On a String| June 29, 2021
We were living off my night shift paychecks, but making jewelry filled me in a way that reams of data entry never could
Another night shift.
I’m jealous of Kayla, the teenager who babysits until Shua comes back from night seder.
She walks in, goes straight to the corner of the dining room, and peers at the lollipop earrings drying on the shelf.
“Whoa, Mrs. Green. I think these are your best yet!”
I offer her a tired smile.
“I’m not joking! I can take one picture of these and send them to my sister-in-law, she’ll Whatsapp them to the universe and boom — you’ll have a business.”
I shake my head and stifle a yawn while Kayla makes herself comfortable on the couch with a book. My eyelids sink despite the nap I took that morning. I haven’t cleaned up from supper; homework and projects litter the dining room table.
Kayla looks up. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Green. Hindy’s sleeping, and I know how to take care of her if she wakes up.”
Hindy. She’d wanted to cuddle, but I 'd needed to get into scrubs and throw in a load of laundry before I left. So I plunked her in the crib and let her scream. Mommy guilt creeps up my chest as I clutch the doorknob tighter.
“Well, I guess if Hindy does wake up, give her an extra hug from me.”
“You got it, Mrs. G.” Kayla flashes me a thumbs-up.
I fumble through the door and into the car, and manage to arrive at the hospital 15 minutes early.
As I walk toward the building, I distract myself by thinking of the new bracelet I started for Penina, my six-year-old. I’d decided it would be called “Brunch,” then set to work making tiny clay French toasts and mini Danishes. And little coffee cups. As I imagine sitting there, painting the delightful details, like the froth in the coffee cup or the crust around the French toast, an aura of calm descends on me. It evaporates as soon I walk into the hospital.
I think back to nursing school. Ma had researched all the options, concluding that nursing would be the right fit, giving me a secure income and setting me up for life — the right shidduch suggestions, a steady income, security. I think of Ma putting up supper in the Crock-Pot early in the morning so she could stay later at the office to pay for my college bills, bleary-eyed from being up with extra work in the evening.
And I, well, I played around with clay and paint and attended the classes and did my best and bit my tongue and studied and designed more jewelry in between. I passed nursing school with a sigh of relief.
Then I walk through the automatic doors and there’s no more time for remembering. I sign in to the pediatric ward and the nurse from the current shift fills me in on my patients. Tawnee in Room Eight is a nine-year-old admitted for complications after a seizure. Bari in Room Six is being monitored due to an abnormally high fever and Baila in Room Four had had her appendix out.
Baila... it was always nice when there was a frum girl I could take care of. I looked at Baila’s last name. Oh. Baila Diamond. In a small frum community, it’s not hard to put a face to the name. She’s in my daughter Penina’s class. Her father's sponsored half the buildings in town.
“Room Eight needs her vitals checked,” Marianne, the head nurse, says. She’s over six feet tall with a husky voice and broad shoulders. Under Marianne’s piercing gaze, I drop the blood pressure monitor. Feeling awkward, I look at my computer and fumble with the buttons as I try to regain my composure.
Marianne flicks her blonde hair and fixes her blue eyes at me.
“Room Eight. Now.”
“Y-Yes,” I stammer.
“And don’t waste time chitchatting. I know how you are.”
I nod, then steal a glance at the clock. Only 12 more hours left to go.
I enter Baila Diamond’s room as I make my rounds, hardly giving Baila and her mother a proper greeting, Marianne’s warning ringing in my ears.
“Oh! Are you Viva Green?”
I look up from my computer screen. Chavi Diamond, Baila’s mother, smiles in my direction.
“Baily, look, it’s Penina’s mommy!”
I look over at the girl on the hospital bed.
“Oh — Penina’s mommy? You’re the one who makes all her pretty earrings and necklaces?”
My heart does a funny kind of flop. A cross between pleased and wistful.
“Oh, you make those?” Chavi says, “I’ve been meaning to find out. Baily can’t stop talking about how cute they are and I once overheard some mothers at the park talking about how all their daughters want one. You sure are creative.”
“It’s just a hobby,” I say quickly.
“Do you have any samples on you?”
My palms begin to sweat as I grip the mouse on the computer. What if Marianne walks in on me talking with Chavi? I look over my shoulder a moment.
“I actually do,” I say, pulling out pizza earrings from my scrub’s pocket and a cheesecake bracelet, with tiny cheesecakes, cherries, and blueberries, lined up in a row.
“Wow — Viva — these are so professional.”
“Really? They’re nothing much.”
“Why don’t you sell them?”
Why? Why don’t I? I think of my faded days, dreading the upcoming night shift. Trying to give Hindy the attention she deserves, running around and putting the house together, attempting a restless nap. Motzaei Shabbos. That was the only slice of time I had to make my jewelry, and it wasn’t enough time to run a business. I shrug.
“Tell you what…” Chavi starts saying. She’s talking fast. “My sister-in-law just opened this online store for kids’ clothing and accessories, and this type of jewelry would be the perfect addition. What if we gave it a shot and see how it goes? It’ll be your job to make the jewelry… and I’ll take care of the rest.”
I can’t help it. My heart soars. Yes, yes, yes every fiber of my being screams.
But no. I can’t.
“Aviva?” Marianne pokes her head through the door. “Room eight just complained that her daughter wants a cup of ice water and no one is answering her call.”
I whisper a quick goodbye then exit, stage left.
“So sorry,” I whisper.
Marianne glowers down at me.
“We don’t pay you to chat at the expense of our patients. You’d better watch out.”
“Vivi, what’s going on?”
I’m still wearing my pajama sweatshirt and slinky skirt. Bleary eyes, coffee cup in my hand. I rub my eyes.
“Yes, I needed to come see you. Is it too early? It’s almost one.”
“Sorry — I have night shift tonight so I took a nap. Just woke up.”
“Oh, I see.” Ma’s mouth twitches into a smile at the mention of my upcoming night shift.
“Come in, Ma.”
I glance at my front-hall mirror as I usher Ma inside, then adjust my snood and push my glasses up my nose.
My heart lurches as we pass the dining room. I’d been working hard the past few weeks. After much thought, I’d taken Chavi up on her offer and decided that the two days a week I didn’t do night shift would be devoted to creating jewelry. Clay, paint, and jewelry clasps are spread over the table.
Problem was, I hadn’t mentioned this new endeavor to Ma.
Ma stares, then looks up at me with sad brown eyes.
“This,” she sweeps her hand across the dining room table, “is what I came to talk to you about.”
My chest tightens. “Oh?”
“My coworker Goldie is good friends with Chavi Diamond, and she filled me in on your new venture. And I must say, I’m a bit concerned.”
Ma had always been uptight. But she’d taken it to the next level after Ta walked out on the family when I was 12. Before that, there’d been constant hushed squabbling over money. Ta had been lackadaisical where Ma was responsible, carefree where Ma was tense. I remember the crinkle of his laugh lines. The crinkles that paved the road for him to drop out when the going got tough.
Ma stops and examines a tiny clay cupcake for the birthday-themed bracelet I worked on yesterday. I feel my cheeks burning. I recall the way I used to stash away my jewelry and prop open my nursing textbook whenever Ma came down to the basement. The last thing I wanted was for her to think I was irresponsible, like Ta.
“How do you think you’ll realistically juggle two jobs and a family? You’re a nurse, Viva. It’s a steady salary. You could never make ends meet with a side hustle. It’s fun, sure, but—” Ma stops and examines a tiny clay apple. Her eyes water. “I didn’t buy myself a new outfit for years while I was paying off your nursing school bills.” I grip the dining room chair, my knuckles white.
“I, um I… I wasn’t planning on quitting being a nurse. I’m doing this, like you said, on the side.”
“I don’t regret it, not any of it. I just wanted to give you the gift of stability—” Ma chokes at these words, and I know she’s thinking the stability I never had with Ta. “I don’t want you to throw it all away for a hobby. You need to stay focused if you want to succeed. What’s wrong with just making bracelets once in a while for Penina?”
I look up at Ma, wondering if she knows how badly I need her to be proud of me.
“This whole thing… it’s scary, Viva. Please don’t do anything rash.”
“So, you won’t believe this but my sister is floored over how fast your jewelry is selling! It’s only been four months, and the orders just keep rolling in. We’re considering branching out with this and giving your jewelry its own website.” Chavi stops and consults the list in front of her. “At any rate, here are some of the latest orders… two for a ‘Brunch Bracelet.’ That one’s been popular. Oh, and a fruit bracelet but without bananas. Someone apparently has a dislike for bananas. And pizza earrings…Viva? Are you okay?”
“Huh?” I look up, mortified, and see Chavi, sitting across her dining room table. “Sure, um, sorry about that.”
“Still tired from your night shift?”
Night shift, yes, and Hindy keeping me up last night, and spending all morning two days ago making jewelry instead of napping since I was behind on the orders. And Marianne making me stay late to correct a minor error I’d made on my paperwork. “Yeah.”
“I know you have so much on your plate. I’m thinking we need to train in some talented teen girls to help you make the jewelry.”
What probably would help more is if I quit my nursing job. I shudder at the thought.
“Good idea. We need to start asking around. But meanwhile, let’s go through the rest of the orders.”
My eyes begin to close as I drive to night shift. I fumble for the dial and turn on the air conditioner even though it’s about 40 degrees outside, then force myself to focus on the road.
I’d meant to nap that morning, but I was behind on the jewelry orders, and even though I’d only meant to work on them for an hour or two, time had slipped away and before I knew it, the kids were home from school.
The afternoon was the usual whirlwind: Hindy, who was teething, wouldn’t let me put her down; Koby kept me on my toes. I tried straightening up as Koby followed me, unfolding laundry, spilling crayons, and crushing pretzels into the carpet. I picked up Penina from school and helped her with her homework while Hindy screamed and Koby tried to color on it. I send Shua an SOS message, and he comes home five thirty; by then I’m spent.
Shua takes over supper and baths and I collapse into my bed for a blessed 40-minute nap before I need to leave for night shift. “Something needs to change, Vivs,” Shua told me as he turned off the light.
Something needs to change. But what? We were living off my night shift paychecks, but making jewelry filled me in a way that dealing with Marianne and reams of data entry never could. The cold air blasts against my eyes.
“Viva, perk up a bit, Marianne is on the prowl,” Karen, a fellow nurse, says as soon as I walk in.
“I’m really tired,” I explain — just as Marianne passes by. She glares.
After a few hours I’m wiped, doing my best to stay focused on the information I’m adding to a patient’s chart, when I remember that I’ve run out of purple clay. And I need it to fulfill a custom order I’d gotten.
I look over my shoulder. Marianne isn’t around. I decide that I’ll work a few minutes into my break and start Googling some of my favorite crafting shops to see if they have the shade of purple I need.
A shadow grows over my computer.
I turn around and face Marianne.
“It’s not what you think,” I try, but my voice falters. Marianne’s blue eyes blaze.
“Come see me on your break, Aviva. This has been going on long enough.”
It was just the two of us — a rarity, what with Hindy teething, my night shifts, and Koby and Penina forever finding excuses to jump out of bed. I savored the warmth of my mug of hot cocoa, looking across at Shua peeling the wrapper off his salami. I chuckle. We are as different as our evening treats.
“What do I do?” I ask him.
“Don’t look at me!”
“At the end Marianne let me off the hook with a warning. But I don’t know how I’ll face another day at the hospital with her prowling eyes. “
Shua puts down his salami and looks me straight in the eyes. “What do you want, Vivs?”
“What do I want?”
“I just want you to be happy. I’m not worried about money. But I’m very worried about you.”
“No, Shua. The only reason you can learn is because of the stable income we get from my nursing job.”
“Your jewelry business is definitely helping already. It varies by the month, but it will keep growing, im yirtzeh Hashem. And I didn’t tell you yet, but a rebbi position opened up at the school, and with the connections I have, it’s a possibility. I’m seriously considering it.”
“And you’d stop learning?”
“Vivi, you’ve been working hard for so long. I want you to be yourself, to be happy.”
My mind races. This sounds so tempting. For a moment, I consider it: No more running out the door, no more missing bedtime and up-all-night-exhaustion. Instead, I get to stay home and do work I love.
But what about Ma?
The next day, I’m driving to night shift again, still with my eyes half-closed, still with cold air blasting in my face.
My phone rings. I look at the screen and see that it’s Ma. I ignore the call — I can’t handle her advice right now. For the past day, all I’ve thought about is Shua’s offer. It’s thrilling and petrifying and ungrateful and… The confusion inside rips at me and beckons for a tefillah to cross my lips. But I can’t seem to access my heart… And then I realize I’ve shut out that piece of myself so long that I don’t even know what to daven for.
I know what my mother wants. I know what Marianne wants. I know what Shua wants.
But what do I want?
Somehow my own voice had gotten tangled and lost among all the voices that told me what I should be and could be. I know Hashem put those voices into my life for a reason. To create paths, perhaps, to give insight and direction. But not to twist me into something I’m not.
I park my car outside the hospital and step out into the cold night. There’s a sickening churn in my stomach as I look at the hospital building. A sudden awakening hits me like a splash of cold water on bleary morning eyes. I do know what I want, I realize. I’m just scared to listen.
I eye my reflection in the glass window on Ma’s front door. My auburn sheitel is sleek. My makeup perfect. Inside, my heart quakes. Despite every part of me demanding I turn around and go home, I adjust the parcel under my arm and knock on the door.
Ma opens it. She looks like she just came back from the office, she’s in her sheitel and cardigan. I swallow hard.
“Vivi, what a pleasant surprise,” Ma says. She eyes the parcel I’m holding.
“I have something for you,” I say in a half whisper.
“I can see that. Come in.”
I hand Ma the parcel, hands shaking.
“Can you open it now?”
Ma looks at me, lips parted, eyes raised. She takes off the ribbon and peels away the wrapping paper. Holds up my present. A handmade picture frame I created from the same polymer clay I use for my jewelry. I shaped it like a heart.
“Mothers hold their children’s hands for a short while, but their hearts forever,” Ma reads the inscription around the border of the frame, fingering the picture of Ma and me that I’d placed inside.
“Vivi, what’s this for? I mean it’s very nice, but…”
“Unexpected,” I fill in Ma’s sentence.
“Ma, I’m spending more time now on the jewelry business…”
“But only on your days off, right?” Ma’s voice turns shrill.
Guilt over all she sacrificed rips at my heart. Instead of letting it overwhelm me, I take a deep breath. “It wasn’t working out. It wasn’t the right decision for me, for my family. It wasn’t right to my patients.”
“A jewelry business? You’re going to support your family with a jewelry business? Think of the risk. Think of all the work you put into becoming a nurse…” Ma pauses, “that I put into your nursing career.”
“You’re amazing, Ma, you taught me so much. I can’t ever thank you enough for paying for my nursing school. I hope you’ll accept this small gift to show how much I—”
Ma puts the gift back into my hands. Her eyes well.
“I can’t accept this. I need… time.”
I hold my gift lamely. What now? I force myself to meet her eyes.
“Ma, I’m not Ta. I’m not being reckless. The numbers are okay. Shua trusts me. And… I trust me.”
Trust. Trust in what I’m feeling inside, knowing that I can hold my own heart while Ma puts together her own shattered pieces.
I’m driving to the hospital again but this time I need to control myself from driving past the speed limit. I’m giddy as I pull up to the building, trying to balance the containers of clay, paint, earring holders, and clasps as I exit the car. I enter the building and head to the pediatric ward.
It had been Baily Diamond’s idea. She’d noticed the special Sunday programming the hospital had for the sick kids during her own hospital visit.
“Why don’t you show them how you make your jewelry, Mrs. Green? And they can have a turn too!”
Now that I have been selling my jewelry for close to a year, I felt ready to take the next step and share my creative process.
I sit down at a table and look at the kids crowded around it. Kids with kerchiefs tied around their heads, limbs in slings, attached to IV poles. I demonstrate how I shape the clay and show the kids how to paint in details. They look on, intrigued, and timidly try to make their own creations.
Suddenly, a tall nurse with blonde hair and broad shoulders walks through the door.
“Now, where is Karen…” Marianne stops. She takes in the jewelry, the smiling kids, then locks eyes with me. “Aviva? Now what are you doing here?”
I can’t help but erupt into a wide grin. For the first time it hits me that I’m inside the hospital, but this time, it’s on my terms. And I’m enjoying every moment.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 749)
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