Early on in our marriage my parents supplemented my meager paycheck; when our babies arrived they showered us with a full layette—plus the Bugaboo carriage I’d dreamed of. But now they are getting older and we no longer have the excuse of youth and inexperience to merit draining our parents’ resources. Not to mention that the rest of my siblings, from what I can tell, are managing fine. I was dawdling after getting the kids off to school, flipping through recipes. I felt like I had to cook and bake something to please everyone on the upcoming, exciting but high-pressure Shabbos. My cell phone rang; it was my sister calling from LA. “How are all the preparations going?” my older sister Chevi asked. My parents were coming for Shabbos, a rare treat, since they live in Los Angeles, and I live with my husband and six kids in Brooklyn. Usually, my sister Chevi who lives three blocks from them has the opportunity of kibbud av va’eim (honoring one’s parents), hosting them nearly every week in her elegant home, her table set beautifully with delicate crystal on crisp starched linen tablecloths. “Fine,” I answered, unwilling to tell her how much strain the extra arrangements were causing. My mother had called every day the past week with special food requests for my father, who was a picky eater, on top of his many medical dietary restrictions. My father only likes his brand of cereal, and a certain roast chicken recipe. I ran around to each store—the butcher, the vegetable store, the health market, gathering the correct ingredients—even though we were down to the last 20 dollars in our bank account.
My sister had already moved on to a new topic. “I cut back one day of the cleaning lady,” Chevi complained. “But the house has been flying since I’m in school so much.” “I hear you, Chev,” I answered, tempted to complain about our overdrawn account and Yossi’s fruitless search for a better paying job. I caught myself before uttering one negative word. “Did you send Chana a wedding gift yet?” Chevi continued. I was happy for my cousin, but buying her a gift was low on our financial priorities. “Not yet,” I admitted, glad I hadn’t revealed how tight things were for us. “We’ll just include you on our card,” Chevi offered. I was simultaneously grateful for and embarrassed by my sister’s gracious move. I was off the hook, time and money-wise. Yet, it felt like a cop out. Presents are a big deal in my family. “No, don’t worry,” I lied. “I’ll take care of it.” Her comment infantilized me, feeding a deep need to prove we are able to send a gift of our own. My parents and siblings prize achievement over character, over joy, over appearances. Achievement is redemption. Gifts are the best way to show love. My sister is in school now to become a PA, my brother-in-law is in finance; my brother is a lawyer, his wife stays home. And Yossi, my husband, is kindhearted and a talmid chacham, great with the kids, yet he didn’t choose a profession that counts as successful in my family’s limited measures.
Thankfully, everyone was too polite to say so, except, of course Chevi, who reminded me that she had told me years ago that I didn’t understand how much money I’d need to raise a family. “Most people are more practical, Sarah,” she told me before we got engaged, speaking low, like she was sharing a secret. She took my hands in hers and hugged me. I’d convinced my parents I preferred a boy who was going to learn in kollel instead of a businessman. My parents accepted my values and never said a word about it, our bursting apartment with our worn leather couch and my outdated wardrobe, old sheitel, faded shoes. My mother continued extolling Yossi’s gentle smile and great parenting skills. Even when Yossi became a social worker, she never mentioned I’d chosen someone in a less lucrative field than my father or brother. (My dad started a medical devices company that boomed in the 1990s and still generated a comfortable income.) Yossi had given up his social work dream as we had more kids. But this time the situation felt dire and my sister’s words flashed into my consciousness. I tried to push them back behind the curtain. I could have asked my mother for a little to tide us over (hoping my sister would never find out), as she’s volunteered so many times over our 15 years of marriage. “Let us know whatever you need, Sarah,” her kind voice offering relief I couldn’t allow myself to accept. I feared as soon as I said yes, Yossi would be toast, persona non grata, the subject of telephone calls across America. Like my mother’s youngest sister and her “no-goodnik” husband who declared bankruptcy as family legend goes. “He lost everything,” I remember hearing my mother whisper over the phone to her older sister. My uncle only gave cameo appearances at our family’s simchas after that.
Although, of course, he was welcome to each event, urged to come, the negative energy was palpable when he entered any hall—no matter the size. I didn’t want Yossi to share my uncle’s fate. Instead, I entered the store we shopped at most frequently, aware the owner extended credit to some people he knew well. Though we didn’t have any friends or family in common, I hoped our eight years of on-time payment would convince him to extend us credit for our Shabbos groceries just this one week. “Hi,” I started out, too quiet. “I, uh, basically was wondering if you would be willing to put just this grocery order on credit until next week? I never usually ask this,” I stuttered along. The cashier wasn’t the usual one, I realized, so I was doubly humiliated. He didn’t know our stellar customer track record. My heart sped up, waiting for the response. “Are you in the system?” the clerk asked. “Yes, I think so,” I replied with a thin smile. I told the cashier my phone number and confirmed our address. “You don’t have a credit account though,” he said loudly enough that everyone behind me in the line could hear. I glanced at the people waiting their turn. My cheeks flushed red, as I caught the eye of a woman I know from our kids’ school. Humiliation. “Can I speak to the manager? To set it up?” I asked, barely whispering. “I, uh, it will just be temporary.” Annoyed, the worker picked up the intercom and paged the manager. I moved aside so other shoppers could make their purchases and be on their way. Standing at the front of the store felt so obvious, and tacky, like I was advertising our financial fate to our entire neighborhood.
Still, as hard as this was, it was better than asking my parents for help. The red-haired store manager nodded when he saw my familiar face. He punched my phone number into the computer again and added the total to the system. The entire process took place in silence, punctuated by the cell-phone conversation of a young teenager trying to decipher her mother’s shopping list.“Okay,” the manager said, handing me a short slip of paper. “Here’s a receipt of what you owe.” “I’ll pay it back next week,” I said under my breath, shoving the receipt in my coat pocket. I looked at the stack of boxes, realizing I usually have my order delivered. I’d counted on bags so I could carry the load to the car more easily. Noticing my two-second hesitation, the deliveryman spoke up. “I’ll bring them to your house now. Someone home?” he asked as if it were a regular week, a regular paid-up order. “Yes, thank you,” I said, as tears leaked out. I dabbed my eye with the sleeve of my coat and walked to my car. The short drive home was a blur. I spent the afternoon cooking, while the kids cleared the stacks of homework and mail crowding the dining room table. My teenager chose her outfits for the weekend, along with those of her little sister. They were moving into their siblings’ room so my parents could stay in their room. I prepared the fish with the Moroccan sauce my mother liked. I spiced the cholent the way my father preferred. I ironed my sons’ white shirts and smoothed my daughters’ velour skirts by steaming them in the shower. I wanted everything to be perfect.
My parents arrived on time to our small but cozy apartment. I took their coats and put them in the closet, while the older boys schlepped their suitcases to the room. Yossi, unaware of the earlier grocery debacle, was glowing with confidence when my father greeted him. The little kids presented hand-drawn cards, along with hugs for Bubbie and Zeidie. After candle lighting, my mother and I sat down on the couch to schmooze for a few minutes. The kids had run off to play. We heard giggles from the boys’ room, and then quiet. “You look great, Mom,” I said, admiring my mother’s stylish suit. “The kids grew so much. Amazing,” my mother said, taking my hand in hers. “You’re working so hard.” She squeezed my hand and gave a knowing smile. “Keeping busy,” I mustered, wishing I could share the burden of juggling six kids and my office job. Wishing I could accept the help my mother would gladly offer—had offered in the past—to lighten our burden. There was no way I could do that to Yossi, and risk his reputation and my parents’ respect for him. “But how are you managing?” she said, staring into my eyes. “How can we help?” She leaned back into the couch we’ve had since our chasan-kallah days.“Mom, thanks,” I answered. “But really we’re doing fine. The kids are happy. I like my job.” “How’s Yossi doing?” my mom asked. I felt her maternal concern, wanting to make sure her child was protected and secure. “He’s doing fine, baruch Hashem,” I said, with a reassuring calm voice. “That’s great,” she said, believing me. “My friend Nora has been supporting her son-in-law for six months since he lost his job. A nightmare.” “I have to make dressing for the salad.” I bolted to the kitchen, holding back tears. My parents wanted to help, but the cost would be too great. They would never respect Yossi again.
The men came home from shul and made Kiddush. My father told us he saw an old acquaintance. Comments about the cold New York winter circled the table. Bubbie and Zeidie were excited about the expected storm; the kids complained that they were sick of snow. “No more global warming,” my father joked as he passed around the salad. “Delicious fish, Sarah,” my mother complimented. The men spoke in learning while the kids showed Bubbie and Zeidie their school projects and karate moves. “The soup is just how I like it,” my father said. “My little Sarah became a good cook.” He winked, sending all of us into a laughing fit, along with stories of my first cooking snafus. The kids read their parshah sheets clearly, so Bubbie and Zeidie could hear. Nachas. “Maybe you could make one of the sheva brachos for your cousin,” my mother said, cutting the roast chicken with her fork. I’d eked out a simple meal with groceries on credit and the leftovers in my freezer. Sheva brachos would send our bank balance plunging even further into the abyss. “We’ll pay for it,” my father declared, patting Yossi on the shoulder. Yossi slouched at my father’s comment. And I knew that I couldn’t accept my parents’ intervention—not even for sheva brachos. “We can manage it,” Yossi lied, glancing at me across the table. My father put his hand on Yossi’s shoulder, proud.