Wise Son| June 18, 2016
“Why would Hashem want me to suffer so much humiliation from being with my sister-in-law all Yom Tov? I mean, you know how small I feel next to her, Shmu—she’s an impossible act to follow!”
It all started when my mother got mono.
Well the truth is it started way before that. Because the fact is that Mommy and Aunt Shana have never gotten along and apparently at least where my mother’s concerned it was hate at first sight.
Look I won’t deny it. Aunt Shana is definitely a tough act to follow. First off her husband Uncle Chaim is a self-made millionaire and as my Bubby likes to say everything he touches basically turns to gold. Which means that while my family sort of struggles to pay the bills their family lives in a massive mansion and has every new toy and gadget before it hits the market. And the other thing is that on top of it all Aunt Shana is just so…nice. See if she was stuck-up and snooty it would probably be easier to hate her cuz then it’s just so black-and-white. But the problem is she’s this really sweet person who’s always running around doing chesed for people and volunteering for tons of organizations and stuff so that complicates things a lot. Trust me. You know these things growing up.
I’m only twelve okay but I can imagine that if I had a brother who was so crazy successful I’d also be insanely jealous I mean uh uncomfortable around him like my parents are with Uncle Chaim and Aunt Shana. I mean it’s really hard to watch. Especially because my father works so hard as a computer programmer but he hasn’t had much luck finding steady jobs and my mother’s an OT and she has a terrible boss who makes her feel like dirt so there you go — not a pretty picture!
So back to the mono thing. We kind of knew something was wrong because my mother was in bed already for a week and not getting any better and her boss kept calling and asking when she was coming back to work but Mommy could barely even lift the phone to talk. Finally my father literally dragged her to the doctor and we got the news a day later: mono. A kid in my class had mono in fourth grade and he was out for an entire month so it sounded pretty scary. Especially when my mother got off the phone with the doctor and this huge tear ran down her face and she said only one word: “Pesach.”
Right. Pesach. Three weeks away.
“We’ll hire people to do the cleaning” my father said going into his This Is Gonna Be Okay voice. “And we’ll just buy all the food.”
“We can’t afford that” my mother croaked out. “Maybe I’ll be better by then.”
In my family it doesn’t take long for things to get around so I wasn’t surprised when I saw Aunt Shana’s number on the caller ID. Thing is I couldn’t exactly pass the phone to my mother because a) she was fast asleep and b) even if she wasn’t feeling horrible Aunt Shana would be the last person she’d want to speak to. So instead I gave the phone to my father.
Let me just confirm this for all you parents out there: Yes we hear everything you say. Yes we fill in all the blanks and interpret everything that isn’t being said because we’re really smart and crazy intuitive. So all that little pitchers big ears stuff is one hundred percent true just so you know. And closeting yourself in the bathroom or talking in broken Yiddish or pig Latin doesn’t help much because we are truly uncanny. Not to make you paranoid or anything just giving you the facts.
Anyway back to the phone call.
After my father’s eyebrows shot up way past his eyeglasses and he finished pacing back and forth around the living room he finally said in this kind of shaky way “Thank you very much Shana. I really appreciate the offer. I’ll talk it over with Mindy and we’ll see what happens.”
This was all happening while I was faking studying for my math test you understand and it was a good five minutes before I could get wind of anything interesting. Then my father said “But we’d need at least two rooms — we can’t have you guys laying out that kind of money.” Eureka! It took every inch of restraint not to grab my father’s arm and say “Just say “yes” fast before they take it back!” I mean it was obvious that Aunt Shana was offering us a free ticket to a hotel for Pesach!
I could tell when my father got off the phone that he was fighting with himself to be calm and collected. Now he had to pitch Aunt Shana’s offer to my mother and that wasn’t going to be easy.
We heard all about it all right. Not directly of course. I mean their bedroom door was closed and all. It just so happened that I needed to shower and — coincidentally — the boys’ bathroom adjoins my parents’ room. Such a smart architect — I gotta thank him one day. Anyway it was quite the fireworks especially for someone as sick and weak as my mother.
“NO WAY!” she kind of shrieked. “I’m not going to be her next chesed case so she can brag to the whole world that she sent her nebbach sister-in-law to a hotel for Pesach!”
“And besides” my mother panted. “Do you know how much money it would cost just to buy wardrobes for the kids? In these places it’s crazy what goes on. They change outfits every meal!”
My father kind of mumbled something about Aunt Shana offering to take the kids shopping but my mother cut him off.
“This is ridiculous!” she said. “There’s no way we’re going and that’s final!”
Call me an optimist but I knew there was no way we were not going and I think my father kind of knew that too because he said “But Mindy let’s be reasonable. We can’t make Pesach with you in this condition. I think we really have to consider this offer and not look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially under the circumstances.”
By “under the circumstances” he probably meant the fact that he’s been out of a regular kind of job for a while and making Pesach is expensive any way you dice it. Trust me — I know these things.
That’s when my mother said “Shmuel don’t you get it? This gift horse bites!”
Shana gave a sunny smile at the warm welcome from her beloved “home team.” She threw down her bag and took a seat at the table.
“Where are we holding, ladies?” she asked, peeling off the plastic wrap on a large platter of cut veggies with a crystal bowl of dip at its center.
“Oh, Shana, you didn’t! I’m starving, and on a diet!” Elky Novack cried rapturously, reaching for a handful of perfectly julienned carrot sticks.
“Leave it to Shana,” Miriam Kook enthused. “You’re the best, Shan. Anyway, we gotta get to work here, people. How does everyone’s calendars look for the week of May seventh?”
Five fingers tapped five phones in perfect unison.
“Oish, my sister-in-law’s sister is getting married,” groaned Toby Reis. “I really need to go — it’s political.”
“I can probably swing it. I have dental cleanings for a couple of the kids but I can move them,” Elky offered. “I mean, there’s never going to be a date that works for everyone, that’s impossible. Whoever can make it on the actual day of the auction will come and whoever can’t, they’ll help out before and we’ll have tons of volunteers, anyway, on the day of.”
“It’s my mother-in-law’s birthday, actually,” Shana said, biting her lip. “I’m probably going to do some kind of party for her, so I may have to bail out on you guys. I’m sorry…”
Rochelle Grunberg looked up from where she was checking out her BYLA Class of ‘87 WhatsApp group’s latest and greatest.
“Your mother-in-law?” she said blandly. “You’re making her a big birthday bash? Is it, like, her sixtieth or something major?”
“Nah, I just like making parties,” Shana shrugged. “And if it makes her feel good, then why not?”
“Why not?” Rochelle snorted. “Why yes? She’s your mother-in-law, not your best friend. Unless you’re still looking to score brownie points, like, ten years into marriage?” She raised severely plucked eyebrows. “Believe me, though, it’s a lost cause. Does she even appreciate it?”
Chairwoman of the PTA Miriam sighed and tapped her fingernails impatiently. These “business meetings” always somehow evolved into gripe sessions, but a little group therapy amongst friends couldn’t hurt, could it?
“I think it’s really sweet that Shana’s making a party for her mother-in-law,” said Temmy Pollack stoutly, flashing Shana a supportive smile. “I’m sure she appreciates it, and anyway, ladies, these women are in our lives, here to stay, so a little nicey-nicey periodically isn’t so out of place, just saying…”
“Pass the dip and three cucumbers.” Toby leaned back languidly in her seat. “What’s happening this year for Pesach, by the way?” She glanced apologetically at Miriam. “Sorry. Two seconds on the Pesach situation and then we’re back to business. Promise.”
“Nothing exciting this year, unless you feel like schlepping to China.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “You can definitely count me out of that. We did Cancun last year but honestly, I wouldn’t go back. It gets old, and the shlep — with kids and luggage, a nightmare!”
Elky nodded understandingly.
“We’re doing the Texas ranch thing they’ve been advertising all over the place,” Shana said, looking around the table cautiously. “We’re hoping to go away with my sister-in-law and her family this year so we need something, y’know, family friendly.”
“Your sister-in-law? Who? Mindy?” Toby’s eyes became a little owlish behind her huge plastic frames. “She can afford the Texas thing for Pesach? I mean, I’m not saying anything negative, just I didn’t know they had the money for it…”
Shana pursed her lips.
“We worked it out,” she said. “She just came down with mono. There’s no way she’s making Pesach, and her parents have a tiny place so they can’t host, and my in-laws come with us every year as it is.”
“Don’t tell me you’re treating,” said Rochelle pointedly, pouring herself some sparkling water. “That would be so over-the-top nice of you, Shana.”
Shana just looked away.
“She must be so grateful,” Miriam said softly. “That is super generous of you, Shana. Was she, like, over the moon when you told her?”
Shana colored and waved her hand dismissively.
“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” she said quickly, before her committee could surmise the painful truth.
“I have a question!”
Shmuel looked up from Chana’s parshah sheet and shot Gershi a quizzical look.
“Question? Hang on a sec. Lemme finish with Chana.”
From her perch on the couch, laden with two blankets and a hot-water bottle, Mindy made an urgent gesture. Oh. That meant Focus on Gershi. He needs attention more than Chana right now. Remember we discussed this just yesterday?! Shmuel forced his mouth into a little smile. “What is it, Gershi? What’s your question, tzaddik’el?”
Gershi leaned forward earnestly. The kid was, Shmuel had to admit, rather bright. And way too precocious for his own good.
“Almost Pesach so I’m getting ready. Y’know, Mah Nishtana, questions, that sort of thing.” Gershi gave an endearing little grin. “See, it’s like this,” he glanced sidelong at his mother before attacking his father with those glinting green eyes. “I have this friend, this kid in my class, and he was telling me how his life is so tough. He has to work so hard to get good grades, and he doesn’t have that many friends. So he looks at other kids in our class and there are a few kids who are just so smart and so talented and they’re so popular, and he’s, like, ‘it’s not even fair! How come they have everything coming to them and I don’t?!’”
Shmuel helped himself to more cholent, waiting to hear the promised question, but Gershi fell silent.
“Uh, what’s your question, Gershi?” he prodded.
“That’s my question,” said Gershi, staring deadpan as his father loaded in a hefty forkful. “I mean, it’s a good question, right? How come some people have it all coming to them and other people don’t?”
Shmuel looked down at his plate and then briefly at his wife.
“Uh, hmmm. Good question,” he said to buy time, loosening his tie. “Uh, the answer is, Gershi, that Hashem has a different plan for everyone. And every person is given their challenges and also their strengths — whatever they need to carry out their tafkid in the world.” He blinked and looked over again at Mindy on the couch for approval, but she was staring, glassy-eyed, at the breakfront, probably wondering how she was going to get it clean for Pesach. He focused again on Gershi. “Do you get what I’m saying? I mean, does that make sense?”
“Uh huh.” Gershi’s head bobbed up and down. “I get it. So it’s not like it’s bad for someone to have a lot of strengths, right? Or for another person to have certain challenges. It doesn’t make it that one person is better than the other person or anything like that, right?”
“Um, no,” Shmuel said, detecting a hint of something sharp in Gershi’s voice. “Why would it be bad to have challenges or good to have strengths? That wouldn’t make sense, would it? What are you trying to ask, Gershi?” He found himself feeling annoyed, and then feeling further annoyed for getting annoyed without even knowing why.
“Nothing.” The kid’s face was guileless, but something was definitely lurking beneath the surface. Maybe Mindy was right and he really was struggling. Shmuel put down his fork loudly.
“Maybe I’m not explaining it right?” he forced himself to say more gently.
“You’re never doing my parshah sheet!” broke in Chana with a six-year-old whine. “You only spend time with Gershi!”
“It’s fine,” said Gershi with a magnanimous wave. “You can do the parshah sheet. I got my answer. Thanks!”
“Mommy, is it true that Hashem works through all types of shluchim?”
Mindy pushed the lozenge to the side of her mouth and cleared her aching throat.
“Uh, what, honey? Say that again.”
Gershi came closer.
“That Hashem works through different shluchim. Like that Hashem uses people to get His Plan carried out?”
Mindy looked at him for a long moment and then gave an uncertain nod.
“Yeah. I mean, of course — that’s how Hashem works. Hashem doesn’t make open miracles when He can work through natural ways, if that’s what you’re asking.” Her eyes narrowed. “Why, Gershi?”
He just shrugged.
Something was obviously bothering him. To be fair, having a non-functioning mother glued to the couch probably wasn’t all that comfortable for any kid, but he seemed to be taking it the hardest. Gershi had always been super sensitive. Makas bechoros…
“Come here, sweetie,” she rasped. “Are you worried about Mommy being sick?” She held his face in her ice-cold hands. “This is just temporary,” Mindy intoned. “I’m going to get better really soon.”
Gershi looked at his mother solemnly.
“Oh, I know that,” he said, with certainty. “That’s not the problem here.”
“Oh.” She released her grip. “What is the problem then?”
He tilted his head to a rakish angle and eyed her peculiarly.
“No problem, actually,” said Gershi. “Nothing at all. Oh — and thanks for the answer to my question.”
“Do you get a feeling there’s something going on with Gershi?” Shmuel asked as he loosened the laces of his shoes. “I mean, what is up with him and his questions?”
“Another one?” Mindy groaned. “He’s becoming a real philosopher these days.” She chuckled. “That kid. He really is too much. What’s it this time?”
Shmuel pinched his face in classic imitation of his bechor.
“Tatty, I got a question for you. When you take from someone, does that mean you’re a taker or you’re really giving because you’re giving the person the pleasure of letting them give to you?”
Mindy sucked in a breath.
“That’s what he asked?” she said sharply. “That’s what he said?”
“Um, yeah, that’s what he said. Why?” Shmuel scratched his head. “Where’s he getting all these questions from? I mean, it’s not exactly unusual for this kid, but still, he’s into this ‘I got a question’ mode. What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Mindy said uncertainly. “By the way, uh, did you, um, speak to Shana?”
“Speak to Shana?” he yawned. “What, exactly, am I supposed to tell her?”
Mindy’s face reddened.
“How about that we’re not coming with her to the hotel?” she said. “That she can give the money to a different chari—” She stopped short. “I mean, do you…do you think that…that maybe…” She traced the argyle of the afghan on her lap. “Do you think that this is Hashem’s way of helping us make Pesach this year?” Her voice trailed off thoughtfully as Shmuel wisely kept his gaze focused on his shoes. “How could that be, though?” Mindy went on. “Why would Hashem want me to suffer so much humiliation from being with my sister-in-law all Yom Tov? I mean, you know how small I feel next to her, Shmu—she’s an impossible act to follow! Plus, I look terrible right now, so compared to her it’ll be like Beauty and the Beast!” She gave an emphatic shake of her head. “I can’t do it! I just can’t.”
For supper, Chaim and Shana had three pizza pies delivered, along with an oversized container of French fries and two bottles of Coke.
“Coke!” Mindy fumed openly. “She had to send Coke of all things, so the kids won’t be able to sleep tonight!”
“Yum!” exclaimed nine-year-old Eli, tucking into his third slice. “Aunt Shana’s nice!”
“I have a question!” said Gershi when a chewing silence had settled in.
It was getting a little annoying. Shmuel shot him a Look, but Gershi didn’t even notice.
“How could Hashem make it that there’s a mitzvah in the Torah that we’re not allowed to be jealous?” Gershi asked nonchalantly. “I mean, what if you’re really jealous of someone? How is it even possible to get over it?”
“Gershi!” Shmuel choked a little on his Coke. “Are you being chutzpadik?”
“Me?” Gershi’s eyes went wide. “What’s chutzpadik about what I said? I was just asking a question.”
“Yeah, well you’ve been asking lots of questions, Young Man, and I’m getting kind of fed up.” He’d spent the afternoon making phone calls to cleaning services and the amount it would cost them to get Pesachdik would wipe out their savings, plus.
“So…there really isn’t an answer then?” said Gershi, staring despondently down at his empty plate.
The kid looked genuinely disappointed. Maybe he really was going through some kind of a stage? You never knew with kids these days. Shmuel took a deep breath.
“No, no, of course I have an answer for you,” he rushed to say. “Uh, the thing is that jealousy is definitely something that people struggle with, but Hashem expects us to get over it. Like we should have emunah that whatever we get is what we’re supposed to have and what someone else gets isn’t our business.” He was warming to the lesson. On the couch, Mindy stirred. “Y’know, that’s really the right derech, Gershi. Because if you understand it that way, that each person gets whatever’s best for them, then there’s no such thing as jealousy. Would I be jealous of a person if they, let’s say, won the Nobel Prize? Of course not! Because it’s something so far-removed from me. I know it’s not mine. The same thing applies to anything another person has. If they have a nicer car or a nicer house or better toys, obviously Hashem wanted that person to have what they have and He wanted me to have what I have. What they have isn’t mine, and what I have isn’t theirs. You see what I’m saying?”
He peered at his son more closely. Gershi was enthusiastically inhaling another slice of pizza so why did he, Shmuel, have the uncanny feeling that some kind of trial was going on and the defendant had just given over a very incriminating piece of testimony?
“Thanks, Tatty,” Gershi said, after a long, leisurely swallow. “That was such a great answer!”
“Shmuel? Get up, Shmuel!”
He jerked awake with a start and reached instinctively for the light.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m okay.” Her voice was hoarse, urgent. “Listen to me. We should go for Pesach.”
He blinked like a mole in the bright light.
“You…what did you say?”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it. We should really take Shana up on her offer. It’s nice of her, you know. And Chaim also. They’re good people, Shmuel.”
He peered at her. Maybe she had overdosed on Motrin?
“Y-you okay, Mind?”
“I’m fine,” she snapped, “Don’t make it sound like this is so out of character for me. They are good people. You saw how they sent over supper and she keeps calling if she can take the kids or help out. And they want to pay for us to go to a hotel for Pesach! You realize how much money that is? I don’t care if you’re a millionaire or a billionaire, that kind of money — not everyone can find it in their heart to part with that kind of money! And…it’s not like we’ll be beholden to them — they’re not expecting anything else in return. I…” She cleared her throat. “I think they actually enjoy giving. They’re just shluchim, you know what I mean?”
He made an effort to say something coherent but all that came out was a high-pitched wheeze.
“You sleeping?” she admonished. “Never mind. I’ll call Shana in the morning myself.”
Lemme tell you, the 24/7 tea room was awesome, and this year they brought in a mind-reader and a circus — the whole thing was a dream come true, and I’m not one to exaggerate! Best of all was spending lots of time with all my cousins, which is something we never really got to do before because my mother wasn’t on speaking terms with my aunt, er, I mean, because there was a slight misunderstanding going on for a while. These things happen, you know.
I’m not sure if it was all that great food or just the relaxing atmosphere, but my mother recovered, like, the second we got to that place—call it the Pesach Hotel Cure, and she spent all her free time reminding us kids to make a Kiddush Hashem and chilling with Aunt Shana, of course.
You know, the thing about hotels is that the walls are so ridiculously thin, so it’s totally not my fault that I happened to overhear my mother tell my father, “I’ve really misjudged Shana and Chaim all these years. They’re such wonderful, generous, kind-hearted people. We are so lucky to have them in our lives!”
Kids. You just can’t take us anywhere!
It was only when we were sitting around the Seder table with our brand new designer outfits courtesy of Aunt Shana, about to start Maggid, when my father gave me the strangest look.
“Gershi,” he said. “Will you be asking the Mah Nishtana this year or are you finally out of questions?”
I guess I must have looked pretty startled because he sort of laughed and patted me on the head.
“Never mind,” said Tatty, exchanging a private look with my mother. “I think we got our answer.”
(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 607)
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