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Family Fiction: White Flakes

Esty Heller

Frumet reaches for the dips again, and my smile wanes. I can’t — she can’t take refills. It’s just… gross. Doesn’t her mother teach her table manners?

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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TOO QUIET My fingers are putty as I boil water and measure cocoa. Save for Magna Tiles clicking, the house is quiet; eerily, tangibly quiet. I put the boiling mug on a tray, along with a fresh slice of cake, and head upstairs. When I reach Frumet’s room, the door is closed. I hesitate. “Frumet?”

T he girls are squealing over the personalized placecards at their seats when I enter the dining room with the tray. “Fish?” I ask.

They laugh. Little girls don’t eat fish, especially not at Bubby’s house when nobody’s forcing them. A chorus of “eew”s follows, and the younger division — Matti, Shaindy, Nechama —launch the food survey game. “Do you like broccoli? Sushi?” They cry “ugh” and “yum” alternatively, with the mention of each food.

“I want fish.” That’s Frumet, nasal voice dull over the babble. Dandruff coats her slumped shoulders, white specs glistening on her navy velour Shabbos robe. I smile thinly and hand her a portion. Her hand reaches gauchely for the sectional tray of dips, and I watch as she spoons a dollop of techina onto her plate, then dill dip and chrayonnaise and marinated eggplant.

This is why I prepared the food, right? I want the girls to enjoy every minute of their Bubby’s girl-Shabbos. We’ve been talking about it for weeks.

“Black jelly beans?!” Nechama’s eyes goggle with horror. I chuckle, slipping into my seat. I take a bite, trying to keep my eyes on my food, but my gaze keeps shifting back to Frumet’s plate. It’s a palette of paint, dips bleeding into each other as she swipes chunks of challah around.

I chew, trying to tune in as Riva posits the injustices of having two tests in one day. She’s a drama queen, Riva, like her mother. Black eyes flash theatrically as she mimics Mrs. Schondorf. Everyone’s in stitches.

Frumet joins the laughter. She’s chewing with relish, raptly following the little ones who are still going strong with their favorite and worst foods. Spittle dribbles from her mouth as she cries, “yuuuuum,” when Nechama mentions farina. I push my plate aside.

From the head of the table, Eli teases Riva. “Gotta lodge a complaint. It’s illegal, stressing young brains out like that.”

Riva’s lips pucker. “Totally. I bet we could win a million dollars on this case. It’s child abuse.”

 

Eli winks at me. “Nine going on nineteen,” I murmur, grinning.

Frumet reaches for the tray of dips again, and my smile wanes. I can’t — she can’t take refills. It’s just… gross. Doesn’t her mother teach her table manners? I know Batsheva isn’t a native Fleischer, and maybe the etiquette my own children are schooled in is extreme, but… licking fingers, chewing with an open mouth… The basics.

After the meal, I bring out refreshments and a huge pile of photo albums. The girls are ecstatic, shrieking at the hilarious pictures of their parents growing up. I laugh along.

The girls attack bowls of chips, the licorice and bonbons. A warm fuzz fills my heart. My years of forcing suppers down throats and campaigning for clean rooms are over. It’s just nachas now, all fun and love and MSG, without the toil that’s childrearing. My eyes flit from child to child. Shana, all squinty eyes, quiet but not shy, just dreamy and lovable. Riva, a clone of my Nechama. It’s like watching my daughter growing up all over again. Dena, my dashing princess, too old for my too-frequent hugs, but I can’t resist. Matti, Shaindy, Nechama, stifling yawns and battling to keep their eyes open and stay up with the “big girls.” And Frumet… only Frumet… The fuzziness ebbs as I watch her munch, stuffing her cheeks with abandon. Nobody fights to sit next to her. She talks too loudly, bulky frame sagging. I can’t help noticing the way she touches people when she talks.

Of course I love her. She’s my einekel, like the rest of them. I lean over her chair. “That’s your father, see? I can’t believe I got him to look up from that book long enough to smile at the camera.”

“I hate reading.”

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