| Calligraphy |

Family Ties

“They had just gotten married. Their relationship was just developing. If they lost the house it would be embedded in their marriage DNA forever”

Sori noticed her daughter hanging back a bit. A moment ago they had been standing side by side, but as the saleslady beckoned them forward to check out, Esti had suddenly disappeared. Now she was deeply absorbed in the display of oversized headbands, apparently deliberating seriously. Sori smiled to herself. She could pay for Esti, it wasn’t that much, 30 dollars in hosiery—she could easily swing it. And it was for her daughter, her Esti.

“Thanks Ma, you’re the best,” Esti said as Sori handed her the pink Hosiery House bag. They got into Sori’s Nissan Rogue and Sori drove to Esti’s home, three blocks from her own. She pulled up to the curb and waited for Esti to gather her things and exit, but Esti blinked intently and looked at her.

“Can I talk to you a second, Mommy?” Esti said. Sori smiled and turned to face her daughter; an unease she couldn’t place stirred within.

***

“So Esti asked me something today.”

Chaim grunted. He didn’t look up from his phone. Sori brought dinner to the table — low sodium chicken and rice. Chaim automatically reached for the salt shaker.

“I put it away,” Sori said when his hand grasped at empty air. Chaim grunted again.

“Dow’s up,” Chaim said.

Sori started cutting her chicken methodically, matching it to little mounds of rice for easy portioning.

“That’s good for us, right?” she asked. Chaim grunted again. He swiped through his phone for a few more seconds and then put it away.

“Yes, the higher the better, now that we’re gonna be starting to withdraw in a couple of days.”

Sori clapped her hands together. “I’m so excited, can’t believe we’re at this stage!”

Chaim cleared his throat — a refined version of his grunt — to let his wife know he had heard her. “Esti?” he prompted.

Sori put down her fork and knife, placed her hands on the table and leaned in to talk to her husband. “We went to the hosiery store today and when I dropped her off, she said she wanted to talk to me—”

“Money?”

Sori stopped short. “Yes.”

“What now?” Chaim said. He took a bite of chicken, pulled a face, looked around again for the salt, gave up and took another bite.

“Well…” Sori looked around for something to anchor herself with; she settled for placing a napkin on her lap. “You know she started an after-school performing arts program,” she began. Sori wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw Chaim roll his eyes. It might’ve just been the light, though. Of course it was the light, why would Chaim make a face?

“So Esti told me—”

“Let me guess.” Chaim cut her off again. “It’s not doing well.”

“What?” Sori said. How did Chaim know? Had Ruvi said something to him?

“It’s not that?” Chaim asked, his voice rising in surprise.

“No, it is,” Sori confirmed.

“So why do you sound surprised?”

Sori shrugged. “Just trying to figure out how you knew. Esti swore me to secrecy. She said the kids love it, but they don’t have enough kids enrolled to cover expenses, pay her assistant, and to pay her as well. So they’ll either need to shut it down or get funding from somewhere.  Right now tuition is on hold, groceries are iffy. I paid for some hosiery stuff for her today.”

This time Chaim definitely snorted. But why?

Chaim scooped up some rice and chewed, then scooped again and chewed again. Sori waited for his answer. He didn’t seem to notice, though, he just kept eating. Sori watched him, slightly spellbound. When Chaim finally looked at her, she felt herself shrink under his withering gaze.

“This isn’t the first time…” He trailed off ominously. Sori put down her fork. Her timidity faded and Mama Bear mode kicked in. She felt the heat rising in the center of her chest, emanating outward, building pressure.

“Are you saying that our daughter shouldn’t ask her parents for help because she dared to ask before?”

Chaim looked at Sori with a wry smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He patted his hands in a “settle down” motion.

“Have you been taking Esti’s drama classes? That was pretty good.”

Sori fell silent but steam leaked out with each huffing breath she took.

“Don’t purposely misunderstand what I’m saying,” Chaim continued. “Esti has a pattern, a history, of making poor choices and then asking us to bail her out.”

Sori felt her throat close. It wasn’t as simple as that. There was so much to say — but what to say first and second and what to leave out? We’re fighting, she realized. This is what it feels like when we fight. These are the calculations I make when we fight. But we were just talking about Esti, why do I feel like we’re fighting?

Chaim took her silence to mean she needed evidence and so he provided it.

“Remember when Esti and Ruvi first got married? They bought a house three months later. I don’t know what they were thinking, I don’t know why, but just because the bank will lend you 500k doesn’t mean you can afford it. Of course this was in ‘08 when banks were irresponsible monsters, now they’re just responsible monsters. But anyway, they couldn’t pay their mortgage after six months. We took a huge chunk out of our 401k to pay down their mortgage and refinanced to make their monthly payment feasible. I’m saying this and I can’t believe we did that. They should’ve sold, defaulted. Who needs a five-bedroom house when you just got married?”

“They were kids!” Sori burst out.

“Exactly. They made a childish mistake and they should’ve learned from that — don’t bite off more than you can chew. Learn fiscal responsibility. Learn how finances work. But no, we taught them: make a huge mistake and Mommy and Tatty are still there to fix it. We’re the worst parents.”

“No!” Sori banged on the table, then sprang back in surprise at the thump, and the emotion she felt.  “We were supportive! They had just gotten married. Their relationship was just developing. If they lost the house it would be embedded in their marriage DNA forever. We had to help.”

Chaim’s dry calmness mocked Sori’s emphatic pitch. “That’s what you said then. And I agreed, because saying ‘that’s a lot of money’ makes me sound karg, like I’m a terrible father. But looking back, it was wrong.” He dabbed his mouth, folded his napkin and put it down coolly.

Sori’s voice trembled and she clenched her fingers. She grabbed a fork to hold onto. “It wasn’t wrong. Look at them now, a nice forever house, a beautiful family, they fill the bedrooms. How was it wrong?”

Chaim rolled his eyes again. He looked scary. Did he ever do that to his secretary? No wonder she seemed so meek around him.

“And then when Esti gave birth to Shana, they hadn’t figured out insurance. They were on a high deductible catastrophic plan because it was ‘cheaper,’ and they ended up with a $7,000 bill with no idea how to pay it. Once again, we swoop in and pay off a chunk and take over the monthly payments. Because they didn’t plan ahead. Because they didn’t ask questions or advice. It’s a good thing Ruvi’s kollel started offering insurance plans or this would’ve happened again and again and again.”

Sori’s hands found their way to her hips. “You can’t give your daughter a baby gift? Postpartum is a really hard time, especially the first. Men don’t get it. She made a mistake. Now she has to deal with a huge shift in her family dynamics and a huge financial strain? If we can help, why shouldn’t we?”

“Why? Because it led to the next bailout. Remember we took over her car lease payments? Why was she leasing a late model CR-V? What’s wrong with a cheap Sentra?”

“She’s a tall girl, you want her to stoop and strain every time she has to buckle her kids in? You need to think practically. You’re not a mother.”

“No, I’m just a father.” Chaim’s eyes flashed. “And can you stop defending her, please. Because that’s suggesting that given the chance, you’d have made those same mistakes, too. But you didn’t because you’re married to me, who’s an impractical stick-in-the-mud.”

Back off, Sori, she told herself. He’s feeling hurt, this is not just clashing views anymore.

“I’m not defending her. I’m just reminding you of the reasons we decided to do what we did then.”

Chaim sat back in his seat and took a slow drink of water. It seemed to take the edge off. Sori smiled to herself; she was such a sensitive wife and good mother.

Chaim continued talking. “And I’m listening to these reasons and wondering what was wrong with me then. Why did we think they were valid reasons?”

Again Sori felt the heat rise inside her. “What’s wrong with you? Your daughter is struggling, have a heart.” She said it louder than necessary.

“My daughter is struggling with problems of her own making. Had she used her pretty little head, same for her husband, they wouldn’t have this problem. They wouldn’t need saving.”

How could he be so cold? This was his daughter!

“People make mistakes, kids make mistakes. As parents, we can help.”

“No, as parents we can teach. And we haven’t done that, we’ve just enabled her to make the same mistake over and over again.” Chaim paused, tilted his head slightly, and Sori knew whatever he said next would devastate her argument. “She started this after-school club thing. Did she call her accountant father for tax advice? Did she ask how she should register the business, how to best record her expenses so she can deduct them from her taxes?”

Sori so wanted to say yes, but she knew the answer was obviously no. Even if Chaim hadn’t brought it up, she knew the answer was no. Esti was a doer, she figured out the little details later. Sori thought it was a wonderful quality, but now Chaim seemed to be suggesting otherwise.

“I don’t want to fight,” Sori said. This seemed to be the only way to shut down the argument. There was nothing she could say in Esti’s defense right now. Chaim was in a mood, and he wasn’t going to get it. She’d bring it up later, maybe after he saw Esti’s kids. If he wouldn’t do it for his daughter, maybe he’d do it for her kids. He wouldn’t hurt his grandchildren.

“We’re not fighting,” Chaim said, taking a deliberate bite of chicken. “I’m just explaining to you why we’re not giving Esti more money. She needs to fail so she can learn to be responsible. I’m retiring in a matter of days. We’re going to be living on a fixed income. We won’t be able to help her anymore—”

“—so we won’t when we can’t. But we can now.”

“No, the fact that I’m still working until the end of the week doesn’t make any difference. And we never should’ve helped her in the first place.”

 

 

Sori exhaled deeply. So much to say, but not now. She berated herself for even trying, she knew the timing was wrong. But what was Chaim saying? To never help kids in need? Kids can’t make mistakes? Her own parents had helped them make ends meet the first two years after Chaim opened his own accounting firm. Would he say that was wrong, they should’ve starved? Or he should’ve stayed in a public accounting job that devoured his life and burned his soul? Later, she told herself.

“I picked up your suit from the cleaners.” Sori changed the subject. “Toby’s wedding is tomorrow.” She poured a glass of water and took a delicate sip.

Chaim raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Not very subtle, but I’ll take it.”

Sori pursed her lips. Chaim made her laugh with his dry bluntness, but sometimes it stung.

“Their only girl,” Sori mused.

“My only sibling’s youngest kid,” Chaim tacked on.

“It’s gonna be an event.”

“Yeah,” Chaim confirmed. “But my brother can afford it.”

***

It was a fancy wedding — one of those converted-warehouse types with the harp and champagne in one hallway, and the violinist and mints in another. The kind of affair that was more concert than wedding, as one famous singer after the next paraded across the stage to the backdrop of a dramatic light show rivaling aurora borealis.

Sori held her clutch tighter and prayed that she wouldn’t trip on the hem of her dress. Her Yanky had gotten married five years ago; that was the last time she had worn “long.” But her sister-in-law had insisted on it, for Sori and her kids.

“You’re Meyer’s only family, of course you have to wear long,” Devorah had told Sori, making her feel both giddy and anxious. She loved the singular attention, the recognition of status, but finding a dress, that was another story. In the end she had borrowed a dress from her younger sister. It was a little too sparkly for Sori’s taste, but looking around the cavernous room with its faux vaulted ceilings, she was glad of it.

Esti waltzed into the hall, leading her three giggling girls and two brooding boys. Ruvi scrambled behind her, carrying two Coach Weekenders stuffed with whatever a family of seven might need for the evening. Sori smiled. Her daughter was beautiful, a lady. And her kids— Sori tilted her head to see the grandchildren trailing behind their mother in a cloud of Chanel Chance. Precious, she thought. Esti really knew how to dress them.

“Mommy!” Esti air-kissed her mother. “Daddy!” She swooped over to her father. Chaim stood stiffly as Esti leaned in for a kiss.

“You look—” Sori started to say, but then noticed her oldest daughter enter. Leah’s debut was slower: she waited while an attendant held the door open for her and her family, then ducked out to shepherd her kids along. She stood at the door as they passed her and entered, while Dovi brought up the rear. Finally Leah’s brood was inside, her six kids huddled together waiting for their parents. It was then that Sori noticed Leah’s dress: it wasn’t “long.” She squinted, wanting to scowl and magically add 18 inches of fabric, but it wasn’t the time or place for a discussion. Later, she thought. There were greetings and hugs and they all went inside together.

Sori’s three daughters-in-law arrived soon after Leah, with their kids all scrubbed and polished. They were all wearing long. Sori was sure that she had told everyone; for a moment she had wondered if she had forgotten. She looked over at where Leah sat at a table with her kids, feeding the younger ones and talking to the older ones. Her shaitel didn’t look fresh, Sori thought. And her makeup looked like she did it herself. Leah was a pretty girl, she didn’t look bad, but she didn’t look as she could, or as she should, really, for an affair like this. Something stirred in Sori’s chest. Why would Leah do this?

After the second dance Chaim came over to the women’s side for dessert.

“They always give the women the better stuff,” he said, as a white-gloved waiter placed churros and chocolate sauce on a rectangular plate for him.

“I hope you didn’t eat the meat, Chaim. It has so much salt.”

“Of course I ate the meat. When else can I have a rib steak without you hovering and telling me I shouldn’t?”

“Oh, Chaim.”

Sori laughed even though Chaim was being the curmudgeon version of himself. The night was too nice. Her girls and daughters-in-law and grandkids looked beautiful, everyone was dancing, nachas all around; her husband could enjoy a steak once in a while, it wouldn’t kill him.

Sori reached over and broke off a piece of churro from Chaim’s plate and dipped it in the sauce. The music shifted to a Sephardic tempo, and someone whooped and trilled. Chaim groaned, distracted, and Sori jerked, flinging chocolate sauce onto her dress.

“Oh, no.” She grabbed a knife and tried to scrape the sauce off the fabric. She looked around for napkins and club soda.

“Please tell me she hasn’t been doing this all night?” Chaim said, his teeth gritted.

“What, what?”

Sori stopped for a moment to see what was making Chaim so agitated. She followed his gaze and her eyes fell on Esti, her hand tapping her open mouth to undulate her shout.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? What’s wrong is that she’s screaming like it’s her best friend’s wedding. Leading and whooping… She’s just a first cousin.”

“Since when do you care so much about how things look? That’s my department.”

Chaim snarled and took an aggressive bite of churro, skipping the sauce.

“Never mind, you’ll just defend her again. Secretly wish you were her.” Chaim muttered this quietly enough that Sori could doubt what she heard, though of course she had heard her husband perfectly. “See you soon,” Chaim said abruptly, walking away with the churros.

Sori got another portion. She told herself she hadn’t really eaten much from Chaim’s plate so she was free to eat the entire serving herself, but she need not have worried— Esti appeared a moment later.

“Hi, Ma, did you get a chance to talk to Tatty yet about…?” She let her voice trail off. Why can’t she just say it, a voice unlike her own spoke in Sori’s head. She disregarded it and simply replied, “Not yet.”

Esti’s face fell. “Let me know either way, Ma, no pressure.” And with a snatch and dip of one of Sori’s churros, she was gone, quickly absorbed into the circle of dancers.

No pressure, my foot, Sori thought. She tried to banish the cynicism. I will not be Chaim, she scolded herself. She joined the dancing, not the kallah’s circle, but the one with her sister-in-law and friends, and most of her kids. Sori looked around and realized that Chaim was right — Esti was the only woman in her age range dancing in the kallah’s circle. She shrugged. Esti’s young at heart, it’s good for her.

 

On the way home Sori tried to turn the music up so as not to hear Chaim’s complaints, but he simply tapped the power button.

“Beautiful wedding,” Sori said, trying to steer the conversation.

“Yes, very beautiful,” Chaim agreed. Sori relaxed.

“Did Esti ask you about the money?” he asked.

“Yes,” Sori said, before she realized she could’ve just as easily said no and felt honest about it, because Esti was vague when she asked.

“Well, I’m doubling down tonight, it’s definitely no,” Chaim said with cheer in his voice. Sori leaned in to read his face because the tone was in stark contrast to his words.

“Why are you so happy about this?”

“Because I feel more confident in my decision. Last night I was just thinking of Esti. Tonight I saw Leah and I know it’s the right call.”

Leah in her short party dress. Sori grimaced.

“What did Leah do?”

“Leah did everything, and asked for nothing.”

Argh. It clicked. Sori wondered why she had never seen it before.

“She’s a nurse, she bought a house, her husband is working, they live in Monsey, not around the corner from us. They don’t need us to babysit, never ask anything of us, just give nachas. Her kids don’t even ask us for gumballs and lollipops or whatever you keep in your pocketbook for the eineklach—they wait for you to give it to them.”

Sori sank deeper in her seat. Chaim was right. Why had she never realized how good, how amazing, Leah was?

Chaim stayed silent for too long. Sori looked at him. He looked back, something flashing in his eye.

“Want to hear my theory about Leah?”

Sori wanted to say no, but it was a rhetorical question.

“You loved Esti’s talent and now we’re still feeding into that. Leah was just normal and average. And now she’s amazing. See what happens when you don’t save kids or live through them.”

Sori’s face burned. It was true, but she couldn’t admit it out loud. It was mortifying to acknowledge: Esti’s high school days were Sori’s glory days as well. She had been so proud to be her mother. Sometimes she’d wished she’d been born later, maybe her talents would’ve been recognized. And Leah was… Leah. Good, nice, dependable, but nothing to get excited over.

Chaim was still talking.

“And what’s the big deal about ‘talent’ anyway? She sings, she acts, she dances, who cares? In our world that doesn’t pay the bills.  Look at her after-school club school whatever-it-is — in the red, that’s what it is. And I have this brilliant analogy, I love it. Leah is our middle-class child. She’s doing too well to qualify for any help, but she’s not like our boys, comfortable, or married comfortable, that bumps don’t set her back. But because she’s ‘middle class’, she’s passed over. We ignore her.”

Sori shook her head imperceptibly. Chaim wasn’t done. “Average Leah is the one to be proud of now. Or really the one we should’ve been proud of all along.”

Sori’s jaw twitched and there was a throbbing in her throat. She couldn’t talk, because then the tears would come.

“Like I said, doubling down, and I’ve never felt so good about it.” Chaim finished and pressed the audio power button. The opening notes of Avraham Fried’s Father Don’t Cry flooded the speakers.

I’ll have to save Esti myself, then, Sori thought. She’s still my daughter.

 

***

It was a large lot, and Sori was thankful it seemed fairly empty and most cars were clustered around the Home Goods at the other end. Funny, she had never noticed the pawn shop before, though she’d been to this shopping center many times. Google had said this was the closest one, and the reviews were positive: “Doesn’t lowball you like most other pawn shops,” which was a good thing to read, because she hadn’t even considered that she might be low-balled in the first place.

Sori glanced around, patted her quilted satchel too many times, and walked to the entrance. It wasn’t seedy, or gross, like she thought it would be. You read too many shtetl books, she told herself, but she recognized that the thought was in Chaim’s voice.

Cold air rushed into her face as she pulled the door open. It tasted dry, almost sterile. The lights were bright and the floor was clean. A wall of guitars hung in a corner, surrounded by other instruments. To her right was a large display case running the length of the store. It was crammed with jewelry: rings, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, watches; gold, silver, precious, semi-precious, antique, art deco, modern. Anything and everything was there. This was the right place for her.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked. Sori hadn’t noticed her. She was so bland she faded into the background—mousy hair, pale complexion, no makeup, white t-shirt and jeans.

Sori laid her satchel on the table and removed her velvet jewelry pouch.

“I want to pawn these.”

“Pawn, not sell, correct?” The woman reached for the pouch.

“Correct.” Hopefully she could convince Chaim to help Esti and then she’d buy her stuff back. In the meantime she had raided her jewelry box. Chaim bought her something every year. Sometimes it was small, like a $100 charm; others, like the diamond necklace he bought her when Esti was born, were worth thousands of dollars. Over 30 years of marriage she had collected a lot of jewelry, most of which was too outdated to wear, or didn’t fit, or wasn’t age appropriate anymore. Sori had been waiting to give some to her kids and grandkids (let her see them enjoy it, why did she have to wait to die for them to have it if she wasn’t wearing it anyway?). But this was a better use for it, and most importantly, Chaim wouldn’t notice that any of these smaller pieces were gone.

The woman started picking up each piece and examining them, the faceted topaz ring Sori received one Succos in their early marriage, the flower shaped pearl-clustered earrings Chaim had given her once for Pesach. The woman took out a loupe for a closer look at a simple circular silver chain necklace that Chaim had bought when they’d had little extra money. Then she turned to examine a gold pendant in a woven style — she remembered that everyone had had one, and she’d hated them, but wanted one anyway.

The inspection took shorter than Sori expected. “I can give you five thousand,” the woman said abruptly.

“That’s it?” Sori was taken aback.

“Look.” The woman’s voice was both stern and gentle. “I’m sure many of these pieces have sentimental value, but I just look at the value of the metal and stone. It’s pretty stuff, but nothing major.”

She was right. But five thousand was just half of what Esti had asked for.

“Six?” Sori tried.

The woman chuckled mirthlessly. “Five thousand, one hundred. Best I can do.”

Sori dithered a moment. “I’ll take it,” she said. The woman nodded curtly and walked over to the computer, talking while she went. “We hold your items for 90 days, no one can touch it, and you can redeem it in that time. After 90 days we can sell. And if you pick it up, we can give you what’s left, but we don’t guarantee.”

“Right.” Sori was surprised that her voice shook. The woman looked at her.

“Things will work out. They always do in the end,” she said kindly.

Sori wondered why she had thought her bland at first. She accepted the slip offered and left the shop. Her eyes darted furtively, praying there was no one around to see her. This was a martyr’s secret, just for herself to know—a mother’s love.

 

***

 

Shabbos sheva brachos was in a hotel, of course. Again Sori noticed the difference between Esti and Leah. She pulled Leah aside while everyone was busy with pre-Shabbos oneg in the tea-room.

“I was just wondering why you didn’t wear long to the wedding.” Sori tried sounding light and conversational, like she didn’t care. But she did. She hated herself for caring, but she still did.

Leah raised both eyebrows and looked down her nose. “Seriously, Ma? I wish I could’ve worn long. I wish I could’ve gotten my shaitel and makeup done, like it seems everyone else did, but it’s not in my budget. If they pay for my dress they can demand I wear long. But they didn’t offer, and I don’t own a long dress.”

Sori’s next question, about the shaitel and makeup, was left unasked. It had already been answered. She chewed her lip, thinking about the alterations she’d paid for Esti’s dress because she’d bought it off a friend, and the tights she’d paid for in Hosiery House so Esti’s girls would have new lurex tights against their velvet dresses, because plain black was “too sad” — Esti’s words. And the 20 dollars she’d chipped in for Esti’s makeup, and the gift certificate she had won at the N’shei Chinese Auction, which she had given to Esti to get her shaitel done at that new shaitelmacher. Why hadn’t she done any of this for Leah? Why didn’t Leah ask? Or maybe she shouldn’t have done any of this for Esti? And — Sori finally allowed herself to ask the obvious — why was Esti even thinking of spending money on these things when she can’t buy groceries?

Leah misinterpreted her mother’s silence. “I’m sorry if it bothered you. I guess I didn’t realize how important it was.” She paused. “Not that I think I’d do anything differently, though. I’d love to get all dolled up and pretty and everything. But it’s just one night, really. Sorry, Ma. I couldn’t justify the cost.”

Sori shook her head and patted her daughter’s arm.

“No, Leah. You’re good.” Sori looked into her daughter’s eyes. “You’re amazing, really. I’m so proud of you.”

Leah gave her a funny look. Sori knew she sounded strange, but a sense of pride overwhelmed her. Esti was fun, but Leah was right. Sori winced. She didn’t like to put down her daughter. But then she realized she’d unconsciously been doing that for years.

“Can I talk to you a sec, Ma?” Esti was at her elbow. Sori looked at her youngest daughter. She was still a beautiful girl: poised and perfectly coiffed, hitting just the right notes with her oversized sweater and lace-up booties. She was still incredibly talented, and charming, and funny and warm and loving. But she was incredibly irresponsible, and Sori was a good mother.

“Give me a sec, sheifeleh,” Sori said to Esti. She headed back to her room. In her drawer, safely hidden between two shells, was the envelope. Sori slipped it out. Yesterday she had written Esti’s name in small print on the right corner.

The electronic lock buzzed and Sori jumped as Chaim entered with a plate of food.

“Viennese crunch?”

Sori smiled and accepted a piece.

“What’s that?” he asked, noticing the envelope. Sori smiled mysteriously and took a big bite of chocolate.

“Breaking news,” she said. “After all these years, I think we might finally agree on something.”

She reached for a pen and scribbled out the name in the corner. In bold letters in the front, she wrote LEAH.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 806)

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