| Family Tempo |

Fixing Ma  

Ma has so many rules about food. And now she went away

She remembers the night she found Ma on the floor. If she had known it would make her disappear, she wouldn’t have called Dad home from work, wouldn’t have told him how she found Ma on the floor, her burgundy T-shirt covered in vomit, her eyes all weird, like she couldn’t even see her.

She was so scared, that’s all. But she didn’t mean to send Ma away.

She didn’t know that by the time Dad came home, Ma would be cleaning up after herself. She thought Ma had died. What a stupid, stupid girl she was.

Ever since Tziri could remember, Ma has had a stomach ache. Everything she ate made her throw up — it was like her tummy was broken. Tziri’s friend Rivky was allergic to peanut butter, but now she only ate things that were peanut-free, and her stomach never hurt anymore. She would tell Ma about this, but Ma would sigh and say, “Sure, hon,” and continue throwing up. Ma didn’t even eat peanut butter though.

She hated the retching sounds coming from the bathroom all the time. Ma would put the shower on so she wouldn’t hear, but she knew. On bad stomach days Ma would be in bed when she came home from school, and she would get herself a bowl of cereal and milk, and give some to Avi and Ezzie too. Ma had a lot of bad stomach days. The boys didn’t understand; they were just five and two. She was eight and she knew better.

She didn’t want to yell at them when Ezzie yanked Avi’s hair and Avi punched him in the nose. She just wanted to shush them so Ma could sleep. But they were hungry and cereal and milk wasn’t enough, so she gave them each one cookie and a glass of milk so they wouldn’t be noisy. Ma didn’t like it when they had too many cookies. Something about it having too many carbosomething. It sounded scary when Ma said it, but then Dad would get angry and say, “Healthy kids need carbosomething.”

Not that Ma cares anymore. She’s gone. But Tziri watches what Avi and Ezzy eat anyway, she wouldn’t want them to have too many carbosomething — maybe it’ll make them sick like Ma.

When Tziri asks Dad where Ma is, he says she’s at the hospital. Tziri knows it’s not a normal hospital, she heard Dad whispering with Uncle Yossi about a rehab, whatever that was. And there’s something weird about how everyone looks at her. The adults do an awful lot of whispering, and she tries hard to listen — not like eavesdropping, she knows that’s bad — but to hear what’s really happening.

She hears Grandma ask Dad when the therapist thinks Ma could come home. Tziri feels confused; why would Ezzie’s speech therapist know when Ma would come home?

She also hears the adults use the word diet a lot. It sounds an awful lot like dying, but Dad promised her Ma isn’t dying, she just needs to get stronger before she comes home. She hopes they’re going to fix her so she isn’t so allergic all the time anymore. She wonders if Ma will be strong enough to bake cookies with them, maybe some cookies that don’t have carbosomething so she doesn’t get sick. Thinking about Ezzie licking the batter and Ma giggling makes her smile. She likes to think of things like that, of Ma smiling. Maybe Ma will start cooking again. Dad would like that too.

Once when she was very young, maybe five, Ma had Grandma over for dinner and she made fried chicken cutlets with real mashed potatoes. It was so good and she wanted more and more until Ma said it was time to go to sleep. When she woke up for breakfast, she asked Ma to make some more, pretty please, but Ma said it wasn’t healthy for her. She never made it again.

Now at night when she gets sad and misses Ma, she thinks of the dinner Ma made and suddenly she wants it so bad. Even just the dry tofu chicken and mashed cauliflower that Dad hates would be OK if Ma was home.

But Ma is gone and now Grandma cooks dinner every night. She feels bad for loving Grandma’s dinners. She knows they’re not healthy. But they are so, so delicious. Especially her crispy potato fries and sesame chicken. It’s soft and crunchy at the same time! Even Ezzie, who always throws Ma’s chicken across the kitchen table, eats Grandma’s dinner. She’s glad Ezzie is only two and can’t tell Ma how delicious Grandma’s food is. But Ma should take the recipe and then Ezzie would eat his protein and Ma would be so happy.

Lots of things are different at Grandma’s. At Grandma’s there are always two cookie jars on the kitchen counter and a Bundt cake on the island. Tziri loves the oatmeal cookies best, but she doesn’t understand why they’re on the counter where anyone can just grab a cookie. Just like that. In their house Ma keeps the cookies in the freezer so they have to wait for them to defrost before they can enjoy them. Ma once told her it’s good to be patient with your meals, to eat slowly so you can truly enjoy the food instead of grabbing cookies just because they’re in front of you. Her Ma is the smartest.

It’s been four weeks since Ma disappeared. She’s getting tired of going to Grandma’s every day. Tired of the cookies, tired of the delicious dinners, and tired of waiting for the grand old clock to chime at 6:00 p.m. when Dad finally comes to take them home. She’s tired of not wanting to eat deliciously fried sesame chicken.

One day Dad tells her she needs to go to Rivky’s house because Grandma has a doctor’s appointment. She’s excited. Rivky’s house is always noisy and messy and she doesn’t know why but she doesn’t mind the noise one tiny bit.

Rivky’s mother is in the basement sorting laundry when they come home. “I’ll be upstairs soon, girls,” she says loudly. Rivky doesn’t seem to care much. They hang up their coats and Rivky drags a chair to the cupboard and pulls down a bin filled with snacks. “Let’s grab some chips and go play a game till dinner gets ready,” she says. Snack before dinner? Any snack?

Tziri doesn’t like this, not at all. Even at Grandma’s house dinner is first, and snacks or cookies are for dessert only. She waves away the chips. “I’ll wait for dinner,” she tells Rivky quietly. She’s a good girl and will listen to Ma. She wouldn’t want Rivky’s mother to get upset even though Rivky said she’s allowed to have snacks all the time.

When Dad would let them run around with snacks, or even when they would eat at the kitchen table, Ma wouldn’t say anything either, but Tziri could tell it was a bad, bad thing. Ma would go to her room and close the door behind her while they ate. Only after the snack bags were in the garbage would Ma come tiptoeing out, kinda like when Tziri hid in the room when there was this humongous water bug on the kitchen floor and only came out slowly after Dad promised it was flushed down the toilet, and Avi said he saw him do it.

It takes a long time till dinner is ready and by then her stomach is grumbling so bad she doesn’t even care what dinner is anymore. Dinner at Rivky’s family is so weird. You can take whatever you want, even a peanut butter sandwich if you don’t like dinner very much. Well, not Rivky ’cuz she’s allergic to peanut butter, but her brother Shmuly has two sandwiches! Rivky’s mom eats dinner with them, talking and laughing while eating a plate of barley soup. And she eats so fast — she doesn’t even stop to put down the spoon between each spoonful! At Tziri’s house talking while eating isn’t polite. Rivky’s mother is weird.

Tziri misses Ma even more.

Maybe tomorrow Rivky can come to their house. Last time Rivky came she said she didn’t want to come back because their house was so stuffy and hot. But now that Ma isn’t home the house isn’t so hot anymore and they can play the new game Dad bought them.

Rivky wants to know if she got new toys because Ma was in the hospital. She said that when her cousin was in the hospital her cousin’s family got tons of special toys and even a clown came down to their house to make them happy. Rivky is shocked that no one comes to their house and the only toy she got was a new game, Twister, from Dad. It would be nice to have a clown around, Tziri thinks.Maybe it would make Dad smile and stop Avi from fighting with Ezzie all the time.

Today Avi wet his pants again and Dad got real mad, telling Grandma that he can’t do this anymore. Tziri doesn’t know what this means, but at night she goes into Avi’s bed and tells him he can’t make his pants wet, otherwise Ma won’t come home. Avi gets scared and starts crying, but Dad is on the phone, so Tziri quickly brings him a book and tells him a story so Dad doesn’t hear him cry. By the time Dad puts down the phone, he’s asleep.

Tziri puts the book back on the shelf and sighs. She really misses Ma. Her stories were the best. Even when she was tired and in bed all day with a belly ache, she still would read them stories. She wonders if Ma misses her.

It takes a long time, longer than it takes for the leaves to fall and grow back in till Ma comes home. She looks different. When Tziri hugs Ma, it feels so good, like a soft pillow almost. Avi and Ezzie hang back, and Tziri thinks they may not recognize her. Ma feels different too. So warm. Even her voice is deeper.

But Tziri is worried now that Ma is home. What if she gets sick again? Yesterday Ma’s belly didn’t hurt at all — she ate the vegetable soup and didn’t even go to the bathroom, not once. They all ate together, she and Dad and Ma and Avi and Ezzie. Usually Ma just watches them eat, makes sure they have their protein and their veggies. Today though Ma lets everyone eat however much they want and she even has a cookie for dessert. And her tummy didn’t hurt. Not once!

When Tziri goes to sleep that night, Ma tucks her in and sits on her bed for a while. She likes it when Ma sits with her. Tziri wants to ask her about the hospital, tell her how much she missed her, but she knows not to. She heard Grandma tell Dad to make sure no one knows that Ma is in that rehab hospital. She also heard Grandma talk about further “treatments” and her eyes were all scrunched up when she said it. Does that mean Ma has to go back? She really wants to ask Dad about it too, but she can’t tell him she overheard Grandma. That would make him really upset and she didn’t want to make him anymore upset than he already is. These days it seems like almost everything makes him angry. Tziri thought when Ma would come home Dad would go back to being Dad but she thinks Dad may have forgotten how to be like Dad.

It’s been a week since Ma came home. Yesterday she made oatmeal cookies and when Avi asked her to make Grandma’s chicken she said she would! Could it be that Ma wasn’t allergic anymore? And Tziri saw her have peanut butter and apples last night. Was Ma fixed?

Grandma doesn’t seem to think so. She calls today again and asks Ma if she’s following up with her treatments. Ma got annoyed and said, “You don’t have to call me constantly. I’m a big girl and know how to take care of myself.” But this made Grandma angry. Tziri tried not to listen, but Grandma yelled so loudly Tziri could hear every word.

“If you don’t follow your treatment plan, they’ll take the kids from you! Is that what you want? Do you hear me, Esther? Dovid will leave you and take the kids with him.”

Tziri was frightened. She wanted to scream at Grandma. “Don’t you know that when Ma gets sad her stomach starts to hurt again?” Besides, Dad would never take them away from Ma, it can’t be. He knows how glad Tziri and Avi and even Ezzie are to have Ma back. Doesn’t he?

Tziri is extra quiet and good. She doesn’t tell Dad that she heard the shower running. Sometimes Tziri gets a stomach ache too, no? She mustn’t let Grandma or Dad know that Ma didn’t eat the vegetable soup yesterday. Or the honey roasted potatoes. Even though Ma told Dad she had an early dinner. Ma is fixed, she has to be fixed!

If Dad asks about Ma’s stomach ache, Tziri will gag, and she’ll say the chicken from last night’s dinner was spoiled. She’ll throw up too. Once when the toilet lock was broken, she walked in on Mom doing it. It’s easy, just take two fingers and stick them down your throat. She will tell Dad they’re all sick. No one will take Ma away. She won’t let Ma disappear again. She isn’t stupid any more.

She knows Ma is getting better. She doesn’t always sit on the sofa hugging her fuzzy green sweater like Ezzie hugs Brownie his humongous teddy bear anymore. Yesterday they all baked crinkle cookies and Ma had coffee and opened the window for fresh air when the oven was working. Their windows are never open. And Ma even dunked a crinkle cookie in her coffee.

Today Ma walks them to school. Not the quick way, where Tziri has to run with her so quickly she can barely breathe by the time they arrive at school. But the slow way, where they can stop and say hi to Mr. Jones, the mailman. And they even use the shortcut through the park. She hopes she’ll do well on her math test even if she doesn’t have all those smart endorphins you get from running. Endorphins. That’s a word she bets Rivky doesn’t know. She loves when Ma teaches her fancy words like that. Maybe she should ask her what rehab means.

Or maybe not. Dad asked Ma last night  if she emailed her food diary to the rehab and Ma said, “Don’t badger, it’s a trigger.” Ma’s eyebrows squished together when she said it so maybe rehab isn’t a happy word like endorphins is.

Trigger. That’s another grown-up word that makes no sense. She knows that word from Mrs. Gross’s third-grade spelling lesson. It’s that piece you pull on a gun to shoot someone with. But how can Ma’s food diary be a trigger? She is about to ask Ma, but then they reach their school building and Tziri has to run inside so she doesn’t come late and get three points deducted from her math test. Besides, she can ask tomorrow, Ma isn’t going anywhere anymore.

Because she knows Ma is fixed.

Yes, she knows Ma is fixed because today, today, Ma didn’t run to the bathroom while serving dinner. Even though she ate the pasta and had a zucchini fry. And she was smiling and wasn’t cold anymore.

Ma was fixed. She had to be.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 780)

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