“The mommy you want to take you doesn’t exist,” Leah hissed, suddenly brutal. “Mommy will not dress you fit to be seen, baby. Her taste is gone”
“I am not going shopping with my mother for Yom Tov!” Leah shrieked.
She was standing in her bedroom next to a chair heaped with a strange mix of clothing for a 12th-grade Bais Yaakov girl — a pleated school skirt, a black slinky, assorted leggings and T-shirts, and a Shabbos dress.
From her own bed, where she was quietly sketching a copy of a small print, Devora popped a bubble of gum and tilted her head to the side.
“The whole class was arguing about clothes shopping with your mother versus with friends. Around mine and Dina’s desk. Not. One. Person. Thought about my mother! And these are my ‘friends.’ ” Leah screeched the last word, then collapsed onto her bed, throwing two pillows at her sister, hard.
“Do we need to go shopping?” Devora asked.
Leah shrugged. Her voice returned to normal. “Sure we do. I have nothing to wear.”
“We’re going to New City for first days, what do we wear there?”
Leah’s eyes flashed. “You want a cold-shoulder sweater? I’m sure Mommy will get you one.”
Devora looked back at her, but her eyes were unreadable.
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in, Ta,” Leah said.
“Hi.” Dovid Berger poked his head in. “You okay?” He didn’t mention her screaming fit.
Leah switched to practical, bossy oldest daughter mode. At seventeen, with no mother in the house, she had become the manager. Devora was sixteen, but way too spacey, and Tatty needed her help with the two younger ones.
“We need to go shopping for Yom Tov, Ta. Outfits and winter robes. Maybe shoes. And we need tons of tights and socks for the eight days.”
He nodded. “Yeah, you sure do. I can take you any evening or Sunday. So, uh, where and when do you want to go?”
Suri, thirteen, and Rochy, ten, were suddenly next to Dovid in the doorway. “We also need clothing, Tatty! And Shabbos shoes.”
“Right, sure you do,” he said again. “Tanta Estie offered to take you. You’ll go shopping with her on Sunday.”
“I want to go with Mommy,” Rochy muttered. “She told me once that she likes dressing me because everything looks good on a blonde.”
“Estie has great taste and she doesn’t skimp,” Leah told them both. “Go with Estie, you’ll be fine.”
Rochy still looked unsure, and it was ridiculous.
“The mommy you want to take you doesn’t exist,” Leah hissed, suddenly brutal. “Mommy will not dress you fit to be seen, baby. Her taste is gone.”
Tuesday evening was time for the weekly trip to Mommy’s. Her car was outside at 5:40. Suri and Rochy had stayed in school for a yom iyun.
“We have an agreement,” Tatty had said. “This is a mandatory school program.”
Suri had called Mommy to cancel visitation. Mommy wasn’t pleased.
Leah and Devora finished applying lip gloss and ran to Mommy’s Mini before she could get out of the car and stand on the path for all to see, out of place in the frum neighborhood like a flowering cactus in a gray asphalt urban lot. She was sitting with an elbow on the window frame.
“Hey, Lisa. Hiya, Debs.” There was a perfumed air kiss for Leah, who sat next to her.
“Hi, Ma,” Leah said. “Hey, when did you get this?”
There was a little pink wobbly toad with a book on the dashboard. The book said “Life is for loving… and reading.”
Her mother laughed loudly. “It’s from Dave. Like?”
She’d fallen straight into the trap. Dave, Jenna, Richie, Sue, and the rest of the newly-not-frum crew were the worst part of spending time with her mother.
Zeidy had nicknamed them the OC Squad. “It’s an Organized Crime,” he said. “And you’re the next target. What they want is to suck more and more people down into their low lives. It’s a way to get back at whoever they think wronged them.”
They’d gotten Mommy. And now, helping her get funding for her college courses, and her rent, and her car lease, and hanging out at her place whenever the kids were there, it almost seemed like everything was their fault. Except that Mommy was choosing it and loving it too, wasn’t she?
Mommy switched on the radio and they drove through the streets, loose hair blowing in the breeze, music blasting.
“I need you to do my nails again, Ma,” Leah said as they turned into her mother’s new neighborhood.
“Already? Did I not paint you up like three days ago?”
“I had to take it off.”
Ma pursed her lips and tapped Leah’s knee with her own sparkly fingertips. “Schools are for broadening the mind with education, not stifling all forms of self-expression.”
Mommy’s table was littered with books and e-cigs. It seemed to Leah as if her mother’s post-grad degree in art psychotherapy had ballooned to take up all the available space in her life. She lived it. In her new life, Ma lived like a single. There was no routine of getting kids up–serving breakfast–packing lunches–davening–driving car pool–going to work–cooking–cleaning–talking to Bubby–making Shabbos. Mommy was free to sleep when she wanted, eat when she wanted, cook or not cook as she chose. She had ditched the need to please Zeidy and Bubby and avoid Tatty’s frown. She had fun, like a carefree teen all over again.
Mommy was talkative as she cleared space on the table for their supper. “I’m just loving the clinical work we’re doing this week. The expressive element is a breath of fresh air, you would love it, Lisa.”
Leah smoothed the hand-painted canvas placemats. Kites were bold splashes of color against white gulls, a blue sky, and a curving golden bay. “Yeah, I would.”
“Very different from my first degree. When I was offered my choice of profession, there was speech, OT, and medical billing. Those were considered appropriate for an ultra-Orthodox girl. And teaching. I took the classes as a housewife, not a student. There was so much drudgery, you were not the easiest baby, Lisa…. And so stifling, that little all-women clinic.”
Leah nodded. Yes, it must have been hard, forced to choose from such limited options. She laid out the plastic cutlery that she and her sisters used here, and Mommy’s ruby red drinking glasses.
“When you’re looking at a career you need to view all your options, so you can choose a field that will excite you, that will let you express yourself. And that’s something I’ll insist on for you girls. You will go to college next year, Lisa. You’ll get the chance to spread your wings and get an education and immerse yourself in academics, in culture and the arts.”
Mommy’s hand, gaudy bangles and a bright, fake emerald instead of her diamond ring, felt warm on Leah’s arm.
“In the world of employment, you know, it’s not the Jewish degree courses that stand out. A high-flying student like you needs a degree people will respect.”
Student like you… people will respect. Yes, she wouldn’t be some invisible, mediocre girl with a degree.
“Sounds good,” Leah murmured. She was rewarded with a smile that reached Mommy’s eyes.
It was Leah’s night to load the dishwasher, a job she hated: scraping tomato sauce and dumping the unwanted mush of onions left on greasy plates.
Tatty had left the study door open, so that the hum of Gemara was in the background everywhere you went downstairs, even in the kitchen. When Mommy had been home, he’d gone to a night kollel, but since she’d left, he tried to be around much more. There was an evening chavrusa, Neufeld, who came over at eight o’clock, and the Sunday morning threesome of close friends whom Leah could hear learning — and schmoozing — from nine to eleven, as the girls slowly emerged from slumber.
Some part of Leah felt happy for Ta. At least he still had friends, was part of some crowd. He wore the same black and white and still fully belonged in his shul, his shiur, his company.
But mostly, she felt the crackling, searing bite of jealousy. Lucky Ta. No one was pulling at him. He was still standing on solid ground, whereas her feet had been pushed onto a landslide, where pebbles skidded and slid down into a world of Nowhere.
Supper had been one of Bubby’s typical meals — mushroom soup, savory meatballs, perfect spaghetti, and green beans. Leah missed Mommy’s chopped fresh herbs and spice rubs and playful, color-popping plates. She slid the last dishes into the dishwasher, measured detergent, and filled the pots with soap and water. When she was older, she’d definitely cook like Mommy. Crostini with every kind of fresh topping. Meat pizza. Quesadillas. Mommy made them differently now — chicken and cheese — like she claimed they were supposed to be.
But on Shabbos, Leah told herself, she’d always make golden soup with melt-in-your-mouth lokshen, like Bubby.
At 11:39 p.m., Leah put down the Jewish novel she was reading. Lucky them and their shidduch issues. An old, comfortably familiar plot she had enjoyed at fourteen, it was an escape from the cold shoulder of an emptied house and an in-between existence. Funny how she had taken Ma’s presence for granted, the simple humanity of someone being around the house, keeping things running, offering conversation. Mommy had always been out a lot, but morning and night she’d been there, doing laundry, switching on lights, talking.
Tatty was around. Always there, the best person to schmooze with. But right now he was on the phone. He was often on the phone: with his siblings, his friends, his parents, his rabbanim… with who-knew-how-many do-gooders, who were doubtless trying to help him deal with his poor kinderlach, the leibedige yesomim, Rachmana litzlan.
Her phone beeped from her pillow with an incoming message from Ma.
Hey, I’m looking into the campus Open House at a few colleges for u. We can go Succot vacation.
It was a tingling touch of connection. Leah felt a hunger.
She sent back a smile emoji.
Her sister looked up from where she was sleepily coloring another coiled seashell with her pastels.
“Will you miss me when I go to college?”
“You think I’ll like it there?”
Devora considered. “I think, maybe, yeah. And you’ll be someplace, you know… You won’t be hanging anymore, like… a fish out of water. No, whatever. That wasn’t it.”
“If I go to college, I’ll get a solid education. Which people will respect me for. It’ll represent me better than any Jewish degree, and it’ll get me further—”
“You sound like Ma. What I meant was, if you go to a college she picks out, you’ll be a clone of her. You’ll be someplace in a dorm.”
“I know,” Leah whispered.
Her phone beeped with a reply from Ma. Night, my girl.
“Lisa, good to see you chilling.”
Leah startled and her grip on Mommy’s phone loosened. It slid away from her onto the fuchsia couch, and Jenna picked it up and sat herself down at the same time. She tapped the phone, pausing the movie, but didn’t hand it back.
Leah felt hot, though it wasn’t as if Jenna cared about what she watched. She thought of standing up, but Mommy got upset if anyone “acted cold and sulky” to her friends.
Jenna looked at her appraisingly. “You’re an intense one, aren’t you, always studying? But it pays, Vanessa’s so proud of your grades.”
Leah nodded, feeling awkward.
“So which branch of science draws you the most? Sue has a friend who does career guidance for teens, I was just thinking aloud with Vanessa, we really should arrange an aptitude test even before you attend the college open house. It’s not too early for you to get a better idea of which careers would work for you…”
Suri and Rochy wandered into the room, probably seeking the iPhone. They always seemed to be joined at the hip in Mommy’s house.
“Hey, guys,” Jenna interrupted herself. “I like how you straightened your hair, Rachel.”
It was enough of an opportunity. Leah stood up. Leaving Jenna holding the phone out after her, she turned to the kitchen. Mommy was there, leaning against the oven, talking to Dave, Jenna’s brother, who wore two nose-studs and a shock of white blond hair and studied film.
“I’ll just go through to the garden,” she muttered, making for the screen door.
“Just give it time, Van,” Dave was saying. “Once they see how happy you are with your freedom, they will start to think independently. You’ll see Lisa shining in sciences or social studies, and one day Debra will exhibit her art.”
Mommy gave a brittle laugh. “I know you’re right.…”
Leah went outside and sat down on the hammock. She tucked her feet beneath her and rocked and rocked. When Jenna and Dave left, she pretended to be asleep.
The siddur dangled in Suri’s hands against the gray of the recliner as she leaned back, whispering absently. She wanted to sort out her closet and reorganize her jewelry-making supplies after breakfast. Maybe she would make a bracelet with those new sky-blue beads Bubby had bought.
In the early afternoon, Tatty would take them to visit both sets of grandparents, to get a brachah from Zeidy and then Zaida. Last Erev Yom Kippur, Mommy had still been home. She had sat down when Zaida put his hands on her sheitel, and Zaida had asked her to stand, a little impatiently, Suri remembered.
Leah was watching her from a window seat. “Talking to the wall?” she asked her little sister.
Suri flushed. She looked back into the siddur and continued with the Hallelukahs. Leah continued staring at her.
“Just saying what Mom used to say to me,” Leah said.
Suri bit her lip. Her fingers caressed the letters of her name on the lilac zippered siddur Tatty had bought for her bas mitzvah.
Suri held the siddur closer. “Hashem is near to whoever speaks to Him,” she whispered. “Mommy is just one person who has a problem believing it.”
Leah snorted. “Well, Ma, according to herself, lives in the real world.”
Suri was hugging her knees now, and her eyes were bright. “Dave and Jenna and Vicky and Sue and the rest of the OC squad? They’re the real world? They’re all people with issues and they don’t look that happy to me. They don’t even have families. You wanna look like Vicky in ten years time? I don’t, thanks.”
“But maybe they are in the real world?” Leah felt an ache behind her eyes and in her throat, but she persisted. “It’s how the world works, with degrees and professions and culture and professional sports and… Facebook and movies. You can’t live in a ghetto and not see what’s happening, and if you do, you’re left out of all the fun. You can’t have a fulfilling career and really express yourself if you’re so boxed in.”
The room was quiet. Leah swung her leg back and forth.
Suri brought her gaze back to the table between them. “Leah, Mommy left us. She left me, and I’m only thirteen, okay? And I don’t have a mother in my house now. And neither does Rochy, and she’s only ten. If she could wreck our lives like that, she could do anything to anyone. I miss our old lives… but I don’t believe what she says.”
The white-clothed table was still strewn with challah crumbs and drinking glasses. A tray of crystal candlesticks was in the center. Mommy had taken her silver ones with her when she left. Why? Leah often wondered. Why did she need the golden light of candles when the huge 4K TV screen lit up her living room seven nights a week?
Would she light them tonight?
Ta tied the belt of his un-ironed kittel and waited by the mantelpiece. His voice seemed to have gone wherever the spirit of their house had gone, and he gestured Leah over to him with a finger. His hands cupped her face, then rested on her head, and it was as if a hot current coursed through them in a trembling, wordless storm.
She had once hated it when her parents cried. Once, when she had been just a regular cute, chatty teen, she would have run a million miles if Tatty got choked up. Total cringe. Sooo awkward. Now her world had crashed and splintered and she wasn’t the old Leah. She’d cried such endless tears of shame, pain, and loneliness, and it felt valid and right and deserved, even, that Tatty should cry. Let him.
Tatty finished, and stooped a little to kiss her. “Thank you, Leah ziskeit, for everything you do for me and our family. Have a gut gebentsht yohr, and may the Eibeshter bentsh you with everything you ask, always.”
“Morning, guys, happy vacation! What are we doing today?”
It was ten o’clock, the morning after Yom Kippur, and Tatty was home from shul, sleeves rolled up, flipping pancakes at the stove. Even Devora was smiling, relief from the heaviness of the fast spreading through the room.
“A flour fight?” Rochy suggested, prodding the bag of flour and sending white spatters over the counter.
“Sure. Before you eat or after?”
Rochy stuck out her plate to him. “After! Do we have strawberry syrup?”
“The pancakes are yum,” Suri said.
“Good.” Tatty brought his plate over, handed Leah a tub of sour cream, and sat down at the table. “Everyone feeling okay after the fast?”
“Just tired,” Leah said, yawning. It’s okay, Ma, don’t bother calling to ask how we are, after three of your kids just fasted for 25 hours.
“So, we can go out somewhere if you want. Or does anyone want to bake?” He looked at Leah, that was her hobby. “We could take some show-stopper desserts over to Bubby’s for second days. I have to help Zeidy with the succah today, that’ll take me like two hours. But if you have other plans, I can leave that for the evening. Of course, Zeidy would love if you all came. And I didn’t forget the seamstress and the shoe stores.”
The plans were almost finalized by general consent when Rochy said, “Is Ma being at home for first days, when we’re going to her?”
“I guess so,” Tatty said quietly.
Rochy sighed. She was pushing a piece of pancake around her plate with a fork.
Leah cleared her throat in the silence. “We’ll take nosh along, and Bubby said everyone gets to choose a new book for Yom Tov. We’ll take them, too.”
“She told me she’ll have a succah and we’ll have Yom Tov parties.”
“With Dave and Jenna and Vicky and Sue,” Suri grumbled.
“Hashtag Sue, you mean,” Devora said suddenly, and everyone laughed.
“I’ll take along my mosaic craft,” Rochy said, thinking aloud. “It can be the first decoration in the succah in Mommy’s house.”
It was a beautiful white dove, soaring over the Kosel wall, with colorful silhouettes huddled in prayer at the bottom. Delicately beaded in coral shades against the blue sky was the caption: “Knesses Yisrael nimshelah l’Yonah.”
Rochy had gone shopping with Tatty for it, her birthday falling during summer vacation, just weeks after she had been sent to stay with Bubby so she wouldn’t see Mommy and her friends packing her stuff out of the house. All the mosaic crafts had been beautiful, but something had drawn her to the way the dove seemed to soar above all else. And birds had such grace, Mommy always said. The bird had won her over.
She had tweezed the beads into place patiently, lovingly, occasionally helped by Suri. How perfectly each one fit into its place in the picture.
Now it was ready, and Rochy held it in a large bag on her lap the entire drive to Mommy’s house on Erev Yom Tov. She wanted to see it over Succos, not leave it in their own deserted succah or take it to Zeidy and Bubby’s, where Tatty would spend first days.
She was quiet, sipping a cool slush Mommy had brought. It was rainbow-colored and tasted like jellybeans. Suri was davening Shacharis next to her. The chatter in the car came mostly from Leah and Mommy about somewhere they had planned to go on Chol Hamoed. Whatever. She didn’t mind car rides and interesting trips to open air markets and those stunningly furnished designer houses, even if they were nothing like the trips her friends’ families went on, to Jewish concerts or amusements parks.
“I did the soo-kah dazzling for you, girlies,” Mommy said, suddenly. “I had fun shining up the branches with a gold spray, and Sue helped me get the coolest crystal flowers that reflect the light onto the party table. And miniature pineapples. Dave and I hung it all up, and we’ll have our meals in real soo-kah style.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Leah replied.
They pulled up to Mommy’s apartment and unloaded the suitcases, shoe boxes and packages of kosher takeout. Rochy dumped her stuff in the hallway and clutched her mosaic as she followed Mommy through the house. Instead of taking the door out to the deck, which she’d expected, Mommy went into the small conservatory off the kitchen. Its domed glass roof had been transformed with elegant gold and brown branches, and the morning light streaming through crystals made flower shaped prisms on the white tabletop. Rochy blinked. She glanced up through the branches, through the dome. Sky.
Moving to the further wall, she gaped upward again. There was the brick wall of the house. Right side. Sky. Left side. Neighbor’s wall.
Where were the ropes for the retractable roof?
Rochy’s eyes moved back and forth. “Does the roof lift off? Slide off?”
Her mother took the bag she was holding and opened it. “Oooh, gorgeous, Rachel. This is faaab. Aww, you know how I love the bird motif. So pretty. So where do I hang?”
Mommy walked around, holding up the dove to the glass walls appraisingly.
“How does it open, Ma?”
“Aww, Rachel, it’s a conservatory. See the stars at night through the glass and feel yourself in the outdoors…”
The colorful smoothie swirled in her gut and threatened to come out. Rochy looked around one more time, and dashed out of the suffocating soo-kah conservatory.
“I’m gonna drop you off for an hour, I have an appointment at the other side of the mall.”
Mommy had driven them to the mall after they’d unpacked and eaten lunch. She would cook on Soo-kot as she did every other day, she said, so there was nothing to do at home. The kids could eat the kosher takeout cold, if they preferred, of course, though she’d be grilling fresh for her friends who were coming over.
“Go have fun, and when I’m done, we’ll go to Macy’s for makeovers.”
Leah got out the car and moved away from it. After a few seconds’ pause, she heard Devora’s voice waving Mom off. “See ya.”
They walked together through the movie theater pavilion toward the stores. Leah threw her bag down on a cluster of leather, tub-shaped couches under an indoor palm and then sat down.
Her sisters followed. Rochy’s face was still pale. Leah felt heartsick, but there was also the familiar burst of frustration in her sadness. Had she really thought Ma cared about having a succah? How long was she going to stay in la-la land? Ma was done with being frum.
“I didn’t think Mommy cared about Succos,” Rochy said suddenly. Suri squeezed her hand, and she continued. “I just thought she still cared about us.”
The words shattered the air around them into tiny shards, which pricked and prickled and tore and stung and jerked Leah breathless.
“No,” Suri whispered. “She only cares about herself now.”
Groups of shoppers passed by, chattering. Three Chabad chassidim carrying knapsacks and several sets of arba minim walked through the arched entrance to the pavilion and set up a table.
Not about how we feel after fasting. Not about how embarrassing it is when she stands in front of the house with uncovered hair. Not about Rochy having a succah, or the hundred other things that a ten-year old girl needs from her mother.
“She wants us on her side, to prove her point,” Leah said suddenly. “We’re the pawns in her grand production for the OC Squad. They’re cheering us all on….”
Leah felt as if her head was made of cement. Ma really only cares about herself. Ma is fun, but she’s not there for us. It’s like she’s a teen herself, on her own merry path to artistic fulfillment. Not a parent.
Sending her to college, then, was all about Ma, not about Leah. No way was she going to be the next score on the OC squad card.
“I want to go home,” Rochy muttered.
Leah leaned forward and caught her eyes. “Me too,” she said.
The chassidim unwrapped the sets of arba minim on their table. If only she was near enough to shake Tatty’s, to lean on his shoulder and feel his solidity, see the I’ll always be here for you in his eyes.
Please, G-d, help us be strong, Leah thought, her first real prayer in months.
She turned to her sisters. “Guys, let’s ask them if we can take a lulav and esrog back with us.”
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 781)