| Family Tempo |

Down a Cloudy Dirt Road

A husband who’d never grown up. Now where had she heard that story before?

It was one of those gloomy May days, and the innocuous squat house at the end of the road looked particularly lived in. As the rain grew stronger, the inside of the house became messier, louder, and more chaotic.

When she was halfway down the stairs to the basement, Hindy heard a frightening crash, followed by a loud whoop. At the bottom, she surveyed the room, half expecting to find blood pooling into the carpet.

She quickly counted heads. Four blond boys, all whole and healthy, were circling her eye-of-the-storm husband who stood with a frisbee in hand. She watched him feint with his right hand, then send the disc spinning through the air with his left. The boys ran, long-legged, barefoot, and shockingly focused. Together they resembled a giant cyclone heading straight toward her freshly painted Chesapeake Blue walls.

Her husband didn’t even notice her watching; his whole being was immersed in the moment. It was this very lightness in him that drove her crazy. A quality of weightlessness, an ability to lose himself in things she neither possessed nor desired. It had her tilt her head sometimes and wonder how a married couple could possibly be so different. They were a pair of Matchbox cars who’d started out at the same point 15 years ago, then proceeded to spin wildly in opposite directions.

She’d thrown herself into school, earning a master’s in social work, then a doctorate in psychology, while he managed a high-end restaurant in the city. When she was finally done with her schooling, Chaim opened a burger joint in town, and she opened a private practice. At events she’d introduce him to colleagues, and they’d assume he was a lawyer or a doctor, but he was quick to clear up any misconceptions. “I flip burgers for a living,” he’d say breezily when asked about his profession. It infuriated her.

Despite all, she didn’t think they were unhappy. They couldn’t be, being that she was considered one of the Top Ten Marriage Therapists in the Northeast. They were just… different. At 38, Chaim had retained a hefty spark of childhood that she’d never had in the first place.

The basement wasn’t big enough for frisbee; she could practically hear the little windows shaking in fear. “Help me!” they trilled.

“Chaim.”

Her husband whipped around like a kid caught dipping into the Shabbos treats on Friday morning.

“Hey.” The frisbee dropped from his hand and landed on the carpet.

“Tuli was supposed to finish listening to his math class. And Baruch has a live class with his rebbi in five minutes.”

“I don’t like live classes!” Baruch bellowed. “I can’t focus on the phone! I’m not listening!”

Hindy looked at Chaim, narrowing her eyes and shooting him a be the father look.

“Uh… you gotta listen to the class, Baruch. We can’t slack off on learning. But we still have four minutes before you need to get on the line — let’s make the best of it.”

 

Chaim grabbed the frisbee off the floor and sent it sailing toward Baruch who caught it easily. Due to the situation, the usually bustling Burger and Fries had become an evening-only take-out place, which meant Chaim was home during the day, so she could work uninterrupted.

“Don’t you think frisbee should be an outdoor sport…” Hindy called over the noise as the boys yelled for Baruch to pass it.

“It’s not frisbee, Ma!” s creamed Ari. “It’s Frizowall, and it’s the best game Tatty’s ever created. It’s gonna become an Olympic sport, and we’re gonna be billionaires.”

Hindy folded her arms. “Well that’s lovely, but maybe you should all go upstairs now and finish your schoolwork.”

No one even heard her. At times like this she was grateful to have grown up in a house full of boys; she had a couple of tricks up her sleeve. She stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. The game stopped abruptly and all eyes turned toward her.

“Work before play, every day, remember guys?” She tried to make it seem like she was talking to the kids, but her eyes drifted toward Chaim.

“Sure, sure. Right.” Her husband nodded.

“I have a new couple in ten minutes, and I need some prep time. I’m going into my office, take the boys upstairs, okay?”

“No problem.” He smiled. “Give us two more minutes.”

Hindy walked into her home office and closed the door harder than necessary. He was loving this, her husband. And it bothered her. It bothered her that he enjoyed lazing around in the morning, playing with the kids all day, getting them hyper and excited, puttering around the kitchen. It bothered her that he wasn’t anxious to get back to work full-time, that he wasn’t stressed out about the hit the restaurant was taking, that he wasn’t more… mature.

She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She needed to focus. It was hard enough meeting new clients for the first time, doubly hard now that she had to do it over Zoom.

Of course, the need for therapy had grown exponentially since March. The calls and emails were coming in fast and furious as couples who rarely spent time together began to realize they didn’t like each other all that much.

The sound of shattering glass echoed through the door from the next room. There goes the window. She heard Chaim issue some muted instructions and the pounding of boys’ feet up the stairs. She suppressed the urge to go out there and direct the cleanup process. Instead, she withdrew the new clients’ file.

The wife had been the one to set up the first appointment. Hindy hadn’t even gotten her first name, she’d sounded so frazzled over the phone. No surprise there — who wasn’t frazzled these days with everyone shut inside for months? What was the language she’d used? Hindy checked her notes. Ah yes, she’d called the situation at home “untenable, wholly unsustainable, and likely to combust at any moment.” The woman had gone on, saying her husband had become “accusatory and surly.” It didn’t sound pretty.

Hindy positioned her camera so her Rutgers diploma could be clearly seen in the background. She’d always had a nice-sized practice, but her popularity had soared to new heights after her best-selling book Happily Ever After: The Tools Every Character Needs to Achieve Eternal Marital Bliss made it to the New York Times best-seller list in early January.

She checked the computer screen and suddenly the name M and P appeared in her Zoom waiting room. Hindy smoothed her sheitel before pressing the admit button.

“Hi there.” She smiled broadly into the camera.

A fuzzy image appeared on the screen, Hindy could just make out the wife’s blue and white polka dot tichel (Bold choice, she thought. Super trendy or super out of town?) and the husband’s hat (brown. Well, that settles it.)

“Hi.”

“Hello there.”

The wife spoke in a high, calm tone, the husband, a booming drawl.

“Welcome! It’s so lovely to meet you.” Hindy beamed. “Is there any way you can move your camera down an inch or two? I can only make out the tops of your heads….”

A bit of rustling came through the computer.

“Weeelllll, if you’d just moooove over, I can try to adjust—” the wife spoke very slowly and cautiously.

Uh-oh. Hindy had seen plenty of her clients display the same exaggerated calm, the sweet-as-honey tone, the slow speech, until boom. They snapped.

“Now see here, if you start messing around with the thing—” insisted the husband.

“Oh, since when do you know one single thing about computers? You wouldn’t be able to find the on button if you tried.”

And she snaps. That was fast. Hindy tried to keep her smile sincere looking. She didn’t want the first session to go poorly; her goal was to have the couple leave the session with a sense of security and trust, not frustration.

“You know what?” Hindy cleared her throat. “It’s fine. Leave the camera, I can uh… basically see you. It’s fine.”

“To start off, I’d just like to say that I totally understand how odd it is that we’re meeting like this, and I want to applaud your courage for reaching out even though this setup is less than ideal.”

Hindy heard a crash from upstairs and wondered just how many window replacements Frizowall was going to cost her.

“Let’s start with some introductions, shall we? I’d love to get to know a little bit about both of you and your family.” She always added in the family part during the first session — people usually found it easier to talk about their kids then open up about themselves.

The wife launched right in. “Well, we’re married for forever. Our bechor is 11. He takes after his mama, a kind, warm, and generous soul, if I do say so myself. He also happens to be the youngest world champion of the Biannual International Model Airplane Competition in history.”

“You do find a way to work that into every conversation, Mama.”

“Oh, you do too, Papa! I heard you bragging to Dr. Grizzly just last week. Let’s not pretend I’m the only one.”

Hindy smiled, scribbling in her notebook. “I see so many couples fall into the ‘Mommy Daddy’ trap, referring to their spouses by their parental titles even when the kids aren’t around. Feel free to call each other by your given names while in session,” Hindy prompted.

But neither the wife nor the husband responded. Okay then. I guess I’ll just go with it, the clients’ comfort always comescut in

first. “So then… now… uh… Mama, is it? Are there any more children in the family?”

“Oh yes. We have our precious little girl who’s eight, she’s a doll when she isn’t whining for someone to turn rope for her. I shouldn’t complain. She’s been scouted by a coach at Penn due to her unique jump-roping skills, and we’re already thinking early admissions on a full scholarship b’ezras Hashem. And then there’s the baby, our little princess.”

“Oh, babies are wonderful, they bring so much joy to the home. What’s her name?” Hindy asked, trying to keep things neutral and calm.

“Oh, here we go.” Papa grumbled.

“Well, logic would dictate the baby would be named Baby as there’s already a Brother and Sister in the family. But nooo. No, no, no. Papa comes back Shabbos morning after shul the week she was born and says he named her Honey. Honey? Who names their child Honey?”

Hindy scribbled Honey? in her notebook.

“I like honey,” Papa said simply.

“And I like knitting!” Mama snapped back. “but I feel no urge to name my offspring Yarn!” She scolded him like she would a small child, and suddenly Hindy understood the dynamic between them.

She tried to steer the conversation back to stable ground. “Uh… in our initial phone call you mentioned you live in Bayer County — did I get that right?”

“No, no, no,” Papa cut in. “On a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country.” He emphasized each syllable.

Bear Country? Hindy didn’t know where that was. Probably somewhere near Monsey.

“Well, that sounds pleasant. I love sun. Not such a fan of bears, though.” Her little joke was met with a deafening silence. This couple was tough. “Er, did you say a dirt road? Are there no paved roads in your area?”

“That’s a fantastic question Doctor, isn’t it, Papa?” Mama’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “You see, when I faithfully served the people of Bear Country as mayor for two consecutive terms, winning easily on a libertarian ticket, my first order of business was improving the roads. Unfortunately, I was blocked from doing so by one of my most vocal constituents.” Hindy noticed the tichel whip toward the hat. A frustrated groan emanated from Papa.

“Now settle down, Mama. Just settle down. I didn’t move to Bear Country to have my neck of the woods overrun with cars and humans and that sort of trash. I moved here for quiet. The fresh clear lakes to fish in. The ample trees to chop down. Now you can run the quilting club all you please, take care of the vegetable patch, and do all the household chores, but I won’t have you paving roads!”

Hindy blinked and shifted in her seat. “Um, why don’t we move on to discussing why we’re sitting here today? What are you both hoping to gain from this?”

Surprisingly, Mama was quiet, but Papa spoke up. “Well,” he cleared his throat loudly, “it’s simple, really. My wife sees me as an inferior. Just one of the kids.”

“Now Papa, you know that’s not true.”

“Oh, it most certainly is!” he thundered back. “When she put the kids on a diet, she put me on one as well. She took away all my good snacks and nosh and hid them. She limits my relaxation time, she’ll stick two claws in her mouth, let out a whistle, then say something like, ‘No ball playing in the house!’ She’ll pretend to be talking to the kids, but we all know it’s directed at me.

“In fact, when she’s done scolding the kids about their poor table manners or something, she’ll turn to me and give me a tongue-lashing as well! On a number of occasions, she punished me with extra chores because I didn’t follow a household rule. In front of the children!

“Now I’m no professional but I’m pretty sure Dina Friedman would consider that a no-no—”

“Well… you… you lack ambition!” Mama spluttered. “I served as mayor while running a Farmer’s Market filled with fresh, homegrown produce every Monday and Thursday. I raise chickens and grow 40 types of vegetables. I’ve made over 278 quilts and serve as sole owner and shopkeeper of the Bear Country Quilt Shop, where I work daily. I oversee my elderly parents’ medical care as well as the health and nutrition of my immediate family.

“The walls of my home are decorated in handcrafted needlepoints depicting historical scenes, specifically those of domestic life during the time period of the Industrial Revolution. I’m not one to brag, but a few of my creations are currently on display at the Met.

“I won’t confirm nor deny, but rumor has it I was approached by Nikki Haley’s people regarding the presidential elections of 2024. I can’t divulge exactly in what capacity I’ve been asked to serve this great nation, but let’s just say the words “vice” and “president” feature prominently in the title.

“I also sew all of our clothing, darn, knit, crochet, keep an immaculate house, run a soup kitchen in the evenings, and homeschool Honey, all while being a full-time stay-at-home mother.”

Hindy was speechless. “I’m… well that’s very impressive—”

“Now hear this, Mama,” Papa cut in. “Yes, you’ve accomplished a lot. And I’m proud of you. But ambition ain’t everything.”

“Isn’t everything.”

“Er — thank you, Mama. Isn’t everything. There’s more to life than ambition. I might not be some Berenstein genius, I may never have read the classics, and don’t know much math past fractions, but I do my part. I taught the kids to ride bikes, to fish, to build. To relax.”

“Oh please. No one needs to learn how to relax.”

“Plus,” continued Papa, “no one ever asked me if I wanted to run for public office. Or go on to get a higher degree.”

Everyone was silent for a minute.

“Well… do you?” Mama asked quietly.

Hindy listened with bated breath.

“Do I what?” Papa asked.

“Do you want to go on and get some fancy PhD?”

Papa was quiet for a moment. “Well, I’ll be tickled pink if they offer a doctorate in furniture making.”

“You see! This is what I’m talking about! No drive. None whatsoever.”

“Maybe not, but at least I don’t treat you like you’re one of the kids!”

“And what exactly have you done for this family?”

“Well, I built this here house, top to bottom, and near every piece of furniture in it.”

“You built your house?” Hindy interjected. “Like… yourself?”

“Oh don’t be so impressed, Doctor. We live in a tree,” Mama snapped. “Which is an upgrade from the cave…”

“Oh ho ho. I’d love to see you try to build a family home, Mama.”

“Ohhhhh now you’ve really crossed a line, sir. I. Literally. Do. Everything. For. This. Family!”

“Because you want to!”

“Because I have to.”

“Well maybe you need some lessons on how to relax,” Papa roared. “I wouldn’t mind teaching you. Apparently, I’m really good at it!”

“How many times do I need to say it?” Mama shouted back. “Folks don’t need lessons on how to relax!”

Hindy used the momentary lull in the storm to try to maneuver the ship back to shore. “Wow, I’m sensing a lot of strong feelings here. Mama, you sound like a devoted mother and an all-round incredible person.” A framed photo of Chaim and the boys sitting on her desk caught her eye. Blood rushed to her cheeks. “And Papa, you sound like a loving father who’s feeling a little underappreciated right now. I believe it would be beneficial for all of us to delve into some of the many positive qualities Papa brings to your home.”

“Oh, yeah? Like what?” Mama asked.

“Can you answer that?” Hindy asked. “What do you feel he’s given you and your children?”

“Nothing!”

Hindy realized her new client needed direction. “Well, what about just being? You know, simply relaxing and enjoying life is something we tend to overlook, but it’s no less crucial than setting goals and completing big projects.”

Hindy took a deep breath, feeling light-headed. “Specifically for children, learning how to utilize downtime in a healthy way, without feeling pressured, is essential for mental health and all aspects of growth. And for some, it’s harder to achieve than for others.

“Uh, I guess what I’m saying is that some folks do need to learn how to relax. When you, Mama, view Papa as being immature, irresponsible, or lazy, he may actually be displaying behavior that helps neutralize stress in the home, thus giving the family the space to breathe and enjoy life.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Papa slowly. “See, Mama? I told you I’m not lazy. I’m neutralizing stress.”

Hindy glanced at her watch. “Our time is nearly up. It’s been a privilege and a pleasure getting to know you. Just one quick billing technicality: Your last name is Bernstein, B-E-R-N-”

“Berenstain.” Mama’s voice snapped through the computer screen. “With an A before the I-N. Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so… well, it’s just that people get thrown off that the A is there. I’m constantly defending the A.”

Hindy made a note of it in her notebook. “I totally understand. Those little unique attributes in a name are very important, they help define—”

“Well, now, hold on just one minute, Mama. Are you quite sure? I distinctly recall spelling our name Berenstein, not Berenstain…”

“Well maybe your grasp of the alphabet leaves what to be desired!”

Hindy allowed the name-calling and mudslinging to go on a little while longer. (“It’s called the Mandela Effect, Mama, and it’s a real thing.” “It’s called utter foolishness, Papa, and you need to stop getting sucked into conspiracy theories!”) At last, she wound down the session, commended them once again for their courage in seeking help, and made them an appointment for the following week.

When she finally closed her laptop, she felt utterly drained. The dynamic between the couple had made her feel uneasy.

She sat for a while, processing. Then she went up to find Chaim in the kitchen.

“Hi.”

Chaim stepped away from the blender like a kid caught trying to copy answers from his friend’s geography test.

“Are you making slushies? Now? The kids didn’t even have lunch….”

Chaim looked away. “Yea, sorry. Probably should have fed them first.”

Hindy sat down at the table, stared at her fun-loving, warm, always-supportive-if-not-the-most-responsible husband.

“I’m sorry. What I actually wanted to say was thank you. For everything. The Frizowall and the treats, and the puppet shows and… the silliness… I don’t think the kids would have made it through this without you. You teach them how to relax.”

Chaim shrugged. “Hey, it’s fun. I’m loving it.”

Hindy nodded. “I know. And they know. And that’s what makes it so special. I’m not good at the whole relaxing thing.”

“But you’re very good at the whole saving people thing,” Chaim said kindly, turning back to the blender. “And getting the kids to do their homework and that kind of stuff. We make a good team, Hindy.”

She nodded. It was true, they did make a good team.

Hindy’s work phone let out a shrill ring. She motioned for Chaim to hold on a second.

“Hello?”

“Hi!” The voice on the other end was unbelievably high pitched, shaky with nerves.

“Hello.”

“Hidey ho!”

“Can I help you?”

“Oh, I do hope so! My name is Sarah Mina.”

Hindy looked over at Chaim.

“Go save the world,” he whispered. She smiled and reached for her appointment book.

“Hi Sarah Mina. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Oh dear. I’m not even sure anymore. We… uh… well, it’s all a mess. I’d rather not give too many identifying details. We’re kind of a high-profile couple and Mickey — er, my husband — well he’s just not himself, Doc!

“Our estate’s been closed for the first time in history. We’re completely isolated over here in Orlando. Usually we have a million people in and out of this place every day. Many dear friends and young admirers. But with the virus, and considering our age… well, it’s just been him and me, and I… oh Doc, I think he might be depressed!”

“That sounds tough, Sarah Mina. What you’re feeling right now, the uncertainty and confusion, is totally normal. Let’s make a time to speak over Zoom, okay?

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 696)

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