| Family Tempo |

Time and Place: Chapter 3 of 3

They both laughed, and Michal remembered for a fleeting moment what she’d felt when they were dating. It was nice

The beginning of the ride was quiet. Not awkward, but quiet. Michal thought back to her conversation with Mordy.

“I’m not coming with you to Providence to see a dumb grave of a nonrelative.”

“But think about what could have been. We owe everything to them.”

“Look, I told you a million times since this thing started, I don’t care. Really don’t care. This is not something that keeps me up at night. I don’t do existential like you.”


“Why do you keep calling me and asking me? Go harass Chaim with this stuff.”


Michal had hung up on Mordy, and she knew Mordy well enough to know that he probably thought he’d hurt her, but he’d done something much worse. He’d held up a mirror and showed her the steps she was dancing in her marriage.

Michal shivered, shaking herself physically and mentally. She looked at Chaim, who was driving. He’d agreed on this mini-road trip the second she’d mentioned it, and she was proud of herself for asking him, allowing him into the mess of her family, and her life. They hadn’t discussed “talking to someone;” she hadn’t brought it up, and Chaim didn’t mention it again. Maybe he was giving her space; she was definitely taking it. Thinking about the comment later, she wasn’t sure what she felt. Not the indignation she’d felt when he’d first said it. Was it resignation? Chaim glanced sideways and noticed Michal’s gaze. She forced herself not to look away.

“This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I told you I love travel while we were dating,” Chaim joked.

Michal laughed, taking it in the jest he meant. “And this isn’t what I meant when I told you I love history.”

They both laughed, and Michal remembered for a fleeting moment what she’d felt when they were dating. It was nice.

She wasn’t sure what she was hoping to get out of going to the cemetery.

“I just feel compelled to go,” she had told Chaim. “It makes me think about an alternate reality or timeline, like what if they hadn’t died, where would I be?” She was talking to herself. What would the grave of two people she was almost related to tell her?

Halfway through the trip the gas light blinked on. Michal knew she should be annoyed that Chaim hadn’t filled up before the trip, but there was still a certain relief in the knowledge that she could fill up her car, her SUV, without a problem. Years away from counting change, and she still relished the thought.

They pulled into a rest stop that offered gas, food, and bathrooms.

“I’m gonna stretch my legs,” Michal said. “Want anything?”

Chaim shook his head.

Michal headed into the convenience store to browse, maybe get a cold drink. She walked to the fridges in the back and reached for a Diet Coke. On the shelf right above was Dr Pepper. Chaim liked that. She picked one out for him.

Ambling to the front, she took in the other people. Some seemed to be in a rush, some were loading up.  Her eyes fell on two young girls. Sisters, she guessed. They were standing near the snack bags. The older kept pointing to the generic chip bags, and the little one’s eyes were stuck on the Deep River Chips.

The sodas in her hands felt hot compared to the sudden freeze running through her. She had been that older sister to Mordy, and the necessity of pragmatism killed her every time. She knew their mother would blow a gasket if they ever bought the more expensive version, even if it cost just ten cents more.

Michal looked down; she only had her phone and credit card, but she always kept some cash in the car just in case. Putting the bottles down on counter, she motioned to the cashier that she’d be right back.

She ran back to the car and grabbed the cash in the console. “Tell you in a minute,” she said to the strange look Chaim gave her while he put the fuel nozzle back in the pump.

Back in the store, she walked quietly behind the two sisters, tapped the older one on the shoulder, put a $20 bill on the shelf, and continued walking. She didn’t look back, just went to the counter, paid for her drinks, and left.

Chaim had pulled the car to the front of the shop to wait for her; it felt like she was slipping into a getaway car.

“What was that all about?”

Michal shared. Chaim listened.

“You’re really good,” Chaim said, as they merged back onto the highway. “I would have never noticed them. And if I did, I wouldn’t know what to do besides feel bad.”

Michal shrugged. “If you’ve been there, you see it in a second.” She reached and turned the music on. This trip was heavy enough; she didn’t want to burden Chaim with more of her past. She remembered the Dr Pepper and picked it up. “Got you this.”

Chaim looked too grateful. We all have our own stories, she remembered her therapist saying. Chaim claimed to have the worst case of middle child syndrome; she’d always pooh poohed it. But here was its remedy, right in front of her, and offering it felt good.

“Have you heard the new Yussie Drimsner song — it’s so bad it’s good,” she said, turning the volume higher. They filled the three-hour trip with banter and music, and it felt almost right.

They finally pulled off the exit. Michal could see the cemetery from the highway, just to their right. A gnawing unease started building in her stomach. What was she doing?

Following the map of the cemetery they got from Google, and the location Tante Hindy had given them from her own family history sleuthing, they walked among the rows until they came to the right section. Michal noted that not all the areas they walked through were cared for. Some had small, weatherworn, and broken tombstones sitting on patched grass. The section they finally came to was neat, clean, bright. All the matzeivos lined up, row after row. It trailed off in some areas, had some patches in the middle, but it seemed precise, like the spot was waiting for someone. It should be creepy, but it comforted Michal. A spot saved just for you.

“Someone still cares about them,” she said.

“What?” Chaim didn’t understand her.

“They’re not forgotten, Herman and Baby Sarah. They’re in a section that’s kept up. Someone who cared paid for this.”

“Years ago.”

“Maybe, but they’re part of a chevra kaddisha that’s obviously still around. It lasts, so they last.”

As she said that, she realized there was more to what she said. As long as she connected herself to something larger than herself, she’d endure. She wished Mordy could hear this. But it was Chaim who came with her, who had attached himself to something larger than himself — to her. She’d been wondering if Herman’s marriage mattered at all. If Baby Sarah was lost to time, didn’t matter. But they were here, neat and kept. And she was here thinking about them. That must mean something.

“Here we are,” Chaim said. Michal looked; the tombstones were tiny. She stepped forward, unsure of what would come next.

The name on the stone read Chaim ben Yaakov. Herman was Chaim. That was just so right. She was meant to be here, as was Herman, and Chaim. Neither were forgotten, just gifted forward, it seemed.

Michal kneeled between the two graves. Then she hesitated. What was she supposed to do? The moment was falling flat fast. She took a step back.


Michal jumped. Chaim was next to her, she hadn’t seen him.

“This is weird, no?” he said.

Michal stared ahead, gave a small nod. What was he doing? Why didn’t he just give her space?

“Ever learn Derech Hashem?” he asked.

“No,” Michal replied. Did Chaim really think she was the Derech Hashem type? And was he really going to talk about something spiritual now?

“The Ramchal talks about what happens to the neshamah after a person passes away. There’s always a little bit left to the physical body, the ‘havla d’garmi,’ just enough for the rest of the neshamah to reattach itself at techiyas hameisim.”

Where was he going with this? Michal shifted her weight. He was just making everything worse, lecturing her.

“What that means is that in a cemetery, the people who are no longer with us are here. There’s a real spiritual piece of them, a piece that made them who they were, not just the body that is here. That’s why men tuck in their tzitzis, so the people buried here don’t get jealous that they can’t do mitzvos.” He paused. “It’s not just a nice idea. It’s real.”

“So I should just talk to them?” she asked.

“You can try,” Chaim said. He stepped back, giving Michal space again. She inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, and took in Chaim’s words. Opening her eyes again, she bent forward over the graves.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and she felt the gravity of her words overtake her senses. She felt tears, flowing freely down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she repeated. “For my life, for me. I promise to honor your memory. I’m gonna figure out my life, my Chaim, so you can hold on to me, like I’m holding on to you.”

Her hands brushed Baby Sarah’s tombstone. Maybe she would have a baby of her own one day. She looked back at Chaim. He was standing a way back, giving her space, a Tehillim in hand, reciting quietly.

There were a few flat pebbles on the ground. Michal placed one on each matzeivah. They were the only ones.

As they walked back to the car, Michal looked at Chaim. He was tall, handsome; he looked as comfortable in a cemetery as he did at the barbeque as he did in his Acura. Maybe he could handle her life, even if he didn’t get it. She cleared her throat.

“I’ve been thinking….” She let herself trail off, to gauge his response. He looked at her immediately. “I’ve reconnected a bit with Tante Hindy and Tante Leah. Tante Leah offered to take me to my father’s kever — I’ve never been there.”

If Chaim was shocked, he didn’t show it, and that scored him a lot of points. She waited, but he didn’t say anything.

“What do you think?” she asked. This was the true litmus test. What does he really think of her mess? This was all out of nowhere, her father’s family didn’t really exist to her; she hadn’t even considered inviting her father’s side to their wedding. Now she was going full-on family. Would he join her, stay far away, say something dumb?

Chaim walked a few paces in thought.

“Do you want to go?” he asked.

Michal blinked. She hadn’t expected that. She thought he’d offer an opinion, reveal his hand, but he was just following her lead. Listening. This was what she always said she wanted, but it felt so weird to get it. Ooof, this dynamic was all on her again.

“I think so?” Michal said. She stopped walking, looking around the cemetery.

Chaim looked at her, nodded, then dropped, “Do you want me to come?”

Michal pulled her sunglasses over her eyes; she didn’t know why it hurt so much. “I don’t know, I need to think about it,” she said, walking forward.

Chaim shrugged. “That’s fair. Let me know.” Then he cleared his throat, like he had something important to share.

“I learned Derech Hashem years ago,” Chaim said. “For all the wrong reasons. David, you know David, my friend from Israel. Anyway, we’re both huge fantasy fans, and he told me that Derech Hashem was the ultimate world-building, the Ramchal goes through how and why Hashem created the world and how it operates on different levels — and that’s the draw of fantasy, the world-building.”

He looked to see if Michal was following. She looked back. She was. It was easier to listen now than to talk, and he seemed to be in a talking mood.

“Anyway, I did it for all the wrong reasons, but it changed my life, it changed me, how I see the world, what I want out of it.”

Michal looked up at him, he seemed to be trying to say something, she wasn’t sure what. She knew he loved high fantasy, but this angle, no.

“I buckled down, finished my degree, starting to take my spiritual life seriously, ’cuz you know we’re so much bigger than the puny lives we live. And I got real clarity on the kind of person I wanted to spend my life with.”

Michal nodded absently. Really what was he saying? He stopped walking, turned to her, palms up. It felt like a plea.

“I know this whole family thing has gotten way more complicated than you planned or thought it was. I see you’re uncomfortable, and I don’t always know what to say to help make things right for you. But I want you to know that it’s all okay by me.”

He shifted his weight uncomfortably. The poor guy was trying so hard, it was so sweet, Michal thought. But he wasn’t done.

“We all come with a lot of baggage, our neshamos kind of require it of us. I guess I just want to tell you, it’s okay. I’m fine with things getting interesting and maybe a little weird. I’m here for you. Warts and all.”

He looked stricken as he realized he’d told Michal she had proverbial warts, but for once, she actually took his words at face value.

The cemetery was isolated, peaceful, and dead. The air thick with… something. Little pieces of neshamos, she thought now, couples who had walked this world together and now were together someplace else. It made her smile, instead of weirding her out. Chaim was right, she thought suddenly, she should go back to her therapist. But she wouldn’t tell him yet, wasn’t ready to give him that satisfaction.

“Thank you, Chaim,” she said instead. They walked in tandem to the car. “Let’s go home.”

Chaim smiled at her. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 853)

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