M ore irksome than the hot pink, lip-shaped stamp on my cheek was the way Nava squealed “Taaaammy!!” every time she saw me, as though we hadn’t met in fifteen years. I squirmed out of my aunt’s embrace for the second time that day and casually rubbed my cheek clean. Too bad if she noticed.

Nava clucked her tongue. “You look frazzled, darling.”

Points for intuition. I shrugged.

“You work too hard. Gotta learn to take it easy.”

Easy, right. Wake up at six, clean the house for Shabbos, cook supper, dash off to work, run to Ma’s — to The House — and clean and cook all over again. A cinch. “I do what I have to,” I said coolly.

“Easy,” Nava repeated firmly. “Starting now.” She pressed a huge orange paper bag I hadn’t noticed she was holding into my hand.

“What—”

“Dinner!” she crowed. “For the whole family. Now go home and take a salt bath.”

I gripped the bag and inhaled. “Please, Nava, you shouldn’t have. We’re fine, really. It’s no big deal for me to cook supper.”

“Lavender Epsom salt,” she said. “And you’ll find some peppermint leaves in that bag, homegrown. Makes the most soothing tea.”

Like I was eighty years old and drank tea. I wanted to fling the orange bag in her face and run. Ma would’ve done that. She would never have accepted food from people. From Nava.

Another peck on the cheek and Nava was off, ridiculous Savta Simcha bag swinging from her shoulder. I carried her paper bag into the house, holding it at arm’s length like I was taking garbage out for collection.

Yerachmiel accosted me as soon as I walked in.

“What’s in that pumpkin bag?”

I plunked the bag down on the counter.

“Why are you home early?”

“Construction in yeshivah,” he said. “What’s in there?”

“Well, let’s see.” I was tempted to don gloves before touching anything. “Um, couscous? I think. It’s yellow, and it’s…” I sniffed the pan. “Ugh! Pineapple!”

“It’s quinoa,” Yerachmiel noted. “Look, everything’s labeled. Who’s this from, by the way?”

“Keen-wa, not kwin-o-wa. And you tell me. Who could possibly send pineapple quinoa?”

“Nava. And I won’t eat it. Nevah.”

I couldn’t blame him — nobody would eat any of Ma’s sister’s food. A quick glance at the clock set my heart racing. Supper, Shabbos food, laundry! Chanoch would be back from kollel at seven, and I had to be home to serve him supper. When Meir sauntered into the kitchen to stick his nose into my pots, I noticed his shirt, clean but crumpled. He must have taken it from the pile that was waiting around for me to iron.

“Can’t you and Yerachmiel do something constructive in your free time?” I snapped. I knew it was rude, but wrinkles on shirts had been Ma’s pet peeve and I couldn’t bear seeing that shirt.

“What, like build toothpick towers?” Meir jeered.

I shot him a glare. I hadn’t touched a toothpick out of the kitchen since before. Ma had considered it a ridiculous hobby.

One and a half hours later, there was a pot on every burner, two pans in the oven, and load number three in the washing machine. I barked instructions in all directions and sailed into the living room to water the plants.

My father was sitting on his recliner when I walked in, a sefer on his lap. I said hello while pouring plant food into the watering can. Ma was gone for months and I still couldn’t make eye contact with him. I couldn’t, or I would see the slightly unfocused glaze over his eyes that proved he wasn’t as strong as he was pretending to be. Then I would cry, and I just couldn’t cry anymore.

“I think the leaves on that one in the corner are turning yellow,” my father remarked. “Maybe snip the tips.”

Water sloshed over my shoes. I turned to look, and he was right, the bright green was fading, sapped, drooping… lifeless. Yellow leaves, a deathly pallor.

Tears clogged my throat. Never mind shirt creases, the plants! Ma’s plants. While Tatty recruited someone to move his car for alternate side parking before traveling, Ma wouldn’t board the flight before hiring a plant-sitter. I had faithfully tended to her plants all those months, watering them, shifting them around to capture sunlight.

For naught. Yellow leaves!

Chanoch arrived home moments after me. I felt like a fraud, popping food into the microwave. Which shanah rishonah husband was expected to eat microwaved food?

We spoke a bit, about nothing and everything, until Chanoch stood up.

“Okay, what’s wrong?”

“Something wrong?”

“Very. You’re just so sad today.”

My throat burned. “Nava prepared supper. Pineapple quinoa with peppercorns and carrot-glazed tilapia drenched in herbs from her greenhouse.”

“Hey, you didn’t bring home any leftovers.” Chanoch winked. “Seriously, Tam. What happened?”

My hands closed around a glass bottle of seltzer. “Ma’s plants are dying.”



*



Sundays were always an epic tease. I prepared meticulous lists on Motzaei Shabbos, then chased my shadow all day as I scrambled through my duties. Still, no matter how neatly I mapped out my plans, something always came up that threw my beautifully drafted schedule off kilter.

This time it was my father. I was unloading groceries from the car, fantasizing about breakfast, when he called.

“Any plans for today, Tam?”

Plans, hmm. I planned on putting up two pots of soup to stock my freezer, and a third to send over to The House for the week. Then there was laundry — there was always laundry. And a grocery order for The House. I couldn’t manage both orders in one trip. Leah needed a throat culture, Shira needed new shoes, and I wanted to buy Chanoch a birthday gift. His birthday was on Tuesday, and I couldn’t push it off any longer.

And you know what? I wanted to start a new toothpick tower and practice hypnosis on my friend Shuli, that’s what I wanted to do, although those definitely weren’t on my list, and I definitely couldn’t tell that to my father.

“No special plans,” I said, carefully. None of it was special, honestly, except maybe Chanoch’s gift.

“Great, so how about coming over soon? We need to plan Yaakov’s bar mitzvah. It’s in two months and I didn’t book a hall yet.”

“Oh.”

No, I didn’t want to — I couldn’t plan Yaakov’s bar mitzvah, never. That was Ma’s job. Ma had planned Yerachmiel’s and Meir’s bar mitzvahs months in advance, and oh, how she had glowed on those special nights. The clothing, the menu, the décor… This was so her thing, and so… so not mine.

“Tammy?”

“Yes, yes, sure, Tatty. I’ll come over soon. In, uh, an hour?” (Excerpted from Calligraphy, Pesach 5777-2017)