Chumie was… electric. She knew how to transform the mundane into the magical, she left a trail of glitter everywhere she went. Sometimes Dovi wondered what she saw in him
He could tell something was up before she buckled her seat belt.
It was the quiet.
His wife was many things, but pensive didn’t usually make the list. Dovi’s heart lurched a little when he noticed the faraway look in her eyes as he reversed out of the driveway.
Nail in the coffin: She didn’t even reach to turn off 100 Years of Outstanding Chazzanus as they headed down the street.
“Spill it, Chumie. Am I in for mess or money?” he asked, kamikaze style. The last time she’d been quiet like this, she’d decided to refinish their kitchen cabinets on her own, to “reflect her intrinsic bespoke-y-ness.”
That had been mess and money. She was talented like that.
Chumie turned to look at him, blinked a few times, then broke into a grin. “Neither! I was just thinking about the Felder bas mitzvah. The daughter wants sleek. Clean.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean there’s a time and place, people! Twelve should be oversized feathers and gigantic balloons and ridiculous pink and gold swag bags.”
“The Felder bas mitzvah,” he repeated.
Chumie looked out the window. “Yup.”
“So you’re not planning on transforming our dining room into a drop paint studio by tomorrow morning? No woodworking on the porch? No designer couch that you conveniently forgot to tell me about showing up at our front door?”
Chumie laughed. “You’re not allowed to hold that against me. That was a one-time thing. And I didn’t forget to tell you. Birthday presents are supposed to be a surprise!”
“You surprised yourself with a couch. For your birthday.”
“We’ve been through this already. I couldn’t surprise myself, obviously, ’cuz I had to pick it out, so surprising you was the next best thing.” She glanced at him. “And I couldn’t tell you because you would have waxed poetic about the virtues of frugality and told me the best present I could give myself is ‘money safe in the bank’! You left me no choice, sir.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Fine. But truth?” Her eyes danced. “It’s really hard being married to a CPA. So hard. You need to cut me some slack sometimes.”
He knew she was joking, but it stung anyway. Chumie was… electric. She knew how to transform the mundane into the magical, she left a trail of glitter everywhere she went. Sometimes Dovi wondered what she saw in him. He couldn’t even pick out a gift for her without his sister-in-law’s help. He liked crosswords, slippers, decaf, and a sefer near his recliner — and he wasn’t even thirty yet. He hated date night. And hated that he hated it. He’d envisioned a marriage where he brought something special to the relationship, but Chumie was so… Chumie, he found himself constantly playing the role of the practical, down-to-earth, boring one. The extent of his spontaneous creative gestures was the early morning search and rescue of her credit card, which he usually found lying around the house after one of her late-night online shopping sprees. He’d slip it quietly back into her wallet and think, Romantic? Nope. Boring.
As they pulled into the parking lot, Chumie clapped loudly “I forgot! Pregnancy brain.”
See? He knew there was something.
“Ma’s 65th is coming up and we need to go big!”
The we, Dovi knew, was strictly there for ceremonial purposes. When it came to Chumie’s projects, there was no we.
Dovi groaned. “Don’t you think you should be taking it easy? Maybe do something small at the house?”
“Dovi, it’s Ma! And hi? Do I do small?”
They made their way up the path to East Eden. “Let me guess. This is going to be a Chumie Production while your siblings show up five minutes before the party starts and leave before it’s time to clean up.”
“Hey. We always split the cost. It’s not their fault they’re old, nebach.”
Chumie’s three older siblings were in their early forties; there was a cavernous thirteen-year gap between her and Yaakov, the sibling above her.
“They’re not old, Chum.”
“They’re busy. No time for parties and you know it. Can you imagine Zevi taking time off to arrange a birthday party? He’s like one of the top five surgeons in Connecticut. Plus I’m literally a party planner. This is my job.”
“You work too hard.” As he pulled open the door and they walked into the restaurant, Dovi lowered his voice. “I just wish it didn’t always fall on you. You took care of your mother after her knee surgery, we have them for the seudah almost every Friday night, your siblings don’t even invite them for yontif! They always come to us! It’s just—”
There was something brewing in Chumie’s eyes that made Dovi stop mid-sentence.
“Table for two?” the maître d’ interjected.
“Yeah, thanks,” Dovi answered. They followed him to a corner table.
“I have the best, best, best idea, Dovi!” Chumie whispered after they sat down. “My mother has these old albums somewhere in the basement from when she was a kid. What if we do, like, a montage at the party? Like ‘Ma through the Ages.’ Wouldn’t that be too cute?”
A waiter handed them two menus.
“I’m sensing an ask right around the bend here,” Dovi said slowly.
“Well, obviously we have to get the pictures loaded up and stuff and I was thinking because you work in my parents’ basement anywayyyy… and you’re like such a tech guy…”
“I work on a computer, Chumie. That doesn’t make me a tech guy.”
“Well.” She crossed her arms. “I guess there are companies that do this sort of thing…. If that’s the way you want to go.”
Dovi frowned. “And why can’t Yaakov help out exactly?”
Chumie glowered at him.
“Fine. Fine, I’ll do it.”
He looked down at the menu, then up again. “You’re something else, Chumie.”
They both laughed quietly.
In early March of 2020, Dovi’s office went remote and he set up shop at home, only to find that between two-year-old Bashi, four-year-old Ari, and Chumie’s love of the spoken word, the dining room table wasn’t going to cut it.
His in-laws lived around the corner and generously offered him the use of their partially redone basement. Dovi was still enjoying the quiet two years later. His boss was fine with it, as long as the work got done.
His mother-in-law brought lunch around the side entrance every day at twelve thirty, despite months of insincere protests on Dovi’s end. His father-in-law made sure to keep a little table in the corner of the room stocked with hot cups and coffee. The arrangement was as close to perfect as one could get, in Dovi’s opinion.
Check for the box of pictures near the Pesach stuff, on top of that extra fridge maybe??
Dovi read the message and walked to the other side of the basement, did a little jump and spied some old boxes. He dragged over a step stool and pulled the first box down. Zevi’s Home Videos 1992 was scrawled on the front in blue marker.
An inch of dust went flying through the air. He peeked inside and saw twelve neatly numbered VHS tapes. Of course his father-in-law hadn’t converted these, he probably didn’t know they existed; he was a retired podiatrist who wasn’t even interested in learning about the capabilities of his own cell phone. Dovi had helped his own parents transfer their family videos a few years earlier. It was a pain, but worth it just to make fun of the pants people wore in the ’90s.
He thought of Chumie, busy with two little kids and working part-time, planning this thing for her mother while her siblings did whatever they did and didn’t lift a finger.
I bet Chumie would love it if I added some video footage to the montage.
There were so few things he could give his wife that she couldn’t just order for herself.
Tax season, a little voice chirped.
But he’d heard war stories from his friends. Meddling mothers-in-law, super-sensitive mothers-in-law, constantly interjecting mothers-in-law. He’d gotten off easy in that department. And for a man who was often at a loss when it came to doing meaningful things for his wife, this seemed pretty simple.
Look who’s not so boring now….
“So, how’s your mother’s birthday party coming along?” Dovi asked nonchalantly that night.
Chumie was behind her laptop, ordering paper goods for the Felder event and muttering about sleek, dumb, retirement party colors.
She pulled down the screen, glasses perched on her nose. “Fine.”
“Did Miri offer to help with anything?”
Chumie pushed her glasses up. “In how many ways can I explain that The Siblings won’t be helping with amateur hour? Miri is a lawyer. She has a real job.” She turned back to her computer.
“Yeah, well, people should make time for important stuff.”
“Did you find the pictures? Of Ma?”
“I did.” He straightened up proudly. “And I found some old home videos too. And because I make time for important things, and because I’m such a very not boring person, I’m offering my services and willing to add some clips to the montage. Because I’m wild like that.” He waited for a stream of praise.
“Home videos? Did you hear me?”
She poked her head around the screen, looking pale. “Like cassette tapes?”
“No, VHS tapes. From the ’90s.”
“Well, how will you get the… the SD card? Or whatever? From the black part? Are you even able to view those things still? Don’t you need special equipment?”
“I’m extremely talented. One might call me downright magical.”
Chumie stared at him for a minute, then tilted her head to the side. “I guess, one might call you that.” She grinned. Then she went back to her paper goods. “Video clips would be great, can’t wait!”
Dovi looked over the instructions again. Transferring the footage was a multi-step process, but he had all the equipment he needed. He just needed a refresher course on how to do it.
There was a familiar knock on the side door and he snapped back to earth.
“Just a little something.” His mother-in-law handed him a lettuce-and-tuna-on-rye sandwich. “I’m off to a bikur cholim meeting. That wife of yours has some definite ideas on decor for the annual dinner we’re planning. Can’t say I understand half of what she says about color palettes, but I trust her.”
“You and me both, Ma.” Dovi smiled. “Thanks for the sandwich, you know it’s not necessary—”
“Enough, Dovi. Humor an old lady and eat the sandwich, will you?”
He glanced back at the box after she left, rubbed his hands together and peeked inside. “Alright. Who wants to go first?” he mumbled, which was a joke because Dovi would never dream of starting from anywhere but one.
He popped the tape into his in-laws’ ancient VCR, then fiddled around with it until the thing miraculously came to life.
Yaakov’s face showed up on the screen.
“Hello, this is Yaakov Grosser and I’m eleven and we got a new video camera!”
Dovi marveled at the living room window behind Yaakov. It was draped in a garish combination of fabrics, like something that escaped a Renaissance fair. This is gold, Chumie’s gonna go nuts over this. He smiled.
The camera shook and Zevi’s face appeared. “We d-d-d-idn’t get a video a c-c-camera. I-I-I got a video c-c-c-camera.”
“Yeah, well, I’m supposed to be videoing so you can do stutter practice,” Yaakov yelled back. “That’s why we got the camera, duhhh.”
Dovi watched secrets rise from the dead.
Zevi had a stutter? The smooth-talking surgeon stood gangly at fourteen, while Yaakov, now a much beloved dentist, threw an imaginary touchdown on the thick rose carpet. Twelve-year-old Miri scolded Yaakov for hogging the camera.
“It’s for ZEVI! So he can practice speaking! It’s like a diary but with talking.”
“D-d-d-diaries are for girls! And I know h-h-h-how to sp-sp-speak!”
“Video me doing a backflip!” Yaakov screamed.
The camera panned to a wicker dinette set that matched the pink carpet. Oak cabinets lined the kitchen. Floral wallpaper. Floral couches. Floral everything.
Chumie wasn’t even born, Dovi thought.
They all treated her more like a daughter than a sister, The Siblings. They called often, sent over-the-top gifts for the kids, invited them for Shabbos, pampered their baby sister. Now, watching them thirty years earlier, he realized they’d had a whole life before she came along. It all made sense — Chumie was a novelty. Dovi was enraptured.
Near the end of the first video Dovi’s ears perked up — a shrill background noise while Zevi was doing a tortuous finger puppet Purim play for speech homework.
“A-a-a-achashveirosh c-c-c-called for V-v-vashti…”
“Miri Grosser!” a furious voice bellowed. “Miri Grosser, you want a smack?”
“And V-v-vashti h-h-h-h-had g-g-grown a-a-a-a—”
“Because that’s what you’re going to get!”
His mother-in-law’s voice. Only louder than he’d ever heard it. She appeared on the screen suddenly, red cheeked, long snood askew. “Zevi!” she shrieked. “Turn that thing off! NOW!”
The footage cut out. Dovi sat still in surprise. His mother-in-law wasn’t a screamer.
He turned back to his desk, utterly confused.
“So I was thinking. I don’t know. Maybe adding the video clips to the montage isn’t the best idea for the party.”
“Why?” Chumie turned away from the vegetables she was chopping, brows furrowed.
“I don’t know, I only went through one but… Zevi had a stutter back in the day.”
“Did he? I’m sure you can edit that out, no? You’re so good at this stuff. You do computers!”
“No, I work on a computer.” He sighed. “I don’t know, Chum—”
“There must be some adorable stuff on those cassettes.” She turned back to the cutting board. “Please, please go through all of them! For me. Maybe put the clips to music? No talking. That way we won’t hear Zevi’s lisp.”
“Whatever. Same thing. Little snippets will make such a difference in the video, it’ll be a whole presentation! It’s a good thing I’m planning this thing, Dovi.” She laughed, pointing a peeler at him. “If you were in charge of entertainment, there’d be a puppet show and everyone would be safely home by 7 p.m.!”
She grabbed the vegetable platter and brought it to the table.
Yup. Boring, boring Dovi. And here she’s asking me for help!
“Okay, okay, I’ll go through them.”
He moved on to number two the next day. Yaakov and Zevi in the backyard, a wooden swing set topped with a tented striped awning where his mother-in-law’s flower beds now sat.
Yaakov was acting out a full ball game while Zevi was announcing.
“Grosser u-u-u-up to b-b-bat. L-l-look at that arm, f-f-folks!” He tossed the ball and Yaakov hit it easily. Miri was clearly holding the camera and jerked it toward the side of the house just as it hit a window.
“Oh, m-m-man,” Zevi said in a low voice in the background.
“And Ma’s bad today!” Yaakov yelled.
The back door swung open. “Who did that?” shrieked his mother-in-law, sounding like a wild woman. Same snood. Same red face.
The video cut out.
Dovi sat wide-eyed for a minute. He suddenly felt like a trespasser, like he’d snuck through the gates of the past and pried the whole thing wide open.
He popped in another video.
“If you kids make ONE MORE SOUND….”
It was like cyclic roadkill. The more he watched, the more his stomach turned, the more he watched.
“Get DOWN here, Yaakov!”
“Miri, how many times—”
“Zevi, grounded. Grounded. GROUNDED!”
“TURN THAT THING OFF!”
He found a clip of his mother-in-law pulling a sobbing Miri by the arm in the background while Zevi read The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud to the camera. He felt a little sick after that.
Oddly, there were good parts, too. His mother-in-law looking very much like herself, only younger, waving to the camera, playing cards with the kids. Doing a jigsaw with Yaakov. But somehow the good parts made the bad parts even worse.
At twelve fifteen he turned everything off and sat at his desk like a schoolboy with a secret, There was no way this was okay. It was worse than reading someone else’s mail; there had to be some issur of lashon hara involved. But what now? What should he tell Chumie? She’d begged him to continue, she was so excited. He couldn’t possibly share what he saw… that would be worse. So now what? He sat in silence thinking, for the next quarter of an hour.
He opened the door.
“Some soup and garlic knots, Dovi?”
He stared at her lined face, her dark sheitel cut right below the chin. Blue eyes sprouting soft crow’s feet. Bright, clear. Kind? He’d always thought so.
“Everything okay?” She tilted her head, looking worried.
“Yeah. Thanks, Ma.”
“Busy day? Tax season’s just around the corner, huh?”
“I’ll leave you to it, then.”
He let the soup grow cold on his desk.
He would just skip the ugliness, he decided. Go through the tapes, and fast- forward through anything that seemed questionable.
By video number four, there was marked improvement in Zevi’s stutter.
He read a homework assignment about an alien invasion while sitting at the top of the steps, Yaakov on his back playing on his bulky gray Game Boy, Miri manning the camera. Suddenly both boys stopped short and stared downstairs, clearly hearing something the camera hadn’t picked up.
“M-m-ma’s bad today.”
“She broke something in the kitchen,” Yaakov said.
“I think she likes breaking things,” Miri answered.
The camera ran with them into a bedroom, then cut out.
“How’s it going with the home videos?” Chumie stuck a hoop earring into one earlobe, then another in the next, while Dovi straightened his tie in the mirror.
“Yeah. Good. Coming along.”
Dovi met her eye in the mirror, then looked away.
“Finished all of them?”
“Great! You’re the best.”
If only you knew.
Or do you? Did that woman raise you, too?
He spent the whole Shabbos wondering and watching. Friday night he searched for clues, staring hawk-eyed at his in-laws, their little idiosyncrasies; she puckered at the grape juice, he ate only spelt rolls, they shared some light banter about his oversized rain galoshes. Normal. Normal?
I know too much and nothing at all.
He watched Chumie walk her parents down the front steps, give her mother a tight hug.
Did she grow up with that woman? Is my wife scarred? Would she know it if she is?
He went through five on Sunday and realized why his brothers- and sister-in-law only went to visit his in-laws for short spurts. He marveled at the fact that they ever went at all.
By six, Zevi’s speed was improving and he was giving detailed accounts of his day — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dovi cringed through the whole thing, then stared suspiciously at lunch, picking at the pasta on his plate, unable to summon an appetite, wondering if his sparkly wife harbored demons from the past.
He couldn’t find video seven on Tuesday morning. He searched above the fridge, behind the fridge, through the cardboard box and found old mice droppings but no seven.
He went through his in-laws’ Pesach closet, then a chest labeled TOYS where he found a Fisher Price cash register, an I Spy book with the cover ripped off, two broken Tamagotchis, three feather boas, half of Trouble, a Journeys II cassette tape, a Twister mat, most of a Monopoly game, and just the box of Pretty Pretty Princess. He finally admitted defeat when he found more mice droppings.
By number eight, Zevi’s stutter reared its head only once in a while, and his mother-in-law didn’t appear at all.
In ten, Zevi announced to the camera that he was going out of town for school in September.
Before he started number eleven, Dovi told his mother-in-law that he’d begun a new diet that called for skipping lunch. She frowned and brought him a plate of fruit the next day that he stared at for a good thirty minutes after watching twelve.
And when Friday night came again and his in-laws walked in, all smiles, he glared at them through narrowed eyes. Shame on both of you. How can you even show your faces? His head hurt.
His mother-in-law lifted her hand and reached out to rub Chumie’s back and Dovi jumped off the couch in protest, then caught himself.
“Dovi? Are you okay?” Chumie asked.
“Just need some air,” he mumbled, stepping outside.
He stood on the front stoop, pressed his hands against the iron porch rail. He could see inside through the living room window; his wife was the picture of peace and he felt like his head might explode from the insanity of it all. I know these people. I’ve known these people a long time. Longer than I’ve known the lady from the videos.
He watched his mother-in-law twirl Bashi gently around the room, laughing.
There is no way my wife was raised by… her.
In that moment, Dovi came to the conclusion that Chumie and her siblings must have been brought up by two different mothers with the same face. He would scrape and sanitize and scrub the footage and hide it all. The scenes would be edited, put to music, ugliness masked, sound off. Because his wife was goodness and joy and there was no reason for her to ever know that once, in a different lifetime, her mother was a monster.
This would be his gift to her.
Of course, the party room of Off the Deck was decorated to perfection. Dovi watched as people filtered in, waiting for the guest of honor. The bikur cholim crew, cousins, neighbors, a few old coworkers from her secretary days. The grandchildren ran circles around the room while Chumie charmed everyone who walked through the door.
The Siblings arrived fashionably late, sleek, powerful. Strong. Dovi wondered why he’d never noticed the granite smiles and titanium stance — they were hewn from something tougher than steel. Their spouses followed, then their kids, mostly teenagers huddled in little cousin groups. He followed The Siblings with his eyes as they each gravitated toward Chumie. You doing okay, Chumie? asked Zevi. Prenatals, don’t forget, Miri whispered. Don’t work so hard, Chum, said Yaakov.
His eyes were glued to their faces when Ma entered the room, his shver two steps behind. Surprise! Quick smiles, short-lived applause, no rush to give her a hug. In fact, they each wandered toward her slowly, as if being pushed by an invisible current. Reverse magnetics. Kryptonite.
There were cheese boards and fruit and mingling. Then Chumie motioned to Dovi — roll the tape.
It had come out to a short three minutes, he’d thrown in some photos from his in-laws’ wedding, some clips of baby Chumie at the end, and of course the pictures of “Ma through the ages.” A sudden rush of anxiety overcame him a moment before pressing play, when he glanced at The Siblings and realized how much this was going to hurt.
But this is the truth I want for Chumie. The truth she’d grown up with, the truth he intended to safeguard. She deserved it.
Dovi killed the lights and all the guests turned toward the screen as the soulful strains of Ohad’s “Birkat Habanim” came through the speaker system. He stood in the back pretending to fiddle with the equipment.
Zevi making a funny face, Yaakov doing a backflip, Miri clapping next to her mother. Yaakov wearing a ketchup costume, Miri dressed as mustard, a rare shot of his mother-in-law waving into the camera. Miri laughing, waving Zevi away with her Walkman, headphones solidly placed over her ears….
Dovi didn’t bother watching the screen. Instead, he watched them. His mother-in-law sat ramrod straight. He caught a glimpse of the side of her face. Drained of color, he thought, though the lights were too dim to know for sure.
Chumie clapped and laughed along with the rest of the guests as Yaakov did a cannonball into a bungalow pool.
Miri, always the picture of grace, smoothly turned to meet Yaakov’s eye. Then they shifted to look at Dovi and even in the dark he could feel their gaze: thick, laden. Accusatory.
It was Zevi who stood up first, pretended to take a call and excused himself, slipping out the back door. After a moment’s deliberation, Dovi followed him.
He was pacing in the back. Back and forth against white winter sky, trees like pipe cleaners bare and bent against the wind. Dovi rocked lightly on his heels, unsure if Zevi even noticed him or if he was stuck in a nightmare far, far away. He jammed his hands in his pockets. An uncomfortable lump formed in his throat and he coughed lightly.
“You want me to get you a drink, Zev?” he called out.
Zevi looked up, blinked, a sudden sneer appearing on his face. He walked closer to Dovi.
“Are you, uh… responsible for that piece of fiction in there, Mr. Tech?”
“I’m an accountant, Zevi. I just work on a compu—”
“Yeah, yeah.” He exhaled hard and Dovi felt a sudden rush of raw pity for his oldest brother-in-law. The surgeon. The president of his shul. On every board in his city. The gvir. Motherless. The word went bouncing through his brain, ricocheting off his skull.
“Yeah, I went through the videos,” Dovi said quietly.
Zevi stared at him. “Right. Okay. So you understand that, that—” He was blinking fast. “Th-th-th-that…”
Dovi’s eyes widened at the sudden reappearance of Zevi’s stutter.
“That that’s not real.” He pointed to the door. “You — you get that right? Not real.”
“I get it. Yeah.”
The two men stood staring at each other until the door opened again and Miri and Yaakov appeared.
“Well, that was fun,” Yaakov said insipidly, a twister in his eyes.
Miri walked straight up to Dovi. “Who told you about the videos? Whose idea was this?” Her voice was sharp, her auburn sheitel looking wild in the wind.
Dovi held up his hands in surrender. “Look — Chumie had me looking for old pictures of your mother and I found this box of tapes. I thought it would be fun to convert the home videos and make a little montage, and Chumie got all excited so I had to finish… and edit it all, because, you know.” He fumbled there at the end. “And I didn’t want her to be all disappointed, or, uh, suspicious…” He trailed off.
The Siblings stood there, arms crossed, steaming.
“Well? Does she know?” Miri asked loudly.
Dovi shook his head. “She has no clue.”
Zevi nodded. “Good. Keep it that way.” He looked more composed now, flanked by his two younger siblings.
The three of them. They weren’t really the three of them, Dovi realized, they were more than that. A team. And Dovi suddenly saw it clearly — they didn’t treat Chumie like a daughter because of the age gap. They treated her like a daughter because she wasn’t A Sibling. There was distance because they were survivors. And somehow, she wasn’t.
Miri sighed. “You probably have questions. Let’s talk fast. In 1993 Ma was in a car accident—”
“Yeah, because she stormed out of the house after nearly breaking—”
“Yaakov. Stop,” Miri said sharply.
Yaakov kicked a pebble across the parking lot, looking much like the eleven-year-old he once was.
“The accident resulted in a head injury. We’ve pieced together a pretty good picture over the years, although some of this is conjecture. Ma started having a lot of seizures and had to go on an epilepsy drug. This was a year or two before Chumie was born. There’s some crossover when it comes to epilepsy meds, and whatever concoction they gave her to prevent her seizures also controlled her undiagnosed bipolar disorder. You know, that lovely condition my father never realized or admitted she had.”
“It’s not cured, Miri. The beast is still there.”
“Yaakov,” Zevi said roughly, “enough.”
Dovi tried to digest the rush of information. “So… by the time Chumie was born…”
“She had a mother. She was raised by a mother. We were raised by a monster,” Yaakov said simply. “You saw seven, right?”
Zevi’s hands flew up in frustration and Miri shook her head. “Yaakov,” they both scolded at the same time.
“No, I wanna know,” he shot back. “Dovi, you saw seven?”
“No, actually.” Dovi shook his head. “I looked everywhere for it. I couldn’t find it.”
“You couldn’t find seven?” Zevi’s eyebrows shot up.
“You know nothing until you see seven,” Yaakov mumbled.
“Hey!” Chumie’s bright face poked out the door. “You guys! Come back insiiiiiide,” she sang through cupped hands. “Ta’s gonna give a little speech!”
“We’re coming! Just telling Dovi what an amazing job he did on the video! Unreal!” Miri called back.
“Unreal,” Yaakov murmured as he passed by.
“Not a word to her,” Miri whispered to Dovi. “No reason to take away something she was lucky enough to have.”
They each carried one of the sleeping kids upstairs and tucked them in.
Between the kitchen and living room they stared at the Cheerios strewn across the floor, long forgotten residue from that morning’s frantic breakfast.
“I’ll sweep. Just sit.” Dovi grabbed the broom while Chumie headed for the couch, took off her heels, and threw them into a corner.
“You must be exhausted,” Dovi said. “I don’t think I saw you sit down for a second the whole time.”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s me. I love this stuff, you know that. Can’t help that I’m a talker.” She yawned and closed her eyes lightly, leaning her head back on the couch.
“Speaking as a man who’s allergic to humans, I don’t know how you do it. I bet you could convince a pair of salt and pepper shakers to get on board with a weekly date night.”
Chumie smiled. “Hey, date night is a cure-all.” She laughed and opened her eyes. “You may be allergic to humans, but you’re a good guy, Dovi.” She sat forward, her face turning serious.
Dovi grinned. “That’s what they say—”
“Please… just let me do this, okay? No jokes for a second.”
Dovi looked up at her and stopped sweeping. There was something sad and sharp in her voice and it made his heart beat a little bit faster.
“I’m a talker, right?” She stared down at her hands. “Except for the things I don’t talk about.”
Dovi’s stomach twisted.
She looked up and met his eye. “My mother has cancer.”
“Skin. They caught it early. She’ll be fine. I wanted to wait until after the party to tell you. Keep things separate. I didn’t want this to turn into some… some goodbye party.”
“Still— you should have—”
“And also I have number seven.”
The precious glass he thought she’d been encased in shattered in one swift blow. He stood very still.
“You have number seven?” he repeated, one pathetic attempt at playing dumb.
She stayed impassive, though her eyes sparked.
“It’s in that random closet in the kids’ room where I keep the newborn stuff and the succah decorations. In a paper bag labeled ‘Stuff.’ ”
Dovi ran his hand over his forehead and sat down on a dining room chair. “I’m not really sure what to say.”
“Well, I don’t suggest you watch it. You’ll see just what happens when the camera keeps rolling.”
“Oh.” Dovi sighed. “Oh gosh—”
“I’m going to drive my mother to radiation, Dovi, okay? And I’m going to stay with her after her surgery, and I might even ask you to come home a drop early to get the kids for a bit. And I’m six months pregnant, and only getting pregnanter, but I’m still going to make her meals when she doesn’t feel well and take her for follow-up visits and I’m going to do all of it alone. By myself. Without… them.” Her words held the weight of heavy, heavy love. “My siblings—” She stopped suddenly, her voice catching and Dovi watched her pinch the bridge of her nose, as if that might stop the leaking. She took a shaky breath.
“My siblings aren’t going to be there for her. And I understand that. And I’ve tried a million times to start this conversation with you, to explain. But I just couldn’t. It’s barely something I can comprehend myself. And when you found the videos, Dovi, it was like… It was the solution at just the right moment. I needed you to understand. Not just understand but really understand. You almost gave up after the first one, remember? And I pushed you to keep going. I needed you to see why it’s always going to be me, and me alone. No siblings.”
Dovi stared at her, shocked and impressed by the level of her deception.
Chumie leaned back again. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “After I found the box in high school, I went straight to my father. I don’t know how, but I knew instinctively not to go to my siblings. I realized they were protecting me. I think they hid it all to heal themselves, they wanted to give me something they never had. And my father told me everything. I’m assuming you know…”
“I have a pretty good picture.”
“I held up number seven and waved it in his face and I told him I was keeping it and if he ever let my mother go off her meds, I’d move in with Miri. I’d pack my bags and leave. And then I took it into my room and hid it. I keep it with me.”
“Why? Why not just chuck it?”
“Partially to show her, if there’s ever a need, if she decides it’s been 28 years and she’ll be fine if she stops her meds. Partially for me.” She looked down and fiddled with her ring.
“My biggest fear, all through high school, was that I’d have to ride the same roller coaster they did. But I didn’t.”
“Not at all?”
She shook her head. “Just some minor bumps, medication adjustments. But the fear was always there. And I know my mother has spent the last 28 years trying to make amends. She tries, Dovi.” Chumie’s voice grew weaker. “I’m her repentance. Do you understand that? Her atonement, and sometimes it weighs on me like a physical rock, it’s so heavy. I’m an only child with three older siblings. I’m what keeps her going when she remembers the children she nearly destroyed before me. And that’s… hard.
“So I keep the video to remind myself that I dodged a bullet. That I should be grateful. I had a healthy mother. But after I saw them… I could never fully trust she wouldn’t change. It was like a simmering pot under the calm. And then I met you….” The rush of words trickled to a stop, and she let out a long sigh. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re a gift.”
Dovi blinked at the sudden turn.
“Solid. And kind. You find my credit card and stick it back in my wallet and you don’t even say anything. Do you understand that every single person in my life that I’d ever loved, harbored a secret from me? My mother, father, siblings. There are no surprises with you, Dovi. None. I even know how much you hate date night, it’s clear as day. You do it just for me and you don’t even complain.” She smiled. “A gift.”
They sat in silence for a long time.
“I’m boring,” Dovi said quietly.
“Yes.” Chumie burst into a smile. “That’s exactly what it is. So, so, soooo boring.” Then she added, “Thank you.”
On Monday there was a knock on the side door at twelve thirty.
Dovi opened it to find his mother-in-law holding a grilled chicken wrap on a plate.
“I just wanted to know if your diet is over. Figured I’d try.”
For the first time, Dovi could see an ocean of pain in the blue of her eyes. Maybe he’d never noticed it before. Maybe she never let him see it. He swallowed.
“Yeah, yeah, the diet’s over. Thanks.” He took the plate, turned around to put it on his desk.
He turned back to face her.
“Now that you’ve seen them…” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other. “Do you think we can throw them away?”
Dovi felt the shock in his gut.
“I never wanted them to think I’d erased… what happened, what their reality was, but so much time has passed….”
“I already did, Ma. I threw them out. They’re gone.”
She gave him a little nod in thanks. “Never really gone though, right, Dovi?” she said quietly before walking away. He watched her for a moment, wondering how long one must suffer for sins they never intended to commit. A lifetime? Eternity?
She turned around.
“Thanks for lunch. Grilled chicken is my favorite, right after loaded deli sandwiches. Also, I’m not sure what happened to sushi, but if you’re looking to put that back in the rotation, I’d be cool with that… I’m just saying.”
She broke out into a grin, her eyes misting up just a bit.
“Sushi it is, Dovi. Sushi it is.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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