Something Permanent

IMG_1239Written three years ago- dreams do come true.  People change.

Welcome, Liad Meir.

———-

To my unborn fourth child, the one I just might not create, the one I may choose to not give life.  

I dreamed of you, a tiny ball of cells, then growing into a petite baby, chicken-like, the youngest of three older siblings.  I groped at the vision, held it tightly in my fists so that when I birthed my third, and when I weaned her, I wasn’t pained with thoughts of This is my last.  I keep boxes of neatly folded clothing for you in the attic, covered by a filmy layer of dust.  Four is a nice number, round, even, an ideal family.  But I might stop at three.

I wonder what will become of you; if you will be reassigned, begrudgingly, to another family, or if you will exist for the duration of the world as a bodiless soul, wandering between heaven and earth, one leg straddling each, but never quite belonging.  Will you cry invisible tears of longing, shouting words that won’t be heard because you don’t have a voice?  Will you never matter?

I think you would be a little boy, a soulful playmate to your older brother, who constantly beseeches me with, “Why don’t I have a boy to play with?” as he only has two sisters.  You would race cars together on our hardwood floors, sliding on your knees as you struggle to see who can reach the dining room table first.  You would play hockey in the driveway, boys against girls, and you’d probably have to play goalee, the less desirable position often relegated to the younger, slower siblings.  I would call you “Liad,” Hebrew for Mine, Forever. 

***

“Should I give away the exersaucer?” I ask Yoni one day, because Mica, at a year old, has outgrown it, and it is serving as a dumbwaiter for clothing in our walk-in closet.  I am testing him, his resolve to end our child-bearing years.  If he sincerely does not want more children, he will want to be rid of the extra clutter.

“Sure,” he says, shrugging, “just give it to your sister, or something.”  I am crestfallen, still hoping to catch his bluff, and so I ignore the conversation, leaving the exersaucer as is, until it gets placed lovingly in the attic, next to the defunct baby swing, baby bjorn, and boppy pillow.

Not having a bigger family leaves me feeling unfulfilled.  As a child, all I wanted to do was grow up to be “a Mother.”  I felt that having children defined me as a person, gave me credibility, stood next to my name in place of a “phd” or “md”.  The more I had, the better I was, and somehow, I don’t quite feel that I have made Phi Betta Kappa yet.  But I suppose I should feel relieved that there are no more sleepless nights in store for me, that I will no longer awaken in a puddle of breast-milk or worry about errant projectile peeing, on my sheets, during hours of the night when even the streetlights are asleep.  I should be happy to graduate from baby-making to the “rest of my life,” and yet, I am not.

Yoni worries about my deteriorating health, the advancing of my autoimmune condition, the well-being of our children, and his ability to provide.  He does not want more children.  We used to see eye-to-eye on this, especially during my third pregnancy, when I felt my veins bulging out of my legs, throbbing, independent of my heart, and had to limp around in $130 compression stockings that would tear every two weeks.  I vowed never to go through it again, that Mica would be my last.  But then I had an easy (early!) labor, an even easier delivery.  And the baby was a living angel.  How could I not want another?   I’ve changed my mind, and I’d like to change his, too.  I would like us to have a fourth.

“Trick him,” a friend suggests, over sushi and crispy beef.   But I can’t fathom bringing a child into this world against his will.  I can’t create a life out of a dishonest gesture.  It has to come from him, physically, mentally, willfully.

“Maybe you should consider something more permanent,” my OB says to me, one afternoon, over the phone, her voice a smooth, velvety song.  I had called to complain about my copper coil IUD, again, unsure of my ability to survive much longer with the device implanted and invading my uterine space.  With the endless monthly hemorrhaging it caused.  It is an antennaed alien crowding my soft tissue, and It needs to go.  Sometimes, I can even feel subtle vibrations, and I am convinced that it picks up sound signals.  My own little transistor radio, tuning me in to the life beyond.

But the finality of her statement is haunting, as I have exhausted and eliminated all other methods of birth control.  “You might want to get a tubal ligation.  It’s a good option for women with medical issues, like you, who aren’t planning on having more children,” she offers, trying to be helpful.  Tears sting at my eyes, and I am grateful not to be in her office, sitting, exposed on the examining table, crying into the paper-gown which would disintegrate when wet.  I am only 28, and yet I am considering ending my child-bearing potential.  I have friends who haven’t even started.

“Think about it,” she says.  “Discuss it with your husband.”  But I don’t want to, because I worry that he might say yes.  I hang up the phone and stare blankly into the emptiness of my kitchen, at the still air hanging softly, motionlessly in pockets around my face.  On my to-do list, an X was unwillingly being put next to “have a family.”  It was finished, but I didn’t feel complete.

I immediately call Yoni at the office, even though I thought I’d wait until later in the evening.  I hold my breath, hoping he picks up his phone and that he is not with a patient.  I hope he is by his desk.  He answers.  “The doctor thinks I should get a tubal ligation!” I gush into the phone.  “This IUD is just not working for me, and I don’t have many other options…” I drone on, repeating my earlier conversation, between gasps and sniffles.

He listens carefully, and I strain to hear the subtle nodding of his head across the phone lines, over the miles that separate us.  I imagine his eyes must be lighting up at the simplicity of the birth control solution, the sudden end to all future, “So… should we try for another?” discussions that will never have to happen.

And yet, without hesitation, he says, “No.”

“Really?” I say.

“You’re so young,” he continues.

I nod.  Maybe there will be a fourth, then.

“You don’t know what will happen in the future.”

Definitely, a fourth.

“What if I die, and you remarry, and that man wants to have another kid with you?”

Maybe not.

He might want to give away the exersaucer, but at least I can keep my functioning ovaries.

A month later, I am at the OB’s office, switching my copper coil for the Mirena IUD, my last and final hope at birth control.  It is the gruff Italian partner, with more hair on his arms than on his head, and he asks me in his thick accent if I am planning on having more kids, because if not, I might want to go with the tubal ligation.  “But it’s so permanent,” I say, not ready for the big commitment, wondering why everyone seems so desperate to get me to cease having children.

“Well, you can still have kids after, just you would need to go through IVF.”  He says this casually, as if having eggs harvested and injecting hormones intramuscularly is no big deal.  Like getting a manicure.  This is news to me though, that it is not 100% permanent, and so I take out my phone and quickly text Yoni, while I shiver in my paper gown, and my feet dangle loosely in the stirrups.

You sure I shouldn’t do it?  I type.  I can always do IVF later.

It’s expensive!  He writes.

Insurance will cover the ligation, I pound into the tiny keyboard.

No, the IVF is expensive!

What do you care?  You’ll be dead.  It will be my second husband’s problem, I type.

But I sense that through the excuses, the answer to the procedure remains as a “no.”  And maybe not just for my imaginary second husband’s financial sake, or to spare me the emotional pain of going through IVF.  But perhaps because Liad is not so far off.  Maybe he is still within our reach.  Maybe at night, Yoni will hear his soft voice, the voice that nobody else may ever hear, calling out, “Daddy, Daddy,” and he will know that this is his home.  His only choice for a home.  And if he doesn’t reach out for him, Mine, Forever, will never be.

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Brit Speech

bris pic

I want to start by giving Hakarat Hatov to all those who were a big part of this joyous occasion-

To Rabbi Bengio, who has known Yoni since childhood, and travelled from Montreal to be a part of this simcha.  Thank you.

To Rabbi Lankry, our Rabbi, Mohel, and friend, who stuck with us through so many years and so many different addresses, and continues to be a guiding light for us in so many ways.  We very much appreciate it.

To Rabbis Zahtz and Pruzansky- for your tireless leadership of our community, thoughtful phone calls, and inspiring messages.

To our parents, Zevi and Rebecca Isseroff, and Solomon and Dina Abenaim, for countless things- including but not limited to giving birth to us, raising us, allowing us to marry each other, but also for your tireless efforts, your thoughtful chinuch, and your endless dedication as parents.  We hope to one day become role models as great as you are.

To my Bubbi Gitu, who could not make it today- we know you are thinking of us and can’t wait for you to meet your newest great-grandson.

To our siblings- thank you for your visits, texts, calls, favors, and offers to help out.  For dropping everything on a moment’s notice to attend one of our various parties… We are blessed to have so many wonderful people in our lives who fall into this category.

To the wonderful staff and owners of Mocha Bleu- thank you for creating such a beautiful party.

To our friends– who have become like family– we are so grateful for every gesture, big and small, and for all you have done- the playdates, carpools, shopping, meals, party planning.  The list goes on.  We hope to be able to reciprocate the favors one day.

To my wonderful doctors- your support has been reassuring and I couldn’t have done it without the most amazing team behind me.

To Emmanuelle, Jakey, and Mica- thank you for your patience during the pregnancy.  I’m sorry I couldn’t “bend down” or go up and down the stairs so much.  But you guys stuck it out and managed to survive.  You are going to be the best big brother and sisters for this baby.

And finally, to Yoni- my Ish Chayil… Thank you for believing in me.  For letting me do this.  For never saying “no”.  For creating a life filled with so much happiness, I don’t ever feel I am lacking anything.  I feel so blessed every day of my life- and am eternally grateful to have you as my partner in it.

***

A few years ago, when Mica was a toddler, I wrote an essay about having a fourth child.   I imagined that this child would be a little boy, a spirited playmate to his older brother.    They would race cars together on our hardwood floors, and spar happily, grateful for some attention.  I thought I would call this baby, “Liad,” Hebrew for Mine, Forever. 

But as with my other pregnancies and attempts at baby-naming, Yoni and I never have the same mentality.  For months, I would read name-books and scour websites, creating lists of viable options.  And then on a quiet evening, I could quickly share the list with Yoni, only to have him veto it all.  “Liad” was on this trashed list.

I knew that we’d think of something after the birth.  I knew that once we’d meet the child, the name would descend on us, as it had in the past.  Each of our children had different names we had chosen earlier on, but those names were always switched last minute.  I almost gave in to Yoni’s choice of a name, just to not have to think about it anymore, even though I didn’t love the meaning, and hated the way it rolled off of the tongue, especially depending on one’s accent.  But then for some reason, Yoni liked “Liad”.

This past year has brought on a lot of changes for us in our lives.  Together, Yoni and I have reevaluated things we thought were important, have tested our priorities.  While we straddle both the materialistic and spiritual worlds, we know all possessions are temporary.  We seek ways to elevate the physical, to bring on kedusha to the mundane, to change the ordinary to extraordinary.

But we have also been able to view relationships differently, to accept and adapt, and to embrace those around us, our families and friends.  We know that they are the core of our lives, the ones who laid the foundation on which we have built, and continue to build.  And the shalom and simcha that a family can create in a home is the true key to our happiness.  Liad represents this- our desire to eternally love in the purest of ways, to build interpersonal connections, to grow and nurture our children.  To create roots that will last long after other things may disappear.

There is an idea that when we sleep, our souls travel back to God, ascending and then descending through different realms of the spiritual before returning to the body.  On the last night in the hospital, I had trouble sleeping, and I woke up as my soul journeyed back.  I became conscious before it had fully returned, and for a moment, there was a pause as these words were whispered in Hebrew to me:

“Nishba ba’adar ohr”

My mind grabbed onto this phrase.

I opened my eyes and the meaning stayed in my ears.  There was a promise that the month of Adar would bring light.  The baby was born in the month of Adar, the month in which the story of Purim took place.  Hashem’s name does not appear at all in the megillah, and we must actively seek out His presence through the hidden miracles, through the strips of light that can be shrouded by darkness.  But when that light is found, the revelations are tremendous.

I immediately sent Yoni a message that I thought we needed to include “light” in the baby’s name, and as we texted back and forth in the early morning hours, we came up with the name “Meir”, one who brings light.  We want our son to have the strength to become something, to shine, to be a light to others like he will be to us.  To grow and develop beyond what we can teach and give, to show us the way.  We hope that whoever calls out his name, “Liad Meir”, will be able to enjoy the light of our son, to cherish it and have it forever.

And then Yoni realized that his great-great-grandfather’s name was Meir.  Meir lived a long life, passing away at the age of 94.  He was a successful businessman in Paris, but his greatest attribute despite his accomplishments was his humility.  He would sit quietly on the side during gatherings, and was never boastful.  He radiated with a sense of tranquility, and was at peace in life.  It is our greatest honor to name our son for this ancestor, the first child to bear his name.  May our own Liad Meir emulate the positive attributes of Meir HaCohen, and may he fill every month, not just Adar, with the light of God.  May he radiate and bring blessings to all those who come to know him.

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History, From a Couch

 

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Abba wasn’t home much when I was a young child.  Going to sleep by 8pm and having a father who worked as a Podiatrist during office hours, then at nursing homes, then went to school board meetings, and finally to learn with a study partner, did not enable us to cross paths very frequently.  Aside from the weekends, the only times our schedules overlapped were in the middle of the night.  It was then, that we developed our relationship; that he was a “dad” and I was a “daughter”.

 

If I felt sick or nauseous, I only needed to stand in the doorway of my parents’ room and start to gag, and through the enveloping darkness, I’d make out the figure of my father, bolting upright, and springing forth from the warmth of his blankets to steer me towards the bathroom.  There was no announcement, no dialogue, no crying necessary.  Just the tortured noise, and his innate, hurried reaction.

 

“Come,” he would say, and he’d scoop me up in his arms, carry me down the stairs, and help me get settled on the couch in our den.  Lying head-to-toe, we would share the small space, wrapped in a woven afghan that a grateful patient had once given him, a small bucket by my head in case of future vomiting.  He would put on the television- likely for my own enjoyment, because he would be back asleep within five seconds.  I don’t think we had a remote control back then, and so the television would be fixed on a documentary of an ex-convict, a Latino-special, or just plain static, unless one of us were to get up to change it.  Through it all he would sleep, dreaming in varied languages, a hodge-podge of the day’s stories, mixed in with a sick daughter.  This is a father, I thought, and buried myself, my face against his toes, in the warmth of the couch.

 

In my early teenaged years, my parents replaced that couch with two light pink leather love-seats.  It was not the most comfortable place for a nap, but many nights, Abba would fall asleep on the couches, his head on one armrest, legs crossed and elevated on the other one.  His toes would poke through the holes in his thin, worn socks, and he let his feet dangle onto the second love-seat.  The den was situated right by the front door, and I think he purposely chose this location to monitor our late evening comings-and-goings, without seeming too intrusive.  And he had definitely honed his skill of bolting upright mid-snore, at the slightest hint of extraneous noise.

 

The door was locked, and I fiddled in my purse under the dim yellow light of the front porch, trying to find my key.  A friend had dropped me off after a late Saturday night out on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, and I knew that Abba would be sleeping on the couches.  Hoping not to wake him, I slowly turned the knob and opened the door a mere foot’s width, the minimal amount in which I could slide in without too much hinge-creaking taking place.  Satisfied with my near-burglar-like talents, I proceeded to close and lock the door in my wake, but before I could take another step towards the stairs, a voice from the den called, out, “Hi Sarah!  How was your night?”

 

I turned around, and instead of going upstairs, headed into the den to see my father.  He was perfectly upright, acting casual, as if he had just been sitting alone in a dark room, meditating, when I always knew he had been sleeping.  “Fine!” I said, offering a tired smile.  “We went to pizza…”

 

He wiped the sleep from his eyes, and reached to dig up his kippah from a hidden crevice in the couch, returning it to its perch amidst his dark black curls.  And then he’d flip open his gemarah, and try to resume reading from the spot where his eyes had involuntarily closed.  “Just going to finish my learning…” he’d say, and like that, I was dismissed.

 

These moments were often a silent recognition of our relationship, of our distinct roles as parent and child.  Of protector and protected.  He would drift back into a deep sleep, satisfied that his mission had been fulfilled, and I’d tuck myself into bed, knowing I was safe.  “Emor Me’at, Veaseh Harbeh,” Say little and do a lot.  

 

And then there was the end of my college years, when much of my evenings were spent traveling back and forth to Philadelphia, spending time with my then-fiance, Yoni, and oftentimes arriving home even later at night.  Out of habit, I’d pause at the door, trying not to disturb my father’s sleep, straining to listen for the familiar sounds of the Spanish channel, or Abba’s raucous snoring.  But I remember the first time I was greeted with silence.

 

I had been tiptoeing to the stairs from the front door, and had made it all the way, without being summoned.  Wondering where he was, I turned and headed into the den on my own, looking for my father, but instead of finding his body splayed on the couch, or in its usual upright position, only his gemarah lay on the pink cushions, closed for the night.  The television was silent.  I curled up on the cold leather, resting my head on the couch’s arm, and felt my father’s absent embrace.

 

This was the passing of the torch, the growing-up, the getting married.  The end of an era.  I was in limbo; not quite daughter, not-yet wife.  Being transferred into the protective arm of another man, so my father could liberate himself of me.  Our couch meetings were no more, and in the morning, as I began to pack my things for my upcoming wedding and move to Philadelphia, Abba passed me by, and mumbled, “I missed you last night.”

 

And so, Abba, it is your 60th birthday.  I no longer live at home, and I’m no longer the little, medium, and big girl who stood, sat, and slept with you on those couches.  You are no longer the first one I call when my car malfunctions, but you’ll always be my father.  The one who taught me to speak through my actions, to do rather than say.  To find and instill deep meaning in the smallest of gestures, the tiniest of considerations.  And in the dark, in the quietest of the night, your snoring from the couch still sings its songs of the great father you have always been.  

 
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Crossing Over

September 2005

Zaidy and Emmanuelle, September 2005

 

“Let’s go across the street to visit Zaidy,” my mother usually said, at shul’s end every shabbat, when the sanctuary had completely emptied and all that remained in its echoing interior were my mother, sisters, and I, and a man who would press his face against the women’s section door, angrily awaiting our departure so he could lock up.  We were typically the last ones to leave, arriving only a few minutes before the services would end, and then lingering around to continue in private prayer, or to stand around awkwardly socializing with those we’d grown up with, but had grown apart from.  My sisters and I would nod at our mother’s request, slowly rising from the itchy upholstered benches, and teeter in our sharp heels down the steep staircase and out the door through a throng of the fancily dressed.  It was like entering a pit of humans, all encased in the parameters of the sprawling concrete entryway, spilling out onto the sidewalk, but ending cautiously by the curb, which edged the busy street, Hempstead Avenue.

There was always some type of delay in our travels.  Though our route was short; simply cross Hempstead Avenue, and we’d be at Zaidy’s house, we first had to traverse the maze of clustered bodies and spiraling conversations, the former school teachers who would come to admire how much we’d grown, the friend of our father’s who’d ask us if we had a nice girl for his son, the girl whose outfit we’d have to stop to critique, and mentally record for future shopping sessions.

By the time we’d reach the curb, about to ready to cross, we’d invariably realize we had lost a family member in the sea of faces.  Turning around, we’d see our mother wave at us from amidst a group of four chatting women, both an “I’m here!” and a “Go ahead without me- I’ll be there in minute!” type of gesture.  My three sisters and I would then step off the painted concrete curb and into the street, waiting for the perfect moment to cross.

We would usually run, because often the moments without cars were inopportune, and it was challenging to see if anyone was coming from beyond the curve of the road.  Linking arms, we’d hurry across the road, our fancy shoes clicking and reverberating through the momentary traffic din.

Hempstead Avenue knew my Zaidy Yoel well.  For the twenty five years that he was my grandfather, he lived across the street from our shul in West Hempstead, in a sun-lit brick home.  He would constantly traverse the street several times a day, going to and from shul.  On most days, his figure could be seen crossing Hempstead Ave, resisting to be pushed in a wheel chair, and always insisting on walking solo, cane in hand, his aide trailing helplessly behind him, lest he fall.  His posture was stooped, and his large black orthopedic shoes clomped across the concrete in a slow gait, as cars stopped, patiently waiting for him to finish his journey.  His frail legs moved methodically up the stairs and into the shul, pausing to greet lingering passersby and fellow shul-goers, always ready with a joke, witty comment, or to share words of Torah.

Zaidy Yoel was a spiritually connected man, fervent in his dedication to Judaism, but in his later years, when Parkinsons shook his life, shook his arms and legs, and even the small muscles in his face, he never wavered from viewing the shul and religious rituals as the center of his being.  He fought to continue in his Judaic practices, praying three times a day, fasting on commemorative holidays, rescuing Torah scrolls and discarded books, trying to revive them and give them new life.  And always crossing the street, in the rain, snow, sleet, or sweltering heat, to mark his presence in the synagogue, to perform his duties as an Orthodox Jew.

And so, on Shabbat, his children and grandchildren who lived in the area would make it a point to visit, to engage our elderly, ailing grandfather.  His house would be filled with our boisterous laughter, as we all caught up on the week’s events.

“How is your guitar playing, Surahle?”  Zaidy asked, a few cracker crumbs spilling from his lips and landing on his tie, with the gold “Joel” clip affixing it to his shirt.   His aide reached forward and brushed off his chest, tucking a napkin into the neck of his collar so as not to further soil his shirt.

“It’s good, Zaidy.  I can play a few songs.  Not so well, but it’s a start!”  An avid musician, he had been thrilled when I’d come to him, asking for a guitar to start learning in my college years.  In his basement, amidst a crowd of cellos, violins, violas, and other stringed instruments, stood a lone classical guitar.  He had given it to me, excited to be sharing a love of music with a granddaughter, and although he could not directly teach me, he loved to stay abreast of my progress.

“I’d love to hear your songs,” he said, involuntarily jerking and grimacing on the cushioned seat.          zaidy yoel 2

“I’ll try to come by during the week to play for you.”  I smiled, sweeping my gaze across the room, bedecked with paintings- many of them his own artwork or his favored collectibles, in various Judaic, Israeli, or musical themes.

There were times when Zaidy was less involved in the conversation, and was more the passive observer, quietly watching his progeny enjoying themselves from a distance, telling jokes or sharing stories.  The gatherings always ended with a kiss on the cheek, a bristling of his thick mustache against our skin, the sharp white hairs tickling at our youth, and an enthusiastic, “Good Shabbos!” before heading home.

These weekly visits continued on for several years, even after I got married and moved to Philadelphia, then to Miami, and back to New Jersey, after I’d had a daughter of my own, and a son on the way.  But always when returning home for a holiday or weekend, I’d make the mild trek across Hempstead Avenue after shul to visit Zaidy, the gusting winds of the passing cars ruffling my hair and lifting my skirts as I’d hurry to his house.

It was befitting that his funeral took place at the shul, the heart of his life for so many years, and I remember walking into the lobby, the coffin draped in a blue velvet, a gold star of David woven onto its lush surface.  The sanctuary was overflowing with people; those who had known and loved him as we had.  The outcasts whom he had made feel that they belonged.  The janitor who had become a good friend.  Study partners ranging in varying decades of ages.  The Rabbi, who was both a sharer and receiver of humor and Torah alike.  All shed equal tears on his departure.

I knew the shul would never feel the same without his presence; there would never again be that figure in the pew down below, the words of his Large Type siddur visible to me from a story above in the women’s section.  The rippling of the pages as he struggled to turn each one, his gnarled fingers and aching joints uncooperative.  His melodic voice, joining and then rising above the others in song.  His Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur lectures, and his blowing of the elongated shofar, the one that required a helper to hold, the blasts so long, we would count the seconds on our fingers and toes, and then back to our fingers.  The way his tefillin would enwrap his arm, the black straps contrasting to his pale skin, speckled with white hair, tight and secure, almost choking.  And his tallit, the jingling silver that made music as he bowed and swayed in prayer, the wool yellowed from years of wear.

As the pallbearers hoisted the coffin from its perch in the lobby, my Zaidy’s body at rest inside, his soul peering at us from above, finally free from the prison of his ailing limbs, the crowd of funeral-goers gushed from the glass lobby doors and out onto the front pavement of the shul.  And as they passed me by, the men struggling with the weight of the box, I knew the thing I’d miss the most.

It was the last time Zaidy would leave the shul and head towards Hempstead Avenue.  The last time I’d stand outside the doors, jostled by a crowd, wanting to emerge and race across to his house.   I looked up, looked across the line of cars, the hearse that sat parked on the busy street, looked past the old oak tree on his lawn and saw his home.  This was our final time, our final journey together, crossing over, our footsteps tapping and thudding, all at once.  And from within me, I cried the sounds of his shofar, loud and clear and long, and I think he heard.

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From There to Here, and Back

In memory of my grandfather, Yaakov Ben Yehuda Leib, whose 8th yahrzeit is tonight.

photo courtesy of Zevi Isseroff

Zaidy Yaakov sat at the head of the long dining room table, his body propped up in a wheeled-desk chair, his limbs encased by the arm rests. His gloved hands rested inside an old copy of a Haggadah, pressed open to a worn page, and his eyes peered through his thick tri-focals at the small Hebrew text. “Vehi Sheamdah…” his voice rang out, though the muscles in his face scarcely moved. We all joined in; his wife, four children and their spouses, all 16 grandchildren, plus my husband, the sole newcomer to the family.

Zaidy had a way of singing that almost sounded like he was chanting the words, speaking them with a slight hint of a tune. We all subtly mimicked his intonation, swaying along with the familiar words. It was the first time he had had a seder with all of his children and grandchildren, cousins coming together from across the United States to congregate in my parents’ home in West Hempstead, New York. The event was orchestrated by some of his children, my father included, who thought since Zaidy was so sick, so terminally ill, and had been for quite some time, it would be meaningful for him to be able to spend the Pesach holiday surrounded by each one of his direct offspring.

“When Zevi was young,” Zaidy began, speaking about my father, “he had to sing this solo in his school play.” We all knew the famous story about the passage from Hallel found in the Haggadah, but we listened with the same intent and interest as we did every year, pretending that maybe we’d learn some new detail, or that there might be a new surprise ending. But the ending was always the same. My father, even in his forties, would have to stand up and reenact his solo from his elementary school years. His mother, my Bubbi, would close her eyes and would be transported back to the auditorium of his youth, her eyes tearing up in pride. And Zaidy would watch her, happy to give her this same gift, year after year.

The seder continued on, with Zaidy remaining glued to his chair, both due to his incapacitated legs and from his love for the elaboration of the Pesach story. As we neared the time for “Shefoch Chamatcha”, when the spirit of Eliahu Hanavi was believed to visit, my mother leaned forward to fill the enormous cup with grape juice that he was rumored to sip. Zaidy turned around in his chair, his stiff neck craning, the wheeled bottom shifting. “Who’s there?” he mumbled, but nobody responded, thinking he was talking about Eliahu.

A few minutes later, and again, Zaidy wondered out loud who was there. “Zevi, there is someone standing behind me. Who is it?” he asked my father.

“Abba, no one is there,” my father said reassuringly, wondering why his father was so convinced someone was in close proximity. Perhaps he was seeing a reflection of one of his grandchildren in the glass doors behind him. But Zaidy was sure it wasn’t that.

For the rest of us, it was an ordinary moment. One where we lazily folded our hands over our bloated stomachs, flicked matzah crumbs on the floor, or laughed carelessly at a cousin who’s head was bent, sleeping at the table. My father later told me that for Zaidy, it was a moment of recognition, a congratulatory effort, acknowledging his whole life’s triumph, his visible accomplishments seated at the table before him. It was Zaidy’s father, whom we called “Elter Zaidy”, Yehuda Leib Isseroff, deceased some 15 years earlier, who stood by his side, and leaned in towards his son. “You did good, Yankel. You should be proud of yourself. You did good,” he whispered into Zaidy’s ear unfalteringly, in Yiddish, and then disappeared. Zaidy Yaakov beamed with pride, his face glowing brighter than the whiteness of his kittel.

I wonder if I had strained my eyes, would I have seen the image of my Great Grandfather? Had I held my breath, would I have felt the shift in the air, the stillness brought on by a ghost’s hovering presence?

Zaidy, center, escorted by his father and soon-to-be uncle, Rabbi Joseph Waldman.
Photo courtesy of Zevi Isseroff

Would I have witnessed the impenetrable bonds of a parent and child, separated for so many years? But I didn’t. I was blind to the moment, as was everyone else at the table. We were oblivious to our seder guest, cloaked in the dark, riding on Eliahu’s chariot, returning to the Heavens after delivering an invitation to our Zaidy, opening the doors to the afterlife. It would soon be Zaidy’s time to go, too, and this was the seder message.

There is an ancient Jewish belief that when one is about to die, previously deceased relatives come beckoning. Zaidy passed on a few weeks later, and he died knowing that he had made his father proud, with the knowledge that he was going to be joining his family, albeit leaving many others behind. He had a cushion of comfort waiting for him in the Heavens, making his departure more seamless, and as we stood around clutching each other, mourning our great loss, we knew he was once again walking, grasping onto the hand of his father.

Eight years later, in the midst of a long sleep, I have a dream; overly wrought with chaos, stress, and missing a school bus. And out of nowhere, a ray of light appears and from within it emerges the face of my grandfather. At first, it is swollen with steroids, the last living image of him that I have retained, but then it flickers, and his face readjusts to his normal-shaped, smiling one. His large square glasses are perched perfectly on his nose, and he stands erect and proud. He is holding the hand of my five-year-old son, Jakey, Yaakov, named for him, and he looks down at the great-grandson he never got to meet, his face aglow and eyes shimmering with excitement. It is a look of pure, unadulterated love. It is, I think, their first moment together.

It is like the years of lying stiff and still underground on a mountain in Bet Shemesh, quiet and calm, with the occasional tearful visitor, were years he spent anticipating that instant. And Zaidy’s time came for a visit; he revealed himself, if but for a moment, and leaves me with a feeling of staggering pride.

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Scaredy Cat

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You know,” our Rabbi said to us, one afternoon, as we walked to our home in Bay Harbor Islands, Florida, “There is an old Kabbalistic idea that cats are the transmigrations of souls. A gilgul of a person who has passed, and may have more to accomplish in life. That’s why Florida has so many cats. From all the old people who have died…” The road was littered with them. Under cars, behind bushes, crawling and pouncing on passing dragonflies. One perched, sunbathing on the rooftop of a car, as if it were his. Maybe the reincarnate of an old Miami beach-goer. All these spirits lurking the streets, ghosts cloaked in fur, disguised as cats. I hated all of them.

When we had moved into our townhouse earlier in the month, the previous owner informed me that there was a lovely cat whom she used to feed every day. The cat is used to getting food from me, she explained, so you really need to continue. I’ll leave the bowl on your front porch. After unpacking, I spent the first supermarket trip perusing the pet-food aisle, unsure as to what food the stray-cat would enjoy. I settled on some dry pebbly brand, a fish-smelling cross between rabbit droppings and Cocoa-Puffs. The smell lingered in my nose distastefully for hours.

I played the part of the benevolent animal-feeder for a whole two days, before I realized that I really didn’t want a cat on my porch, especially not a stray one who was probably a breeding ground for diseases. But it would trail me daily from the car to the front door, meowing softly, urgently, its dark eyes doleful and sad. So I kicked the bowl to the other side of the shared front porch, adjacent to a neighbor’s door, who was also moving in. The cat comes with your house, I informed her, her hands full of overflowing boxes. It even has this special food. I proudly handed over the bag I had purchased and wiped my hands, both with some Purell, and of the task of caretaker-for-the-cat.

Emmanuelle, who was then just a year old, loved watching the cat. From the safety of our closed front door, we would sit together and peer through the side glass panel, as the cat would come for its feedings, sometimes bringing a friend or two. I didn’t like their unpredictability, the way they would hide and then suddenly appear out of nowhere, quietly, spy-like at your side. Or the way they assumed our front stoop was theirs to share. To nap on. To perch. To people-watch. I couldn’t be near them.

One Sunday afternoon, we had returned from a family outing, and my husband opened the front door of the house and entered ahead of me. I followed up the driveway a minute later, having unbuckled Emmanuelle from her carseat, and as I ascended the porch stairs, I noticed the cat, with one paw poised on the edge of the open door, the other already through the threshold, about to enter. It stared at me, paused in its indistinct waltzing, and threw me a look as if it say, It’s my home too, you know. I was here first.

Yoni!” I screamed, “Close the door!!” From inside, he came running and kicked the door shut, barely missing the cat, who stealthily scampered off the side of the porch into the depths of the overgrown hedges. I shuddered at the possibility of it actually entering my home, of shedding its tic-infested fur on the pristine entryway. Of lying supine on the cool white tile, legs stretched in the air, absorbing the chill of the floor as the Florida heat evaporated from its skin.

But this was a determined cat. A few days later, Yoni was outside cleaning his car before going to work, and the front door was closed. On my way downstairs, after getting Emmanuelle dressed, I heard the familiar click of the metal as it unlatched, and the low creaking of the hinges. Let’s say hi to Daddy before he leaves for work! I told Emmanuelle, as we raced down the remainder of the staircase. It took me a few seconds to realize that I hadn’t heard his usual loud footsteps, but their absence only registered when instead, there was a loud, perilous meow! There, sitting squarely in my front hallway, was the cat. It blinked at me.

So this was it. He had somehow pushed opened the front door and entered. He had gotten his wish. And this was our face-off. Sarah and Baby vs. Cat. Who are you? I wanted to scream. And what do you want from me? Instead, I backed up the stairs from which I had descended, and pulled the baby gate shut behind me. The cat, too, slinked backwards into the window next to the door, the one through which he frequently watched us watching him. When I retreated to the living-room, a half-story up, the cat, emboldened, began to explore the lower part of the foyer.

Yoni!!” I yelled, cranking the window open. He was across the street, his lower body visible as his upper torso stretched to remove hidden garbage from his car’s interior. A loud Arab-Israeli song emanated from his stereo, muting my voice, my pleas for help. “Yoni!!” I tried again, and because luck was against me, he still didn’t notice me frantically waving at him from the window. I pressed my head against the screen, defeated, and stared at the cat menacingly. He stared back.

There was, finally, a moment when the music ebbed, the clanging of the cymbals and tambourines faded to a hum, and the street was cloaked in silence. “Yoni! Help! The cat is in the house!” He looked up, suddenly alarmed, seeing Emmanuelle and I hovering by the living room window, isolated and anxious, and ran for the house.

The door was thrown open, and the cat’s fur stood on edge, a sudden, unexpected mohawk of self-defense. “Come on!” Yoni directed the cat in two simple words, daring it to get up and meet him at the door’s threshold, to cross, and then return to the outside world of desperate, foraging animals. The cat seemed to sigh, to shrug its shoulders and hang its head, the mohawk falling flat with every resigned step it took. With one last hesitation, the cat paused mid-step, its feet centered on the brick porch, and turned his head to me for a final glare. We’ll meet again, it seemed to say.  And the door was closed. 

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The Robe

The bathrobe was the ugly color of unripened watermelon, the color that probably was first to hit the sales racks, after all the pinks, whites, and baby blues were sold out.  It was a Chanukah gift from my father to mother, given in the days before they had any children, when they used to have only each other to think about.  My father claimed it was expensive.

When my mother wore it, it made her skin look pale and washed out, her cheeks, ruddy and flushed.  She usually put it on on Friday night, rushing from her shower to light the Shabbat candles, always seventeen minutes late, and she would be running down the stairs, tying the long belt and kicking the front open with each step of her slippered feet.  The robe was mid-calf length, but when she walked, we could see to the tops of her thighs.  It was accidentally revealing, but she only wore it around us.

Often, after lighting the candles, she would sit on the couch with us, curled up, reading book after book, sometimes dozing mid-sentence as the week’s exhaustion caught up with her.  We would clamber for a seat closest to her, nestling into her warmth, her freshly shampooed hair wet against our clean skin, two of us at her sides, two behind each shoulder, one in her lap, and one perched on the back of the couch.  I would rest my head on her arm, safe at her side, feeling the soft terry against my face.  I could draw pictures on it with my finger, a contrast of light on dark, a smiley face, my initials S.I., or occasionally even a game of tic-tac-toe.

Sometimes she would run back upstairs to change before my father came home from shul, but other times, she wore the robe to the table, over a nightgown or pajama shirt.  After dinner, my mother would put her six children to bed, still in the bathrobe, and she would take turns lying with each of us, saying Shema and singing songs, until she’d end up in the bottom mattress of the bunkbed I shared with my sister.  On Friday nights, my sister and I would sleep together in my bed, my mother sandwiched between us, each of us wrapped in the warmth of the robe.  When I closed my eyes, I could smell the robe, my mother, and in the morning, when I’d awaken entangled with just my sister, I could feel the terry traces on my blankets.

The robe and I were not always on such good terms. It was late in my college years that I grew bored with seeing it all the time.  It was like a vestigial structure; an appendix that  was there and needed to be removed, a pinky toe that just tinkered around inside pointy-shoes.  I wanted to donate it, but thought there would probably be no takers.  I contemplated buying a replacement for my mother, but knew it would go unworn, like the new “Yom Kippur Hat” I had purchased a few years before.  It was an attempt to replace the white beret, bedazzled with oversized disco-ball jewels, that she wore annually on Yom Kippur, to keep in the tradition of the day of wearing head-to-toe white.   When I brought home the new beret that wasn’t quite white, but was a subtle rose with gold thread woven in the stitches, resembling a dirty-white, she tried it on.  “Nice,” she said, “but I think it might hurt my head.”  And she continued to wear the white beret every Yom Kippur then-after.

In the mornings, the robe would sit lifeless on the floor, crumpled next to my mother’s bed, where it was haphazardly discarded the night before.  Next to it was always a pair of worn flip-flops, their foam pressed thin around the toes, sometimes even with holes.  “I think you need some new flip-flops!” we used to tell her, but she would just smile, and say, “But I like these.”  I tried them on one day, slipping my toes into the rubber, wedging the hard plastic between my big toe and the second one, curious what was so great about them, that she couldn’t possibly give them away.  I had to curl my toes to keep them on, and the soles were so thin, I could feel the strands of carpet under my feet as I walked.   They had an appeal that I couldn’t understand.  There was something that connected them to their owner, that went beyond my comprehension.  I glanced at the robe, curious, too, about what made my mother love it, but didn’t try it on, knowing that it too had a captivating quality which drew her in, one which I longed to know.

She wore the robe throughout my years in college, and even after I got married and moved out, she wears it still.  When I come back home to visit, it is there, unchanged and un-aged, a picture, frozen in time, retaining its ugly color, wrapping my mother in its depths.  As she comes running down the stairs, she is a butterfly in flight, her thin, boney hands poking from beneath the large outstretched sleeves, flapping and weightless.  Her skin has become thin and translucent; she wears a halo of gray crowning her years, and her eyes seem tired, older.  But the robe, it is always the same.  It has retained its youth and remembers mine.

“When you die, can I get your silver candlesticks?” my sister asks my mother, nodding in the direction of the candelabra with eight ornate limbs.  It is a late Friday night, and their flames have dwindled down to a puddle of wax, as my siblings and I sit and talk to my mother, while she finishes up the dishes.  Some of us are married, some of us in college, and some of us have jobs.  Some of us have children of our own, and after a recent death in the family, we are on the topic of heirlooms.

“I get those diamond earrings your mom left you,” a sister says.

“Shoot, I wanted those,” says another.  “I’ll take the house!”

“I call the rings!”  Our boisterous voices are laughing and enthusiastic, as we go on, trying to list items of value, and claiming them.  My mother is enjoying the banter, smiling and auctioning off her personal items to the first daughter to raise her hand.  There is not much left for me to demand.

“I’ll take your robe.” I say, after a moment of silence, when the bidding has died down.  My mother laughs.

“This?” she asks, pulling at her sleeve with a gloved hand, wet and sudsy.  “It’s yours.”

I am worried that she might take it off now, handing it over to me, but I am not ready to receive it.

“Yes,” I say.  “Please put it in your will for me.”

One day, I’ll try on the robe.  I’ll dip my arms into its sleeves, cloak myself in the soft, worn cloth, and as I tie the belt tight around my waist, I’ll be able to feel my mother hugging me.  Each breath will be invigorated by the vibrancy of its scent.  Each fiber of the terry will dance and sway in the Friday night songs, and I’ll remember the words.  I will remember every Shabbat spent in her house, loving and hating and then loving the robe.  I will feel light and airy, hovering on the staircase, rushing, a few minutes late, to light the candles.

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