“Yeah, it could be worse!”

It is 10:20pm, or, as Aviva would surely point out, 10:21pm. I fell asleep with the girls and woke up twenty minutes ago, sweaty and squished between them. I came downstairs and sliced another piece of the chocolate babka our Shabbat dinner guests brought for dessert tonight.

I am learning all over again how to parent, how to live. The rhythms are new ones; we come home and within five minutes V is mad about something Pearl did or I said. She stomps upstairs and slams the door to her room, her refuge in this, our temporary dwelling. Pearl helps me for a few minutes–chopping lettuce for the salad, say–before she too gets mad and tells me something like, “You’re a mean Mama. I don’t even like you,” then goes over to the couch and throws the pile of clean, folded clothes on the floor. I take a deep breath and thank God when the doorbell rings.

Our guests have arrived, carrying salad fixings, a bottle of red wine, a gorgeous challah from Stone Soup. Aviva doesn’t make an appearance, not yet. Pearl is nowhere to be found. She is a stealth hider, emerging after a bit with a mischievous smile from the living room closet. Our friends’ young boys set about exploring the house. Ashley stops by, thinking she is just going to to say hello before going to services at the synagogue. Fifteen minutes later, she takes off her coat. She will join us for dinner.

Shabbat dinner.

For me these past few months, Friday nights have been particularly fraught. When the girls are with Greg, I miss them, our togetherness, no matter how chaotic, of lighting candles and clanking our forks and knives against plates and glasses as we sing “Shabbat Shalom,” as had become our family custom. When they’re with me, I also miss the togetherness; our little threesome doesn’t quite hold a center by itself, at least not yet. Things spin out and I often find myself scrambling for control and more often feeling a kind of powerlessness over the very ritual I have come to find so grounding and comforting over the years.

Last night, I went to Shaw’s around 7:30 and picked up ingredients to make a lasagna. I found myself looking very carefully at the cost of each item; we separated our bank accounts today and I am suddenly facing the unflinching reality of having to support myself alone. I figured if I want us to have a nice Shabbat dinner, it would be a good idea to have something ready. Getting home at 5:00pm on Friday after a long day after a long week is transition enough; throw in not knowing what the hell we’re going to eat and any hope of sitting down to a meal together begins to fade. So this morning, I took the lasagna, which had been cooling all night on the stove, and slid it into the fridge.

I now see that another piece of the Friday evening puzzle I need to remember to fill in is guests. Friends. A house full of life.

Aviva eventually found her way downstairs. She ate on the couch, away from the fray, though by the time we broke into the babka, she was in the mix again. This is who she is, how she moves. She keeps a distance, comes to life on her own terms and in her own timing. By the time the dessert dishes were cleared, she was singing into her karaoke machine, albeit facing the wall. Pearl was fretting about having to pee before bed (not her favorite pastime), and we eventually reached a plan that she could accept. We danced to the Kidz Bop CD my mother-in-law gave the girls recently, my friend’s little ones a delight.

Bedtime. Aviva lunging around my bedroom. “Ah haaaaave so much eh-nuh-gie!!” she yelled as she hurled her body across the bed. I was tired and just wanted to find her “off” switch. But I also realized, it wasn’t just the sugar talking. She had energy because we had a full evening. We had fun. We had company. We had candles and full bellies and other kids and life in the house.

Eventually settled down. Ashley told a couple of stories from her past before saying goodnight, turning the lights out behind her. One of her stories was about her grandfather, how he narrowly survived returning to the States on a ship filled with meningitis victims during WWI. “How do you know that story?” Pearl wanted to know. Aviva quickly answered. “It was passed down.”

L’dor v’dor, I told her. From generation to generation.

She threw herself over me and Pearl snuggled her head up against my neck while I told a story about my aunt and uncle’s loft in Tribeca, and the last Thanksgiving we celebrated there before Nancy died. How we arrived around noon, armfuls of dishes, sweet potatoes with marshmellows on top, Nancy’s amazing salad dressing, fresh rolls and roasted vegetables and of course, the turkey. How we sat at the table together, all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, held hands and went around saying what we were thankful for.

“That’s cause we do that,” Aviva pointed out at this point in the story.

“And where do you think we learned it?” I asked.

“Oh…”

L’dor v’dor. We did not create these rituals. They created us. I continued with my story: How later, someone put on Leonard Cohen, and the men watched the game in a pumpkin-pie stupor while the women did a circle dance that year, not knowing that the next time we’d gather in that loft, Mayor Giuliani would join us to offer his condolences. And how my exchange with Grammy has become family lore:

“Grammy, want some dessert?” I yelled in her ear.

“Yeah, it could be worse!” she replied, so sure of what she’d heard.

No matter that Aviva said she didn’t “get” the story. She does get it. She and Pearl get it all, more than she or I or any of us can know, because the knowing, the “getting it,” comes in the doing, the candlelighting, the transitions and the learning how to do it all over again, how to prepare a meal, invite guests, fill a home, no matter how temporary. How to let ritual hold us even when it sometimes feels like nothing can.

We create it. It saves us. We pass it down. And, somehow, we keep dancing.

5 thoughts on ““Yeah, it could be worse!”

  1. j-daddy says:

    Wow. . . i haven’t read a post in so, so darn long (well, but there’s a lot I haven’t read in so darn long, that I’ve been wanting to, too!). Buster, next time jews gots to share more with us, bout how we can be of a little more help! If the kids weren’t around, I would have wanted to ask so, so much more about how you’re doing and how they’re doing, so it’s a great treat to read some of it here (but then again, not having the kids around would have also made me as sad as it sounds like their absence would have made you). Next time, please let us treat you and the kids to somethin’ special, and we’ll bring over a fun & full meal, so you can just get home, be with the gals, and leave the rest up to us! There isn’t a lot in life I love as much as cooking with Noah, so next time, we’ll treat you & the gals like queens & bring over your favorite anythings! Your writing is so beautiful and after reading it, I just wish I gave you a slightly longer hug when we left! And damn, when Noah and Aden start exploring new ways of acting out in all sorts of age-appropriate ways when they get to be slightly older, I hope I have as much direction when I respond to them as you did tonight when you were responding to your gals!

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  2. Renae C says:

    Tears in my eyes, feeling like I’m right there among all of you because of the beautiful words you wrap around the night. Glad you fell into the arms of community and ritual. It could be worse indeed. Keep dancing!

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  3. julie says:

    Pearl was fretting about having to pee before bed (not her favorite pastime) Pearl sounds like my Murphy on this one;). I guess for some kids peeing before bed is just too much to ask when they are tired!

    “Grammy, want some dessert?” I yelled in her ear.

    “Yeah, it could be worse!” she replied, so sure of what she’d heard.

    I love that.

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  4. JKlima says:

    Jena, you are a wonderful writer. You caputured the nuance of this change so beautifully. I get all of what you have written, and the best part to me, is that you have enough clarity to sail above and see what is holding you as you all make your way. WOW.

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