On the speaker phone, my middle son’s voice fills my car. I’m driving north into the mountains, my husband beside me in the passenger’s seat. My son is seventeen hundred miles away, shouting, “You had thirty years before this. You have ten years afterwards.”
He’s measuring my life. Until what? Senility? Death?
He’s furious because the date I've chose for my Bat Mitzvah is close to the date of his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Why is he exploding now? I’d explained. Mine is not a traditional celebration. I’m looking inward, exploring Jewish values, planning projects with my four grandchildren, cooking, mapping, reading. No synagogue. No Hebrew. August eighteenth is the only day, Rabbi Lev is available. He’s moving to Texas, coming back east that one weekend. How will I work with him? Celebrate with him? My oldest son wished me well. He and his daughter would be with me that morning. The rest of my family went mute. I sent another email. Both my youngest son and his wife answered. They would attend. My middle son’s wife answered, saying the family would do the best they could to be with all of us. I’d assumed she’d spoken for my son.
“You’re selfish,” my son rails. “You’re stealing Raina’s thunder.”
I’m driving a country road, watching dusk fade into darkness. Headlights blind. I don’t want to steal Raina’s thunder. I want to be a stepping stone. We are a family. This is not a competition. Yet, in that place where truth rubs like a rash under skin, I’d worried about the closeness of our dates. Particularly about going first. I’d talked with Lev, talked with my husband, then, silencing my own doubts, I went forward. Meekly, I send my voice into the car. “I thought about that.”
His retort is quick, his tone metal cold. “Well, you didn’t think hard enough.”
I know that tone. It lives inside of me. It lived in my father: Every thing. I give you everything. Dancing lessons. Piano lessons. What do I get? Nothing. You should be grateful. Not you. You’re selfish. You hear me? Selfish.
Decades peel away. I am a young mother raising three sons, screaming out my frustrations. Can’t you listen? The answer is no. Final the end.
But it wasn’t the end. Bitterly, our arguments circled.
“I cannot support you in any way,” my son says.
My heart is collapsing, filling with sadness. These last two months we have talked happily on the phone, mailed and received Hanukkah gifts, planned a ski trip. How was I to know that for those same two months he’d harbored resentment?
“I always say yes to you. Well, this time, I’m not.”
I grew up with anger, distance and dissonance. Even with cruelty. We all do in varying degrees. Trembling, I speak softly. “I’ll work on this. I’ll get back to you.”
Silent all this time, Dick shifts in his seat. He speaks slowly. “I understand how he feels.”
I take a breath. “Why didn’t you say so before?”
“I hoped it would work.”
My eyes fix on the road, the white line dulled by grit and salt. On the shoulders remnants of last month’s snow storm. When I began my journey toward a Bat Mitzvah, I wanted to pass down, not just words or even beliefs, but lived values. If I believed in God, I’d think God had sent me this confrontation as a test. Perhaps, as a gift. I know my son will accept nothing less than capitulation. So hard for me. After all, we are cut from similar cloth. Pulling into a Shell station, I ask my husband to drive, then sinking down into my seat, I close my eyes, as if to see more clearly.
That night, sitting across from Dick at a table in the pub of the inn where we are staying, I lift my wine glass. Dick lifts his. “I can do this,” I say. “I didn’t think I could, but I can.”
And my mind’s eye, I am seeing my grandson. He and I are exploring the streets of the Lower East Side where he lives, where my maternal grandparents had lived. I am baking with my grand daughters, using recipes I’ve found that I hope will duplicate tastes of my childhood, tastes of villages I’ve never seen. My grandchildren and I are reading books, emailing, talking, visiting. I won’t call what I’m doing a Bat Mitzvah. I wont have a celebration, not on August eighteenth. Not with Lev. Will I have a celebration at all? I don’t know. I’m feeling both full and empty, full because I will spend time with my grand children in a meaningful way, empty because I will not have my moment in the sun. But isn’t one of the values I want to pass on, the ability to consider another’s concern as my own? And doesn’t love force concession?
Dick and I touch the bowls of our wine glasses. "Terrific," he says.
"What's terrific?" I say looking over the rim of my glass.
"That you can still do it."
Can or will?
Can or will?