Suri and Mattel are surprised when Rena tells them she has traveled as a nurse along with a camp for children with special needs and has developed a way to shorten jet lag. The two younger sisters realize that they don’t pay enough attention to her.
* * *
Mrs. Barkoff couldn’t help overhearing the conversation taking place among her three daughters, which caused her to wince at times. As a mother, her radar was tuned in to all the pain that was coming through, and she wondered, not for the first time, if her heart would be able to hold all of it.
She felt responsible for the distance between the sisters. In the interests of maintaining their privacy, and protecting them from resenting each other, she’d rarely shared information about one daughter to another. She had assumed, perhaps naively, that if they’d wanted to tell each other something, they’d call each other up.
Like the heart blockage she’d experienced, she felt like she was a clogged artery in their lives. What she should have been doing, she realized in a flash as she began to say Aleinu, was passing warm sibling connectivity through those phone wires.
She had been so focused on not hurting anyone that she hadn’t considered her power to heal. She could have passed along complimentary things they said about each other, or general family information that might have bonded them. On the rare occasions when Yeshaya answered the phone, or simply had a cheshek to speak to one of his daughters, he had no problem at all sharing news about one to the other. He saw nothing wrong with telling Suri that Mattel had gotten a promotion and a huge raise, and he had no problem telling Rena about Shimmy’s siddur party. He was a firm believer in one for all and all for one, that there should be no secrets and they should all love each other unconditionally.
Mrs. Barkoff had objected repeatedly to this behavior, practically cringing as she listened to Shaya’s conversations. She often requested that he hold back on his openness, but once he was involved in a conversation, everything he knew would be shared unchecked. Mrs. Barkoff, afterwards, would call him “such an American.” While she admired his natural openness, she was afraid of it as well.
Hearing the sisters’ conversation now, it was clear to her that Shaya had been right. While they were just chatting with each other, their tone was free and glib, but now, when they were really trying to talk, they had all of the animation of a box of tin soldiers, and she felt she was to blame. She had grown so accustomed to keeping to herself as she was growing up that she hadn’t realized that relationships don’t get built by themselves, even natural ones like those among siblings. Good relationships require planning and forethought, and well-placed words. They require effort to make the opportunities that enhance closeness.
Mrs. Barkoff had even managed to isolate them from extended family. Shaya’s family wasn’t large and was certainly not close, and she had, as they all now knew, hidden her family in Israel.
Perhaps “hidden” was too strong a word, but to try to convince her daughters that the subject had simply never come up sounded ridiculous to her now. Yet it hadn’t been a willful or conscious decision. The familial distance between them had simply been a by-product of their geographical separation. She had felt so bad about the unpleasant way they had parted that when Shaya suggested she give it some time, that they would come around again once their feelings weren’t as sharp, she’d simply taken him at his word. And after awhile, so much time had gone by that she felt it was embarrassing to suddenly reach out to them with no explanation for her silence.
The rush of joy she felt at seeing Mima Leah and Fetter Chezkel once again, and even the sour Mirish, felt disrespectful now, as she mourned her beloved husband. Even though Mima Leah had been critical and ornery, Mrs. Barkoff loved her none the less. All of a sudden, when she’d seen them, that empty place inside of her that she’d ignored for so long began to fill up so rapidly, like a balloon, that she felt as if she might explode She hadn’t realized what she’d been lacking until suddenly she had it, and juggling grief and joy, side by side, was overwhelming.
“Hey, Ma,” said Rena softly, coming up beside her. “Can I fix you something to eat?”
“That would be lovely, Rena. Thank you. How are you today, darling?” They were speaking softly, and the other two couldn’t hear them.
“I’m confused. I don’t understand what’s happening here. Do you think you will have time today to speak with me, and to fill me in a little?”
Mrs. Barkoff looked up at her oldest daughter with love, pride, and sympathy. “I can try, but I must tell you the truth. I don’t think I have the answers to all the questions you have.”
“Maybe we can figure it out together,” said Rena. “Isn’t that what we’ve always done?”
Mrs. Barkoff didn’t want to add that it was usually Shaya who would ultimately solve all their problems. His word was almost always the final one. But now, hers would have to suffice.
Instead she nodded solemnly. “Of course. And it is what we always do. I promise you that.”
Even if you don’t care for the conclusions we come to, she thought, but didn’t say out loud.
To be continued …