“People do change, Ta,” said Shulamis softly. “I’ve met Dizzy here and there at simchahs, he’s not the person you remember”
Shulamis rubbed her eyes. They were stinging, which meant it was time for another coffee, if for no other reason than an excuse to turn away from the glowing lines of code for a few minutes. The flashing cursor still superimposed her retina as she puttered at the milchig counter, wondering if she should finish the last of the cheese rugelach before they went stale.
As she took the rugelach from the pantry shelf, it suddenly clicked. Abandoning her plate with a clatter, she darted back to her office and banished the stray curly bracket on line 6874.
Satisfied at last, Shulamis returned to savor her snack as the program compiled.
“You have that conquering-hero look again,” remarked Zev, entering silently on slippered feet. “You know it’s nearly 2:30 a.m., right? I get up for a drink and you’re still buzzing around like it’s broad daylight.”
“I know, and I’m ready to call it a night, finally,” said Shulamis. “I found the error that was causing the application to hang all week. Just a curly bracket that slipped inside the parentheses instead of after.”
“That was what had the entire sales department at a standstill all week?” asked Zev, impressed. “I sure hope you’re charging them triple pay for this overtime.”
“Yes, and then telling them that there are no more crises allowed until Monday at least. You know Tatty’s coming for Shabbos. I need to cook.”
“You need to sleep.”
“I need to cook and then sleep. Which means no more emergencies until after the weekend, please.” Shulamis grabbed a peeler and a potato and attacked it with short, vigorous strokes.
“It’s good he’s coming,” remarked Zev. He filled a bowl with water and put it on the counter near Shulamis. “He’s been running himself ragged caring for Uncle Ira.”
“Yes, since Mommy was niftar it’s all been on him. It’s simply too much for him, but I don’t know what to do. He still won’t ask Dizzy for help. Cousins who practically grew up in each other’s houses, and they won’t talk out their differences.”
“It’s been what, eight years since their falling out?”
“You know Tatty. He’s convinced that people can’t change.”
“Like Yaakov?” Zev sometimes felt that Shulamis’s brother, whom he’d never even met, was a phantom presence in their home.
Zev was quiet for a moment as he assembled the ingredients for the cholent.
“Heard from Yaakov recently?” he asked finally.
“He sent me a picture from his backpacking trip during spring break. Lots of beer. Tatty would have freaked.” And then, putting down her peeler: “You know, I think it was sometime during the Yaakov parshah, when nothing seemed to help, that the last of Tatty’s fire went out.”
Zev nodded. “Makes sense. You know what he’s going to say when he sees us doing all of those systems with Rachelli, right?”
“Of course. ‘What exactly do you hope to accomplish with that? Do you really think you can push a few buttons and change who she is?’ ”
Zev and Shulamis worked silently for a few minutes. Shulamis slipped the last potato into the bowl and looked up at her husband. “I hope he’s wrong. He has to be wrong.”
Erev Shabbos was an extended blur of altercations, meltdowns, consequences, and failed attempts at practicing emotional regulation, but Shabbos brought with it a surprising, but very welcome, calm.
If Shulamis’s cheeks reddened when she felt her father’s gaze on her while she and Rachelli practiced paced breathing, no one said anything, and the seudah passed with a pleasant hum of parshah sheets, zemiros in varying degrees of tunefulness, clinking silverware, and typical sibling bickering. (“Like even normal families have,” Shulamis told herself.)
It wasn’t until they were about to clear the main course that Rachelli really got going.
Zeidy Shapiro was just finishing one of his favorite stories: “…And I said, ‘Not Shuki, my name is Shnooky!’ ” and the youngest set, who didn’t care that they’d heard it more times than they knew how to count, erupted in appreciative laughter.
“Shloimy is laughing in my ear!” announced Rachelli. Mr. Shapiro didn’t blink, but Shulamis quickly assessed the threat level and snatched Rachelli’s chart off the credenza.
“Look, zeeskeit, which skill do you want to use?” she whispered, but Rachelli wasn’t buying it.
“He’s doing it just to annoy me!” Rachelli’s voice was even louder this time.
“Come, Cheli, you know how—” began Shulamis, but Rachelli darted out from under her mother’s arm and shoved Shloimy, who fell off his chair and bumped his head on the table leg on his way down.
In the ensuing pandemonium, ultimatums and time-outs were issued and ignored; Shulamis was hit twice and spat at once; and Shloimy received one final kick as his sister was escorted firmly to her room, from where wails and sobs could be heard for some time.
When Shulamis finally emerged, she noted with relief that Zev had assumed command of the dessert situation and shepherded some smaller people off to bed, and that some larger ones had drifted off to various couches and beds to read or sleep.
With just the adults around as Shulamis began to clear the table, her father was clearly in a contemplative mood.
“When I was your age I also thought I could fix people,” he began thoughtfully.
“Didn’t you, though?” asked Zev. “You must have changed hundreds of lives.”
Mr. Shapiro shook his head. “At the time I must have thought so. I remember when we played Michel Morgenstern the bullying song back in the summer of ’78. Didn’t stop him from giving me a shiner the next week on the basketball court, did it?
“Or the time we sent the shalom song to the Dachs family from Denver… they’re my cousins, you know, so I got to see firsthand how little improvement there was in their squabbling.” And, almost as an afterthought, “I myself must have heard the lashon hara song 50, 60 times — do I sound like I’ve learned my lesson?
“You know, we worshipped Dr. Middos growing up; we thought he was saving Klal Yisrael. But once I got over that wide-eyed adoration we all had as kids, I realized he was a naive old man.” Mr. Shapiro surveyed his audience with a grim satisfaction.
“Look, Shula, you think like a developer. You’ve never met a problem you couldn’t solve. But people aren’t algorithms, and trying harder won’t necessarily help you find the piece of code that’s making things go haywire.”
“People do change, Ta,” said Shulamis softly. “I’ve met Dizzy here and there at simchahs, he’s not the person you remember.”
“For 40 years I’ve been making the same kabbalos, zeeskeit. I know I’m not the only one.” said Mr. Shapiro. He riffled through the pages of his Chumash until he found that week’s sedrah, then looked up at Shulamis. “Find me one person who changed — really changed — and I’ll call Dizzy.”
Chani listened carefully. “But Shuls, that’s you! Don’t you remember when you used to sulk and whine about the neon orange Abercrombie sweatshirt Mommy wouldn’t buy you? And the school’s haircut rule? And look at you now, you’re a total neb.”
“Thanks,” said Shulamis, “but you know that’s not change. It’s called adulting. I’m still who I am. Back then I was… I don’t know, a teenager. A little disturbed, you know? It was temporary.”
Subject: remember that family with the four older boys?
Now they let the oldest boy go out with girls who are under 5’6” or older than 21. That’s change!
Subject: re: remember that family with the four older boys?
No, that’s settling. Different.
I have someone for him though. Is he busy?
My cleaning lady?? she used 2 come on time & clean thoroughly. Now she shows up late & doesn’t vacuum under the beds. Also, “now she costing $14/hr”???!!
Esti from Accounts Receivable had an upstairs neighbor who used to fight volubly with her husband, but stopped; Shulamis maintained that polite cold silence didn’t constitute real change.
Fraidy from around the corner had a cousin who had switched to preparing supper in a Crock-Pot the night before, freeing her to focus more on her kids in the afternoon; she also didn’t make the cut.
“That’s not change, that’s a workaround,” explained Shulamis to a dubious Fraidy. “She’s not a different person. Just a person with more time.”
Shulamis had more or less given up by the time Zev burst through the door one Thursday in a fizz of elation.
“Here’s the address!” he announced with a flourish, looking like he was bestowing the Powerball jackpot on a lucky recipient.
“Address?” asked Shulamis blankly.
“Yes, of The Person Who Changed,” beamed Zev. “You’re invited for coffee Shabbos afternoon at four.”
“Just listen to the nice man, okay?” said Zev patiently. “Show up. Talk to her. Nothing to it.”
“I know that address,” said Shulamis, thinking hard. “Why do I know that address?”
It wasn’t until Shulamis turned onto the block that she realized why the address was so familiar.
Feeling exceedingly ridiculous, she allowed Zev’s Tanta Tzirel to show her into the kitchen, fuss over her, and offer her a generous slice of underdone marble cake, before broaching the reason for her unaccustomed visit.
“So, um, Zev said I should ask you, for, uh, something I’ve been working on, that you might know… someone who changed their life?”
Tanta Tzirel shook with silent laughter. “Oh, so that’s what this is all about. I guess Zev remembered the piece of family lore about how many times I got the pessimism song blasted out of my pencil case. They practically wrote that song for me.”
“Really?” Shulamis was amazed. “But you’re one of the most positive people I know. I should tell my father. You know he worked with Dr. Middos back in the day. I think it would give him a real boost to know that the songs made a difference in someone’s life.”
Tanta Tzirel’s eyes widened slightly.
“Ah. If that’s what you’re after, I guess I’m not the right address for you after all,” she said gently.
“Oh, no. Like I said, they must have played that song 10, 15 times a month for me. I heard from a cousin who did chesed at the Middos command center that they were considering dedicating an entire wing to me. Didn’t make a dent, I’m afraid.” She smiled ruefully.
“Then… what happened?” asked Shulamis, thoroughly befuddled.
“Life happened. I was turned down by at least two boys I went out with for lacking simchas hachayim. I got married and saw how negativity drains the life out of a home. And most of all, I saw my kids turning out just like me.
“Don’t get me wrong,” added Tante Tzirel hastily, “it sounds simple, but it took years — years — before I saw any real progress at all.”
“Changing a single middah harder than learning gantz Shas and all that?”
“Absolutely.” Tante Tzirel leaned forward and ticked off her fingers. “There was the gratitude journal. The affirmations. I heard a lot of classes from Rebbetzin Munk, and I followed her methods religiously. But most of all there was the giving. I volunteered at the Special Spot, I visited the hospital, I delivered Shabbos food to needy families.”
“So Tatty’s work didn’t make a difference after all.”
Tante Tzirel raised her hands defensively. “Who can say? When the time came to do that inner work, maybe the pessimism song was the soundtrack I did it to? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter, because here I am, right?”
“It’s just a shame, isn’t it, all that time that my father and Dr. Middos put in? They worked so hard.”
“I don’t think Dr. Middos ever saw that effort as a waste. He did what he did because that’s what we do as parents. We do our part. We keep going even when we’re talking to brick walls. It’s not up to us if they choose to use the tools we offer them.”
Shulamis stared at her marble cake for a long time, thinking.
Sunday morning dawned with the usual chaos. The supermarket was inexplicably out of bananas, and someone, Shulamis wasn’t sure who, spilled ketchup on the baby’s head.
Rachelli’s rowdiness at the breakfast table resulted in Gitty’s orange juice getting knocked over, as usual. Gitty wailed inconsolably, as usual.
Shani took a deep breath, as usual, and waded into the fray, dispensing gentle rebuke, coaching, and kisses, as usual.
Her gaze slid to the fridge, where Dizzy’s number waited on a sticky note. Perhaps her father wouldn’t call him. But she could.
People change. I don’t change them. Maybe someday her children would learn something. Or not. It didn’t matter, it didn’t change what she needed to do. The realization was terrible, it was wonderful, it was liberating, and it was obligating.
It was time to work. And that was all that mattered.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 699)
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