By Esther Rapaport
Chaiky’s father-in-law finished singing Shalom Aleichem, made Kiddush, and poured wine into the small cups.
“Nu, uh!” her mother-in-law said as she passed the cups.
“Yisrael and Yaakov!” she scolded, after drinking her wine. “Can you stop being so wild? You’re supposed to set a good example for Dovi and Naomi, not the opposite!”
“But we’re so happy that they finally, finally came to us!” Yisrael said as soon as he’d swallowed his wine, and tickled Dovi in the ribs. Dovi giggled and stuck his hand out to get his little goblet.
“Well, that’s children for you … ” Shlomo’s mother sighed as she smiled at Chaiky, who smiled in return. The happiness and energy that enveloped the children here served her quite well. It somewhat blurred her discomfort and the long silences, although she did have to make sure that her kids’ unruly behavior did not become all-out chaos.
As soon as she’d entered the somber-toned, closed-in dining room, she’d felt that familiar sensation of being stifled. She had never liked the heavy velvet curtains, tied with gold ropes; the elegantly carved bookcase that gleamed to perfection; or the two black velvet chairs in the corner of the room. When she’d first come to her in-laws’ home as a kallah, she’d mused that she and her mother-in-law just didn’t share the same taste at all, but as long as Shlomo had been at her side, it hadn’t bothered her so much.
Now, here she was at her in-laws’ Shabbos table, alone, and she needed to keep an eye on her kids’ behavior, help serve, and be friendly enough to her mother-in-law, brothers-in-law, and the nephew and niece who were there — all while feeling stifled by the décor. She did not understand why her sister-in-law Goldie had to send Moshe and Racheli over, but perhaps their mother-in-law had been the one to initiate it. Perhaps she was also afraid of a tense Shabbos table, with just three largely silent adults and four children who could never be predictable.
By the time all the little wine cups had been emptied and they moved into the kitchen to wash, the childish exuberance had morphed into real rambunctiousness, and Chaiky couldn’t decide if she preferred some of the heavy, enclosing silence over this. As they washed, Dovi squirted water at Yisrael and Yaakov, laughing and dodging them as they tried to get him back. The six-year-old whooped wildly, and ten-year-old Yaakov led him back to the dining room and pushed him into a chair.
“Don’t you dare get up before I finish washing and come back!” he scolded in a deep voice, trying to sound authoritative. “Otherwise I will have to use handcuffs, my prisoner! You understand?”
Chaiky didn’t like the charade, but Dovi was actually laughing. Laughing! And he was sitting nicely near the table now, anyway.
After the challah was cut and distributed, her mother-in-law went into the kitchen to serve the fish and salads, and Chaiky stood up to follow her. But then she saw Naomi climbing onto the sofa and raising a cushion threateningly at Dovi.
“Naomi!” Chaiky called in rebuke. “What’s with you?”
Naomi scrambled down quickly, and the grandfather called his children and grandchildren to the table and began to tell them a mashal on the parashah. Goldie’s children actually sat and listened, along with Chaiky’s brothers-in-law, as appropriate for their ages. Only her children continued acting in an embarrassing way.
“Dovi!” Chaiky called from the entrance to the kitchen, shaking her head warningly. “Zeidy is speaking about the parashah; listen nicely! Maybe afterward you can even tell him what you learned about the parashah. You learned a lot in cheder, didn’t you?”
At home, the kids never behaved like this. What would her mother-in-law think? That the children were out of control because their father wasn’t around? That was exactly what it looked like now. But it really wasn’t so!
“Forget it,” her shvigger said as she sliced the fish. “Let them be happy for a bit.”
Esther Rapaport is a prolific author whose novels include Diamond in the Rough, Divided Attention, Behind the Scenes, Without a Trace, Dance of the Puppet, Blood Brothers, and The Kenya Conspiracy. She resides in Israel.