“Mommy’s fine. She’s turning ninety-two soon, she went through a lot in her life, she’s entitled to forget things every now and then”
"We’re done here, right? Can I speak to you for just a few minutes?”
Dr. Perlman raised his eyebrows at Malky.
“Ma, I just need to ask Dr. Perlman something personal, I hope that’s okay,” Malky said. “Can you wait for me in the waiting room?”
Mommy nodded. Malky watched her walk out of the examining room, her gait slow but her bearing elegant as always. She took a deep breath and sat back down.
“I’m worried about my mother,” she said.
“What’s worrying you?”
“She’s forgetting things. Getting confused easily.” Malky looked cautiously at Dr. Perlman. He held her gaze. “Like last week, I took her to a bar mitzvah, and she didn’t recognize Mrs. Greenwald. You know Lily Greenwald? My mother’s neighbor for the last fifty years?”
Dr. Perlman half-nodded.
“So she literally had no idea who she was. She asked me to introduce her twice. My mother!” Malky shook her head. “And that made me remember something else very strange. When I was in her house last week, I saw a notice that her water bill hadn’t been paid for four months already. You know my mother, she’s a details person. She never forgot to pay a bill in her life. Something’s wrong.”
Dr. Perlman leaned forward a bit. “How old is your mother, remind me?”
“She turned ninety-one in August.”
“Look, I just examined her, there are the usual blood pressure issues, but other than that, physically she seems to be fine.” He pulled out a notepad and traced a circle, then retraced it over and over again. “But what you’re describing… along with some small things I noticed too… I’m pretty sure there’s something there.”
“Something there? Is that how it works, you hear one or two stories and make a diagnosis?” Malky knew she sounded irritated.
“I’m not making a diagnosis,” Dr. Perlman said quietly. “You need a neurologist for that. And of course we should do some basic blood work, all that, just to rule out physical causes. The question is how much you want to investigate, how invasive you want to be at this point, how much of a difference a precise diagnosis would make. She’s not young, some cognitive decline is inevitable.”
Malky swallowed. “There’s nothing to do? You’re sure this is some sort of—” she didn’t want to say the d-word — “regression?”
“Look, we have to rule out the other possibilities first. I’ll give you the referrals, you’ll take her for some tests. But if this is some sort of dementia—” and it was clear that he thought it was — “then you have to start thinking about how to deal with it, because there’s nothing that will make it go away. You should get her an aide. You should think about the future.”
Malky was silent. She had sensed this, suspected it. Still.
“Think of it this way,” Dr. Perlman said. “Your mother’s always been a fighter. She’s not young, she had a long life, this is hitting relatively late. I wouldn’t use the word fortunate, this is never easy to watch, but she’s been functioning so well for so many years. Not everyone’s lucky to have such a mother. And your mother’s lucky to have you too, so attuned to what she needs.”
Lucky? Malky wondered if Ma would agree.
She collected the papers that the printer spat out and stuffed them into her battered pleather pocketbook. “Thank you,” she said. “I guess we’ll be in touch.”
Mommy was sitting stiffly in the waiting room in a cloud of Chanel #5. “There you are,” she said. She must have been wondering, must have guessed that something wasn’t quite right. But instead of voicing any insecurity, she buttoned up her jacket, straightened the collar majestically, and peered at Malky’s face. “So many times I tell you, Malky, why aren’t you wearing eyeliner? You know eyeliner makes all the difference for someone like you, with light eyelashes.”
“Hi, Berish, it’s Malky, how are you?” Malky was driving to her first appointment of the day: Zevy Markowitz, a four-year-old boy with a cochlear implant. Implant clients were her favorite — working with these kids, you could see real results, not improvement so much as transformation. Teaching them to communicate was like handing them the keys to a whole new world.
“Malky, how are you, what can I do for my little sister?” Berish sounded expansive, like a wealthy poretz offering alms to some needy moshke on the margins of his estate. He was probably reviewing the specs of a new luxury housing project. He wasn’t going to like what she had to say.
“I don’t need anything from you, Berish, but I do need to talk. It’s about Mommy.”
“What about Mommy? What’s going on?”
“So I don’t know if you noticed this, but lately I feel like Mommy’s not as alert as usual.” Malky spoke quickly. She figured it was best to just get it out.
“Alert? What do you mean? She’s tired? Maybe she’s anemic, when’s the last time we did blood work?”
“Her blood work is fine, Berish. We just had it done. That’s not the issue. It’s more of a… mental thing, know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t. Mommy seems great to me.”
“Well, I think she’s not as sharp as she used to be.” Malky forged ahead. “She’s forgetting things lately, she hasn’t paid her electric bill for months. And at the Fein bar mitzvah, she seemed… disoriented.” That was the word. “I spoke to Dr. Perlman, he’s concerned, he’s sending her for tests. I think we have to sit down and talk about some plans for moving forward. She really shouldn’t be alone. We need an aide, we need a plan, legal issues….”
“Malky, Malky, Malky.” Could Berish be any jollier? “You’re such a pessimist, you always were, you know that? Mommy’s fine. She’s turning ninety-two soon, she went through a lot in her life, she’s entitled to forget things every now and then. I forget things too, I mixed up the names of my eineklach the other day, and no one’s hiring an aide for me.”
“Berish, you’re not listening to me.” Malky slowed the car and started looking for a parking spot.
“And you’re not listening to me. I was just at Mommy two days ago, and you should have heard the concert we did, the two of us together. A whole lineup of chazzanus, you wouldn’t believe how sharp she is, she knows the best of them, better than me, even. She said the way I was singing, she felt like she was back in Pressburg with her father.”
Malky parked the car and pulled out the scratched leather briefcase with her notebooks and therapy paraphernalia. “Berish, this is serious. We need an aide, we need a plan.”
“You want to hire an aide, you and Shloimy can do it. I don’t think it will hurt, I’m not against the idea. A lot of women her age have full-time help. But,” his voice sharpened, “Mommy’s fine and she doesn’t need anyone making up stories about mental issues or anything. I have a meeting here in five minutes, I’ll speak to you later, okay?”
Malky hung up the phone and walked briskly to the preschool building where little Zevy was waiting for his session. She shouldn’t have been surprised. Back when Daddy had been sick, Berish would waltz into the hospital with chocolates for the nurses and exotic teas for Ma, smiling and chatting and never really facing the fact that his father was dying. Tall, handsome, self-assured, he just expected to glide through life with everything working out for him.
For the most part things did seem to work out for him. He’d found the perfect wife right away — Malky knew that Dina made Mommy so proud — brought up four beautiful, bright, and talented children, slid right into his shver’s real-estate business, and hosted functions and guests in his spacious and tasteful house in Flatbush. Not like Malky’s house, the comfortable, slightly rumpled home of a happy albeit very average family.
Berish had always been the charmed child, Malky the plain Jane. He had climbed right up the social and financial ladders while she had learned how to deal with struggle and disappointment, to wait for the blessings. She and Shloimy had davened for six long years before Mindy was born. Then there were Yechiel’s learning issues, those two rocky years when Shloimy was between jobs, Eli’s broken engagement… Things had never been as smooth for her as they were for Berish, Mommy’s golden boy with the beautiful voice and the shining mazel.
The golden boy who refused to see any cracks in his charmed reality.
Malky tapped on the door, then punched in the combination. “Hi, Ma, hi Diane, it’s me, Malky,” she called as she stepped in. “I wanted to make sure you’re settling in okay.”
Diane was sitting next to Mommy, she in jeans and a cable knit sweat, Mommy in a turban that matched her morning robe perfectly. They were watching some news analyst on TV. Diane had already rinsed the breakfast dishes, Malky noticed, and the washing machine was humming. That was a good sign. Mommy seemed relaxed, too. Malky had spent almost two months looking for an aide, and she really hoped Diane was the one. There were all kinds of shidduchim in life, she realized, not just the shidduchim she was busy pursuing for Shaindy — and the chemistry here was just as important.
“How are you feeling, Ma?” she asked. “How are you, Diane, it looks like you already got a lot done here.”
Diane smiled. “Your mother, she’s great,” she said. “She showed me around, explained about the kitchen — the kosher stuff, you know, what you told me about — and we got things in order together.”
“I told Diane that she has a royal name, like the princess,” Mommy said, “so I have big expectations from her. You know, Diane, I have something you might enjoy seeing. It’s from back when we had a store — my husband had a leather goods store. I helped him out there — fashion wasn’t his thing, I used to go through the catalogues and order the stock.”
“A store? You worked in a store?” Diane was confused.
“We owned the store, actually.” Mommy sounded grand. “It was on Eighteenth Avenue, just a few blocks from here, but back then that was the border of Boro Park. Not like today.”
“Ah,” Diane clearly wasn’t an expert on the boundaries of Boro Park, past or present.
“My parents had a store for handbags, wallets, fine leather gloves,” Malky explained. “My father was a real businessman, good with numbers and accounting. But style wasn’t his thing. So my mother kept on top of all the trends, all the styles, she ordered the merchandise and helped the customers.”
“I can see that,” Diane nodded. Her nod seemed to encompass the doilies, the graceful brass lamps on either side of the couch, the coordinating brocade curtains and upholstery.
“I’m guessing my mother wants to show you her handbag collection, she has a box with some of the nicest pieces the store carried over the years. Ma, you want me to take it down?”
“Yes, do me a favor, Malky, I think our Princess Diana here would enjoy seeing them.”
Malky took out the stepstool from behind the fridge and headed to the coat closet. She hoped Diane didn’t think Mommy was some secret millionaire instead of the wife of a hardworking Holocaust survivor. Daddy had lost so much during the war — a wife and twin daughters, all his siblings, a thriving textile business — she wondered how he had found the fortitude to start all over again. Then again, he’d always said that finding Mommy, the first cousin of his murdered wife, was a good sign. “We knew the families were tzugepast already,” he would say with a smile.
Even without the family connection, Mommy was surely a catch. With her good looks and flair for fashion, she’d posed as a non-Jew during the war, working in an upscale haberdashery along with her sister Judit, using her natural sense of style to keep herself valuable. The business she built with her husband, the house that she decorated on a shoestring budget, the way she turned herself out, they were all part of the same show — managing to look grander and more elegant than her bank account should have allowed.
Diane made all the right noises as Mommy showed her the handbags, and Mommy enjoyed the compliments. “Now show her the music,” Mommy commanded Malky.
Malky obeyed. “Here, Diane, let me show you my mother’s music collection,” she said. “My mother loves chazzanus — it’s a type of music, Jewish cantorial music, you hear it in the synagogue on special holidays. She has a big collection of records and tapes. You’ll probably be hearing a lot of it. You know how to work a tape recorder, right?”
“Here, these are recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt, he’s a famous cantor, and here’s Koussevitzky, my mother loves those. And here, these tapes are my brother Berish when he was younger. He’s very talented too, he used to record himself singing and my mother loves listening to the recordings. It makes her…” She swallowed. “It makes her very proud.”
She felt Diane studying her and knew what the aide was thinking: At least someone made her mother proud. With the lumpy figure, flat monotone sheitel, and outdated outfit, how much pride could Malky bring to a regal woman who matched her turban to her morning robe and who made sure to put on lipstick and earrings as soon as she woke up?
Her mother was probably wondering the same thing, wondering since she was born.
“Hello, this is Diane speaking, is Malky there?” The voice was hesitant, fearful.
“Hi, Diane, it’s me, Malky,” Malky whispered into the phone. Her supervisor had made it clear that they weren’t supposed to take calls during therapy sessions, but this was the third time Diane had called her in a span of ten minutes. “Is everything okay with my mother?”
A pause. Everything was apparently not okay.
“So your mom, she… well… she’s very upset.”
“Upset? About what?”
“I let myself into the house with the combination, like you told me to, and when she woke up, she started screaming, saying I came to rob her. She was screaming so bad I just had to leave.”
Malky sighed. “Just a second, Diane.” She turned to the little boy sitting in front of her. “Yanky, I need to talk on the phone for a minute, it’s important. Here, I want you to color this picture meanwhile.”
She walked to the corner of the room. “Are you still near the house?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m sitting on a bench outside that big gray house down the block, the one with the purple flowers,” Diane said.
“I’m so sorry about this, Diane. I’m at work now, I can’t come over, but I’m going to ask my brother to stop in. I hope you’re okay out there, it’s not raining, right?”
She quickly tapped out a text to Berish: Hi Berish, Mommy’s aide just called me, Ma is having some sort of confusion, I can’t leave work now, can you go help out please. The aide will be waiting outside Berkowitz’s house.
Then she sat down across from little Yanky. “What a beautiful picture you made,” she said. “Come, let’s take out the special blue straw again, and see if you can wrap your lips around it like we practiced last time.”
She kept her eye on the phone, waiting, praying, willing Berish to answer.
Okay I’m on my way, the screen read. Malky tried to focus on getting Yanky’s lips to make a firm seal around the straw.
An hour and a half later, she was finally finished with the morning’s clients. She called Berish as she hurried to the car.
“Hi, Berish, sorry I wasn’t able to run over, busy morning, thanks for pitching in, what’s happening, how’s Mommy?” The words came out in a rush.
“Mommy?” Berish’s voice sounded thin, weak. “She’s sleeping. She was… she was very tired, that’s all. She had that chasunah two nights ago, Weissblum’s einekel, and it got her off schedule, so she got a little confused, didn’t recognize Diane.” He didn’t sound very convincing. “It happens sometimes, right?”
“It happens that people think the sweet woman who helps them every day suddenly became a burglar?”
“Mommy’s fine,” Berish insisted, his voice wounded, like a little boy. “I made her a tea and took her to her room. You have to stop bringing her home so late from these chasunahs, she’s not young anymore, you know that, Malky?”
Malky swallowed. There was so much she had to share with Berish: The growing holes in Mommy’s memory over the last few months, the neurologist’s report, the paperwork for Diane, the advice she’d gotten from Mommy’s accountant about how to deal with the bills.
Mommy’s fine. She knew Berish didn’t really believe it.
“Okay, you’re right, I’ll try to get her home earlier next time,” she told him. “Shloimy and I will be more on top of things. Maybe I’ll ask Shaindy to start sleeping there at night, better she shouldn’t be alone. I’ll figure it out.”
She waited for him to protest, to insist he would help.
“Great, Malky,” was all he said.
“Mazel tov, Malky! Mazel tov, where’s the kallah, oh, there she is! Mazel tov, Shaindy!”
“Thank you, thank you so much,” Malky said yet again. Each time one of her children had gotten engaged, she had been emotional, but seeing her youngest standing next to her chassan with the flowers behind them and all those cameras in front of them tugged at her with an unfamiliar intensity.
“Let me go say mazel tov to your mother, she must be so excited, such a beautiful shidduch,” Debby Bergstein said. “I remember the Klugers from years ago in the bungalow colony, such nice people, Shaindy’s going to fit into their family perfectly. Where’s your mother? Oh, okay, I see her.”
Malky watched Debby weave her way through the crowd to where Mommy was standing next to the chassan’s grandmother. Mommy was wearing her black two-piece with the fur collar and cuffs. Her sheitel was set in soft waves and her gold evening bag mirrored the glint of her earrings. Her eyes were alert, her shoulders straight. This was a good day.
Malky stepped closer to listen in. “So you say your husband learned in the yeshivah in Nitra? Unbelievable, my Yidel learned there too. About the war he didn’t talk, but he talked about the yeshivah. I wonder if they were there together. His cousin from Pressburg, Menachem Landesman, was the one who convinced his parents to…. Yes, Landesman from Pressburg, they had a textile business — really? So that means we’re almost related! Malky, you hear?” Her face was alight. “You didn’t even realize what a good shidduch this was, Mrs. Kluger here is telling me that her husband was related to Landesman from Pressburg, the same Landesman who was Daddy’s cousin. Such a small world!”
“Such a small world!” the Kluger grandmother repeated in delight. “I’ll have to tell my Meir, he won’t believe it. Oh, for me? Thank you so much, that’s very sweet of you.”
Berish had brought her a cup of seltzer and now he pulled out a chair with a gallant flourish. “Here, mechuteneste, sit down,” he said, nodding at the table behind her. “My mother will sit down too, right, Ma?”
“Thank you, Berish,” Mommy said. “My son,” she explained to the Kluger grandmother as she sat down and crossed her ankles. “He lives here in Flatbush, he davens in that shul on Avenue L, a baal tefillah like my father was.”
The Kluger grandmother looked impressed. Mommy leaned toward her, the conversation flowing with ease.
Berish met Malky’s eyes. You see, Malky, everything’s fine, he told her without words.
Bang, bang, crash!
Malky opened her eyes and stared at the alarm clock. It was six-thirty in the morning. They’d finished the vort at 1 a.m. and everyone was sleeping except for Shloimy, who had a daf yomi shiur at six. What was the noise?
She grabbed a robe and ran downstairs to the kitchen, where the banging seemed to be coming from.
There stood Mommy, fully dressed and lipsticked. She was slamming the cabinet doors open, then closed. Malky watched as Mommy finally found what she had been looking for — a garbage bag — and began dumping boxes of leftover petit fours and cake inside.
“Ma, what are you doing?” she asked. “You said you were going to sleep over at our house because you were so tired after the vort. Why are you up already? You need your sleep!” And what are you doing with all the leftovers from the vort?
“Sleep! Sleep, she says, this daughter of mine, when the house if full of chometz and Pesach is starting tomorrow!” Mommy was blazing with indignation. “Give me another garbage bag, Malky, you have more boxes of chometz in the fridge. How are you so behind on the cleaning? What kind of person has so much chometz in the house a day before Pesach?”
Malky pulled her calendar off the bulletin board. “Look, Ma,” she said, pushing the calendar forward, “you made a mistake, you got a little confused. It’s not Erev Pesach yet, it’s the beginning of Kislev. We still have time to get rid of the chometz.”
“What are you saying! I know what today is, I know when Pesach is, you’ll never make it on time with all this cake. Give me another garbage bag!”
Malky stared at the frail woman in her twinset and marching scarf, surrounded by boxes and trays of cake and bristling with disapproval. She remembered something the neurologist had told her last month, when she’d reported that Mommy had started talking gibberish: “When they confuse the details and the circumstances, you need to focus on the emotions, the message. Under all that gibberish is emotion, and even if the details make no sense, the emotions are still real.”
What was Mommy’s underlying emotion, what was her message? It wasn’t really about Pesach. It was that Malky’s house was never clean enough.
All the years she’d known that her house wasn’t sparkling enough for Mommy. All the years she had made an effort to focus on the blessings she had, the people who filled it and the goals that gave it shape and purpose. But now, exhausted and spent from the weeks of tension leading up to Shaindy’s shidduch and the vort, she felt tears pricking her eyes.
“What’s going on?” Shloimy, back from shul, must have seen the light on in the kitchen. “Malky, Mommy, what’s happening here? Are we having another vort?”
“A vort the day before Pesach?” Mommy was shrill. “You’re almost as ridiculous as Malky. We have to get rid of the chometz, I don’t know for what she is waiting!”
“Ah, I see, Pesach, hmm.” Shloimy put down his tallis bag and his coat. “You’re right, absolutely. We do need to get rid of the chometz. You know what, Mommy, I have a friend who runs a chesed organization that collects food after simchahs, I’ll call him and he’ll come pick it up. In the meantime, why don’t I make you a coffee? Sit down, relax, you shouldn’t overdo it, you know? Here’s a Lord & Taylor catalog, why don’t you go through it.”
Mommy sat down, meek and agreeable. Malky stood there clutching her calendar, tears slithering down her cheeks.
“Malky, you go upstairs,” Shloimy said firmly. “Everything’s under control.”
“Go, it’s fine. It’s early, go back to bed.”
Malky put the calendar on the counter, trudged up the stairs and made her way to the laundry room. She pulled down the container of Oxygen and found the pile of Shloimy’s shirts. She spritzed the first collar, grabbed her laundry brush, and ran it back and forth over the fabric. You’ll never be clean enough, she thought. Even when Mommy’s mind is going, even when she has no idea what day or month it is, you will never be enough for her.
The brush in her hand was shaking.
“Shaindy, why don’t you show Chaim where to sit?” Malky urged. That first Shabbos when a chassan came was always so delicate, so awkward. Shaindy was more mature and relaxed than some of her other girls had been, but even she seemed nervous now.
It was good that Mindy and Yitzchak had agreed to come in from Lakewood with their kids. Malky figured that Chaim would feel more comfortable with a lot of nieces and nephews around. And less in focus, too. She watched Mindy negotiate the seating arrangements and kept an eye on the young couple. Shaindy had stopped pulling at her necklace, and Chaim was sitting next to her. They were murmuring quietly and smiling.
“Come, Ma.” Malky approached the couch, where Mommy had been reading a magazine. “We’re making Kiddush.”
Mommy stood up and took three steps toward the table. Then she stopped and took in the scene: Shloimy at the head, the new couple in the middle, Mindy and Yitzchak and their chevrah filling up the spaces around. So many faces.
“Who are all these children?” she asked in wonder.
“These children?” Malky echoed woodenly.
Mindy and Yitzchak got very quiet. Their three older ones pinned their gazes at Mommy. Mommy looked at them again, then at Malky.
“Aren’t you and Shloimy still davening for children? Every month I wait and I hope to hear good news from you. So many years I’m waiting. One day my Malky will give me nachas, I know. I hope.”
“Come, Mommy, let’s make kiddush,” Shloimy said with perfect calm. “The guests are waiting.”
Mommy nodded and found her seat. No one had to be shushed for kiddush.
As the children, subdued, crowded around the sink to wash, Malky decided to be honest with them. “You know that Babby has something called dementia,” she said. “It affects her memory and makes her confused. Sometimes she thinks that she’s back in the past, sometimes she mixes up the days of the week. But the doctor told me something important and I want you all to remember it. Even when Babby mixes up the details and gets confused, the emotions underneath are still real. If she says she’s hoping and davening for nachas, that’s the truth.”
In the corner of her eye, she saw Shaindy and Chaim listening attentively. Shaindy had seen, heard, and absorbed so much between the lines over these past few months. She was far more intuitive and insightful than most girls her age. But somehow Malky had never seen the need to give her this information, and now she was drinking it up.
“So even if she mixed up the facts and didn’t recognize you,” Malky said as the faces of her children and grandchildren blurred before her, “she’s Babby inside, her feelings are real, and that’s what we need to focus on. You’re her nachas, you are what she davened for.”
Malky tried to convince herself that her words were real, were true.
The dishes were drying, the little ones sleeping, the chassan and kallah had gone out for a walk. Mindy was asleep on the couch over a magazine and Yitzchak had taken the big boys to shul to learn. Malky decided to check on her mother.
Mommy was sleeping in the guestroom, her breathing slightly raspy but even. On the dresser just beneath the mirror, her sheitel rested neatly on a sheitel head, flanked by her sequined travel makeup bag and a bottle of Chanel #5.
A few weeks before Malky’s sixteenth birthday, Mommy had taken her on the train to Manhattan. “We need to buy you a signature scent,” she had said, inflecting the oh-so-American phrase with her immigrant accent. “You’re turning sixteen, you know?”
Malky had watched Mommy stride from the train station into Macy’s, her eyes glinting with purpose. They’d walked from counter to counter, spraying and sniffing. Mommy seemed so vibrant, almost like a movie star. Malky felt a dull headache building.
“Ma, this one here, the Faberge, it’s fine. Can’t we go already?” she’d needled.
“Go? You want we should go back to Boro Park already?” Mommy was miffed. “I wanted to take you upstairs to look at the coats, you should be wearing something nicer already, sixteen is almost a kallah meidel.”
“I don’t need a new coat, I don’t want one,” Malky had said.
Two dark pink spots had mottled Mommy’s cheeks. “I want you should look beautiful,” she said.
“Ma, I just want to go home,” Malky insisted.
Ma asked the rouged woman behind the counter to wrap up the Faberge perfume with tissue paper and a bow. She handed it to Malky without a word. “Thanks,” Malky muttered and together they’d descended to the subway in utter silence.
Why had Hashem given her a mother who was so different from her? A mother who kept trying to remold her awkward frame into something akin to those perfect plastic mannequins, like those people in Sedom who trimmed a bit here, then there, to make the outsiders fit in.
Why couldn’t Mommy accept her the way Daddy did, the way he welcomed her into the back of the store where she could read a book while drinking in the gentle smell of his pipe, his unconditional love, no style necessary?
Daddy didn’t know or care about fashion. Against Mommy’s moods, her flighty passions, he was a steady rock. Completely dependable, completely stolid. Like Malky. Maybe that’s why Mommy always seemed disappointed in her.
Now, as Malky listened to the soft sounds of Mommy breathing and replayed the way she hadn’t recognized her own grandchildren, she realized those disastrous shopping trips were her mother’s attempts to share the only things of value she knew.
These days parents knew about love languages and personality types, about finding the right medium to express the right emotion to the right child. Back then all Malky knew was that it was a colossal mismatch for such a glamorous mother to birth such an ugly duckling.
Malky looked at herself in the darkened mirror, the reflection of Mommy’s perfume glinting in the corner of her robe. She’d be hitting sixty in a few months. She didn’t have to be scared of her mother’s disapproval anymore. At this point Mommy was the fragile one. Malky had children, grandchildren, Shloimy. She’d soon be marrying off her youngest, surrounded by so many blessings.
It’s okay that I never turned into a swan, she thought. I can be proud that we built a family, that we have a happy home and such good, solid kids. I will never be enough for Mommy, but I can be enough for myself.
The wedding was just a month away, and every morning dawned along with a gnawing anxiety that accompanied Malky until she fell into bed. How had she pulled it all off with the other girls? Gowns, sheitels, linens, caterer, sheva brachos outfits… Maybe because with the other girls, she didn’t have to juggle appointments for Mommy, consultations with the accountant, discussions about a better long-term care solution — remodel the basement? — and paperwork for the Claims Conference’s special fund for aging survivors.
One morning, as she put together an impossibly long to-do list for the day, something snapped. She decided to call Berish.
“Hi, Malky, how’s my little sister doing?” he sang into the phone.
“Overwhelmed,” Malky said. She was tired of pretending. “There’s just so much to do. I’m busy with Mommy, I’m busy shopping with Shaindy, I’m trying to find places for everyone for Shabbos sheva brachos, I have to finish the reports for my speech clients….”
“I have the perfect idea!” His voice was bright, positive. Maybe he really was going to help her.
“This is what you need to do, Malky,” he said. “You need to take three days off from everything — work, shopping, all the stress — and get on a plane and go to Florida. Just you and Shloimy. Or you know what, maybe take Shaindy instead. Take three days to forget about all your stress and bond with the kallah.”
“To Florida?” This was so ludicrous, so disconnected from reality, she couldn’t believe he was serious.
“Right, exactly.” She could just picture him stirring a coffee, suave, confident, utterly blind to the fact that she was sinking. “I can hear it in your voice, this is exactly what you need. Take three days to forget about all the tension, forget about Mommy, Diane has it under control. And once we’re talking,” he said, oozing charm, she could almost see him winking, “let me know if you have some ideas for what you want me to sing under the chuppah. For your mezhinka, Malky, it’s going to be really special.”
“Okay, Berish, I’ll think about it.”
Her older brother was just a vain peacock who could only see his own feathers. She could be crying from fatigue, snapping from stress, but he wasn’t going to be able to play a role here.
“Hi, Ma, hi, Diane, how’s everyone doing?” Malky led Shaindy into Mommy’s house, balancing three bags of groceries and an umbrella. She headed for the kitchen, where Ma was sitting at the table, looking through a catalog with Diane. “Look, Ma, I brought Shaindy with me. We just picked up her sheitel, don’t you want to see how she looks?”
Mommy stared blankly at Shaindy.
Malky kept talking brightly. “I’m putting some fresh milk and juice in the fridge for you, Ma. And here, I brought cornflakes for you, I’m putting them in the pantry. Go ahead, Shaindy, put on the sheitel, there’s a brush in the bathroom, we all want to see it. Diane, here’s some more dish soap, I’m putting it under the sink. And I got some whole-wheat cra — oh, here she is, the kallah! What do you say, what do you think of the sheitel?”
Shaindy leaned shyly against the fridge, the newly cut sheitel tucked behind one ear and framing her cheekbones.
“What do you say, Ma? Nice?”
Mommy’s eyes were milky question marks.
“Ma, this is Shaindy.” Malky raised her voice, as if a few more decibels could pierce the fog clouding Mommy’s mind. “Shaindy, my baby, named after your grandmother. She’s getting married soon, she’s a kallah. Your youngest grandchild. Doesn’t she look beautiful?”
Something about the word “beautiful” must have done it. Mommy smiled absently and finally focused on Shaindy, standing uncertainly in her glossy sheitel.
“Ah, very nice, a kallah, so nice,” she said. “And such a good mother you are, schlepping her around, making sure she will be beautiful. Wait, a kallah? Where’s the gown, then? Why isn’t she wearing a gown?” She frowned. “And did you bring me clementines? You know I like clementines. You would think my only daughter would remember such a thing. Why didn’t you remember?”
Malky’s eyes suddenly turned wet. “I’m so sorry, Ma. I’m making a chasunah, there are so many errands I need to do, and Rochella had the flu and I was going there every night to help give her kids supper. I’ll try to get you some clementines. You know what, maybe Berish can do that, shouldn’t he do something too?”
“Berish!” Mommy’s face brightened. “Berish sings, what a voice, what a baal tefillah. You know, even when he was little, everyone used to tell me about that voice.”
Malky couldn’t hide her anger this time. “A lot it helps us here.”
Shaindy looked up sharply. She wasn’t used to seeing her mother angry, Malky realized. She knew Malky as dependable, solid, steady — the one everyone could rely on.
The ringing of the phone shattered the moment. “I’ll get it,” Shaindy offered, clearly relieved at the distraction.
She picked it up, murmured into it, then blushed. “Here, Mommy, it’s Berish,” she covered the handset and whispered to Malky, “He said he’s honored to speak to the princess herself… but really, Ma, I think you should speak to him. He’s not a bad person.”
Malky sighed. She took the phone and went into the living room. “Listen, Berish,” she said, “I just can’t do it anymore. It’s your mother, too, it’s time for you to take responsibility.” She was squeezing one of Mommy’s throw pillows hard — it would leave a mark on the brocade — but she was beyond the point of caring. “I’m making a chasunah, I have an insane amount of things to take care of. Can I ask you to take over just for two weeks and let me breathe a little? Two weeks, that’s all I need — the week before the wedding and then through sheva brachos. Can we rely on you to stop in here every day, make sure there’s food for Mommy and Diane, make sure she’s taking her medicine, go through the mail?”
“Sure, Malky, of course, for you, of course.” Smooth, sanguine, no problem, never any problem.
Berish the golden boy.
On Wednesday morning the week before the wedding, Malky’s phone rang.
“Hi, Malky, it’s Berish.” He seemed to be on speakerphone, a crowd of friends in the background. “I just want to remind you that you’re off duty. I’m taking over starting today. You just relax and focus on your simchah, I’m going to take care of Mommy. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Okay, Berish,” she said, picturing his friends all impressed at her tall brother, the altruistic son devoting two whole weeks to his mother. She forced herself to add “Thank you” and hung up.
Later that day, after she had picked up the new linens and dropped Shaindy off at work, she realized a few blocks too late that her car had almost driven itself to Mommy’s house. She grabbed the steering wheel and turned right, back toward Flatbush. Berish had promised.
The days went by and her lists were shrinking slowly. Every morning, while Berish was still probably at Shacharis or learning, she surreptitiously dialed Diane to check how things were going.
“Your brother, he comes every night, things are okay,” Diane kept repeating. “Your mom will be fine, you’ll see.”
Shaindy was the calmest, most focused kallah Malky had ever seen. Her other girls had been weepy or jittery during their Shabbos kallah. Shaindy was different. After the meal, she swept up as usual and helped Malky pack the leftovers into the fridge. She helped Rochella set up the little ones with games and toys and then urged Malky to lie down. By the time Malky woke up, the table had already been set for Shaindy’s friends and the women from the block who would be stopping in.
At three-thirty, the dining room was full of lighthearted chatter. Five of Shaindy’s old high school friends had stopped in — three with sheitels, two still waiting — and Rochella was talking animatedly with Naomi Shaer from shul. Miriam Rabinowitz and Chana Rivky Levi had just found seats at the table when suddenly, Mommy appeared.
She was wearing her pale blue nightgown with the lace trim. Tufts of hair poked out of her turban and her feet were bare. She looked around the room and then, with eyes snapping fire, pointed a shaking hand at Shaindy.
“Judit!” The voice was accusing. “What are you doing here?”
Judit, Malky knew, was the teenage sister who hid together with Ma during the war years. Together they had posed as non-Jews, working in the haberdashery, until three weeks before liberation, Judit had been walking on the street and disappeared. No one ever saw her again.
And now Ma was sure she was sitting at a Flatbush dining room table loaded with corn chips and rugalach and jelly beans.
“Where you were hiding all these years, Judit?” Her finger was juddering with fury. “You know you missed my einekel Shaindy’s vort, my nachas, how could you disappear like that and leave me all alone at the simchah? How could you?”
Even Rochella’s baby knew not to make a sound.
Then Shaindy stood up and hurried over to Babby, put her hand on the thin shoulder in its blue lace. “Oh, Babby, I know, it’s terrible, it’s so hard to be alone.” Her voice was warm, gentle, a caress. “But look, it’s a simchha, the whole family is here, you’re not going to be alone anymore. Everything’s going to be good.”
In the hush, Malky heard herself repeating the doctor’s words to her children. “Under all that gibberish is emotion, and even if the details make no sense, the emotions are still real.”
Shaindy was following Malky’s instructions, peeling away the mistaken details and focusing on the feelings of loneliness underneath. Malky wished she could do it, too, but watching her glamorous, glittery mother devolve into a doddering invalid, she felt like that forlorn baby bird in the book she used to read to her kids. “Are you my mother?” she felt like asking.
Instead she led Mommy away from the jelly beans and flowered napkins back to the guestroom. There was no buzz or murmur behind her, only quiet.
At 10 a.m. Sunday morning, just as they’d agreed, Berish rang the bell. He had come to bring Mommy home.
“Look what I brought you, Malky,” he said with a little bow. “For the mother of the kallah — a little treat to keep you going, I know the homestretch isn’t easy.” He handed her a bag.
Malky peeked inside. A tuna wrap and cappuccino.
Malky had hated tuna since she was a baby. Why didn’t Berish know this basic fact about his only sister?
He didn’t know, she realized, because he is Berish. Now he was going to sweep in, the knight in shining armor, and tend to Mommy with devotion. He scooped up her overnight bag and sheitel box, the gallant son, and headed to his car.
“Come, Mommy,” Malky said. “Berish is going to drive you home.”
Mommy’s eyes were blank again. She followed Malky to the car, but then stopped short and clung to Malky’s arm. Malky tried lowering her into the seat, but she just held tighter.
“Nu, Malky, what’s happening?” Berish was annoyed.
Malky looked at her older brother, the muscle jumping in his neck, the visible crack in his self-assurance. She should have felt triumphant. After all these years, Mommy was choosing her. But it was a hollow victory. How much value does a senile woman’s preference have anyway?
“Sing her something, some chazzanus,” Malky told him.
Berish launched into Yossele Rosenblatt’s “Ki Heim Chayeinu.” His sweet voice filled the car, rising and dipping with unabashed earnestness, and Mommy relaxed her grip on Malky. Gently, encountering no resistance, Malky eased her into the seat.
The next two days were a blur of last-minute errands and phone calls, punctuated by a steady flow of texts, photos, and voice notes from Berish — reminders of how much he was doing to make things easier for Malky.
“After the wedding and sheva brachos, I’m going to make it up to him,” she found herself telling Shloimy as they ate a hurried supper way too late on Tuesday night, surrounded by piles of seating cards.
“I hear you,” Shloimy said. “Are we okay with the seating? I want to run to Maariv.”
“I think we’re okay, I’m going to go through it one last time and then update the caterer,” Malky said. With Shloimy out of the house, she pulled out her phone again, some invisible force compelling her to scroll through all the texts Berish had sent. Mommy doing great, no worries, enjoy your day, Dina and me bringing supper…
Suddenly she was angry. Why had she told Shloimy that she was going to make it up to Berish? He was Mommy’s son too. Why did he have to pretend to be so magnanimous when he was doing just a fraction of what she usually did?
With tremendous effort, she steered her focus back to the seating cards.
On Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m., the phone rang.
“Hi, Malky.” It was Diane. “So sorry to bother you. It’s your mom. She’s very upset, she’s not herself. She’s yelling, something about not going to the wedding.”
Not going to the wedding? Malky shivered. Please, please, please, not today, please.
“What’s the problem? What’s wrong?” She kept her voice calm.
“Here, listen,” Diane said helplessly. She turned on the speakerphone.
“You hear? Again and again it happens.” Mommy’s voice was shrill. “About themselves they always remember. About me they forget. To my granddaughter’s wedding I can go without a menikur?”
Oy, it’s true, Malky realized as her stomach sank. Mommy needs a manicure, this is her granddaughter’s wedding. She’s lucid today and she cares, it’s important.
She quickly called Berish. No answer.
She texted him, her fingers tapping out the message clumsily: Hi Berish, we forgot something important, can you or Dina take mommy for a manicure asap? Claudia on 49th st always does her, she’ll fit her in whenever good for you.
Malky paced aimlessly through the kitchen, then the dining room, then back to the kitchen. Finally Berish texted her back: So sorry, big meeting this morning, she’ll probably forget about it by tonight.
Malky threw the phone at the couch. It landed among the pillows and lay there lopsided. She had Adina Ross coming to the house at ten-thirty to do the kallah’s hair. How could she abandon her daughter?
But then there was Mommy. Mommy who always looked so regal at every simchah, who had a perfect matching evening bag clutched in manicured hands in every photo. She thought about Mommy criticizing her lack of eyeliner and her oxidizing sheitels and her out-of-style shoes. Mommy clutching her arm and refusing to sit down in Berish’s car. Mommy parading through Macy’s in search of a signature scent for her awkward teenaged daughter. She thought of that precious compliment Mommy dropped just a few weeks ago, when she had been running around town with Shaindy for hours on barely any sleep: “Such a good mother you are, schlepping her around, making sure she will be beautiful.”
And she thought of Mommy’s plaintive voice, her dearest wish, so many decades ago. I want you should be beautiful.
Mommy had no mother. Already at age 14, when she went into hiding, she had no mother. When she was a kallah she figured everything out alone — she didn’t have a mother finding her a wedding gown or sending her into marriage with a kiss, a hug, a prayer.
“Shaindy, I have an errand I need to take care of,” she told her kallah, the girl who knew how to focus on the feelings behind the confusion.
Shaindy was bent over her siddur, outlined by the pale morning light. She’d be davening for at least another forty minutes, Malky knew, and then she would get started on Tehillim.
Malky grabbed her car keys. She would make sure that Claudia took Mommy right away, and she’d be home by the time the hairstylist came, so she could watch Shaindy transform into a queen and assure her she looked perfect. One day she’d tell her more, explain it better, but she had a feeling Shaindy understood.
“I’m coming, Mommy,” she said into the phone. “You’re going to look beautiful tonight.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 806)
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