Esther enlists Mama’s help in her Victory Garden project. They talk openly about some differences between Papa Rothstein and Esther.
* * *
The afternoon passed in a blur of dirt and plants and water and mud. Mama’s face was as smudged as Esther’s had been when she opened the door a few hours earlier, and an outside observer would have thought them to be lifelong friends. It always surprised Mama anew how much she liked Esther as a person. When it was just the two of them, Esther’s true colors shone through. She was as delightful as Mama had known her to be that day years ago when they’d sat together prior to Esther’s official meeting with Manny.
But how should a mother-in-law interact with a woman your husband will pressure your son to divorce? Her heart told her to invest completely, to shower her daughter-in-law with all the love she could muster and continue to daven for grandchildren. But Mama was reserved by nature, and as the years passed, she found herself retreating in the relationship rather than advancing. So it was moments like these, though rare and invariably orchestrated by Esther’s natural exuberance that Mama was reminded why she had chosen Esther for Manny. Papa had had his reservations but could not find legitimate objections. He had stood at the chuppah with a slightly uncomfortable expression on his face, but Mama had beamed from ear to ear, unable and unwilling to mask the true happiness she felt.
Once they were done with the first round of planting, with Esther implying that there would be more to come, they stood back and observed their handiwork. Mama had to admit that Esther had done a fabulous job. Not only was it a practical project, but Esther had incorporated that element of beauty and grace that she brought to nearly everything she did. The seedlings were lined up in tidy rows. She’d fashioned little signs with toothpicks announcing the coming crops. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce filled the shallower troughs. The deeper troughs would hold potatoes, pumpkin and carrot.
“Where do you plan to set them out?” asked Mama, after they’d spent a moment admiring their handiwork.
“Each one needs different conditions, so I worked out a chart that would put each pot in the best possible location.” She handed Mama the little notebook she’d used to work it all out and Mama was suitably impressed.
That was when Esther looked at the clock. “Look at the time! It’s nearly five!”
Mama panicked slightly as she wondered how she would explain her lengthy absence to Papa. She’d just say what happened, and let the chips fall where they may fall. She’d had too delightful an afternoon to let anything spoil it.
“Do you want to take your pot home, Mama? Or should I care for it here with the others?”
“My pot? Of course not. It’s for your aunt and uncle, just like the other ones.”
“Oh! I’d thought…”
Mama looked at Esther directly in the eyes, something she did so rarely that the force of it surprised the two of them. “Listen to me, tochter’l.”
Esther’s eyes grew wide. It was the first time Mama had ever used such a term of endearment.
“I am 100 percent behind you when it comes to caring for your family. You know that. It is one of the many, many things I love and admire about you, and I wouldn’t want you to change one bit. Anything you need for them that you can’t manage on your own, you come to me.”
They both knew that Esther couldn’t do that, despite the strength of Mama’s words, but just the fact that Mama was saying them was enough to warm Esther’s heart. “You’ve got enough love in there to light up an entire city, and I won’t let anyone stop you from doing what you’ve got to do.”
“I have no idea what Manny will think. I just need to help them. ”
“I’m well aware of that, Esther. You just keep doing what you have to do. But you must be careful! You must maintain perfect hygiene, washing your hands with soap and water, not too much close contact with the children. You won’t be any good to them if you become ill.”
“I know. I do think about it. I know it is worrisome, but I can’t help thinking Hashem will protect me because I am helping them.”
“Well, it is certain that Hashem is protecting you, because He protects all of us. But you must do your hishtadlus. Do you understand me, Esther?”
And then, as though the day had not been unusual enough, Mama drew Esther in for a warm and motherly hug. It had been so long since either of them had hugged or been hugged that way that it brought tears to both of their eyes, wondering why it had taken so long for either of them to realize the potential within their relationship. It would have been, could have been, the start of a whole new path for them if things had not then gone so horribly wrong.
To be continued . . .