Why were we sisters still stuck in a dilapidated bungalow?
Perry: You’ve enjoyed the separate, nicer place for years. Isn’t it time to give others a turn?
Chezky: The current accommodations have always worked for all of us. Why stir up the status quo now?
There’s something so comforting and familiar about a family tradition. Like Shabbos Chanukah at my parents-in-law, and fighting over which night to celebrate my brother Yossi’s Ushpizin, and visiting Great-Aunt Yittel once a year.
And like summer vacation at my parents’ bungalow. Make that bungalows; shortly after I got married, they’d purchased a second one, right next door the ancient, sprawling one that once belonged to my grandparents.
It’s a mazel they bought the neighbors’ one too, when it went up for sale. If not for that, I don’t think Faigy would agree to keep spending our summers there.
“Honestly,” she told me once. “I don’t know how your family manages in that old place. Is there a single window that opens and closes? And the bathroom, it’s missing half the tiles, it’s literally dangerous for kids to walk around in there.”
I shrugged. “We’ve been there every summer since I was a kid. We’re used to it, I guess.”
Faigy wrinkled her nose. “Well, let’s just say I’m glad your parents bought the small one in time for our first summer there. I can’t imagine what I would’ve done otherwise.”
The small bungalow really was a blessing for us. Faigy worked through the summer, she needed Wi-Fi, and the bigger house had very spotty cell phone service and no router. Our place was small — just two bedrooms and one kitchen-living room-dining room — but it was recently redone, the furniture was old but in decent condition, and best of all, as far as Faigy was concerned, was the privacy.
“I just couldn’t live with everyone on top of each other, sharing a bathroom with everyone’s kids, you know,” I heard her tell her sister Henny. Faigy’s family was like that; we Brims were a different breed, it seemed.
The way it worked out, though, we get the best of both worlds. The kids get the company, we spend time with the family, next door for Shabbos meals, supper, hanging out together. And then at the end of the day, we go next door to our own place. It’s not a mansion by any stretch of the imagination; we’re talking five kids squished in one room and the baby in with us, but it works, we spend the summer with the family, and Ma’s forever kvelling about her “summer homes” and having all the eineklach together, like she owns some sort of villa in one of those fancy summer estates.
Summer home, ha. Home to spiders and mice and, on one memorable occasion, a skunk. There’s no end of family lore around the Big House, as we like to call it, and the good times make it almost fun to prop up the beds with stacks of books, again, or tape garbage bags over gaps in the windows that don’t close.
But it wasn’t a big surprise that Faigy preferred the small one, with its central A/C and whitewashed walls.
Faigy was out doing “country shopping” when Ma called, which was a good thing, I guess. The conversation began as usual, Hi, how are you, how are the kids, looking forward to having the family all together, what day are you coming in the end, etc, etc.
“We’re excited too,” I said. “The kids keep talking about the big paddling pool and climbing that old tree behind the house.”
“Mm,” Ma said, her voice a little distracted. The sound muffled a moment while she covered the mouthpiece, talking to someone else. Ta?
“Listen, Chezky, I wanted to ask you,” Ma came back on the line, her voice too casual. “Would you mind, you and Faigy, to stay with us in the Big House this year? A couple of the others want to stay in the small bungalow, you know, have a turn.”
She gave a small laugh.
I wasn’t laughing, though. My sisters, Perry and Elky, were both married with a couple of little ones, but they’d never had a problem with staying in the family bungalow before. I was the oldest, our family was the largest, and Faigy worked at home. Besides, we had a keviyus there. What was the sudden change all about?
“Who wants it?” I asked.
“Oh, Perry and Elky would split the month between them, you know. Perry would take it for two weeks, then Elky for the next two.” Ma tried — and failed — to sound airy. “And maybe next year, you could take it again. Just to give everyone a chance, it’s a nicer bungalow, the privacy, you know.”
Oh, boy, did I know. I sank down onto the sofa.
“Ma, this is… a bit of a surprise. I’m not sure what Faigy will say… she’s got her job, it’s not…”I stopped short. What could I say?
It’s not comfortable for Faigy to be in the house with everyone? Ma would be insulted. Besides, all the rest of the family live with it.
Faigy won’t be able to do her work in the Big House? They wouldn’t get why she needed the quiet and focus; none of them did computer programming.
If we don’t get the smaller bungalow, Faigy won’t want to come? That sounded like pure blackmail.
“I know, Chezky, it’s just that the girls have their own families too, we need to give them some time on their own, too,” Ma said, a little apologetically. “Next year, it’ll be back to you, okay?”
Next year, I wanted to tell her, would be one summer too late.
I didn’t wait for Faigy to come home. Instead I called Perry right away. She’s the oldest girl, next after me in the family, and if she and Elky had planned something, hands down she was behind it.
“What’s up with the bungalows?” I asked, as soon as she picked up the phone. All this hiding behind Ma and sweet-talking was ridiculous; it was time to talk straight. If she and Elky had a problem with how we were doing things, they could explain themselves directly.
“Oh, that,” Perry said dismissively. “I guess Ma called you?”
“Uh-huh.” I waited.
Perry sounded uncomfortable now. “Listen, I know you and Faigy have had the smaller bungalow since forever, and you were married with kids before us, but you know how it is, we also want a turn. You guys were the only married couple for a while, but now there’s us, and Elky, and Shimon and Bruchi too. Elky’s expecting. And you know what the Big House is like, the A/C isn’t great, the rooms without air conditioning are so hot, it isn’t fair for her.”
Oh, how righteous. Make it about poor Elky, why not.
“But Ma said you’d be taking two weeks, first.”
“Listen,” Perry said, a tad defensively. “We all squeeze into the Big House every year. We all could do with some space, some privacy, not having everyone on top of each other in a bungalow that’s pretty much falling apart.”
“It’s different. You and Elky grew up there. Faigy didn’t. It’s not comfortable for her.”
I could picture her shrug. “Bruchi’s coming; and she didn’t grow up with it. And she and Shimon are in shanah rishonah.”
That was irrelevant and ridiculous; Shimon was taking Bruchi on some luxury hotel trip first, her parents had money. They were going to drop by the bungalow for a weekend or two, join us for the cholent and the chill and the free accommodations when their five-star kosher-catering hotel stay was over. They didn’t need the nicer bungalow. We did.
“Listen, it’s not going to work,” I said, losing patience. “Faigy has to work, she has a very intense job, and we need the Wi-Fi, the quiet…”
It sounded like Perry was expecting that, because she replied before I’d even finished talking. “So she’ll come over, we’ll all be out during the day, okay? She can use the dining room to work. We’ll keep it clean, we’ll keep it quiet, she can even use the fridge and stuff.”
“Perry, I hear you, but I just don’t think it’s going to work,” I repeated. But after we finished the conversation, I wondered, Do I even have a choice?
“No. No way.” Faigy dropped the bags she was holding onto the dining room table. Two tins of tuna rolled out and clattered to the floor. “But why? They’ve always been fine with how it was.”
“Apparently, they want a turn,” I said, sarcastically. “Honestly, I don’t think they would have a problem if the Big House was all we had. It’s because we’re in the smaller place, and they have families too…”
Faigy snorted. “Give me a break. Your sister Elky has what, two little ones? She and Perry love being in the Big House, they schmooze all night, while your little sisters watch their kids.”
I shrugged. “I guess they just figured, why not get the nicer place if they can…”
“What are we going to do, though?” Faigy pressed. She gestured at the dining room table, crammed with the results of her shopping spree. “I just did all the shopping for the country, for what we need… we need to know what’s happening. If we’re going to the country…”
“I think they think that this is what’s happening. They have Ma’s go-ahead, and she’s told us…”
Faigy crossed her arms. “We can’t go, Chezky. Not for four weeks, anyway. We can go for a Shabbos maybe, stay a few days, but I just can’t do it. We can’t stay in the Big House for four weeks, I can’t work like that, you know I can’t. Especially now with the cutbacks, we all have way more work since he let the some of the new programmers go, and if I don’t keep up with the deadlines, I’ll be next.” She paused to suck in a breath. “And the kids. We have boys, they’re leibedig, your father’s not gonna like it, and Perry’s baby will be sleeping and we’ll have to keep them quiet, you know how it is. We have a big family, we need our own space.”
I knew all that. I really did. But what could I do?
“Call your mother, tell her we really need it,” Faigy said, starting to unpack the shopping. She bent to retrieve the tuna. “You know what? They can have the smaller bungalow next year, and we’ll make other plans. They can’t just wake up now and decide to kick us out.”
“They’re not kicking us out, they just want to switch bungalows,” I protested, but I knew that to Faigy, it boiled down to the same thing.
She wasn’t willing to spend four weeks in a hovel, with two dozen people under one roof. She couldn’t work six, seven hours a day in someone else’s bungalow, beholden to their generosity and needing to schedule her work around them. We’d be staying home or taking our regular bungalow, no two ways about it.
Perry was furious when I told her. I spoke to Ma too, and to Elky, and to Perry again. She kept going on about how it wasn’t fair, and everyone deserved a turn. But it wasn’t about fairness or turns; it was about needs. For Faigy and our family, having the smaller bungalow was essential. For the rest of the family, it wasn’t such a big deal. Why couldn’t they get it?
Elky texted me a few nights later.
I’ll stay in the Big House. u can take my 2 weeks.
She didn’t sound happy, and Faigy wasn’t either.
“So that means we’ll go for two weeks, or what?” she wanted to know. “What does Perry even need it for, all the hassle of moving over and switching back and forth…?”
Perry, determinedly sticking to her guns, was even less happy.
“Why did you pressure Elky to give up the nicer bungalow?” she demanded of me. “I told you she needed the central air conditioning, it’s not nice for her to be in the Big House all the time…”
“Why don’t you give her your two weeks, then?” I countered.
Frankly, I was just getting sick and tired of the whole story. Here I was, playing monkey in the middle between Faigy and my sisters. Ma was getting frustrated, she just wanted everyone to come for the month and enjoy themselves. The kids had picked up on something too, and Baruch and Shimmy were complaining that they wanted to go to the country, and they didn’t want to have to stay behind.
“Maybe my family wants some time in the comfortable bungalow, too!” Perry snapped back. “You obviously realize that it’s a little bit nicer than the Big House. And you’ve stayed there every summer for what, ten years?”
“Yes, and it’s been like that for a reason,” I told her. But she wasn’t listening — she didn’t want to listen. I hung up, tense and frustrated.
Why did they have to rock the status quo just on a whim? They didn’t need the amenities of the smaller bungalow like we did.
Family tradition, it seems, doesn’t trump everything, after all.
If I could tell my sisters one thing, it would be: The current accommodations have worked for the past ten years for everyone — why stir up the status quo now?
It’s been like this for years.
Every summer, we go up to the country. Ma and Ta have a huge bungalow, an ancient place that’s been in the family for years. When Chezky, the oldest in our family, got married, they bought the adjacent bungalow as well. The smaller place was tiny, but it was clean, and renovated and had a long, narrow second bedroom that we eventually filled with two bunk beds and a mattress on the floor, for Chezky and Faigy’s crew. It was great that we had the option; now that they were eight, it would’ve been a tight squeeze to have all of us in the Big House.
Still, the family was growing, baruch Hashem, and I was starting to see why they enjoyed having their own space in the summer. I had three kids, Elky was due with her third around Succos time. It wasn’t easy to live all under one roof for so many weeks. And it wasn’t like the Big House was luxury accommodations, either — far from it. There was no central air conditioning, so the hallways and bathrooms got hot and stuffy, the cell phone service was iffy so we had to stay in one spot to speak on the phone, and the hot water ran out every Friday afternoon. The furniture was probably my great-grandparents’ second-hand collection, and I don’t think a single room had a closet that had a door, and all its shelves.
“I’m excited for the summer, but I wish the bungalow was a little more… comfortable,” Elky told me with a sigh, when we were discussing it. “I mean, we’re gonna bring a fan for our room, obviously, because you never know with the A/C, but even the beds, the mattresses… I love the country, and being all together, and everything, but—”
I nodded fervently. A couple years back, I’d been in the same boat. I remembered spending hours by a friend in the same colony, just to sit on a sofa that didn’t jab me with loose springs every time I shifted position.
“Chezky’s bungalow has a couch, and central air conditioning, you know,” I said. “I don’t know why we haven’t thought of it before. Why don’t we switch things around this summer? There’s room in the Big House for them if one of us is in the other place.”
“Hey, maybe,” Elky said, a little cautiously. “But, you know, I don’t know what Faigy would say… I feel like she wouldn’t want to stay in the Big House…”
“She’s a big girl,” I said, lightly, even though she was probably right. “We’ve managed it for years, I’m sure she’ll be okay if we take a turn.”
Still, I decided to check with Ma before running to Chezky and Faigy with my idea.
“You know how it goes, how things just stay status quo because people are used to it? Well, it’s time for a change,” I told my husband, Chaim, determinedly. He was a country weekender, driving up on Friday afternoon and leaving right away on Sunday. Big House, small bungalow, it didn’t make too much difference to him.
“Good luck with the campaign,” he told me, grinning, as I picked up the phone and dialed. “If anyone’s angry about it, tell them it wasn’t me.”
“Hi, Ma,” I said into the phone, as Chaim made an elaborate show of backing out of the room with his hands over his head. “What’s up?”
We chatted for a few minutes, then I brought up the bungalow situation. “Elky and I were wondering, maybe it’s time for a change… maybe we could take turns with the smaller bungalow this year? Chezky and Faigy have a big family, but you know, they have their own place every year and fact is, it’s more comfortable over there.”
Ma sounded surprised. I guess she’d never thought of it, either. “Who were you thinking should have it?”
“Well, we were thinking to take turns through the summer, or otherwise over a few years. Elky and I could split the time between us, or she could have it this year and us the next…”
“I hear that,” Ma said, thoughtfully. “But you know, Chezky has six kids, where would they all go? The Big House isn’t that big.”
“Aww, that’s not an issue,” I said, laughing. “We can find space in the Big House. Say Elky takes the small bungalow, you’d have her rooms right away to start with. That’s already two bedrooms. And the older boys can camp out with my kids, or with Binyamin…”
“True,” Ma agreed. “Okay, I hear you. Let me discuss it with Ta, and we’ll give Chezky a call. They’re expecting to come and stay in their usual place, so I’m going to have to run this by them.”
Yesss! That was what I’d hoped for: Ma to call Chezky and Faigy, instead of the request coming from us.
“Thanks, Ma,” I said, and then I hung up the phone and waited for the bombshell to fall.
It did two days later.
I saw Chezky’s number on the caller ID and I braced myself. Chezky’s a nice guy, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be taking this too easily.
I was right. Chezky was cordial, but uncompromising.
“It’s just not going to work,” he said, again, even after I explained our position. “Faigy’s— we can’t come if we don’t have the small bungalow. It’s not an option for us to crowd in the Big House.”
“Fine,” I said, losing patience. “Don’t come, then. But we’ve all stayed in the Big House for years, and I don’t see why you guys can’t take a turn, too.”
“Still having bungalow issues?” Chaim asked me, sighing elaborately. I was typing a long text to Elky, one-handed, feeding the baby with my other hand.
“Yeah,” I said, tossing my phone down. “Faigy’s not giving in. If they don’t get the nice place, they’re staying here in the city. Can you imagine?”
“Nah, they’re just trying their luck,” Chaim said. “They need the break, so do their kids. They’ll give in eventually, don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worried, just annoyed.”
My phone buzzed. Elky, probably. Or Ma, getting anxious that Faigy was serious. It meant the world to her, having the whole family together every summer. Why were Chezky and Faigy being so difficult about this? One summer, that was all we were asking for. They could have it another year.
I scanned the text from Elky: Faigy seems pretty serious. What should we do? Ma doesn’t want 2 b involved anymore.
I let out such a long sigh that Chaim took the phone and read the text himself.
“Seems like being a revolutionary isn’t easy, huh?” he asked, mock serious.
I rolled my eyes.
I couldn’t believe it when Elky decided to back out of our arrangement. She didn’t even tell me directly; I had to hear about it through the grapevine.
“I just couldn’t take all the arguing, the back and forth,” Elky said apologetically, when I called. “I felt bad… we sort of sprung it on them a bit last minute. Faigy really can’t handle the Big House like we can.”
She didn’t say it directly, but the insinuation was clear: I should be giving in, too. But this wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about two weeks here or there, it was about changing things for the future. Was this always going to happen, even when our families grew larger? Chezky and Faigy having first pick at the best accommodations?
“But what about you and the heat, the beds, didn’t you want the smaller bungalow?” I asked her. “You know they both belong to Ma and Ta. It’s not like we’re asking Chezky and Faigy to give up their own place. They’ve had it for years, and honestly, I’d love some time there this year.”
I thought of the small, quiet bungalow, with its clean walls, tiled floor, nice bathroom. We hadn’t been on vacation to a comfortable place like that… well, ever.
“Besides, Ma was fine with the idea. She even agreed with us. And I’m sure Chezky himself wouldn’t mind — and the kids couldn’t care less. Why can’t Faigy do what we’ve done for years and just deal with it? It’s a bungalow, not a resort. She’s getting an all-expenses-paid vacation, Ma cooks three meals a day, the kids are entertained… she should be able to give in a little.”
I was almost bored of what I was saying. I’d been making the same points over and over, to Ma, to Ta, to Chezky, to Chaim… not to Faigy, though; she’d been deliberately quiet the last time I’d met her.
“I know, Perry, I know all of that,” Elky said. “And I would love to be in the other bungalow, you know that. But it’s just… not worth it, you know? I’m trying to look at it as if we don’t own the second place. Put it out of my mind. If the Big House was all we had, I’d make it work. So I’ll manage it now, too.”
“Wow, that’s special of you,” I told her, but I was feeling strangely flat.
So now I was the lone hold-out, pushing for change. Couldn’t they see it wasn’t just about me, or this year, or anything? It was about giving everyone a fair chance, every year. Why did they have it as a given, just because they’d stayed there first?
And now that they knew we wanted it, couldn’t they give in, even a little?
“I feel like we’re breaking the family apart over a bungalow,” Elky said, in a small voice.
“We’re not — they are,” I responded automatically. I didn’t want to argue with her as well, but I was frustrated. Now we were the bad guys?
Or rather, now I was the bad guy. Elky, it seemed, had defected. And I could tell Ma just wanted me to give in, too, and let things go.
“Maybe forget it for this year,” Chaim suggested, after I told him about it. He was finally talking seriously, and this was all he had to say?
“But…” I started, and then stopped. But what? I was so tired of being the spokesman for everyone who was just giving in because they didn’t have the energy to push back. Didn’t our needs count for anything?
“It’s just a couple weeks,” Chaim said. “And it will ruin the whole family vacation if Chezky and Faigy leave halfway through. Imagine Ma, she’d be devastated. It’s just a bungalow…”
But it wasn’t just a bungalow. It was the principle of it, and it was the fact that it happened year after year without anyone doing anything about it. If we didn’t change things now, when would it change? Wasn’t it fair for the rest of us to get to enjoy the nice accommodations for once?
If I could tell my brother and his wife one thing, it’d be: You’ve enjoyed the separate, nicer accommodations for years — isn’t it time to give others a turn?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 870)
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