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Family Matters

Esty Heller

“I’m so happy for you that you had a boy. I’m sure you know my mother gives $10,000 to every grandson named after her father.”

Saturday, June 18, 2016


Photo: Shutterstock

"Zeide Shaul was such a tzaddik.” 

Smile, just smile, I told myself. You don’t have to say anything. 

I smiled. Not warmly, just politely, the kind of smile that was sweet and friendly, but not a sign of agreement. 

“Avrumi, you remember Zeide, right?” his mother asked. “How old were you when he was niftar?” 

I turned to look at my husband, wincing as pain reeled through my head. I shouldn’t have gotten an epidural. I’d never gotten one before, and I silently vowed never to get one again. 

“Seven,” Avrumi mumbled. “I remember him vaguely.” He rocked the bassinet with his foot, his gaze aimed at the floor. 

I rubbed the IV PICC on my hand. The baby slept. 

“He was such a tzaddik,” my mother-in-law repeated, sighing for emphasis. “He would give the shirt off his back for a fellow Yid. He always used to tell me, ‘Rivka’la, tracht fun yenem. S’iz besser tzu geben vi eider tzu darfen nemen.’ And that’s the way he lived, always thinking of the next person, always the giver, never the taker.” 

She reached her hand out to the bassinet and patted the baby’s head. 

“A true tzaddik.” 

The insinuation was so obvious, it could hardly be called a hint. Dizziness whirled around my head and a sudden crushing fatigue made my eyelids sag. I rested my head on my pillow, my mother-in-law’s voice droning like a distant chopper. 

“I brought the poya up from the basement. It needs a good wash and starch. Can you imagine, Avrumi? This is the poya we used for your bris!” 

Incredible. It was so nice, really, the significance and all. I remembered the first time I’d heard about this poya after my wedding. I thought my sisters-in-law were talking about a wig, a pe’ah. Only later did I learn that in the Hungarian Doctrine, the poya, a white, frilly baby bunting with a bunch of flaps and straps, was a prerequisite for a kosher bris. And Rivka Fried followed the Hungarian Doctrine to the letter. 

The word “bris” brought the nausea of the past nine months back with a wham. This visit was too much, too soon.

Photo: Shutterstock

“Tell me what I should get you,” my mother-in-law crooned. I suddenly realized she was talking to me. 

“Oh, anything,” I said, waving my hand absently and dredging up another smile. 

“So tell me. A crib?” 

Oh my goodness, not a crib! We had a crib! What in the world did we need a new crib for? I shot Avrumi a desperate look, but he was still admiring the floor as if it was the eighth wonder of the world. 

“Our crib is actually in great condition,” I ventured, praying I didn’t come across ungrateful, or worse, tactless. “Really, you don’t have to buy such a major gift. It’s not our first child.” 

“It’s your first boy!” 

Like I’d forgotten. 

Avrumi’s cell phone bleeped. The ringtone was familiar but it took my postpartum brain several seconds to identify it. 


My stomach imploded. 

Avrumi stood up. “I-I’m gonna…” he stammered, “be right back.” He glided out of the room, leaving me with his mother. My head pounded mercilessly. 

A nurse skated into the room, smiling warmly. “How are you feeling, Mrs. Elbogen?” 

“Okay,” I muttered, feebly. 

“I’ll just check your vitals now, if that’s okay with you.” She gestured to my visitor. Thankfully, my mother-in-law got the message. 

“Guess I’ll go now,” she said. “Eliyahu is waiting for me downstairs.” 

I hated when she referred to her new husband by his first name. It wasn’t impudent, just… awkward. Like, wasn’t he my father-in-law, sort of? 

She walked up to my bed and blew me a kiss. 

I was sleeping like a log the minute the nurse left the room. I didn’t hear Avrumi when he returned, and continued sleeping until the baby woke up for his feeding. 

“I’m happy you got to rest a little,” Avrumi said. “Yocheved wants to visit.” 

“Mommy Elbogen. You shouldn’t be calling her Yocheved.” 

“Why not?” 

“She’s your father’s wife. It sounds irreverent.” 

“But we always — never mind. She wants to visit.” 

“Okay. That’s fine.” 

“She’s… I spoke to my father. This is going to be a toughie.” 

“Should I guess?” 

Avrumi chuckled. 

“Remind me again, what was your grandfather’s name?” 


“Ha!” I laughed. 

“What on earth is so funny about that?” 

“Isn’t it ironic? Eliezer went to look for a kallah for Yitzchok, and who did he find? Rivka! Don’t mind me,” I giggled. “I just gave birth.” 

Avrumi gave me the strange look I deserved. 

“You’re sure it’s my family’s turn for a name?” he asked, only half joking. 

I rolled my eyes. Our two-year-old daughter Hindy was named after my father’s mother. “Isn’t it nice, taking turns?” 

“Awesome. If only there weren’t two sides on my side. Anyway, I told her she could come over soon. That okay with you?” 

“Mommy Elbogen? Yeah, I guess. National Hosting Mother-in-Law Day.” 

I got two more visitors before my second mother-in-law showed up: my friend Zehava, with a lunch that made the entire pregnancy and birth worth it, and my mother, for the second time that day. Avrumi left when Zehava arrived. I realized that we hadn’t discussed what we would actually do about our baby’s name, but I didn’t have much time to dwell on it. Soft tapping on the door made me snap out of my thoughts. 

“Come in,” I called. 

Yocheved Elbogen inched into the room slowly, bearing a bunch of balloons. “Libby!” she cried. “Mazel tov!” 

“Thank you, Mommy!” 

It was funny, how I had no problem calling her Mommy while Avrumi still grappled over how to address her. 

“A boy! After five girls!” She released the balloons. They gravitated toward the bunch that was already decorating my room, and I chuckled inwardly as her bunch of balloons merged with the bunch my other mother-in-law had brought. 

“Tell me what I should get you,” Yocheved said eagerly. 

Copy, paste. Not a crib, please. 

“Anything, Mommy. Really. It’s so sweet of you.” 

“Please! For my little tzaddik? The world!” 

I smiled politely. Her hinting was considerably subtler than Mommy Fried’s had been. Then again, it wasn’t her father whose memory she was advocating, only her husband’s father. 

Later, when Avrumi came by with supper, we finally got a chance to talk. 

“Can I tell you something?” I asked, clearing a spot for my plate on my tiny bedside table. 

Avrumi leaned back in his chair, sipping from the container of cranberry juice that came along with every hospital meal. “Hmm?” 

I rolled the table away and looked up at him. 

“Nu?” he prodded. 

“Okay, here’s the thing,” I started. “I hate the name Shaul.”

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