“It makes me feel empowered to parent my kids, but, y’know, it also makes me feel a little bad about lost opportunities”
Someone tapped my shoulder. Who dared interrupt my sacred reading time? I looked up.
“Sharon! I’m so happy to see you again.”
She matched my smile with hers.
“Glad to see you too!” Her voice was crackly and hoarse. “Can you do me a favor?”
“Sure,” I said quickly.
Sharon gave me a look. “Chana, you barely know me. Why are you saying yes so fast?”
I shrugged. “That’s me in a nutshell, nice and impulsive.”
She gave a throaty laugh. “Listen and then tell me if it’s still yes.” I nodded, sitting straight like an attentive student.
“I was supposed to do the read aloud for the preschool kids today, I do it weekly, but,” she pointed to her throat, “this isn’t gonna work. Are you comfortable reading a book out loud to little kids?”
“This is what you were afraid I’d refuse? Sure I can read.” I stopped and looked at her. “Are they a tough crowd? Do they come prepared with rotten tomatoes? Should I be gargling raw eggs now?”
Sharon laughed again and patted my shoulder. “You’re good to go. Want to pick out a book? Or should I just give you what I planned on reading?” She held out Peter H. Reynold’s Ish.
I love that book and its theme: that we should take creative risk by not chasing perfection, but accepting things that are “ish” — like me, I’m normal-ish. “I love this book!” I told Sharon. “It’s the answer to so many things.”
“I know!” Sharon echoed as she led me to a small room off the children’s section.
There were about seven kids sitting on a large circular rug on the floor. The youngest was probably three, the oldest five. I looked at the mothers. An interesting cross-section: some frum women, both yeshivish and not, some who didn’t look Jewish at all. I smiled at them.
“As you can hear, I’m a bit hoarse and brought a replacement.” Sharon patted my shoulders.
“Awww, that’s so considerate, Sharon,” one woman in a mitpachat said.
“We’ll miss your voices,” a woman in jeans said. I guess that meant full-on acting was de rigeur.
“Thanks, all. Hopefully, I’ll be up and running next week. In the meantime, I give you Chana.” I took the opportunity to curtsey.
“Hi all, I’m Chana, and I’ll be today’s storyteller.”
“Say hi,” encouraged one mother. All the kids started waving and giggling, “Hi!” This was going to be so fun! I settled myself on the small chair, oof, I can’t remember the last time my knees were so close to my chest.
“Today we’re going to read a favorite book of mine. I know it looks like it’s for kids, but it’s for mommies too.” The kids laughed as if I’d said something hilarious. Great audience.
I opened to the first page. “Ramon loved to draw,” I read. The kids were hooked from the first sentence, leaning forward, eyes glued to me, mouths agape. I made sure to change up my voice for different characters and modulate for Ramon’s different moods. I was enjoying myself.
“The End-ish,” I proclaimed, snapping the book shut. I smiled at the kids.
“So what did you like about it?” Most of the kids looked at me blankly.
A boy in leggings took his thumb out of his mouth. “I liked the colors,” he lisped.
“Right, so pretty,” I encouraged. I waited for more responses, there were none. I looked up at the moms.
“I loved it,” the mitpachat-wearing woman said.
“Right!” I enthused. “It makes me feel empowered to parent my kids, but, y’know, it also makes me feel a little bad about lost opportunities.”
“Yes! That!” chimed in a brunette. A bunch of other women nodded, but the room went still, so I continued.
“Like I’m not a perfectionist at all. But I remember when I first got married, I tried making something called Yerushalmi kugel, a traditional Jewish food that is often eaten on Shabbat. It’s one of those impossible recipes that calls for caramelized sugar, which none of us Americans can get the hang of, but these people who have lived in Jerusalem for generations have it down pat.
“Well, I tried and it was a fire-engine affair. Literally. And the end of a good pot. That’s not such a big deal, but what was a shame was that when I got a recipe how to fake it, I thought it was too ish, and I stuffed the paper in the back of a drawer. Years later, my daughter tried that recipe, and I realized we’d missed out on years of a food my family might have enjoyed. ”
The women laughed but were nodding in agreement.
“We could all use a bit more ish in our lives,” Sharon piped in. “It’s a shame we allow other people’s judgment to affect how we find joy and creativity in our lives.”
“And don’t we all have an older brother like the one in the book, or maybe we’ve been an older brother like that, telling people that their ideas or projects are worthless because they’re not perfect ?” I looked around. The women looked uncomfortable, as if they’d just realized that weren’t the protagonist of the story, but the antagonist.
“Just kidding!” I winked. “We’re all perfect and would never do something like that.” The group tittered.
The conversation continued, but eventually the kids got edgy, tugging on skirts, asking for snacks, and the group broke up.
Sharon approached me. “First off, thanks.”
I waved my hand. It had been my pleasure, I loved every second.
“Second, you’re a total natural. Not just for the kids, the adults too. This is the most they’ve ever spoken to each other about anything more than what their kids are eating or not eating these days.”
“Really?” I cocked my head. “I thought it was a chevreh, and this was a weekly thing.”
“It’s a weekly thing, but not a cohesive group at all, c’mon, look at them, they’re all so different, they’re not coming together naturally.”
That was true.
“And you have so many smart things to say.”
I do? I do! How did I ever forget that? We walked back to my original seat, my book stack was still there, phew.
“You should sign up to read more often.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“…and all the women were talking, real-life talking, and it started with this book I read, it was amazing,” I told Avrumi over lunch. He nodded dutifully.
“You’re not getting it.”
He looked up, set down his grilled cheese, and waited. “I’m going to do this for all my speeches. This is how I’m going to make it my own, more natural, more me, and everyone could do with more picture books in their lives.”
Avrumi looked thoughtful. “Takke, not a bad idea.” He took a bite and chewed slowly. Sometimes he’s too slow and deliberate for me. But then he gave me a huge smile. “Chana, only you can take a matzav that’s not working, and change it up so that it’ll work for everyone.”
He’s so generous, my husband.
I got up to make coffees — one coffee, three sugars for me, two coffee, no sugar for Avrumi.
“On second thought, what do you think Yehudis Schloss will think about the picture books? Based on what you’ve told me about her, she doesn’t seem to appreciate the unconventional.”
My hand poised over the dispense button of the urn, I paused to consider. Then I then pressed dispense. Glorious coffee awaited me.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Like full-fat milk in my coffee, I think it might be worth it.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 694)
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