| Family First Serial |

Half Note: Episode 14 

So she wasn’t making it up. Her mother-in-law did think she was an irresponsible spendthrift. But she wasn’t. Was she?


“We can’t ever judge how someone is handling their personal nisayon.”
— Rivki Silver, DMC Ep. 3

“What’s going on here?” Shira heard her mother-in-law ask.

Her voice was coming from the side of the house; she must’ve just come home from her walk. Shira shrank into the wingback chair in the den. She knew her mother-in-law couldn’t see her, or know she’d heard her, but somehow, she felt like the kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

“I just didn’t have a chance to push the furniture back, I’ll do it now,” Clarissa answered.

“Back?” her mother-in-law asked.

“Shira’s had a masseuse come to the house a few times,” Clarissa answered. “I moved the chairs in the office to make room for the massage table.”

“A masseuse?” her mother-in-law repeated.

Shira could hear the disdain in her voice, the way it rose and left itself hanging. But why? She hadn’t been feeling well, she was still a bit shaken from the near arrest, and she was just bored and miserable. A little self-care was never a bad idea.

Shira didn’t hear Clarissa’s response, maybe she just nodded. Her mother-in-law spoke again.

“Can you please put the chairs back? There’s some work I need to get done here now.”

“Sure.” Clarissa said, “Do you need the packages put away too, or can you work around them?”


Shira’s stomach tightened and twisted. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but that tone put her back into first grade when Morah Tzippy asked how many snacks she’d brought to school; she could still see the face her teacher had made when Shira answered six.

“Yes, Shira’s gotten quite a few lately,” Clarissa answered.

Shira frowned. She’d ordered a bunch of new maternity tops, and more makeup, and a body pillow, and some chocolate that was only sold in Brooklyn stores. And some stuff for the kids.

What was the problem? She needed some comfort and joy, DeeDee Dvorkes had said so many times in her podcast. Why did Shira feel like her mother-in-law just stuck a pin in her balloon? Besides, that’s where all the packages were piled — why were hers pointed out, just because she got more?

Shira didn’t hear anything. Maybe she was imagining her mother-in-law’s judgment. Some footsteps, her mother-in-law was in the kitchen adjacent to the den. Drawers opening and closing, the fridge too.

“What a waste.” Shira heard her mother-in-law mutter. “No thought to money.” The rest was more muffled, then “Spend spend spend” in a singsong tone.

So she wasn’t making it up. Her mother-in-law did think she was an irresponsible spendthrift. But she wasn’t. Was she?

The thought, the emotion, the person it was coming from. The ache in her nose, the pinch behind her eyes, the tightness in her chest, and Shira was crying again. She covered her mouth to muffle any sound, she didn’t want her mother-in-law to see her, to know she’d heard.

There were more footsteps, and then classical music came on over the house audio system. Shira breathed through it.

She couldn’t think about what her mother-in-law had said. It would only hurt her more. She brought her feet up on to the chair, close to her chest, and hugged them, rocking slightly.

The music concluded, and Shira felt calmer, though still sore around her eyes. She stretched her legs. She needed the bathroom and prayed her mother-in-law was still in the office.

She wasn’t.

Her mother-in-law was standing at the kitchen island with a glass of water in hand.

She was looking at Shira strangely. Were her eyes still bloodshot? Shira wondered. Would her mother-in-law realize she’d heard her?

“That piece moved you to tears?” Eva asked, surprise laced her voice.

“Yes,” Shira stammered. This was one way out. “It just hit something in me. I don’t know, it was beautiful.”

And Shira was sure it was beautiful. Usually she tuned out all the music her mother-in-law played, or she found it mildly suffocating. This one didn’t quite register, so it must’ve not been too bad.

“I know. This piece always reminds me of Yom Kippur davening. It takes me right there, the whole emotional journey.”

“What’s it called?” Shira asked to be polite. She knew nothing.

“Beethoven, String Quartet Number 14, Opus 131,” her mother-in-law rattled off, like it was the most natural thing.

Beethoven, that name she knew. Shira nodded.

“The violin is so hopeful, the viola is reality. The push and pull of trying to be better and do better, yet knowing that I’m not always the best person. I love how I get to tell my version, without sloppy lyrics telling me what to think.”

“I guess so. I never thought about it that way.”

At least this was something else to think of other than what she’d overheard, a chance to hold onto her dignity if she could.

“The piece gets lively, even aggressive at points, but it always comes back to that tension.”

Shira had no idea what her mother-in-law was saying. Music didn’t talk to her like that. Either you danced to it, or you sang it at a kumzitz.

“Do you do anything to get yourself into the Yom Kippur mode?”

“Oh.” Shira jolted. Were they having a real conversation? She’d never really thought about her mother-in-law’s music obsession connecting back to her Yiddishkeit. “I don’t know. I’ve been busy with the kids these past few years, I don’t usually get to think much about it until the day is almost over and I’m starving and trying to remember why.”

Eva gave a small laugh.

“I barely remember those days.” Her fingers drummed the counter. “I think I repressed it. Those were busy, hard years.”

Shira tried to imagine her mother-in-law as a young mother staying home from shul, sitting on the floor and watching her kids. The image didn’t come. She couldn’t see her like that.

“Ephraim gave you a run for your money?”

Shira had never gotten the whole “this is what your husband was like as a kid” opportunity. They’d moved to Israel right after marriage, and when they came in for Yom Tov, the conversations never veered there.

“They all did,” her mother-in-law said. She sound exasperated, but Shira could see a small smile. “Six boys, all different. Couldn’t use any tricks or tips twice. Our first house should’ve been torn down after we moved. The boys ransacked it.”

Shira tried imagining Ephraim and her brother-in laws as wild things. Again she couldn’t. They were all so poised and polished and well-rounded these days.

“I know, you’d never guess looking at them today. I’d like to think I did something right, but they spend so much formative time in yeshivah, I don’t know what I can take credit for.”

And there was something in her voice then that made Shira want to go and hug the woman. Was it hard having only boys? She’d never thought about it, other than the fact that she wouldn’t have any biological sisters-in-law to compete with.

Her mother-in-law waved a dismissive hand.

“But you have your Racheli and Dovi, you know how it is.” And she seemed to be happy for Shira, like she dodged a bullet somehow. “And I had Sundays free for years. That was wonderful.” That sounded more like the woman Shira knew.

Shira pointed to the stairs. “I gotta take care of something.”

Her mother-in-law nodded. It seemed almost warm to Shira.

Upstairs Shira pulled out her phone and tried calling her friend. She didn’t answer. Shira checked the clock, 12 her time, 7 in Israel, smack in middle of bedtime. Of course she didn’t answer.

She starting text her instead, vague and leading.

Am I bad with money? Does that make me a bad person?

Shira read what she wrote, deleted it, and woke Dovi early from his nap. She needed a person close to her, and this was the best she could do right now.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 810)

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