A serialized novel | By Miriam Luxenberg
Mrs. Barkoff overhears her daughters talking and realizes that they are not close. She feels responsible for creating this state of affairs.
* * *
In the United States, Leib had forgotten how long it took to put children to bed. When they were as little as he remembered them, it was the bathing, diapering, changing into pajamas, feeding, and rocking that had taken up so much time — and not that it had even been him doing any of those things. He had sat in the living room stewing over the fact that his wife was ignoring him or keeping him waiting while tending to the children.
Now, though, the boys were bigger and there was no Suri around to help. His mother, who had graciously agreed to host the boys and prepare their food, was leaving all the after-work childcare to him, not even intervening when Mordechai banged his head on the edge of the tub and started to bleed.
Leib stayed surprisingly calm, more upset by the boy’s screaming and Shimmy’s gaze of censure than he was about the blood. Luckily the cut hadn’t been deep, and after some quick first-aid and a lollipop, Mordechai was as good as new.
The first night had been the hardest. After they’d gone to GymWorld and come back to Bubby’s, everything had been fun. But then Shimmy started asking when they were going home, even though Leib had told them their mother was away. He forgot that you sometimes have to repeat things to small children many times until they understand.
When Leib told them they were sleeping at Grandma’s, Mordechai had started to clap, but Shimmy had burst into tears again, which grated on Leib’s nerves as though they were exposed wires. As soon as Mordechai realized that his reaction had been the wrong one and that his older brother was not happy, he’d started screaming too.
Struggling to remain patient, he explained to them that they would be staying at Bubby Weinbach’s house until their mommy came home. “But why?” Shimmy whined, again and again, while Mordechai lay on the floor and kicked his feet in the air.
“Remember I told you that Zaidy was niftar? Remember?” Leib kept trying every which way to get Shimmy to relax, until he decided that nothing was going to work and he needed to change the subject. While they’d been at GymWorld, Leib had purchased a few small games from the gift shop to save for just such a moment, and with just a hint of shame, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled them out.
Mordechai was thrilled with his, but Shimmy knew he was being bribed. Without a word he held the small toy in his lap and eyed his father carefully, considering whether to let him off the hook. To Leib’s relief, he took the toy and, leaning back on the soft couch, he pulled his feet underneath him and began to play. No more was said about the temporary sleeping arrangements, but Leib couldn’t shake the thought that Shimmy was testing him.
“Okay, guys,” he called now, as they were closing in on the third night. “Bedtime!”
There was a little bit of a scuffle, but he’d learned that when he put them both up on his shoulders at the same time, that tended to quiet the complaints. He walked them into the kitchen to say good-night to their grandmother.
“Bubby!” he called. “Did you see the boys? I can’t find them!” For some reason the boys thought this was hysterical, and nearly fell off his shoulders from laughing. As soon as Leib noticed the tears starting to well up in his mother’s eyes, he turned around and walked out.
“Pajamas!” he called, pretending he was an army general. He stood with his hand up to his forehead, and the boys did the same. At his request, his mother had gone to the bookstore and bought 20 books.
“Twenty,” Leib had said. “And not one less. I don’t want them to be bored.” His mother had looked at him like he’d lost his mind, but she had complied. Now the three of them looked the books over, deciding which one they would read that night.
“Do you think we’ll have time to get to all of them?” Shimmy asked.
“I don’t know,” Leib had said. “Maybe. We might have to read more than one on some nights though.”
“Really?” Shimmy’s eyes had lit up.
“Maybe. Let’s start with one a night and see how it goes.”
“Mommy doesn’t always read to us,” said Mordechai.
“Be quiet,” said Shimmy to his younger brother.
“Hey, Shimmy, come here, tzaddik’l. I need to tell you something very important.”
“What?” said Shimmy, hesitating. “What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing! Chas v’shalom, you didn’t do anything wrong. I just wanted to tell you that this isn’t a contest between me and Mommy. It’s okay if I do something and Mommy doesn’t.”
“Mommy does everything for us,” said Shimmy, heatedly. “She’s the best mommy.”
“She is, Shimmy. I agree with you,” said Leib, nearly choking on the words.
He was used to criticizing his ex-wife, and he was not comfortable with the new words he was saying, not at first. But now that he’d said it, and with their children standing right in front of him, he had to re-evaluate his opinion.
He had to admit that his children, on the whole, were healthy, happy, well behaved and well trained. Suri had done a better job with them than he would ever have given her credit for, and as he looked at them, he couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything else about her that he had underestimated.
The constant presence of his sons, even for just the past three days, had sent him down a road he had not planned to travel. They were the sweetest, loveliest boys he had ever seen, and he was their father. And what had he done, fool that he was? He’d thrown them away.
To be continued …