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Family Matters

An outsider would have assumed Ahuva was a sibling, not a cousin. An outsider would have seen a happy jumble of children, and nothing more

Shimon swung from a low branch and then let go, landing in a neat crouch. He stood up, wiped his hands on his pants, and started climbing again.

“Careful,” Chani called to him. She was sitting next to Ma, and they were debating the virtues of adding applesauce and zucchini to potato kugel.

So like his father, I thought as I watched my nephew move from limb to limb with a light-footed sureness.

The rest of Chani’s kids were playing too: Meir and Tzvi tossed a ball, and in the driveway, Penina drew a hopscotch board with chalk for Ahuva. I sat in a far corner where I could watch without participating. An outsider would have assumed Ahuva was a sibling, not a cousin. An outsider would have seen a happy jumble of children, and nothing more.

I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the sky. Sometimes, I thought, you can have a block of time that feels stolen from the past, and free of pain, like now. If I didn’t think too hard, I could pretend that Henny and Menashe were on their way here to pick up Ahuva.

I felt a warm body press against me, and without shifting my gaze, I knew it was Ahuva. I snaked my arm around my niece’s thin frame and pulled her close. Then pain slammed into me, ferocious but familiar; it was already six months since my sister and brother-in-law were gone, killed by a drunk driver on their way home from a wedding. I looked at my mother, my sister-in-law, and the children playing in the backyard, and I knew that, like me, they were all pushing through the pain. Each day added another thin film of healing, fragile and easily torn.

“Do you want to play with Penina?” I whispered into Ahuva’s ear.

“No,” Ahuva said. “She’s always so bossy.”

An autumn breeze blew my hair into my face, and I tucked it behind my ear. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shimon start to climb the tree again. I thought about asking Ahuva if she wanted to sleep over tonight. Ahuva lived with Yosef and Chani, but sometimes she’d stay with me. My apartment was big enough for a second person, and I had everything Ahuva needed. She could come any time she wanted.

I watched as Shimon swung from the branch again, but this time he tumbled forward and fell on his face. He sat up, and I saw his cheek was scraped and a purple goose egg was already forming on his forehead. Shimon was quiet for a shocked second, and then started howling.

“My leg,” he wailed.

Chani jumped from her chair and ran to Shimon’s side.

“Can you walk?” she asked.

She touched his leg, and he cried harder. Chani tried to help him stand, but he refused to put his foot on the ground. The other kids had stopped playing and gathered around their brother and mother.

“I’ll have to take him for X-rays,” Chani told Ma, already on her phone making an appointment. “Can I leave the kids with you until Yosef can pick them up?”

“Go,” Ma told Chani. She started shepherding the kids toward the house.

“Will Shimon be okay?” Ahuva asked me.

I looked toward Ma before I answered. “He hurt his leg, but he should be fine.”

I took Ahuva’s hand and we followed Ma and the kids inside. We stood at the kitchen door that led to the yard, watching Chani’s kids mill around the table. Ma pulled out a pot from the cabinet and filled it with water.

“How about I take Ahuva home with me tonight?” I said.

“Good idea,” Ma said. Ahuva whooped and ran to get her briefcase.

I watched Ma as she shuffled things around in the pantry. She took out a pile of placemats and handed them to Penina.

“Go set the table,” she told her.

Ma turned back to the pantry search for a box of pasta. The kitchen felt very full with all the kids, and she seemed overwhelmed. Maybe I should have waited for a better time, but we had already discussed this before at times that seemed more opportune. I thought the frenzy in the kitchen would soften Ma’s resolve.

“Ma,” I said, “you know Ahuva can stay with me full time.”

I bit my lip right after saying the words, hoping the physical pain would prepare me for her response. Ma was always reluctant to have this conversation with me, yet every time I brought it up, I thought that this time she would see how much sense it made. I hadn’t told her I’d consulted a lawyer about adopting Ahuva. Not that I was seriously considering making a case out of this; I just wanted to know what my chances were.

“Excellent,” Ella Polansky had told me.

Ma clutched the box of pasta close to her chest, as if to protect herself from the ensuing conversation. I could see she was making an effort to be gracious; maybe because she needed me to take Ahuva for the night. She put the box on the counter and ripped it open with more force than necessary.

“We talked about this already. You don’t need a child on your hands now,” Ma told me, pouring the pasta into the pot. “You need to start your life first.”

I thought of my pretty apartment and the department I managed at the brokerage firm. I decided not to argue about what “start life” actually meant. Focus on the main thing, I told myself.

I took a breath. “I want to be Ahuva’s legal guardian. I could really do this, Ma. And think how good it will be for Ahuva.”

Even as I talked, I saw I had gone too far. Ma is usually reserved, except when she thinks you overstepped. I hadn’t merely overstepped now, and Ma’s whole countenance changed. She narrowed her eyes and put her hands on her hips. Her tiny frame seemed to grow to Brobdingnagian proportions.

“That’s crazy talk, Devorah. You’re single. She has a home with two parents.”

Ahuva walked in with her backpack. “I’m ready,” she told me.

“Go wait for Devorah at the door, sweetie,” Ma told her. She waited for Ahuva to leave, and then turned back to me. “I won’t allow it. You can’t be her mother.”

Her voice was low, but the force with which she hurled her words made them sound like she was shouting. I felt the frustration building inside me, but when Ma was like this, it was best to say nothing.

“We’re all suffering enough. Don’t make things worse,” Ma said. “She lives with Chani and Yosef, and it’s working.”

She turned her back to me. The set of shoulders told me she would say no more, and neither should I.


It is not working, I thought as I cooked dinner while Ahuva did her homework and talked. Chani said she was usually withdrawn, but she was never like that with me. That’s what had propelled me to meet Ella Polansky in the first place. Ahuva had enough to contend with after losing both parents, but the transition from an only child to one of seven and the shuttling between Chani and Ma and me was just too much. I glanced at my niece, and pain stabbed my heart.

“The deciding factor in New York is the best interest of the child,” Ella had told me.

The current state of affairs is definitely not in Ahuva’s best interest, I thought.

I’d made a stir-fry for supper with red onion and wild mushrooms. It was nice to cook for another person. The chopping and stirring soothed me, and I was able to disengage from the aggravation I felt when I thought of Ma’s reaction. While I cooked, Ahuva stood at the counter with her notebooks, and I felt a brimming contentment. I again felt that discordant moment of time, this one not from the past, but of something that could be in the future.

Homework was done before supper (I finish homework so much faster here, Ahuva said), and together we set the table with the dishes I had chosen after I’d bought the apartment. I’d never envisioned moving out of my parents’ home before I was married, but I also never envisioned being single at 28.

While Ahuva got ready for bed, I stood at the closet in my study, rifling through her clothes. I pulled out a uniform skirt and shirt and laid them over the cane chair that stood in the corner of the room. I liked the bedtime ritual; it provided a structure and rhythm to the evening that I didn’t usually get. I had friends, of course, and we saw each other from time to time. I went out on Shabbos, and I dated sometimes. I hoped I’d get married at some point, but it got lonely, and Ahuva changed that.

I looked around the room. I had set it up as a study with a narrow wood table I’d found curbside, and a chair I’d rescued from Ma’s house. There was a daybed for the occasional guest — mainly Ahuva, who had been spending frequent overnights here. I saw I had an email from the staging company that was scheduled to set up a model apartment the next day for potential buyers to look at. It was for that new building on Ocean Avenue, and I was the lead broker.

I heard the bathroom door open.

“I like showering here,” Ahuva said, walking into the room. “There’s no line for the shower.”

I looked at Ahuva; at her wet hair dripping onto the floor, her clothes draped over the chair, her briefcase leaning against the desk, and I felt my heart grow wings. I was eighteen when Ahuva was born. I remember the first time I held her; I’d kissed her nose and thought, soon I’ll have my own.

It didn’t turn out that way. I turned back to the closet. Of course I wanted a husband, but not having children — that was the harder part. I’d see my friends from school walking with their children and I’d avert my eyes; it lanced me deeply in a place I hadn’t known existed.

“Where’s your sweater, Ahuva?” I asked. “The one you keep here?”

Ahuva’s hair was soaking the back of her pajama shirt. We’ll need to towel dry that, I thought, and spray some detangler so it will be manageable tomorrow.

“I took it back with me to Aunt Chani,” Ahuva said, “and then I left it in school.”

“Don’t you have another one?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She said this in a singsong chant and seemed unconcerned.

Henny would have been appalled, I thought, as I got the bottle of detangler from the bathroom. I sprayed Ahuva’s hair and finger combed through her thick mane. Did Chani use detangler? As if on cue, my phone buzzed from the desk, and I saw it was Chani. I shooed Ahuva toward the bed and went to the phone.

“How’s Shimon?” I asked.

“His leg is broken,” Chani said. ”He’ll have to be in a cast for at least six weeks.“

“That’s going to be torture for him,” I said.

“Shimon will find a way to climb anything, even with a cast,” Chani said. “Listen, Devorah, I need a favor. Tzvi and Penina are both complaining about their throats. I think they have strep. Can Ahuva stay with you for the next couple of days?”

I looked over at Ahuva, ensconced in the daybed, surrounded by numerous pillows. She held up a worn copy of Half Magic, one of my old favorites — the book we read together whenever Ahuva slept over. We were more than halfway through.

“One minute,” I mouthed to Ahuva. Chani didn’t realize how much she had on her hands. I felt a mounting anger and wondered what Henny would think of the way Ahuva mostly lived with Chani and Yossi, except for the times when one more kid seemed to choke them.

I stepped out of the room before answering Chani. “Of course I can have Ahuva,” I said. “You know I’m happy to have Ahuva full time, all the time, Chani.”

“Don’t be silly, Devorah,” Chani said with a brittle laugh. “Ma’s taking Meir and Dassie, just until I can get things settled down here. Wait, I forgot Ahuva has PTA tonight. Can you go? You’ll have to get a babysitter.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. Chani wasn’t ever going to admit she couldn’t handle another child. “I’ll definitely go. Another thing. Ahuva left her sweater, the one from my house, in school. Do you have another one?”

“No. I mean yes, but it doesn’t fit her. I’ve been meaning to take her shopping.”

Her voice was muffled, there was a scraping and a musical jangle, and I pictured Chani on her stomach, fishing toys out from under the couch.

“I can take her after school tomorrow. Does she need anything else?”

“Well, if you’re going anyway, I’ll send you a list of things she needs.“

Her voice was clear now; I guessed she had stood up. I heard the squeak of the wicker box where Chani stored the toys and felt an odd satisfaction.

“Send me the list,” I told Chani. “Don’t worry about Ahuva. I’ll take care of her.”

I went back into the study, sat down next to Ahuva, and read to her until her eyelids drooped. I kissed her forehead, disentangled myself from the quilts, and went to the desk for my laptop. When I turned back to look at Ahuva under the blankets, I felt the tug of an invisible cord.

I really should take care of you, I thought.


It was dark when I walked to Ahuva’s school for PTA, and my thoughts surged.

After Henny and Menashe died, we all became protective of Ahuva, gathering around her, hoping to siphon off some of her pain, even as we quickly realized it was something that would never go away. I think that as an only child, it was so much harder for her; there was no one else who felt what she did.

The idea of adopting Ahuva occurred to me in increments. I’d spent so much time at Henny’s house, and I knew Ahuva. (A prior relationship was important, Ella had said.) I saw what the loss was doing to her, and that transitioning from an only child to one of seven was too much for her. I wasn’t looking to make trouble. I wanted our family to heal, to come out on the other side, and Ahuva’s wellbeing was key. I thought Ma could see what our priority was right now.

I heard Ma’s voice in my head. You can’t be her mother.

I wondered if I’d feel out of place at PTA — I’d be an obvious outsider. I adjusted my posture as I walked into the building, attempting to borrow courage from my stance, and the school-smell enveloped me: pencil shavings, crayons, and strawberry cleanser. This space was familiar; it reminded me of my own school days. But never in this role, I thought. I hadn’t passed through the double entry gates that led frum women back to elementary school — marriage and childbirth.

I realized I was fingering a curl as I took in the throng of women. I deliberately put my hand at my side. No one would say anything. They all knew what had happened to Henny and Menashe. It occurred to me that, as Ahuva’s mother, I’d have to get used to this discomfiture. Think of this a dry run, I told myself — prep for adoption. I added my name to the sign in sheet and went to look at the bulletin board. Fractions, it declared. I spotted Ahuva’s worksheet and went to examine it.

A shadow filled the empty space beside me.

“Chani couldn’t make it?”

I turned to look at the owner of the voice. Leather jacket, that woven It bag from last year, a blunt streaked bob.

“No,” I told her. “Do I know you?”

“I’m Ditza Mendel. My daughter is friends with Chani’s Penina.”

She paused and I could feel her eyes boring into me. “You’re good to come. It must be so…”

She swept her arm as if to encompass all the women around us and to also include things she dared not say, but wanted me to. I became wary, and turned back to look at the bulletin board.

“I see what’s going on,” she continued, blind to my subliminal messaging. “Chani isn’t managing. I guess that’s why you’re here.”

“She does her best,” I mumbled.

It was my turn, and I ducked gratefully into the classroom. The teacher (Her name is Mrs. Kanner, Ahuva had said) sat at her desk. She smiled at me and crow’s feet crinkled in the corners of her eyes.

“You must be Devorah, Ahuva’s aunt.” She gestured to a chair in front of her desk. “Please sit.”

I sat down gingerly, feeling the awkwardness I had anticipated earlier. Residual damage from Ditza.

“How’s Ahuva doing?”

Mrs. Kanner shuffled some papers on her desk, then rested one arm on top of the other and looked at me. “She’s a good kid, bright. We all know how hard it’s been for her.”

“Yes,” I said, and a heaviness settled on me. Again I heard Ma. You can’t be her mother.

“Her grades have slid,” Mrs. Kanner was saying. “We try to give her some space, but it’s important she doesn’t fall behind.”

“I help her out when I can,” I said. “She’s spending a couple of days with me.”

“She must love that,” Mrs. Kanner smiled. “She talks about you all the time.“

“We spend a lot of time together,” I said.

“She loves the books you read together.”

“All my old favorites,” I said, thinking of the shelf near the daybed. Ahuva’s bed, I corrected myself. Determination filled me again. She was happier with me. Even her teacher knew that. And Chani wasn’t managing. That was obvious to strangers. Only Ma didn’t realize. I felt a sense of clarity. Best interest of the child.

“It was so nice to meet you,” Mrs. Kanner said, and I started, realizing our meeting was over.


I picked Ahuva up from school the next afternoon. While I waited for her to emerge from the building, I looked at the trees whose leaves had finally changed to yellow, red, and orange. The change always came later than anyone expected. The angle of the sun made the spaces between the leaves glow. I was usually at my desk at this point of the day, but I had rearranged my schedule. It wouldn’t be difficult to rearrange it on a more permanent basis.

We started with the girls’ clothing shop near my favorite café. Ahuva flitted from rack to rack, and watching her made me bite the inside of my cheek. I wasn’t sure if I was holding back a smile or tears. Ahuva disappeared behind the dressing room curtain and I waited for her on a chair outside.

She emerged in a pink button-down corduroy skirt and matching T-shirt. She stood before the mirror and admired her reflection.

“You look so good,” I said.

“That’s what my mother used to say,” she told me.

Suddenly I missed Henny, and I pulled Ahuva close, thinking my pain must be a pale shadow of hers. She was quiet as I held her, and again I felt my heart expand and yearn to encompass Ahuva. A bubble of guilt rose in my throat when I thought of Ella Polansky, but when I looked at Ahuva, it disappeared.

I could be her mother, I answered Ma in my head.

We ticked off every item on Chani’s list, plus some additional things she hadn’t thought of. I hefted the heavy bags filled with clothes, shoes, and school supplies and placed them in the trunk. Financial independence, Ella had said. Not a problem, I thought, looking at the full trunk.

We were going to Ma’s house for supper. Chani’s kids were still there, and Ma had ordered Chinese takeout. Stopping at a red light, I glanced at Ahuva’s reflection in the rearview mirror. She looked pensive, and I wondered if I should have rather taken her to my apartment where we could unpack her new things together.

“What are you thinking about, Ahuva?”

“Am I going back to Chani after dinner?” she asked me.

“No,” I said carefully. “Why?”

“I like it better with  you,” Ahuva said. “I wish I could stay with you all the time.”

The child’s wishes carry a lot of weight, Ella had said.

I reviewed my actions of the last few hours, wondering if I’d swayed her in any way, but I knew I’d been careful not to say anything to lead Ahuva. This was genuine, and if I had any lingering doubts, they were now gone.


My phone rang as we were getting out of the car. I glanced at the screen. Naomi Feurstein. She had tried to set me up a couple of times in the last few years.

“Go in ahead of me,” I told Ahuva. “I’ll be there in a couple of minutes.”

She turned to go.

“Hello?” I said.

We exchanged formalities, and I thought I detected an upbeat note in Naomi’s voice. “Remember Nachi Spitzer?” she asked.

Of course I remembered Nachi Spitzer. His name had come up half a dozen times, and though we both were interested in meeting, there was always some impediment. He was in med school and couldn’t take a break to date. Or he was visiting his family in Chicago. Twice I’d turned him down because I was seeing someone else.

I heard Naomi take a breath. “He’s available. Do you have time this week?”

I bit my lip as I thought. Ahuva was taking up all my headspace now; was it the best time to date? On the other hand, it didn’t make sense to put my life on hold just because I was considering having a child live with me. Then again, last night had been PTA, and I didn’t want to leave her with a babysitter again so soon. But she’d been sleeping, so maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe she could sleep at Ma’s? No, I thought. I’d be no better than Chani if I did that.

“Give me a day or so,” I told Naomi. “I’ll see if I can make this work.”

Walking toward Ma’s house, I heard noise from the backyard. I skipped the front door and went straight to the back. The kids were sitting on an old blanket under the tree Shimon had fallen from the day before. I looked at them. They were telling knock-knock jokes and eating from paper plates. Ma sat on the steps, surrounded by takeout containers. She moved some over and patted a spot next to her.

“Come sit,” she said, handing me a plate.

I chose a few pieces of sesame chicken and scooped up some rice from a container. “I took Ahuva shopping today,” I told Ma as I settled down near her. “We got her a bunch of new clothes.”

“You’re so good, Devorah,” Ma said, concentrating on her own plate of rice.

“You always say that,” I answered.

“Do I?” Ma asked. She was doing it again. I could feel her resistance, and it spurred me on.

“Let’s talk about this seriously,” I said. “I want you to consider me as a real option for Ahuva.”

Ma’s eyes rested on Ahuva. She’d finished her dinner, and she was lying on the blanket looking up at the leaves in the tree above her.

“I won’t do that because you aren’t a real option. We’ve discussed this a thousand times already,” she said, her voice ice. “A child needs to live in a traditional family setting. It would be one thing if we didn’t have that option, but we do.”

I heard the mounting anger in her voice. I was overstepping again, but I didn’t care anymore. I would put it all out there.

“That option isn’t good for her,” I said, pausing a moment before I continued. “I spoke with a lawyer.”

My swung her head to look at me. I could see the puzzlement in her eyes.

“About becoming Ahuva’s legal guardian,” I said.

Ma blinked and her mouth opened as if to say something, but no sound emerged. Her startled silence was so pronounced it seemed to suck out all the sound around us. All I could hear was the rush of the blood in my ears.

“You didn’t,” she finally breathed. “Why would you do that?”

“You aren’t taking me seriously,” I told her. “And you don’t realize how much better it would be for Ahuva to live with me. You just push me away with thank yous and compliments.”

I kept my voice even, but I could feel the blood surging in my veins. I looked over at the kids. They were laughing, oblivious to my conversation with Ma. Ma seemed shocked, and still didn’t say anything. I glanced over at her. The line between her eyebrows was pronounced and her lips were pursed. I felt a need to fill the silence.

“Ahuva is happier with me. She said so herself.”

That roused her.

“You say she prefers to be with you, but maybe you’re feeding her these ideas,” Ma answered. Her tone was strained. She kept her voice low; she didn’t want the kids to overhear us. “You know it isn’t possible, but you’re giving her the impression that it’s her choice. An eleven-year-old doesn’t know what’s best for her.”

I already knew from Ella that an eleven-year-old could tell a judge who she wanted to live with, and she would be taken seriously, but I didn’t say that.

I’m not eleven,” I countered, “and I think I’m the better option. Chani is stretched too thin, and Ahuva needs attention now, and a doting parent. I can give her what Chani can’t.”

“No, you really can’t,” Ma said, her eyes glinting with anger. “I won’t let this happen.”

Ella had told me about cases where relatives compete for custody. I’d pushed that part of the conversation to the back of my mind, hoping we wouldn’t come to that. I looked at Ma, clutching her plate, white-knuckled. No matter how many times and ways we discussed this, Ma would never see it my way. I knew she wouldn’t let me seek guardianship without a fight.

Ma rubbed the inside of her wrist. “This is some fantasy of yours that you’re playing out here.” She sounded sad. “She’s better off in a home with two parents. You have to get married before you can even consider this. Get married and then we’ll talk.”

“Get married,” I scoffed. She was trying to throw me a rope, but it was too far to grab. I pushed my food around the plate. ”You say it like I can go to the supermarket and buy a husband. I’m trying to get married. I want to be married. I want a family of my own.” With a stab I remembered Naomi’s call. The sun had set, and twilight cast a purplish light over the kids. I shifted. The concrete steps felt cold underneath me.

“Taking Ahuva isn’t the way to do that.” Ma struggled to keep her voice even. “You’re skipping a step, and besides, what kind of normal guy would even consider someone with an adopted kid? You’re closing yourself off to an entire population. No one single will consider you.”

“Maybe they’ll see me as someone who isn’t self-centered,” I replied.

“Yes, in a perfect world,” Ma said, “but heaven knows that isn’t the one we live in.”

If I go out with Nachi, I wondered, what will I tell him about Ahuva? The truth, I decided. But Ma’s resistance was also the truth. My stomach twisted. I took a bite of chicken and it tasted like wood.


Rain slashed against the windows. There was an open bag of pretzels on my desk, and I nibbled at one while contemplating the droplets running down the glass. I’d have to call Naomi at some point, I thought. I’d decided to work from home today, but so far, I’d accomplished very little.

There was a knock at the door. I went to the door and peered through the peephole. Chani stood on the other side, rain dripping from her umbrella and raincoat, holding a bag from that French bakery around the corner.

I opened the door. She huddled inside her raincoat, face pinched. There were dark crescents under her eyes.

“Can I come in?” Chani asked.

Her eyes slid away from mine. She shrugged out of her coat and it slid in a heap to the floor. She was still holding the bakery bag.

We sat down in the living room and I waited. Chani clasped her hands, pressed her lips into her knuckles, and looked at me.

“Ma told me what you did,” she said, her voice shrill. “You spoke to a lawyer?”

She spat out the last word. I could hear disbelief in her voice, and something else I couldn’t identify.

“What are you thinking, Devorah?” she asked me.

I leaned back, trying to marshal my thoughts. My heart was pounding. I dreaded this conversation, but I’d been a fool to think I could avoid it. I took a breath before I answered.

“I think Ahuva needs more,” I said, trying to be gentle.

“More.” She said it flatly, as if she didn’t understand the word.

“More attention,” I said. ”More stability.”

“We’re taking good care of her, Devorah,” Chani said, her eyes pleading. She held on to the arms of her chair.

“Chani, you’re barely managing. You really can’t take on another child.”

“Of course I can,” she said, tears in her voice. “Things happen, and it’s perfectly normal for family to pitch in and help, like you and Ma have been doing.”

She was afraid. Of what?

“You can’t adopt Ahuva,” Chani said.

“Of course I can. Plenty of people my age have children,” I answered.

“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I know you can take care of her. I’m thinking about you. Let’s say a guy agrees to this. What’s it going to be like to be a newlywed? How do you build a relationship with a preteen in the house?”

Ma’s words, I thought, resentment flaring. I found this reasoning maddening. It was part of the subconscious patronizing that marrieds always subjected singles to. I gritted my teeth.

“Besides, there’s an order to things,” Chani was saying.

I forced myself to focus on what she was saying. “What do you mean?”

“How’s it going to look if you have a kid?” she asked. Oh, she was worried about appearances. That’s why she’s panicked. She’s afraid of what people will think if Ahuva lives here, they’ll think she failed.

Chani was still talking. “She needs a two-parent home,” she said. “And we give her that. A family with two parents and siblings.”

She’d calmed down somewhat, and I could tell she believed what she was saying. What would Chani say if I told her what Ella said about my chances?

“You know if I petitioned for guardianship, I’d win,” I said.

“We wouldn’t let,” she said looking at me, her eyes pooling with tears.

I was starting to see what I was up against. My family would not let me do this without a fight. Ella had warned me that relatives could fight a petition, and that would add years and expense to the process, never mind the resulting family friction.

A heavy silence filled the room and threatened to strangle me. I stood up abruptly, my tongue heavy with unborn words. Chani looked at me, dabbing her eyes. I needed space.

“I need a tea,” I told her. “I’ll make you one, too.”

In the kitchen, I took out a box of tea and a pair of mugs, trying to force the mundane task to steady me. Instead, I stalled, holding the box of tea, and crumpled the entire thing. The smashed box mocked me, and I dropped it on the counter. I hunched over, sobbing silently and tearlessly. I could smell the grassy notes of the tea through the damaged box.

It was a horrible choice — the wellbeing of my niece versus peace in the family. I pressed my fingers to my eyes.

I took a deep breath and forced myself to stop heaving. Rain pattered on the windows. I knew I could win, but that win would come at a loss. I could see the future, a life where the poison had seeped so deeply into our family that there was no way back to the way things were. I felt deflated.

The empty mugs on the counter reminded me why I had come to the kitchen. I straightened, filled them with hot water, took two tea bags from the mangled box, and dropped one into each mug.

I knew which choice I’d make.

”I won’t do it,” I said, coming back to the Chani, a mug of tea in each hand. I put them on the coffee table.

Chani reached for the bakery bag that she had placed on the floor near her. She pulled out a box of muffins and placed them on the coffee table.

“Hear me out,” Chani said. “I know how much you love Ahuva, and it’s good for her to spend time with you. No one’s saying you can’t be there for her. You can take her shopping and go to her plays, even her PTAs. You can do homework with her and stuff, if you want to be involved. You can give her what she needs from you.”

She stopped here for a moment and looked at me.

“But it’s for her, not for you. She can’t be yours. She can’t live with you.”

I felt a flash of anger at Chani, but I thought of all I stood to lose and held my tongue. I am still the best parent for Ahuva, I thought.

”Truce?” she asked.

Blinking my tears away, I opened the box of muffins and chose one. “Truce,” I said, holding up the muffin.

The sweetness of that first bite warred with the bitterness I felt. I swallowed them both. I am choosing family, I thought, for both Ahuva and myself.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 931)

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