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The Long Journey

After all she’d given my husband, it was my turn to protect her


As told to Raizy Friedman

This isn’t really happening, I thought for the 38th time. This can’t be real.

We were driving. For hours. From Philly. To Minnesota. On Erev Pesach. To get to a hotel. Hopefully before candle lighting.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

But as the white lines flashed past me andas we sped on, I knew this was my current reality.

Another mile and another. Green signs with white letters. Interstate number this or that. The battery on my phone was running low. Waze was sending little orange warnings. We were almost a quarter of the way there.

My life’s journey seemed to be running a video playback in my mind as we passed yet another decrepit motel that lined the endless highways.

I’d grown up in rural Philadelphia. We were Jewish in name, but not so much in action. I found Yiddishkeit, or maybe Yiddishkeit found me, during an inspiring shul visit.

I’d now been frum for 18 years. Longer than I had been not-frum. I was married. (To a very special man, just saying.) I had three children, ranging in age from five down to five months.

During the second year of my journey to Orthodoxy, a good friend of mine showed me an advertisement for a Pesach hotel with a little note: looking for babysitters. It seemed to be an ideal win-win for my predicament of where to spend Pesach. My parents had stopped whatever minimal Passover rituals they’d done when we were young, and there was spring break at college, so I was essentially on my own. Tickets to the Midwest and crooning to adorable babies was a fair exchange for Pesach food and a Seder.

The experience was wonderful. I soaked in the atmosphere; the rav who led the Seder did a great job, and I was smitten with the toddlers in my care.

By the next year, I was fully frum, and my apartment boasted enough Judaic paraphernalia to make my own Seder. When the program director from the Pesach program called, I told him the tickets were expensive. He offered to pay. My presence was being requested by repeat attendees. I agreed.

It became almost de rigueur. I was promoted to Children’s Program Director, and I enjoyed the camaraderie and the accommodation.

I got married in August. My wonderful new husband took a liking to this little Pesach system of mine.

But there was one glitch. His not-yet-frum mother.

 

My mother-in-law lives just down the block from us. Busy with a career and gift-giving soul that she is, she’s everything you could wish for in a shvigger. Proud as she was of her son’s newfound interest in Yiddishkeit, she was content with her own level of Jewish-at-heart, and although she purchased all his favorite cookies with a hechsher, she didn’t do much else. Pesach in the past had been her son, sister, and nephew around a table with some square matzah and lots of good times.

Mr. Rapaport, the program director of the hotel, was gracious and agreed to give us an extra room. Mother-in-law in tow, we spent our shanah rishonah Seder at the Getaway Galore. I prepared exciting activities and ordered supplies for the children at the same time that the rest of the world was scrubbing and vacuuming. All felt fair and fun.

The next year, I thought of changing our plans thanks to my precious little girl’s arrival in the beginning of Adar. But everyone from Mr. Rapaport to my husband thought that running a program was easier than staying home. I had plenty of counselors lined up, and one of them was always available to give me a hand with my princess. Pesach, it seemed, would continue the same way it always had.

The hardest part of flying with a baby wasn’t the stroller. It was the matzah box. The rav of my husband’s shul had put together a chaburah of young men to bake their own kehillah matzos by hand in a local matzah bakery. The rav asked my husband to organize the yearly chaburah, and it became my husband’s thing. The planning and executing of that chaburah was more complicated than a presidential escort arrangement. And the guarding of the matzos from baking until the Seder would put the Secret Service to shame.

So instead of carrying a hat box or some other piece of hand luggage while we boarded the plane, my husband lugged a plastic-covered white matzah box. Gingerly.

It wasn’t easy, but we made it, matzos intact.

The logistics got easier as the years went by. Eventually, we could do it in our sleep. We hauled toddlers, school Haggados, potties, new babies, security blankets, enough pacifiers (which were never enough!) halfway across the country each Erev Pesach. And the matzah box. Of course, the matzah box.

My mother-in-law joined us every year. She didn’t have much, didn’t usually go far, and the Pesach hotel was a vacation of sorts for her. Plus, the knowledge that his mother was not eating any chometz for the eight days made my husband very happy.

 

******

Last year, when my husband mentioned the date of our upcoming departure to his mother who’d joined us for dinner, she looked momentarily confused.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

There was an awkward silence.

“To Minnesota. For Passover. You know, like every year. Why, is there a problem?” My husband looked shocked.

“No, no, of course not. It’s great. Yes, I’m really looking forward.”

The rest of the meal passed uneventfully, but my husband was nervous. Very nervous.

“Do you think I should call her doctor?” he asked me later that night.

I wasn’t sure. Maybe she was tired. I suggested we monitor her closely for signs of dementia and leave the doctor for later.

Over the next two weeks, my husband dropped in to his mother every second night, and I found plenty of excuses to call her over to our house as well. She looked fine, but I did find her repeating the same anecdote several times. She was only 62. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

One night, as we were cleaning up the playroom in companionable silence, my mother-in-law turned to me, and with no preamble said, “I think I’m suffering from Alzheimer’s.”

I was so taken aback, I just blinked.

“But, no, why, how do you…” My words were garbled, stuck in my throat.

“I went to my doctor. I’m seeing some signs. At work. At night. I can’t sleep. I’m so worried. The doctor said it might be something else, and he didtook blood work and everything. I just want to ask you, please, don’t tell Michael anything yet. He’ll be devastated, and if it turns out to be low vitamin B or something simple, I’d rather not aggravate him.” 
I looked at this woman, this darling person who’d raised my husband alone, had helped him develop into the fine young man he was, and who was still trying to protect him.

“I have nobody else in the world but him. I mean, I have you and the kids and that’s wonderful, but I want to shield Michael from this terrible possibility until I actually know for certain. Can you please keep this secret for me?”

Tearfully, I promised her I would.

The next week and a half were a whirlwind of completing the tasks on my to-do lists and packing up. The first Pesach Seder was on Friday night. Our flight out of Philly was on Thursday afternoon, at one.

The plan was that we’d arrive in Minneapolis at four, drive an hour to the hotel, and have a good night’s sleep before the morning rush of setting up and starting the kids’ entertainment.

As we loaded everything into the car at nine o’clock on Thursday morning, bleary-eyed, I knew we had plenty of time. Even with rush- hour traffic, the airport wasn’t more than 40 minutes away, and we’d unwind and have a drink and some snacks or sandwiches while we waited for departure.

“Do we have the second handbag?” my husband asked, harried.

“Under the children’s seat,” I answered.

“The hatbox is in the suitcase?”

“Yes, near my jewelry.”

“Did you remember the kittel?”

“Yes.”

My mother-in-law fussed with the children, pushing struggling baby arms into sweaters and buckling everyone up.

We were almost done when my husband asked, “The chaburah matzos?”

I looked around and spied them on the console table near the door. I hurried over, but my mother-in-law got there first.

“Yes,” she announced, picking up the box.

My husband didn’t hear her. “Yes,” I repeated after her, more loudly, and hurried back to the car.

With a satisfied bang, my husband closed the trunk and sped off. Traffic was building up, but the excitement of the upcoming Yom Tov kept us in good spirits. At 9:40nine-forty, we were halfway to the airport, when my husband suddenly asked, “Where did you put the matzah box? I didn’t notice it on top of the stuff in the trunk.”

I searched out my mother-in-law’s eyes in the mirror and realized she’d paled. With a slightly panicked motion, she shook her head. No. Somehow, even though she’d picked up the matzah box, it hadn’t made it to the car.

No, no, no, no, noooo!

My husband, who’d heard me say yes when he asked about the box back home, missed our silent exchange. He was waiting for my answer.

“No,” I whispered. “I meant to put it in, but I forgot.”

His face reddened, and he hit the brakes.

“We’re going back.” His temple was throbbing, and he kept his mouth in a straight line, biting his lip.

My mother-in-law stared at my rigid back, gratefully.

It’s not my fault, my mind griped, rattled. We’re going to miss our flight. And it’s not even my fault. It’s your mother’s.

I could hear my husband’s unspoken words. You know how important the matzos are to me. I worked so hard for weeks for this. Why did you say yes when I asked if you had them?

I forced myself to breathe through my distress, Lamaze style.

We arrived back to our house at 10:40. I found the matzah box near the door and put it in the trunk. My husband stepped on the gas. And we found ourselves in The. Worst. Traffic. Jam. Ever.

My husband still didn’t say anything. Neither did I. The silence would’ve been heavy had it not been broken by frequent baby cries of hunger and endless kicking of toddler and five-year-old.

We unloaded the car at the departures entrance, and my husband headed toward the long-term parking lot. No economy parking this year; it was too far away from the departure lounge, and the shuttle back would take too long. My mother-in-law and I tried not to look at the big clock on the wall as we clumsily made our way to the long line snaking toward the check-in desk. I sneaked a glance anyway. It was 12:20.

“Thank you for having my back,” my mother-in-law told me, watching me sweat profusely under the onslaught of children and carry-ons. “It really means a lot to me that he doesn’t worry yet.”

She was pretending to be strong, but I saw the sadness in her sagging shoulders.

Once Michael joined us in the line, we tried waving our hands and attracting attention, but we only managed to alert a security guard who was uninterested in the saga of our precarious timing. Alas, this was an airport, not a pity-zone, we were told. Everyone was rushing; we’d have to wait our turn.

I hoped the plane would be delayed, but it wasn’t. By the time we arrived at the front of the check-in line, it was after one, and the plane had left the gate.

The next flight, the surly supervisor at the desk informed us, was scheduled for seven o’clock in the evening, and it was full. We could have stand-by tickets in case someone didn’t show up. That was the only other flight out for today. Friday’s one o’clock flight still had some availability, but we knew that was not an option. We wouldn’t make it on time for Yom Tov.

I looked at my husband, but he looked away. If we waited for the seven o’clock flight, but didn’t get on, it would be too late and too tiring to do the 16-hour drive by car then. Backing out of going to Minnesota was not an option; even if Mr. Rapaport could find a replacement to run the children’s program, which I highly doubted, we had nowhere to spend Pesach. Our house was full of chometz.

So there we were, doing the 16-hour drive to Minnesota, counting the miles as they passed by. I was studiously avoiding looking at my husband. My mother-in-law, bursting with gratitude, was making up for my husband’s glares with thankful hand-squeezes that broke my heart.

I was sorely tempted to tell my husband the truth. It was so hard for me that he was angry.

But when we pulled up to the hotel minutes after daybreak, my mother-in-law pulled me into a hug. And I knew then that I was doing the right thing by keeping silent, by allowing my husband’s disappointment and frustration to be directed at me. It was a price worth paying for keeping this gracious woman’s dignity intact.

 

It’s not my fault. We’re going to miss our flight. And it’s not even my fault. It’s your mother’s

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 687)

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