned forward. “Estie, you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, we’re just offering—”
Abruptly, the tears dried up, she swabbed at her eyes with a napkin and said tonelessly, “I want to go home.”
Shlomo paid the bill with tight lips. I didn’t even taste the rib steak.
“What are we going to do?” I wailed helplessly, later that night.
My husband shrugged. He was just as bewildered as I.
We spoke to more rabbanim, to experts. Estie flatly refused to talk: to us, to her teachers, to the principal, to anyone. There was this Rebbetzin Stern that everyone kept mentioning, who counseled a lot of teenagers. Nothing official, very unthreatening, but apparently she’d pulled many girls back from the brink. I wished I could get Estie to talk to her. But she lived hours away, and there wasn’t a chance I could cajole my daughter into making the trip.
I’d almost given up entirely when my mother called.
“Tzirel, listen,” she said breathlessly, without even a hello. “This Bina Stern, Rebbetzin Stern who helps all those girls? She’s going to be traveling soon, going to the mountains for some convention. It’s in a few weeks’ time. Why don’t you take Estie to the hotel for Shabbos and try speaking to her then? Maybe she can do it casually, go over to Estie… it might work!”
I thought about it. To go away for Shabbos? It would mean both of us taking off work, and Shlomo’s boss didn’t take kindly to last-minute absences. To take Estie myself? But she might refuse to come, especially after that restaurant disaster. Grandparents… wait. What if…?
“Which hotel is it? Do you know?”
My mother chuckled. “You know it. It’s the one your father-in-law works in.”
Wow. Talk about Hashgachah! Shlomo’s father works as a mashgiach in a kosher hotel in the mountains and spends every few Shabbosos there. They always take a grandchild along, and it works in some kind of order, but I’m sure we could arrange for Estie to take that week if they’d be there for Shabbos.
“Ma, thanks so much! I think this might just work! Let me call my mother-in-law and I’ll get right back to you, okay?”
I was smiling already. Amazing what a ray of hope can do!
I called my mother-in-law, holding my breath.
“Yes, of course, we’ll be there in three weeks’ time. It’s a fancy conference thing, I don’t know, but it will be very busy… whose turn? We’re taking Gitty along, Yitz’s Gitty.”
“Oh.” I let out my breath. “Um, I was just wondering.” I cleared my throat, feeling a bit silly. “Do you think, maybe, that Estie could take the turn this time? We heard that this famous rebbetzin will be there, we’ve been really hoping Estie might open up to her….”
My in-laws knew about our difficulties with Estie. Shlomo and I don’t hide these things from our parents.
“I don’t see why not,” my mother-in-law said, thoughtfully. “But you’ll have to speak to Yitz and Yehudis and check that Gitty won’t mind waiting a month. She’s very excited for her turn.”
I hung up the phone with relief. My niece Gitty is a real good girl, just about Estie’s age but her polar opposite in personality. She’d agree in a heartbeat.
I texted Shlomo Good news!!! I think we’re going to get Estie and Rebbetzin S to meet!! Tell u later and then dialed my sister-in-law. This would be the easy part.
Except that it wasn’t.
“Estie take Gitty’s turn? I’d really prefer not,” my sister-in-law said. She sounded like she was stifling a yawn. “Gitty’s been waiting a long time for this.”
“But maybe, if you explain… I mean, Estie’s been really — struggling.” The words nearly choked me, I hated begging, but I couldn’t give up. “She — I mean, we’ve been wanting her to meet this Rebbetzin for ages… it’s the perfect opportunity….”
“I hear you, Tzirel,” Yehudis said apologetically. “But I can’t do that to Gitty. She’s worked so hard and she deserves this break. Besides, she’s been so excited, I can’t let her down like that.”
“But this — but I’m sure she would understand!” I spluttered. Anger was churning in my stomach, anger and desperation. “Please, Yehudis, you could talk to her… I could talk to her! She would let Estie go if she realized how important this could be!”
Something sharpened in my sister-in-law’s voice. “No, please don’t talk to her. Of course she’ll give in if you ask. But I don’t want her pressured into giving up her treat.”
“It’s not giving up, it’s just pushing off for a month….” Seriously, what was the big deal? Since when was Yehudis so unreasonable? Maybe I’d just get Shlomo to speak to Yitz. Yeah, that would be a better idea.
“Whatever,” I said tightly. “Talk to you sometime.”
When Shlomo heard the story, he wasn’t too bothered. “I’ll talk to Yitz, he’s fine, he’ll agree,” he said confidently.
“Sure, I’ll talk to Yehudis, we’ll work something out,” Yitz assured him, over speakerphone. I gave Shlomo a thumbs-up.
“This just has to work out,” I kept saying. Shlomo nodded grimly and checked his phone. No missed call from his brother. “I hope he calls soon. I can’t really handle this.”
“Don’t worry,” Shlomo looked up. “My brother’s a good guy, it’ll be okay.”
The phone beeped.
So sorry but no go. Gitty really excited, she needs this. Sorry. Wish we could help…
What a chutzpah.
“And they just text, they can’t even call outright!” I was fuming. “They know that they’re in the wrong here! They know it! I — it’s just plain selfishness and bad middos! Their daughter is a sweet goody-goody angel who wouldn’t care to wait another few weeks! I’d like to see them struggling—”
“Tzirel, stop,” Shlomo shot me an irritated look. “It’s not helping. We need to think.”
“Talk to Yitz again.”
“Maybe you can talk to Yehudis again. She’s the one who keeps saying no.”
“Or maybe your parents.”
Shlomo shook his head. “They won’t get involved.”
We tried everything. We talked, we begged, we cried, we sent a long e-mail to Yitz and Yehudis sharing far more details than we’d planned. But they were insistent.
Gitty needs it, Gitty waited, Gitty is so excited. Excited. As if that was a reason to let our daughter continue dying inside, a slow and drawn-out death.
But they didn’t give in. Estie didn’t go. She missed that one chance that we had pinned so many hopes on. I was so furious, I didn’t want to ever see Yehudis again.
But I had to, of course. The next family event was when Shlomo’s sister made a bar mitzvah. Estie barely agreed to come. We arrived late, and the first person I saw — of course — was Yehudis, standing with her arm draped protectively around Gitty’s shoulders. Sweet, good Gitty, with her blow-dried hair and easy smile. I looked at Estie, her face drawn and shuttered. She wouldn’t even take her coat off.
I managed to smile at my mother-in-law and wish the baalas simchah a gushing mazel tov. But I couldn’t say a word to Yehudis all evening.
If I could tell Yehudis one thing, it would be: You know our daughter is struggling, how could you not allow her this one chance of hope?
She’d also cut up the veggies for supper, put the little ones to bed, and I was almost positive that the living room floor had been vacuumed sometime in between.
I felt like the worst mother ever.
“Gitty, sweetheart,” I said, trying to sound firm and energetic, “it’s so thoughtful of you to wash up in here. But you’ve done so much today, go relax, call a friend. I can take care of this.”
My daughter’s brown eyes went wide. “Ma, you sit, you need to rest up. I’m fine. Leah’s coming over later to do homework, I have time now.”
I sighed. Truthfully, there was nothing more tempting than sitting down again. While Gitty was manning bedtime, I had folded most of the laundry. After three months in bed — an exhausting and utterly nauseous first trimester — everything seemed to tire me out.
“Without Gitty, I literally wouldn’t have survived,” I confided to my best friend Adina later that night. “Or, like, Yitz would’ve had to quit his job. I mean, I couldn’t move, I mean seriously nothing, and she kept the entire place running. Laundry, bedtime, morning, the works. Yitz did his best but his hours are crazy, and the kids were so antsy without me. I can’t believe I had to let my daughter take so much responsibility, but she really rose to the occasion.”
Adina made an impressed noise. “She sounds so geshikt! Takes after her mother, right?”
“No way was I like that at age 15.”
“So, you bought her something? Sounds like she was a real lifesaver.”
I frowned. I hadn’t bought Gitty anything, simply because I’d been too busy trying to get back into routine that I hadn’t had the time. But what to get? Jewelry? A camera? She already had one, and our finances were too tight just then to warrant a really expensive gift. But cheaping out on her wouldn’t be fair; not after everything.
“I don’t know.” I said out loud. “Actually, a gift probably isn’t the right thing. A vacation would be. I mean, she’s still doing everything in the house, even now!”
“But there’s school. And where would you send her? You and Yitz can’t travel with her now.”
The thought of both Yitz and Gitty being away at the same time literally made me cold. “No way,” I said, too quickly.
“What about grandparents? Anyone living in Eretz Yisrael she could visit…?”
“Not Israel,” I said automatically. Gitty was too young to travel there alone, even if we could wangle the air miles. And the closest relative we have there is my sister, with four kids in a two-bedroom apartment. “But grandparents… wait, let me just check something. It could be…”
Yitz’s father works as a mashgiach for a kosher hotel in the mountains. Approximately once a month he and my mother-in-law spend Shabbos there, and there’s this longstanding Jacobs family minhag that they take a different grandchild along each time. It gets a little complicated sometimes, with whose turn and which family and at what age does a kid get to join, but I knew Gitty’s turn was coming up sometime soon. She hadn’t had a chance for nearly two years.
Adina must have heard something in my voice. “Ooh, Yehudis has a plan. Let’s hear?”
I grabbed a calendar. “Adina, you’re the best, I’m going to call you back, okay?”
Time to call my mother-in-law.
“Yes, of course, Gitty’s scheduled to come with us in five weeks. Moishy and Kayla’s Sara is next Shabbos and your Gitty is next. I hope she’s excited!”
“I’m sure she will be,” I reassured her. And I was excited, too. The perfect break for my hardworking daughter! A Shabbos in a kosher hotel, being pampered by her Bubby, lots of yummy food and maybe a swim session during ladies-only time on Motzaei Shabbos. Maybe I could even surprise her with a new pair of earrings for the occasion.
I couldn’t wait to tell her.
Gitty is less vocal than me, but in her own quiet way, I could tell she was excited. There was a little sparkle in her eye and I could see a smile tugging at her mouth when she checked the calendar one morning.
I still felt a twinge of guilt at the amount of housework she was doing. “Sweetheart, please, let me do that,” I said, reaching for the dishtowel one evening. “You take some cookies and let’s discuss what you’ll wear that Shabbos in the hotel.”
She broke out into a wide smile and wonder of wonders, relinquished the towel. “It’s going to be a really busy one, Zeidy said.”
I wiped down the salad bowl. “Really? Usually the winter Shabbosos are pretty quiet.”
Gitty was sweeping. Typical, she just couldn’t seem to sit down and relax if there was still housework to do. I decided not to say anything; she seemed happy and we could keep discussing her upcoming vacation. Soon, she wouldn’t be sweeping any floors.
“Yeah, I know. I thought it was funny, but apparently there’s a whole conference going on, rabbanim and therapists and speakers. They’re taking one wing of the hotel and a whole dining room, can you imagine? I mean, we’ll be in the regular part of the hotel, but there might be some talks open to anyone, Bubby said. I’d love to hear someone famous.”
That was so Gitty. Most teenagers wouldn’t be interested, but she was always a deep thinker. I was so happy for her. Everything was working out so well!
We talked and planned and I even mustered up the energy one Sunday morning to take her on a shopping trip. We splurged on new shoes and a cute bracelet. Finally, she was acting like a regular teen again, not surrogate Mommy.
When my sister-in-law called one morning, it was totally out of the blue.
“Hi, Yehudis, it’s Tzirel calling. How are you?”
She sounded a bit rushed, like she wanted to get to the point quickly.
“It’s like this. I know Gitty’s going away with Mommy and Tatty in a few weeks, right?”
“Riiiight,” I said cautiously. Where was this leading?
“It’s like this,” she said again. “Estie, you know, my oldest, she’s — she really needs this trip. And especially the way it’s worked out with this whole convention, it’s an amazing opportunity for her. Do you think, maybe that she could take this slot and Gitty go next month or something?”
I’d been napping on the sofa, but at that I sat bolt upright. No way.
“Estie take Gitty’s turn? I’d really prefer not.” It didn’t sound strong enough, so I tagged on an explanation that ended up sounding too lame: Gitty’s been waiting a long time. How could I explain more than that — the hours of housework, how excited she was?
Tzirel wasn’t deterred. “Estie’s been really struggling,” she said, a little accusingly. “We really want her to meet this rebbetzin. It’s the perfect opportunity.”
I hate, hate, hate how the good children always had to step aside for the struggling ones. It’s always like that, the kids acting out getting the attention, the extra TLC, expecting the go-with-the-flow, well-behaved ones to just step aside and leave them in the limelight. It just wasn’t fair anymore.
“I can’t do that to Gitty,” I said. Finally, my voice was firm enough. “I’m not letting her down like that.”
Tzirel offered to speak to her herself. I wouldn’t hear of it. No way. No more good child being taken advantage of. Of course Gitty would give in to her cousin if she was asked to. Of course if Aunt Tzirel would call and explain how sad Estie is and how she’s going through such a hard time, Gitty would give up her dream vacation. I didn’t want her to. I’d had enough.
“It’s just for a month,” Tzirel cajoled.
“It’s not. Next month is another cousin who’s all excited already. It’s at least two months, and by then…”
By then, the excitement would have died down. By then there would be no more newness in the shoes and no convention with famous speakers. No, there was no way I was backing down.
Yitz came home that night looking puzzled.
“Shlomo just called,” he said.
“You told him no, right?”
Yitz shrugged. “I told him I’d speak to you. You think it’s such a big deal, letting Estie take this turn?”
Gitty walked into the kitchen just then. “Ma, I was thinking, can I bake something for the ride up to the country? Like those peanut-butter brownies? I think Zeidy likes those.”
I forced a smile into my voice. “Great idea, sweetie, let’s talk soon, Tatty and I are just discussing something.”
Yitz nodded. “I see what you mean. She’s so looking forward to this.”
“I don’t want her to know that they want Estie to go, because she’ll say it’s fine,” I said, keeping my voice low. “I know her, she’ll give in to anyone, anything, but it’s not fair. We can’t always let the ‘good’ children be taken advantage of. She deserves attention, she needs this break, and she’s been so excited at the idea of this whole convention. Yitz, we’re telling them no.”
He got me, but he still felt bad for his brother. “Shlomo was telling me that they’re really at their wits’ end with Estie.”
“So let them take her to the hotel themselves!” I exploded. “It’s a free country! If they’re that desperate, Tzirel can take Estie to the hotel that same Shabbos and meet that rebbetzin there. She doesn’t have to come at the expense of Gitty!”
“You’re right,” my husband conceded. “I guess I’ll text Shlomo.”
Tzirel called again a few days later, and Shlomo kept trying Yitz. It was hard, especially when my sister-in-law was nearly crying, but I learnt to reiterate my line: “Gitty needs this, it’s too important to her, I can’t take it away.”
When the big day finally arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief that the whole pressure thing was over.
“Bye, my precious,” I said, giving her a hug at the door. Her face was one big smile.
“Bye Ma, I love you, thanks so much for this! It’s gonna be the best Shabbos!”
“You deserve it.” I told her.
Gitty came back on a high, bubbling about the speakers and the scenery and the yummy food. There was a sparkle in her eye and color in her cheeks. I looked at my daughter and my heart swelled: I had been right to stand up for her. She needed this so badly, in her own way.
I tried texting Tzirel once or twice to see how Estie was doing. I wanted her to know that I felt bad that we couldn’t help out. But she didn’t reply. I hoped she wasn’t holding on to a grudge over this; it really wasn’t a personal thing, we just had to do what was right for our daughter.
But a few weeks later, at Yitz’s sister’s simchah, it was clear that Tzirel hadn’t forgotten. She sat two seats away from me and wouldn’t say a word. When I tried greeting her, she turned her back. I tried to ignore it, but nothing could take the sting away.
If I could tell Tzirel one thing, it would be: My daughter has needs too. Just because she’s struggling, why must your daughter come first? —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 749)