Murky Waters| August 16, 2022
They promised me their pool, then left me high and dry
Hadassah: I was happy to help, until it became too much.
Shira: We were counting on your pool. how can you back out now?
There’s nothing like having your own pool, come summer.
When we bought a home, after years of careful saving, I was excited about the pool in the backyard of course, but I was happily surprised at how much we actually enjoyed it. We moved in right before summer vacation began, and the kids took to the pool, excuse the pun, like fish to water. They were up at the crack of dawn, begging to go the pool, and right after day camp, there they were again. My older ones enjoyed lounging by the pool in the warm evenings, enjoying the feeling of being on vacation in their own backyard.
Of course, the excitement settled down a bit after the first couple of weeks. My kids still loved to use the pool, but it was less often. When I countered the inevitable, “I’m boooored, what should I dooooo,” by suggesting the pool, and the kids turned up their noses, I knew the honeymoon was over.
I took it in stride; I hadn’t really thought it would stay new and exciting forever. But I figured someone should enjoy it. So I invited my sister Goldy and her family over to use the pool one afternoon.
“It may as well go to good use,” I told her.
Goldy eagerly accepted my invitation; she had several little kids close in age, who loved swimming. My younger ones joined their cousins in the pool — having company over gave it new appeal, apparently — and I enjoyed schmoozing with my sister while we supervised the kids splashing and playing.
My cousin Brachie called a few days later. “Goldy was telling me that she had a fabulous time at your place the other day,” she said. “I was thinking, you can totally say no, but would we be able to come over one day and use the pool? My kids love swimming, and it would be such a fun activity for them…”
“Sure!” I told Brachie. “Seriously, it’s just sitting here so much of the time — use it, with pleasure.”
When I saw how easy it was to give others a good time — and with so little effort from my end, just making sure the backyard was clean and keeping the shades drawn on the windows that faced the back of the house — I began offering our pool to other family members and close friends, as well. Everyone was appreciative, most took us up on the offer once or twice, and I was happy to see our pool come to good use and have the opportunity to do so much chesed. Of course, I couldn’t always accommodate everyone — we used the pool ourselves fairly often, or sometimes one of the kids wanted to bring friends over to chill out in the backyard — but I was happy to share the pool whenever I could.
The summer drew to a close, and eventually we had the pool emptied as the weather grew colder.
“Looking forward to next summer,” Goldy told me with a laugh. “We saw each other so much more often because of your pool.”
he next year, we opened the pool as soon as the weather began warming up again. Why wait?
The next day, I took a quick early-morning swim before getting the kids up for school. It left me feeling invigorated, and I headed out to the bus stop with a bounce in my step.
“You look good,” my neighbor Shira Bernstein observed, when we met outside to wait for the school bus. Shira herself looked exhausted; she was wearing a snood and a long skirt with the remains of some kid’s breakfast smeared on the front. “Don’t look at me, I’m literally ready for bed,” she said, with a groan.
I felt bad. Shira worked so hard; she had little kids and a full-time job and not much money. I certainly wasn’t going to mention my relaxing morning in the pool.
“What are your summer plans?” I asked instead. “Going away at all?” I knew the Bernsteins usually went upstate for a few weeks; maybe to her parents’ bungalow or something.
Shira heaved a huge sigh. “It’s kind of a sore point,” she said. “My parents sold the bungalow, so we can’t go join them like we usually do. We’re planning to stay home, I have work, and I honestly have no idea what I’ll do with the kids. Day camp is just so expensive…” Her voice trailed off.
No bungalow, no day camp, and full-time work? No wonder she looked stressed out.
“Well, you’re welcome to come over and use our pool if it helps,” I said. “We love to lend it out when we’re not using it. And it’s usually free during the day, because my kids have camp and stuff.”
Shira’s face lit up. “Oh, wow, really? My kids will love that. It’s free every morning, you said?”
“Most of the time,” I said. “I mean, text me beforehand, but…”
The school bus pulled up, beeped once. Why does it beep when we’re standing right here? I shrugged and gave Shuey a quick hug. He wriggled out of my arms and dashed up the steps, followed by two of the Bernstein boys.
“Hadassah, you’re a lifesaver, I’m so happy we spoke,” Shira told me.
I thought that was a bit much for an offer to come use our pool every so often, but I guess with no summer plans at all, anything was exciting.
“Our pleasure,” I told her.
And it really was — at first.
hira texted me right when vacation began, asking if her kids could spend the morning in the pool. For the first week or so, I checked with my kids, and if no one wanted to use it in the morning, I let her know that it would be fine. Some days, we knew we’d be out all morning, other days the kids had friends coming over and I told her it wouldn’t work out. When I texted her that it was free, the Bernsteins would show up within about 15 minutes, stay a few hours, and then they’d leave again. They kept the pool area tidy, I kept the window shades down, and from Shira’s enthusiastic text messages, I knew they were having a great time in the pool that wouldn’t have been in use otherwise. Win-win.
On Friday, Shira came over with a cake. “Nothing fancy, just brownies,” she said, a little apologetically. “I just wanted to thank you. My kids love swimming, and it’s been a real help.”
“Are you serious? It was nothing,” I said.
I meant it. It really didn’t feel like much, an easy way to do chesed for a family in need.
Once day camp started, the pool was pretty much free every morning, and I told Shira as much. “Just let yourselves in through the side gate if you want to come over.”
“That’s amazing. We’re going to take you up on it,” she said.
“Great,” I said.
I meant it. I figured they’d come two or three times a week, and I was happy I could help.
I guess I shouldn’t have made assumptions.
urns out our pool was the Bernsteins’ fixed morning activity: all morning, every morning. And as the days went on, this started to bother me.
It wasn’t really a big deal. Or it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t like anyone was using the pool then. But then there was the day that I had some unexpected free time and would’ve enjoyed a quick swim — but the Bernsteins had just arrived for their morning fun. Or the day that my sister from out of town was in the area and wanted to stop by with her kids. They would’ve loved to go swimming while we schmoozed, but this was last-minute, and I didn’t have the heart to ask the Bernsteins to leave when they were already in the pool.
Every so often, one of the friends or relatives who’d come over once or twice the previous summer would ask about using our pool. I found myself trying to schedule everyone in without cutting into the morning hours — although really, why should the Bernsteins come every day when others also wanted to enjoy it? But on the other hand, no one seemed to need it as badly, or want to schedule enough in advance that I felt okay about canceling what Shira Bernstein had obviously come to take for granted.
Occasionally, one of my kids would be home for the day, and I had to make sure they weren’t in the backyard during Bernstein hours. I also had to make sure to keep the shades down in the back of the house — again, nothing major, no big deal, but psychologically it felt like a burden. I was slowly starting to feel like my home was being invaded.
think the pool needs cleaning again,” my husband Avi said one evening, after taking our boys for a quick swim. “Are we using it that often? I just had it cleaned, what, a week ago?”
I shrugged. “Well, it is being used every day…”
“Every day?” Avi’s eyebrows rose. “Wow, doing a lot of hosting, I guess?”
“Not exactly. I mean, yes, but it’s the same people every time.” I explained to him what was going on with the Bernsteins.
“So, they come every morning? For three hours?”
I nodded. “I mean, I did say it was available every morning,” I said. “But I tell everyone that the pool is available most days, and they understand that means to choose a couple of days and times… not that they can come every single time it’s free.”
“I guess they took you at your word,” Avi said, shrugging. “So, we’ll just look at it as extra chesed. I’ll get the cleaning done.”
My husband made it sound so simple, but I was starting to feel very resentful toward Shira Bernstein and her oblivious kids.
hen there was the issue with the heating.
Heating a pool costs money. A lot of money. And while someone without a pool of their own might not realize that, I definitely did.
We didn’t usually heat the water, maybe as an occasional treat. But then Shira Bernstein texted me that her youngest found the water too cold, was there anything we could do? I replied that we don’t usually heat the pool, but I’d do it the next morning. My kids would use the pool later that day, I figured, and everyone would enjoy it.
That night, I made sure to switch on the heating before going to sleep — heating a pool takes time. The Bernsteins were happy and my kids enjoyed it.
Except that now Shira wanted to know if we could turn the heating on every day.
Makes such a difference! My little one really enjoyed it.
I wasn’t sure what to say. To start harping on about expenses and some-days-yes-some-days-no felt so… petty.
I’m not a petty person. I asked Avi, and he thought we should just do it. “We’re doing it, let’s do it all the way,” was his attitude.
Either he was a tzaddik, or it was easier for him because he wasn’t the one home every day, but personally, I was starting to get frustrated. My oldest son, who was working as a day camp counselor, but had the occasional day off, made some comment about the Bernsteins always using the pool in the mornings — and the other kids were starting to nag about it as well, even though they were almost never home at that time.
“It’s not the point, Ma,” my daughter Chevy said. “It’s just, like, it’s our pool. It feels weird that they come and go whenever they want. More than we do, even!”
“We’re doing a chesed,” I reminded her, but it was hard not to tell her that I agreed.
It was our home, our backyard, our pool. To have someone coming that regularly, as if it was a right rather than a favor, felt… off, somehow.
ou need to set boundaries,” my sister Goldy lectured me, when I vented to her about the situation.
Boundaries? But what? And how?
“Give them a maximum number of days they can come each week. Or how long they can stay. Or that they should check in every time, and some days you might just say no, they can’t just expect the morning to be free for them…”
I bit my lip. It would be hard to suddenly come with all these rules after being so easy going for the past few weeks. But the alternative was feeling more and more resentful with each passing day.
Finally, I sent Shira a text message asking them to come only three times a week, and leave by 11:30 a.m. When she asked which days worked best, I texted back: mon, tues, thurs — kind of at random, but also figuring that Sunday was the day I was most likely to want it, and Wednesday would give us a breather in the middle of the week.
Three times a week was still pretty generous, I thought. But somehow, I sensed that Shira was upset because of it.
The next Wednesday morning, the backyard was quiet, and I went outside to daven on the patio. Truthfully, I rarely davened outside, but I kind of felt like I had to use the backyard to legitimize my request.
From next door, I heard the Bernsteins, out in their own backyard — which was a lot smaller than ours.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the pool now. It’s totally quiet out there. Why can’t we go?” whined one of the girls.
“It’s not fair! You promised us we could go swimming every day!” complained another. I recognized his voice — it was Yanky, Shira’s eight-year-old. He had some behavioral stuff going on; I knew she struggled to handle his meltdowns. Ouch, I hoped he wasn’t causing more trouble because of the new boundaries I’d set.
Still, had I really had a choice?
“I feel so petty,” I told Goldy, later that day. “I hate setting boundaries and stuff. Maybe I should’ve just let it go.”
But deep down, I knew that I couldn’t have. It had gone on for long enough.
he Bernsteins came on Thursday, and I heated the pool for them Wednesday night, feeling uncharacteristically positive. It was so much easier to do this when I didn’t feel totally used, when it wasn’t like our generosity was being taken advantage of. The kids came and went, we had the pool cleaned (again), and Friday through Sunday the pool was ours again. I was happy to be able to say yes when my cousin wanted to come over Sunday morning to swim, and it further reinforced the feeling that I’d done the right thing.
On Monday, I closed the shades at the back of the house and checked that the pool area was clean for the Bernsteins. Halfway through the morning, though, I realized it was pretty quiet.
Had they decided not to come in the end?
I peeked outside — the backyard was totally empty.
Funny, they’d seemed so desperate to use the pool…
“You had something this morning?” I asked Shira Bernstein, when I bumped into her later that day.
She avoided my eyes. “Kind of. We probably won’t need to come anymore.”
“Um, sure, okay,” I stammered. That was a change of heart.
A couple of weeks later, my friend Sarah mentioned that she had gotten to know some neighbors of mine. “The Bernsteins? They live next door you, right? They come to use my pool every morning. Sweet kids.”
So that’s why they hadn’t been coming over anymore. They’d found another pool to use.
I was itching to ask Sarah how she found it, if she minded the daily invasion of her home, the lack of privacy. Was she just a better person than I? Or maybe she’d set some boundaries to begin with? Could they even be paying her to use the pool?
I didn’t ask. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answers.
But I was disturbed. My relationship with Shira had turned so cold and distant, when all I’d done was overextend myself as far as I possibly could.
I’d done all I could to get things right, but apparently, it wasn’t enough.
If I could tell Shira one thing, it would be: I tried so hard to help you out, but felt taken advantage of.
I’m one of the people who dread summer. Honestly, I don’t know how people afford it. I’m not even talking about the exorbitant costs of sleepaway camp — day camp is a fortune too. But the alternative, let me tell you, is no picnic either.
The kids are off from school with nothing to do, and I work full-time. My boss is very good about letting me work from home, but I need to be able to get something done. Which means that the kids need to be entertained. But activities and projects, and even just outings to the ice cream store cost money.
When Hadassah, my neighbor next door, mentioned that her pool was usually free during the day, I jumped at the opportunity. She had no idea what a difference it would make for me to have a steady, free morning activity for my kids. It would be so fun for the kids to start the day that way; they all loved the pool, and it would give them some structure. And the best part? The Weisses wouldn’t even notice — none of them, aside from Hadassah herself, were even home in the mornings.
(Okay, I’ll admit that I felt a twinge of jealousy thinking of that. Imagine, they have a pool of their own, plus every kid in day camp… and Hadassah only works part-time from home making personalized petit fours…)
My oldest daughter, Chaya, was excited to hear about the pool. She was a real trooper, planning a whole Bernstein Family Day Camp with a rotation of activities for the endless vacation days, and this would make everything so much easier for her.
“It makes it almost like a real camp!” she told me excitedly. “And we can do calisthenics and races and stuff in the pool, it’s so much fun. And then everyone will be ready for something quieter in the afternoon, crafts or games, or whatever…”
“Sounds great,” I told her warmly.
Chaya really worked hard in the summer; I wished we could treat her to something bigger than a new book or an ice cream at the end of a long, hard week. She was planning on joining an evening program with a couple of friends, going on trips, but she’d be paying from her own money. Maybe I should speak to Gavriel about paying some of the costs — she definitely deserved it. But with what money? We were stretched so tight in every direction. I tensed up whenever we got a bank statement.
ummer began, and I texted Hadassah to check with her whether the pool was, indeed, available in the mornings. She told me that until day camps began, we’d have to check every day, but after that, there was no reason anyone should be there in the mornings. I went along with the kids the first couple of times to supervise, but everything looked good — the pool area could be accessed by the side gate, we didn’t have to disturb the Weisses at all, and Chaya, who had taken a lifeguarding course earlier that year, was totally capable of watching the others, with my next two girls, Dina and Sarala, to help her out.
A week or two into vacation, I finally let myself breathe a little easier. The Bernstein Family Day Camp was in full swing, and I found that I was able to work a nice chunk of the day, so I wasn’t up half the night finishing up. The kids happily ran over to the pool every morning, Chaya was doing a great job keeping them safe and happy, and even Yanky, whose behavior can be challenging, was in his element in the water. I was more relaxed in the afternoons knowing I had gotten something done, and managed to carve out time in the afternoons to spend with the kids instead of leaving it all for Chaya. We even took a family trip to the park one day, bringing along a disposable barbecue for supper — a winning trip.
Thursday evening, between a mad dash to complete my work hours and throw together Shabbos, I managed to make a quick batch of brownies to send over to the Weisses just to say thank you.
“You’re so sweet, Shira, but really, it was nothing,” Hadassah told me. “The pool is literally just sitting there. I’m so happy you’re using it.”
nce Gavriel’s kollel finished for bein hazmanim, things were even easier. Now he was around, he was available to give Chaya a hand, or take the kids on a trip while I worked.
Then he received an unexpected job offer.
“You know my friend Moshe Klein?” he asked me one evening. “He works all week as a mashgiach on that farm way out in who-knows-where? So, he’s taking a couple of weeks off to go away with his family, and the replacement mashgiach can’t make it at the last minute.”
“They asked you to take the job?” I perked up.
Gavriel took occasional jobs with a kashrus agency, but he wasn’t looking to take on official hours of work, so he was more of an emergency backup. And it wasn’t often that they offered him something that worked perfectly with his kollel schedule.
The extra income always came in handy, though. And right now was the perfect time.
“You sure you’ll manage with the kids and work and everything? I mean, this is really full-time, I’ll be away Sunday to Friday, for two weeks straight.” Gavriel shook his head. “I was sure you wouldn’t be okay with it, to be honest. Summer vacation is the hardest time of year for you, with all the kids home and you working and everything.”
“I know, but baruch Hashem, it’s really been working out this year,” I said. “The pool next door is a lifesaver. I don’t think she realizes what a huge help it’s been. And to think it usually just sits there with no one using it, can you imagine?” I shook my head. “I mean, if we had a pool…”
“We’d probably get used to it, just like they have,” Gavriel said. “That’s human nature.”
I couldn’t imagine getting so used to such a luxury that we wouldn’t take full advantage of it, but whatever.
In the meantime, Gavriel closed on the job offer. I decided to focus on the pay check he’d be bringing home instead of worrying how I’d manage without him, and how the Bernstein Family Day Camp would continue running smoothly.
It was all going to be fine, I reassured myself. And goodness knows we could do with the extra money.
hen Hadassah’s text message came, it was totally out of the blue.
I’d sent my kids over as usual that morning, the day after Gavriel committed to the job. They’d come home tired and happy, and I’d even gone over to retrieve the towel one of the kids had left, and checked that everything was clean and tidy. I was happy to see they really did take care of the Weisses’ property — there was no garbage on the floor and other than the lone towel, you couldn’t tell that anyone had been there.
So, when Hadassah’s message came through, I was really surprised.
Hi, I’ve been thinking about it, and I was thinking it works better for us if your fam would come maybe 3x a week, until around 11:30 a.m.
Three times a week? And what was this deadline of 11:30? What happened to “no one’s using it, it’s just sitting there, it’s our pleasure”?
I was confused. Had one of the kids done something? Had anything changed?
Are there specific days that aren’t working well? I asked. When she didn’t reply right away, I decided to try to get things straight: which days would work for us to come?
Mon, Tues, Thurs, she replied.
O-kay. Maybe something had come up, she or her family wanted to have the pool available the other days? But why let me know so abruptly, and so coldly?
“I don’t think we bothered them at all,” Chaya told me, when I casually asked her if anything had gone awry recently with the Weisses. “I never even see any of them. It’s always totally quiet there.”
I tried to think how I could be dan l’kaf zechus. “Maybe they do want to use it some mornings? Things have changed?”
“Whatever, we’ll just have to figure out something else to do with the kids on the days they want the pool,” Chaya said.
She didn’t look happy. She’d been getting tired of running the camp; it was hard to think of enough activities to fill the time and keep all the kids entertained. And now that Gavriel would be going away, full day trips were out… unless I took time off work, which wouldn’t be simple.
“Right, we’ll figure it out,” I told Chaya, trying to sound positive. “It’ll be fine.”
ut it wasn’t.
It wasn’t at all.
Gavriel left late Motzaei Shabbos, balancing two dozen foil containers of frozen meals and homemade goodies. The house was flying, the kids out of routine, and Sunday wasn’t a pool day anymore, so it would be a looong day.
I’d kept saying the pool was a game-changer, but I hadn’t realized just how big a difference it really made. It wasn’t just a time filler, but the tone it set for the whole day. The kids got so much energy out, and it was so good for Yanky. Yanky was always my challenging one, needing a lot of sensory stimulation and prone to meltdowns when he didn’t get what he wanted. He loved the pool — it calmed him and made him so happy — and he didn’t take to the new schedule well at all.
“But you promised we could swim every daaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyy!” he wailed, when I broke the news.
“It’s not our pool, sweetie, it’s the Weisses’, and sometimes they need it,” I tried to reason with him.
He ran outside to the backyard and peered through a crack in the bushes. “There’s no one even there!” he yelled.
“Ssssh!” I was mortified, but then I realized he was right. Their backyard was silent and still, there couldn’t possibly be anyone using the pool.
“Why can’t we go? There’s no one even there! The side gate is open, we can just go in, they can’t stop us!”
“We can’t do that because it’s not ours,” I said, even though I knew it would be useless.
“No fair!” Yanky kicked at the screen door. “It’s not fair! You said we could swim, and they’re not even using it!”
His voice rose with each word, and I tensed up. I really couldn’t deal with a tantrum now, I was supposed to be working this morning, making up for the hours I’d missed last week — it was hard getting everything in with the kids home all day! — and I’d promised Chaya we could splurge and take the family bowling in the afternoon.
If only I could just send them next door to the pool. The Weisses weren’t even outside!
hen the scene repeated itself on Wednesday, despite my best efforts to prepare the kids the night before, I was at my wits’ end.
“It’s not about them saying that certain days don’t work; of course they have a right to do that,” I told Gavriel, when we finally had time to speak, sometime past 11 p.m. “It’s that she told me it would be available every day. And the kids were relying on it. And so was I. I mean, if not for the pool, I don’t know if you would’ve accepted this job in the first place! And now, I’m stuck with no pool for half the week, and cranky, whiny kids who want to go swimming every day, and Yanky throws a royal tantrum every time they can’t go to the pool, plus you’re not even here! I’ve already taken off far too many hours from work, Mr. Spitz is really upset, and I just don’t know what to do about it. Chaya works so hard, but she’s frustrated too, she’s been watching the kids for weeks, and they’re all getting a little sick and tired of doing activities at home.”
“That sounds tough,” Gavriel agreed. His voice came through garbled; the service was terrible there. So now I couldn’t even talk to him. This was getting better and better.
“I just don’t understand why it’s suddenly a problem for us to come. What do they lose? They’re barely using it.”
“I dunno, does it cost them money?”
“For a pool that’s sitting empty? Why should it?” And besides, the Weisses don’t seem to worry too much about money, I thought sardonically.
And speaking of money…
“I really need to go. I promised Mr. Spitz I’d finish that client’s project tonight. I can’t believe how late it is, and it’s going to take at least an hour to do this.”
course, the job took longer than expected, and of course, I ended up working till 2 a.m. the next night, too. It was inevitable. The kids needed so much attention, Chaya’s energy was flagging, Yanky was acting up more than he had the entire summer, and I was so behind in work.
“We need a pool,” I told my friend Esti. “We just need a pool. It was working so well until now, and now everything’s falling apart.”
“Plenty of people have pools, it shouldn’t be hard to find,” she said.
I was just exhausted. “Find me one, and I’ll be forever indebted,” I told her wearily.
She called me back the next morning. “Bingo. I have your pool.”
I’d been blearily trying to make some calm out of the chaos in the kitchen, but at that, my eyes flew open and I jerked fully upright. “What, what, what?”
“Yup. My cousin’s neighbor. She has a nice big pool, it’s available every morning…”
“No. Way.” I wanted to cry.
“…but they rent it, it’s not for free. Nothing too crazy, just a small fee to cover costs. You know, cleaning, heating…”
“Oh.” I slumped back against the counter again. “How much?”
Esti named the price. It wasn’t terribly high, but money was money. And yet, if we were renting a pool, actually paying for it, we wouldn’t run into the issue we’d had with the Weisses. In theory, we could still go next door three times a week and only rent the pool on the other days, but what if Hadassah changed her mind again?
I didn’t feel like I could rely on them anymore. Not after their whole “come whenever you want, it’s just sitting there, we’re so happy it’s going to good use” shpiel — and then the sudden about-face midsummer, just when I needed it most.
“Just do it,” Gavriel said, when I asked him. “You need the hours to work, and the kids need something to keep them busy and happy. It’s not that much money, and there’s not that many more weeks left.”
o I paid, and we did it. The kids were delighted with the new pool — it was bigger and nicer than the Weisses’ — and the owners had a lot of pool toys and stuff that they allowed us to use, included in the price. Spending the money was hard, but I was happy in a way. Now I didn’t just feel like the recipient of some begrudging favor, like I’d come to feel with the Weisses; I was a paying customer and could hold my head high.
Once the kids were back in a routine, I was able to breathe easier — and make up the hours I’d been missing, so Mr. Spitz was happy too.
“At least it ended well,” Gavriel said, when I updated him one evening. “And I’ll be done here on Thursday, so things should be easier from there.”
“Yeah.” I was still upset about what had happened, though.
At the fact that Hadassah had let us down at the last minute, that I was pushed into a corner and had to suddenly make new arrangements for the kids — which ended up costing us desperately needed money.
Wasn’t I stretched thin enough? Couldn’t she have thought about what it would mean for us before going back on her word?
If I could tell Hadassah one thing, it would be: It’s your pool and you don’t owe us anything, but how could you suddenly pull the rug from under our feet and leave us floundering when we’d come to rely on it?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 924)
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