Tzippy encounters her brother at a Jewish bookstore that she frequents. She discovers that Sruli is in the throes of a crisis.
* * *
Tzippy stayed on at the bookstore after Sruli left, with no idea if he was going back to yeshivah or not. Their conversation had stirred up a well of confusion that she couldn’t quite define.
She had surprised even herself by her reaction to his confessions, realizing that this was the first time any one of her siblings had ever reached out to and confided in her, the youngest. She had been little more than a plaything for a long time; when she was very little they treated her more like a doll.
As she grew up, no one was ever quite able to accept that fact, and she was often treated in ways more appropriate for a much younger girl. She was still receiving Hello Kitty stationery as gifts long after she’d outgrown it. She’d never had any strong milestones that marked her growing up enough for anyone to take real notice of her.
When she took inventory of those years, her mother had been both present and absent, an intermittent presence like Morse code: a bunch of dots, a few dashes, and plenty of spaces in between.
She’d asked her mother once why she wasn’t like the other mothers, why they never baked together, or did any crafts together, or shopped together. Her mother had been incredulous. “First of all, I don’t like doing those things! They’re not me. If I would try to do them with you, all you would be left with would be my distaste for it.”
“But all my friends’ mothers do that,” she’d replied.
Hindy had hesitated a moment before she answered, checking to see if Tzippy was being chutzpadig or genuine, until she saw that Tzippy really wanted to know.
But when Hindy tried to respond, Tzippy saw that her mother was stumped. She sat down at the kitchen table where Tzippy was doing her homework. That was Tzippy’s regular spot, where she sat every day, trying to understand her mother by osmosis, listening to her phone conversations, watching her make supper and field requests from the other kids.
“I don’t know. I’d like to think I’m a Shabbos Ima,” said Hindy. Tzippy had been surprised by this answer. “You like Shabbos, don’t you? When Ima does stuff and reads stories and makes yummy food?”
Tzippy had shrugged her shoulders. “I guess so. I like the nosh.”
Hindy got a look of disappointment on her face and Tzippy knew it was from something she’d said.
“You know what, Tzippy?” she’d said, finally. “Your question is so good…” Tzippy felt herself preen at the unexpected compliment, “that I want to think about it before I answer. Is that okay?”
Tzippy had nodded her head but she still felt vaguely disappointed by her mother’s answer. All Tzippy knew was that she’d wanted more and didn’t get it. It was like the kind of hunger that gnaws at you before breaking into full-fledged discomfort.
Tzippy wondered now if Sruli hadn’t felt the same, and because through no fault of his own he was more thin-skinned, the hunger had left a bigger hole in him.
They all loved Abba but he was more of a Shabbos-Sunday father than a day-to-day presence. Sometimes they would ask him to help with their homework — Chumash or Navi or Mishnah Berurah — and sometimes they did it on purpose, because once he shook off the vague annoyance he felt at being disturbed, if they waited long enough a little fire would start to burn. He’d get more immersed, enthusiastically asking and answering kashas, and eventually whoever was around would join in.
That was when they figured out that Ima must have really done her homework in school, because she knew practically everything by heart. They’d had no idea, because she usually deferred to Abba, but she could have easily answered most if not all of their questions, but it was more fun to ask Abba. He would always say that Ima got all the memory between them, but what Abba lacked in instant recall he more than made up for in depth and enthusiasm.
So, Tzippy reasoned, Sruli’s problem did not, as far as she could see, originate with Abba. Once again, she found herself judging Ima. She knew it was wrong, but she told herself it was l’toeles, that she was only doing it to help Sruli.
She considered betraying his trust and telling her parents what he’d said, but she hesitated, telling herself she’d wait for the next crisis. If something else happened, she’d tell right away. She only hoped that it shouldn’t happen, and if something did, it should be something he could be saved from. She didn’t know if she’d be able to forgive herself if something happened to Sruli, and as she harbored the thought, she couldn’t help being surprised at her newfound — she didn’t even know what to call it. When had she started to care so much about her Sruli?
To be continued . . .