Her father gave her every luxury, but nothing that filled her
"Hey. I was almost worried.”
Baruch stops to see if Chani is serious. The furrow between her brows is his answer. “Fischer kept me for the last 15 minutes.”
She ducks her head into the freezer and removes a popsicle tray. “Again? I thought you figured out an escape plan already.”
“Thought so too. I did try escaping before he got to the mailbox, but he was faster than me.”
“Well I guess we’re lucky our landlord woes aren’t any bigger.” She punches out deep purple pops — blueberry this time — from the white silicon mold and arranges four pieces on the rectangular plate in front of her. “Aren’t we?”
Baruch reaches for a popsicle. The stark white plate suddenly looks messy, with an imprint of berry residue.
She looks at Baruch and notices the embossed Yeshivas Hayesod brochure he’s holding, then quickly looks away.
“Um…” Baruch says. Two bites later his popsicle is already history. He wipes his stained hands with a napkin, and his now-free fingers fold the glossy paper in half, then press the left side over the right. “You know we have something to discuss.”
Chani focuses on the envelopes on the table, straightens them into a neat pile. Invitations, more invitations, and letters from five different credit card companies with irresistible offers of sky-high credit limits. “Honestly, Baruch, the dinner is like four weeks away. I get that my father is being honored, but do we really need to think about it already?”
Her iciness is like the draft that slithers in through their bedroom window without warning. Whenever the dinner is mentioned, she frosts up. It’s not difficult to discern the pattern. Anything daddy-related does that to her. “Chan, six weeks ago you sang the exact same song. Only the four and six were swapped.”
“Too many deadlines.”
He fans himself with the brochure. “Did you ask your boss yet?”
She clears her throat. “Even if my boss gives me the go-ahead, I’m not even sure I’m going.”
He hesitates. He’d love to tell Chani to just be open with him. It’s not like he’s blind — or stupid, for that matter.
He remembers the first Shabbos they spent at her parents, how they’d chatted on their walk after the seudah. “It was really nice spending time with your father,” he’d shared. “He has so much to offer, unbelievable!” He’d been surprised by the lackluster response.
“Glad you enjoyed,” Chani had said, sounding hurt. Had he said something wrong? Growing up with a gaggle of sisters, he knew about girlish sensitivities. Tears, outbursts, walking on eggshells… But he’d innocently thought that marrying a 29-year-old would prevent 50 percent of the waterworks.
As time passed, he realized it wasn’t about him. Something was up between Chani and her father. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was definitely there.
“We have to do it for him.” He sounds almost desperate. “Your siblings are all going to be there. We can’t be the only ones not there.”
“Who cares about what they’re doing if—”
“Listen, Chani. We have to do it for him!” They’ve had the kibud av discussion too many times; time to try a different tactic. “At least show our hakaras hatov.”
Her tone is clipped. “For?”
“Come on! You can’t be ungrateful. We’re lacking nothing thanks to him.” He opens his arms wide as if to take in the entire apartment. “We have everything we need. Look at this place. I bet none of your friends’ apartments hold a candle to this one. My chavrusa in kollel could only dream of being in my shoes.
“Take today, for example. I met Mr. Fischer and the only deigah I have is he shouldn’t holt me oif for hours. I never have to worry that he’ll ask for the rent. I know your father. The rent is in the first of every month, no matter what. Your father’s never given us a hard time about money, even—”
“You said it! Rent, shment. That’s the only place we can count on him!” Chani stops and squints at Baruch. “He’s happy to give us money, as long as he doesn’t have to actually care about us. That’s what he is. Did you ever hear him express his affection toward me — ever? And how long have you been in the family for? All of six months, Baruch!”
He never heard her so emphatic, never seen her so forceful. Well, they weren’t married that long yet, but still. He tries to make eye contact, but she looks away.
Depleted, as if someone sapped all the fire out of her, she continues, her voice low. “I’m his daughter for 29 years and I never, ever felt loved.” She picks up the wad of envelopes on the table and brings it down hard. The last, untouched puddle of a popsicle is startled and tiny droplets splatter onto Sury Jacob’s wedding invitation.
He can’t figure out if she’s done yet. Where is all this coming from? Like an open wound, pain is once again scrawled across her face. “See this stupid chandelier?” Her cheeks are growing pinker, her tiny freckles barely visible. “This… this… is what I got for my birthday. On the doorstep, in a cardboard box. No note, no phone call, no nothing… Honestly, it would have meant more to me if he’d just sent chocolates because he knew I loved them. At least that would be based on something!”
Baruch looks confused. “Chani, this is a Schonbek piece! Do you know how much it’s worth?”
“That’s exactly my point, Baruch. Who needs expensive gifts that you don’t even want? If he’d stop for a minute and truly think about his daughter’s needs, I’d feel it.” She points the pile of mail at her heart.
“Daddy knows I love to write. In fact, my writing talent is from him. Can you explain why he never wrote anything to me? Three words would be more than enough for me. Three words. You hear? All I need are the words ‘I love you.’ If it’s too hard for him to say it, he can put pen to paper.”
Chani turns away from Baruch, focuses her gaze on the counter. She starts collecting damp kitchen towels and heads to the laundry room.
Baruch is quiet. How can he explain to his new wife that it’s not about a lack of caring? Disturbed, he gets up, gazes out of the window. It’s foggy, and the skyscrapers around him are piercing the skies like knives. His thoughts trail off.
It’s 2001, early September, and the world, the way he knew it, would never be the same again. He was eight years old and too young and innocent for his cozy world to be rent apart by evil. Around him, there was smoke and haze and tears. And more tears. Even his father — the strongest man he knows — was shedding unbridled tears.
His mother was ladling soup into plates, sniffling as she worked. “Supper’s ready, Baruch. Can you take it downstairs?” Something scratchy was lodged in his throat, he wasn’t sure what it was. Not strep. He had strep last winter and the sensation then was very different. He’s not sick now, he couldn’t use this as an excuse to get out of delivering supper to his grandparents.
It’s not that he hated going. They never yelled or criticized him. But his Zaidy and Bobby were nothing like Shia’s. Whenever he visited Shia’s grandparents, he came out a few dollars and a couple of cavities richer.
Baruch balanced the tray, taking two steps at a time. He knocked on the door, expecting to meet a reflection of the mournful expression everyone was wearing that day. Instead, their faces were empty. Emotionless. Detached.
“Did you hear that the Twin Towers collapsed today?” he asked incredulously.
He was met by a slight nod and an unaffected stare.
Later, when he told his parents that Zaidy and Bobby couldn’t care less about the major terrorist attack, they sat him down and taught him some history. For the first time he heard about people who refuse to feel, why there are people who carve out a hole where their heart should be. And he realized that sometimes, feelings can be a luxury.
The next summer, his parents traveled to Eretz Yisrael for a wedding. He asked if he could stay at Efraim’s house, but Efraim’s mother had a litany of excuses as to why it wasn’t a good time now. He was left with no choice but to stay downstairs. He wasn’t happy about it, not at all, but when Totty promised him the personalized Parker pens the cool boys in his class used, he begrudgingly agreed.
On Monday, Mendy Katz had an irresistible offer. “Come to my house to see my gedolim collection, and I’ll let you choose anything from my metzios pile.”
By the time he painstakingly made his choice, darkness had descended like a navy blue blanket over the city. Baruch realized it must be late. He quickened his speed as car headlights illuminated the streets like the dizzying lights in Fun Station USA.
The door was slightly ajar, and when he opened it, Zaidy and Bobby came into view.
They were in their armchairs, hunched over, as if the worries of the world are weighing them down. He thought their backs looked like the arches his sisters keep in the wedding shtick closet. A sefer Tehillim sat open on Bobby’s lap, and the wire of phone trailing from the kitchen was coiled around Zaidy’s wrinkly fingers. Bubby caught sight of Baruch and sighed in relief. They stared at him, said nothing, but their eyes spoke volumes.
The next day in school he heard about the dozens of calls Zaidy and Bobby made to the secretary, rebbeim, principals, classmates, and janitor. His rebbi slapped him good-naturedly on his back. “You really have a caring Zaidy. Better make sure not to worry him again.”
Baruch thought about Zaidy and Bobby, about all the times it seemed like they didn’t care. Now he knew that they did.
Baruch shakes his head. How can he get Chani to understand this? Doesn’t she realize this has nothing to do with not loving her and everything to do with the fact that her father had lost his mother when he was all of ten? That he’s never learned the language of love?
His hands are trembling, but he’s going to make this call. He must.
His shver picks up after three rings.
“Hi, Baruch. What can I do for you?” His voice is crisp and business-like and Baruch can almost see the plush swivel chair he’s sitting on.
During sheva brachos, his shver had insisted they visit the office. As the proud CEO, he’d offered them a tour. Baruch can’t remember if his father-in-law’s pride had anything to do with the fresh newlyweds at all. Five Star Management occupied an entire opulent floor in State Square. The atmosphere was brisk, structured, methodical. There was no room for laziness.
And come to think of it, the walls of his sleek office were graced with myriad awards and certificates, but not one frame bordered the sweet faces of his kinderlach. Maybe Chani isn’t overreacting, after all.
He squared his shoulders. “So, shver. I have this idea.” He tries not to come across overly pompous. “What would the shver say if I buy a gift for Chani? Something personal, something that she really likes — actually, loves —”
“I don’t get involved in gift giving. I mean, do what you want. Do I ever tell you what to do with the money I give you? Feel free to use it however you wish.”
The lines he rehearsed before the phone call suddenly feel heavy. How should he say this? True, he greatly appreciates the space his shver gives him. But maybe Chani’s right; maybe some questions, some opinions, would be better.
“Chas v’shalom, shver! Chani and I are extremely grateful for everything. It’s just… I… I was wondering if I can present her with a gift as if it’s coming from the shver? Meaning, I’ll take off something from the stipend… and that will make the gift really be from the shver.”
Baruch isn’t sure he’s making any sense. He can’t help the rambling. But he also knows this shlepping around isn’t going to work. He knows his shver. Patience is definitely not one of his strong points. “Baruch, like I said, do as you please.”
So he basically has permission to present her with a personal gift. Now comes the very hard part. He braces himself, then plows on. “Shver, there’s one more thing—”
“Would… would a note be an option?”
“A note? For what?”
Why am even I doing this? He’s about to chicken out, mumble something and end the call. But no. There are things about his wife’s relationship with her father that she can’t see. If only he can fix it, he’ll be able to heal something deep within her. He knows his shver truly loves his daughter and there’s nothing more that he wants now than to help him express that love. “Like… a note to attach to the gift. Just a few words. It doesn’t have to be much at all. Maybe… maybe… a few words of how much you love her?”
“Baruch, please! Is everything okay?”
All he needs to save the day here and strengthen the bond between an indifferent father and suffering daughter is a personal note. The golden ticket. He turns his cuff around his wrist nervously and suddenly realizes how much he’s sweating. “Shver, it’s really, really important. I can’t stress it enough.”
“Um, Baruch,” his father-in-law’s voice is agitated, “I’m busy with a client here. Is it really that important? I need to go.”
Even more important that that, Baruch thinks.
“Thanks, shver. I’m sorry for bothering,” is what he says.
One glance at his watch tells him that he has five minutes if he wants to get to Chocolate Delight in time. He arrives when the glass doors are halfway obscured by the security shutters but is lucky to make eye contact with the owner. As if they’re conducting illegal activity, Baruch slips his credit card through the slats, and two-minutes later he is the proud bearer of the largest heart-shaped chocolate arrangement Chocolate Delight offers.
“I’ll call you back later. Just stepped in,” Chani tells her sister Faigy as she hangs her jacket on the hook.
Baruch’s loafers are not on the mat. She pokes her head into the kitchen to see if Baruch is home yet. “Anybody home?” I hope it’s not the landlord holding him up again.
Two aluminum foil pans are waiting for her in the oven on a timer. Chani peels off the lids to check if the contents are cooked through. Steam billows. Surprised, she steps back and that’s when she notices a big, brown package on the kitchen table.
Chocolate Delight’s business card is affixed to the platter and in neat scrawl — she doesn’t recognize it — her father’s name is signed. Love, Daddy.
She’s touched. She picks up the box, turns it upside down. It’s rather large and has a flap that reveals a brown one-inch border and a plastic opening. Through the window she sees at least a hundred truffles. Cocoa dusted truffles and mushroom-shaped pralines and the white rectangular ones that the melting rich filling oozes out oh, so slowly. She spots the gold foil pouches — her absolute favorite — and can already taste the smoothness. All of them authentic Belgian truffles. Exactly what she likes. The cardboard box feels surprisingly warm and fuzzy. Or is it what she’s feeling inside?
She might forego the sesame chicken and rice and eat chocolate for dinner, she’s unsure. One thing she knows for sure, though, is that she must call her father and thank him properly.
“Baruch. Baruch Mordechai Steinberg. I predict that we’ll now have our very first argument.”
He’s still standing at the doorpost when her rant begins. Letters in one hand (the landlord had caught him at the mailbox and kept him there for nearly a quarter of an hour), his scarf in the other, he stands and weighs the seriousness of Chani’s words.
It doesn’t take much to discern that she’s dead serious. Baruch walks in, closes the door behind him. Chani’s fingers are pressed firmly to the kitchen table, where the chocolate platter looks strangely out of place.
“Should I call a lawyer?” He tries to joke, but Chani is having nothing of it.
“What,” she points her chin at the brown box on the table, “is this all about?”
He’s quiet, still replaying the words that he’s been flipping over in his mind for hours and hours. He knows she’s going to have a hard time coming to terms with what he’s bursting to say. There’s a lot she doesn’t know about her father’s upbringing and about how he can’t help himself. He sees so much of his own family in his father-in-law.
Still, his parents raised him so differently. If not for their work on expressing feelings and teaching him why his grandparents behaved as they did, he probably would have been the same way.
She doesn’t know that her father never saw open affection, never experienced exposed emotion. She doesn’t know that passions and excitements and disappointments were all pushed down, down, down in a vacuum, then sealed tight to ensure that not a trace of emotion escaped. She also never heard the soundless screams of don’t feel, don’t feel, don’t feel bouncing off the walls.
He thought he would manage to fix the connection. Carefully stitch together two ends of a torn relationship. Based on his own family history, he wonders if he can actually explain to her where this is all coming from. Will she be willing to listen? She doesn’t even remember her grandparents.
She lifts the Windex bottle, pressing too hard on the nozzle. Liquid fireworks are released, sending droplets all around her. Grabbing a rag, she wipes at the tabletop furiously. “He had no clue what I was talking about! Can you imagine what a fool I was?”
His stammering is beyond his control. “I… I… had no choice. I can’t watch the relationship between you and your father like this. It’s too hard to watch….”
“I don’t get what your point is. You’re blinded by my father’s mother. I wonder how sold you’d be if you’d grown up with a robot of a father. Money is not love. And love can’t be bought with money!”
“Did we ever talk about my grandparents while we were dating?”
They hadn’t. Baruch thinks now is the perfect time. Will the words his parents used many years ago have the same impact on her now? He decides to share the whole story. “The love is there, Chani,” Baruch says from his position near the pantry. “It’s definitely there. Your father just has a hard time conveying it.”
He joins her at the kitchen table, pulls out a chair and sinks into the tan leather seat. He analyzes his reflection in the gleaming glass. Chani’s full face is visible too, and he thinks he sees it lightening.
Chani crosses her legs. Can she understand this version of love? She remembers her days in elementary school. She’d been a spirited kid, and her love for mischief had sometimes meant that she was blamed for pranks, even when she was entirely innocent. Once, she was suspended from school for vandalizing a vending machine.
“I didn’t do it,” she told her principal. She really hadn’t. But there was nobody to talk to; the school maintained that she did.
The principal insisted that she spend a few days out of school, but her father wouldn’t hear of it. “My Chani may be a lively girl, but a liar she’s not.”
He proceeded by taking Project Suspension into his own hands and dealing with it like one of his million-dollar business projects. “I will not allow my daughter’s reputation to be tarnished by untruths,” she overheard him talk to the principal. “I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
It reminded her of the money in the honey story, where a woman, after her honey jugs were returned to her, insisted that she hid her gold coins in them. To prove that she was right, the earthen jugs were shattered and indeed, glistening gold coins were discovered clinging to honey on the inner walls. And now, her father was so invested in verifying the truth. He was ready to do anything to prove her innocence.
Later, after being home for an entire day, she saw her father poring over a calendar.
He pointed to a square on the grid, inviting her mother to see. “They claim the vending machine was vandalized on this day.”
In her mother’s neat scrawl, Chaya Malky’s wedding filled that very square. Her father immediately picked up the phone to inform the principal that the night she’d supposedly sinned, she’d been at her first cousin’s wedding.
There’s only so much he’s capable of expressing. But maybe her father has really loved her all along.
He has his way with words, Baruch.
She was so adamant that she’s not attending the dinner; now she’s gripping the handle of her carry-on. They’re going a day later than the rest of the family because, yeah, sometimes work deadlines are a real excuse.
It’s a short plane ride. Like the nonstop construction noise near their apartment, Baruch’s words keep hammering in her head. Outside the window, Baruch is mesmerized by the varying aerial views, but she sees nothing.
The hall is packed. She ambles to the front row where her family members are already settled and squishes in between Faigy and Malky who ever so faithfully saved her a seat.
A respectful silence settles as her father makes his way to the podium. Tall, strong, confident Tatty. He straightens the microphone, brings it closer to his mouth and begins speaking about the great zechus he has to help such a special mosad. True to his belief of not boring an audience, he keeps the speech short.
“And finally, I’d like to thank my dear wife, Hindu, and my beloved children for attending tonight. Especially my oldest daughter, Chani, who expended special effort.” The action is slight, barely noticeable, but definitely there. He bends over the podium, and with eyes that seemed to have magically softened overnight, he looks into Chani’s eyes.
“Thank you, Chani. Thank you.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 765)
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