| Family Tempo |

Game Plan  

Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I just, we were having such a nice time in the park, and I started to sketch, and I totally forgot,” I say

It’s just me and Nachi in the park, a crisp fall breeze blowing gently around us as I push him on the swing. His green eyes crinkle against the sun and I smile back at him, breathing in the peace of Indian Boundary Park.

I could stay here all day, the canopy of trees above me, the rustic wooden swing set against the backdrop of a startlingly blue sky. My fingers itch to get it all down on paper.

I settle Nachi in his stroller with a toddler snack cup, place my sketch pad on the picnic table in front of me, and start to draw.

The sharp edges of time blur and recede as I enter a state of flow. I’m shading in the wooden play structure when I hear a faint buzzing coming from the stroller. I look up and see that Nachi has fallen asleep, and my cell phone is vibrating away in the mesh basket of my UPPAbaby.

Shua Cell flashes across the screen. I swipe at it. “Hi! What’s up? I’m in the park with Nachi.”

“Tamar?” Shua’s voice is stiff. Some of his tension seeps through the phone lines into my palm, making me grip my cell phone tighter. “Tamar, did you forget we had the appointment with Broder for the new insurance policy?”

My stomach sinks.

“Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I just, we were having such a nice time in the park, and I started to sketch, and I totally forgot,” I say.

“This is why people have calendars.” I mouth his next words along with him because I already know what he’s going to say. “They look at them every day and check and see what appointments they have coming up.” He pauses. “This is the third time we’ve missed our time slot.”

He’s right, he really is. And I should have, would have, checked my calendar. If I knew where it was. Shua doesn’t need to know I can’t find that awful blue planner he bought for me last week.

“A gift,” he’d said. He’d smiled and handed it to me like it was a box of chocolates or a bouquet of roses. I’d forced a smile and opened the planner, looking at the boxes, each neatly stacked, one after the next. We’ve been married almost two years, but Shua doesn’t understand that I don’t want to squeeze my life into a little box. I wake up each day and greet the swirls of color, the magical waves of possibility coming my way. Why would I want to compress, smash, lock, and squeeze myself into the prison of a daily box, just so I can neatly check off my to-do tasks?

Now, though, damage control. I take a deep breath.

“I am so, so sorry, Shua. I’m going to set a calendar reminder on my phone for next time, okay? It won’t happen again.”

Shua sighs like he’s 80, not 26, and I feel like a small child being scolded. I grab on to Nachi’s stroller and head out of the park as Shua says, “Okay, I’ll call Broder and tell him we’ll have to reschedule again. Enjoy the rest of your time. And don’t forget Abba’s birthday tonight.”

OFcourse, Shua is ready early. I put the finishing touches on my makeup and I’m ready to go. As Shua buckles Nachi into the Doona and I stuff a few last-minute things into my diaper bag, my eyes travel to the empty space above the couch in our new apartment.

My in-laws had gifted us with a certificate to the Yafit online art gallery, and we knew we wanted something to remind us of the year we spent together in Yerushalayim. But when we sat down at the computer to order a painting, Shua wanted a stark, modern print, all black, white, and gold with straight lines and neat silhouettes of people davening. I favored a more abstract piece — soft, mystical, streaks of pink and cream, with the Kosel blurred against the backdrop of a setting sun.

We couldn’t agree, so we left it, an online cart with two paintings and an empty wall in our new living room. Oh, and daily email reminders from the Yafit website reminding us not to forget what was left behind in the cart.

We drive the few blocks to my in-laws’ home. My in-laws’ house is spotless and beautiful as usual, and my sisters-in-law are already sitting at the table when we arrive. We settle ourselves at the two empty spots and start to fill up our plates.

“This chicken is delicious, Ma,” I say, cutting into another piece of grilled rosemary chicken. Ma is elegance defined. The crazy thing is that she still manages to be the nicest person ever, always asking how she can help us, and never a bad thing to say to me. It’s always compliments and gifts.

Looking at the perfectly laid out table, my father-in-law and Shua’s sisters sitting calmly around the table, I think of my own family’s get-togethers back in Baltimore. A happy, slapdash hullabaloo, Ima chopping and frying as family members pass by and pick from the pan, until it eventually makes it onto the table and we eat. Not so a Braun family dinner. Every dish on this table looks like it came out of a magazine.

I wince, thinking of Shua acclimating to my family this past Succos. He’s getting better, but Brauns don’t do laid-back. If anyone ever needed proof that opposites attract, they can come over and see me and my husband in action. Sure, Shua gets fed up with my lack of organization, and I get annoyed at his lack of spontaneity, but the very solidness of his personality is what attracted me to him in the first place. Meeting Shua was like stepping off one of those shaky canoes at the lake in camp. The ground is blessedly firm in contrast. He’s solid and dependable, an anchor in the chaos that is often my life.

I turn my head and watch Shua feeding Nachi little bites of potato. He cuts into each wedge with neat precision, forks it into Nachi’s mouth with perfect aim. He even feeds his kid neatly. The thought pops into my head and I smile.

“How’s work going, Ma?” Shua asks.

“Good,” my mother-in-law answers, giving the kale sweet potato salad another mix. “Just got a huge project designing the Kaufsteins’ new kitchen.”

Shua looks up from feeding Nachi. “Ooooh.”

Ma laughs. “Yeah, it’s big. I’m not sure how I’ll manage since Stephanie’s going on maternity leave. I thought I’d found a replacement, but the girl backed out last minute. I really need an assistant, especially with a project like this.”

I take another bite of my kale salad — yum, my mother-in-law is the best cook — and a crazy idea pops into my head. “What about me?” I ask.

Everyone looks a little surprised, my father-in-law busies himself with his steak, and I kind of wish I could stuff the words back in.

“What, you, Tamar?” my sister-in-law Tova says, putting down her can of La Croix.  “You design professionally?”

I blush. “Well, I, um, helped a lot of friends set up their apartments in Israel.”

Tova doesn’t look impressed.

“Tamar is amazing with design,” Shua says loyally. I feel some of the tightness in my stomach ease.

I am great with design. Back in Israel most of my friends didn’t work and neither did I, but I helped a lot of them set up their apartments. Shua always seemed so proud when their husbands would mention how much I’d helped their wives. He even made a comment once about how I was following in Ma’s footsteps.

He turns to me now. “And you have time now that Nachi goes to the babysitter a few hours a day, no?”

Shua wanted me to have a job all lined up and ready when we moved, but that’s so not me. Maybe this could actually be my chance to prove to Shua and all of his perfect sisters that I do have it together.

The one person who hasn’t said anything yet is my mother-in-law. I steal a glance at her face, but I can’t read her expression. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have me work for her; this will be great for everyone. She sees me looking at her, clears her throat, and smiles.

“It’s an interesting idea, I think it could work,” she starts hesitantly. “I do love how you set up your apartment. We’d have to give you some training, but—”

“Ma, I’d love to give it a try,” I jump in.

And that’s how I find myself standing next to my mother-in-law in front of a very palatial looking home in Chicago’s Lincolnwood neighborhood. Stephanie surprised everyone by having her baby early, before she had a chance to train me in, so it’s just the two of us. It’s okay, I can wing it.

“Ready?” Ma asks as she raises her hand to knock on the door. She gives me a quick once over and then an encouraging smile. The door opens and Maya Kaufstein stands there, a gracious smile on her face. She greets Ma with a light air kiss.

“This is Tamar, my daughter-in-law. She’ll be assisting me with this project.” Ma places a hand on my arm.

“Oh, how lovely!” Maya says. “Did you just move to town?”

I explain that we just moved back from Israel as we head toward the kitchen. It’s sprawling and beautiful but clearly designed about 20 years ago — all dark granite countertops and cherrywood cabinets.

“The Kaufsteins are going for a more open-concept, modern design.” Ma waves her hand, gesturing at the space. “We’ll be taking everything out, moving the wall to the den on the eastern side of the house, and creating a larger kitchen that opens into the family room.” She whips out a measuring tape from her handbag and hands me a notepad and pen. “Okay, so start writing down the measurements I tell you, and later we’ll put it all into the system.”

The next hour passes by in a blur of numbers as I write everything down. When we’re finally finished measuring, my brain aches, and we sit down with Maya. We talk cabinet colors, countertop materials, the overall look we’re trying to achieve. I hold the paper with the measurements and follow along with most of what they say. Sitting at the granite kitchen table, I sneak a look outside at the Kaufsteins’ backyard, at the playset framed against the brown picket fence. I think of Nachi and hope he’s having a good morning at his new babysitter.

Ma’s voice cuts through my thoughts.

“Right, Tamar?” Both Maya and my mother-in-law are looking at me.

I have no clue what they’re talking about.

“Sorry, can you repeat that?” I say, a blush rising on my cheeks.

“I was just telling Maya that we’ll go pick some samples for the quartzite later this week to bring to Maya to choose.”

“Right, sure,” I say quickly.

Focus, Tamar, focus. I place my palms firmly on the table and force myself to space in.

We finish up and Maya walks us toward the door. Once the door closes behind us, Ma turns toward me as she reaches into her handbag for her car keys.

“Did you get everything, Tamar? Maya is a really, really important client, we have to do this right.”

Ma sounds more serious than I’ve ever heard her.

I give a small laugh. “Oh, yeah, sure. I got everything, Ma. Don’t worry, I’m totally on this.”

She smiles back and offers a light air kiss by way of goodbye.

Her words echo in my head as I walk toward my car. I can picture the Braun Chanukah party, all of Nachi’s sisters sitting around the table, and Ma telling everyone what an amazing assistant I am. The daydream swells in my mind like a warm cloud of air and then fades into a puff of nothingness as I close my car door. I really, really can’t mess this one up.

After the meeting, I pick up Nachi from the babysitter and run with him to Jewel to buy some ingredients for supper. When we first got married, Shua told me how his mother would map out the menus for each week and buy all the ingredients on Monday. Then she knew exactly what she was making each night and had all the right ingredients in the house.

I tried that for a week or two, but it totally stifled my creativity and made cooking feel like a chore. Ma’s great, but I need to do Me. I like to wait and see what muse will strike each day and go forward that way. I don’t think Shua really cares, as long as there’s something to eat when he gets home.

We browse through the different aisles, and I throw some cutlets and vegetables in my cart, deciding on chicken stir-fry with vegetables and rice. An hour later, supper is simmering on the stove and Nachi is playing with his toys. I’m feeling pretty good about life. I’m really on top of my game; I have a job, the apartment is clean, supper is cooking. My phone rings. It’s Ma.

“Hi!” I answer.

“Hi, sweetie, thanks for all your help today. I forgot to take that paper with the measurements from you, I just need to put it into the system. Would you mind taking a picture and texting it to me?” she asks.

“Sure, let me get it, and I’ll send it right away.”

I put my phone down, add a dash of salt to the stir-fry, and pick up my purse from my bedroom dresser to get the paper.

It’s not there. I dump out all the contents, but still, nothing. I must have left it in the car. I scoop up Nachi and dash downstairs to the parking lot. I’m sure the paper will be on the front seat.

It’s not. My heart starts beating faster as I head back upstairs with Nachi. Where is that paper?

Maybe it fell behind the kitchen counter when I was putting away my groceries? Oh, gosh, did it fall out of my purse in Jewel?

There’s a light knock on the door and in walks Shua, all smiles.

“Hi! How was the first day?” His smile fades as he looks at my face. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t find the paper with the measurements for Ma! I’m looking everywhere for it!” I thrust Nachi at him and run back into the bedroom. The smell of scorched chicken wafts through the air vent into my bedroom. The stir-fry!

“Shua! The stir-fry, I think it’s burning!”

Shua comes in. “It kind of burned, I turned it off. I’ll help you look for the paper. Don’t worry, we’ll find it.”

We spend the next hour looking in all the places I’ve already checked. Finally, Shua goes to my car to check one more time and comes back up, triumphantly holding the paper. It had fallen deep under the seat.

I quickly take a picture and text it to Ma. Then I collapse into a dining room chair.

Shua brings a plate with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I smile a sheepish thanks.

“Sorry about supper,” I offer. “And thanks for helping me find the paper! That was close.”

Shua shrugs. “No problem. PB and J is always good for me.”

But he looks pensive, tapping his fingers on the table as I start to eat.

“You know, I don’t think it has to be this way. This chaos, the last minute, the disorganization,” he says.

An invisible steel wall springs up between us at the table.

“What?” I ask. “We found the paper, didn’t we?”

Shua doesn’t say anything.

“All’s well that ends well, right?”

He shakes his head. “It’s the stress it takes to get to the ending well I don’t like.”

He chews a bite of sandwich and takes a drink.

“There are books, you know,” he says, putting down his glass. “Coaches, whatever. There are things you can do to become more organized.”

“Shua,” I say. “I’m fine. Okay?” I pick up my bentsher and start to bentsh.

I really, really, hate when he tries to change me.

Later, when Shua leaves for night seder, I walk around aimlessly, straightening up from supper. I fix the pillows on the couch and my eyes travel to the maddeningly empty space on the wall. It’s ridiculous that we can’t agree on a painting! I turn on the computer and go back to Yafit’s site, but my heart’s not in it. I rub my neck muscles, feeling the tension of the afternoon search and our stilted dinner.

How did this happen? I thought Shua appreciated my fun, laid-back personality. I guess now that we moved back to America it’s not all fun and games. Maybe I’m just not cut out for “Real Life.”

My fingers twitch over the keyboard and I do an Amazon search: “Help for disorganized adults.” Wow, there are so many books you can buy. I scroll down and read the titles, but my head starts to spin, so I choose a few with five-star reviews and add them to the cart. A few clicks and they’re on the way to my house. Whoever said change was hard?

Maya Kaufstein wants a very specific mix of cream-and-gold quartzite for her countertops. “Something sharp and modern, but also warm and timeless,” she’d said. So I’m here at Primestone Tile looking for that perfectly impossible blend for countertops and backsplash.

Nachi’s pickup is at one, which gives me two hours to browse through the tiles, take pictures, and head back home in time to get him.

The store is a cavernous, warehouse-like space, slab after slab of lustrous stone on display, and within minutes I’m totally absorbed, comparing one stone to the next, taking pictures, envisioning the client’s space.

I stop to speak to a salesman, jot down notes on the qualities of each slab, and ask him to check the inventory. We finally wrap up, and I feel a sense of satisfaction as I narrow it down to three amazing choices. Ma will be so happy; this is exactly what Maya wanted.

I walk out of the warehouse into the sunlight and reach inside for my car keys. My phone is buzzing. Five missed calls?

Uh-oh. There are three from Shira, Nachi’s babysitter, and two from Shua. I feel my jaw tighten. Wait, what time is it? Oh, my goodness, it’s 1:30.

I won’t get back to Nachi until at least 2:15. The pressure in my chest is building, and I try to exhale. I jump into my car and quickly call Shua.

“Ohmigosh, Shua, I can’t believe I lost track of time. Do you have Nachi?” I ask.

“Yeah, I have him. I’m heading home with him now. What time will you be back?”

The worst part is that Shua doesn’t even sound angry. More like resigned. He’s used to cleaning up my messes by now.

“I should be there by two fifteen, I’m really sorry you had to leave work.” I hang up and quickly call Shira to apologize.

I can’t believe I messed up again, I think as I turn onto the highway. But it’s not the end of the world. Doesn’t everyone make mistakes?

It’s not the end of the world but something is nagging at me.

I’m nine years old, chosen as Rachel in the class play about Rabi Akiva. I’ve practiced and practiced, learned my lines, and devoted way more focus to them than I’d ever given to any of my schoolwork.

The day of the play arrives and all the mothers are sitting in the audience, waiting for their children to start the performance. My friend Chani peeks out and finds her mother, giving a little squeal and a wave. I take a turn to peek through the crack in the heavy red velvet curtains, scanning the crowd for the one face that matters.

I can’t find her. The class waits, but finally we can’t wait anymore. As we go into formation for the opening choir scene, I look out for her again. She has to be on her way. The play starts and I try my best to recite my lines, forcing them out past the lump lodged in my throat. At the end of the last scene, she comes rushing in and sees me sing my last song. It’s small consolation. Mommy takes me out for ice cream later that day, tries to make it up to me. And she’s really the best mother, always fun and happy, I know that. But she missed the show. She forgot.

Even now, married with a child of my own, thinking about that story hurts me deep inside.

I pull off the exit, and it comes to me with startling clarity. Today I forgot Nachi at the babysitter, but in a few years, it’ll be a mishnayos siyum, or a class choir. I think of all the times my relaxed, happy-go-lucky mom forgot to pick me up from appointments, had to go fishing through piles of laundry to find me a clean shirt for Rosh Chodesh, or was late to carpool pickup yet again. And suddenly I know this: More than I don’t want to change, I don’t want to be that kind of mom.

It’s been a cold sort of peace between Shua and me. I know he’s still upset that I missed Nachi’s pickup, and for the general chaos in our lives. Part of me is still mad at him, angry that he can’t accept me for who I am.

When he catches me reading one of the books I bought last week, I’m kind of embarrassed, but then I think that maybe it’s good. He can see I’m at least trying to change.

One night, a few weeks later, I have a late meeting with Maya to finalize cabinet color choices. I ask Shua to babysit Nachi for an hour after supper. When I come back, I see him standing near the couch, power drill in hand.

On the wall is the magnificent Yafit painting that I chose all those months ago. It fills the wall with warmth and color and reminds me of Yerushalayim.

Shua is smiling shyly, looking hopeful, and a warm feeling spreads through me.

“Shua! I can’t believe it! It’s stunning! When did you order it? What about the one you wanted?” The words come out in a rush.

“I couldn’t stand looking at the empty wall anymore,” he says with a grin. “And yours was the better choice anyway. Aren’t you the one with the eye for design?”

Later that night, I’m putting away some books on the bookshelf. One of the books won’t quite go in; there must be something stuck behind it. I stick my hand in and feel smooth leather. It’s the blue planner Shua bought for me when we first moved here. Somehow it doesn’t feel quite as offensive as it did then. I put it on the kitchen table and open to tomorrow’s date. Then I grab a pen and start to write.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 866)

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