| LifeTakes |

Something New

When either my conscience or appetite was particularly insistent, I’d spend my lunch break with Oma

“NU?Tell me sumsing nyew.”

Diminutive, brassy hair stiffly coiffed, Oma was serving me her specialty: Gruenebaum’s rye bread, fresh from the freezer, lightly toasted and schmeared with Fleischmann’s salted margarine.

Oma lived diagonally across from the school I attended from preschool through 12th grade, the school my father, too, had attended from preschool through 12th grade.

I can’t say I enjoyed visiting Oma in her dingy, ground-floor apartment, but I knew she relished my visits. I was, for seven years, her only granddaughter, and I was named after her mother. So when either my conscience or appetite was particularly insistent, I’d spend my lunch break with Oma. She’d usher me from the front door to the kitchen, shutting each light behind her as we went. Frugality was a living member of the family.

As the news on the television set in the background distracted me, Oma faced me expectantly. “Nyu?” she would prompt, sounding every bit the German that she was. “Tell me sumsing nyew.” But I could find nothing to say to this woman with whom I couldn’t connect. Yes, Oma wanted only something new. The past was bitter and best left alone. But somehow, the window she had closed on her past shut off connection in the present.

Besides, I was terrible at small talk. I felt interrogated and cornered. In that tiny kitchen, there was a vast emptiness. Despite the passing of years, the gulf between us remained as wide as the ocean she traversed to reach the Goldeneh Medinah. I racked my brain for something to say, something that would interest Oma, or make her happy or proud. Invariably, I came up with little to report. So the half hour would mostly pass in uncomfortable silence until I could escape once more to school, where I was very much a fish in water.

Years later, marriage brought me another grandmother. Grandma was as small as Oma, but what she lacked in height, she made up for in spunk. Grandma had weathered the Depression, growing up in the “school of hard knocks.” She was full of stories, and she never tired of telling them. I’d spend hours listening to her tales as I cooked for Shabbos. In a two-hour conversation, I could say fewer than 30 words, and that was just fine with me.

My mother-in-law, somehow, was different. She was a wonderful person, loved and admired by all, gentle and wise and involved in so much chesed. She spoke to each one of her children every day. But she was a 220-volt outlet where I ran on 110. When she asked the dreaded, “What’s new?” my well ran dry. I wasn’t being intentionally reticent; I simply couldn’t come up with anything to say. What did I do yesterday? I don’t remember. Today? No idea. How was Shabbos? Wait, when was Shabbos? Did we attend a kiddush? A shalom zachar? Was there a guest speaker? It’s all a blur.

The day came when my mother-in-law was on her deathbed, almost too weak to talk. Alone with her, I ventured, “You don’t have to talk, Ima. I don’t mind sitting here quietly.”

“I’d love it if you would just talk to me,” she replied. I froze like a toddler caught with his hand in the nosh cabinet. The silence hung for a minute.

“Oh, Ima,” I replied, “I’m just so bad at that.”

An unexpected flash of comprehension crossed Ima’s face, then traveled to mine. All these years, Ima had thought I was holding back, that I didn’t want to share my life with her. The fact I just couldn’t do it was new information to her; that she’d never realized it was a newsflash to me. In that short exchange, we healed something we hadn’t known was broken.

Though it’s a learned skill for me, one I still have to consciously employ, I’ve gotten somewhat better at small talk. It’s a good thing, too, because my new daughter-in-law calls conscientiously every Erev Shabbos.

“Hi, Mommy,” she says. “What’s new?”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 877)

Oops! We could not locate your form.