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Turning Tides

As told to Leah Gebber

My mother-in-law is tall and big boned, with broad shoulders. Looking at her, I’ve always thought that if I threw a rope or two around this green-and-blue globe we live on and hung it over her arms, she’d take one heave and pull it right along after her, without even letting go of her pocketbook.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

It’s not just that I’m petite and slim and my shoulders look like they belong to a 12-year-old. It’s that I wasn’t made for pulling weights. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I had leukemia as a young teen; extended chemotherapy left its mark on my system. Maybe that’s just who I am — I tire easily, my stamina is short lived. And it doesn’t bother me; I’m happy to quietly make my way through life without heroics or dramatics. I certainly didn’t want to use my precious energy agonizing over my lack of ambition: I try to simply accept it as a piece of myself, and live accordingly. When I was in shidduchim, I knew I didn’t have the physical strength to do the work-plus-run-house thing that comes along with marrying a learner, so I looked for a solid ben Torah who was in the working world. It took a few years — at 21 or 22, most solid boys are still intent on learning. By the time they reach 24, it’s easier to find a good boy who has left yeshivah. I also had to find someone willing to overlook the fear engendered by my medical file, and instead accept the clean bill of health my doctors now gave me. Baruch Hashem, I found Levi, the youngest of six. He had just become a CPA and we settled down happily. Although my parents don’t have money, they offered to pay for cleaning help twice a week. “I’m paying to save your energy,” my mother told me, and we accepted their offer. Married life suited me perfectly. I’m on a special toxin-free diet and I put a lot of effort into cooking tasty, healthful meals. I rested each afternoon so that I was alert and with-it when Levi came home in the evening. I spent my mornings puttering around the house, decorating the drab walls of our small rental with needlepoints, sewing curtains, visiting my elderly aunts. “Nechama’s learning how to run a home,” my mother-in-law said of me, and for the first six months of our marriage she left me alone. But then, one Shabbos, as I deposited a tray of pickled herring in the kitchen, she cornered me. “Nisht Shabbos geredt, but there’s a career fair on Sunday.” I nodded. I’d heard of it; it was mainly geared for seminary returnees. As if she’d read my thoughts, my mother-in-law said, “Many married women go too.” I rinsed the fish forks off in the sink. “Mmm.” She turned, so that I was pinned between the sink and her ample girth. I’m claustrophobic, and for a moment my breath was stuck in my windpipe — it just refused to exit and I was left with a bubble of air and tension inside. After two seconds, three, I stepped sideways. Out. Breathless, I scuttled to the entrance of the kitchen. Did my panic antagonize her? When I look back, I’m still trying to find the places where I went wrong, where I could have done things differently.

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