I know three things to be true:
Summer in Israel is long and it is hot.
Some days, my kids act like little assholes.
And some days, I suck at being a grownup.
And the worst are the days when all these things collide at once, , and we’re just stuck there in the middle of a long hot day, our foul moods feeding off the heat, sullen, sulky until you have a full-on fight on your hands and it just gets worse and worse until one of you slams the door like the crack of thunder and stews for a little bit until things lift like the end of a storm. But sometimes it takes a while – hours maybe.
We try not to go to bed angry – that was one of my parents’ rules. But I’ve broken it. Twice. I remember both times, and I remember I felt shitty about it and I tossed and I turned until midnight when I woke up my kids up and told them I was sorry, and we sat on the porch and drank tea and listened to the crickets, and in the morning, it felt like it was a dream except there were our cups outside with a trail of ants where we had spilled some honey.
Last week was one of those days long hot days when they were assholes and I sucked at being a mom, a day dragging our feet through a ragged afternoon, the parched kind of afternoon where the ground doesn’t yield and the sky is white and full of dust.
I’ll take my share of the responsibility: It was hot as hell, and the devil made me do it, and when her brother started teasing his sister for no reason other than the fact that it was hot out and he felt like being an asshole, I did the unforgivable: I laughed. I laughed hard. What can I say? The kid may be an asshole, but he’s got a great sense of humor.
Sometimes, laughter can break tension and flood everyone with good feelings – but sometimes, when the laughter is at another person’s expense, and that person is hot and tired and only ten years old, it boils over.
She stalked out of the room like a wounded rhinoceros and slammed the door.
Ten minutes later, dinner was ready – her favorite, mac and cheese, and she still hadn’t come out. I gave it another five minutes and then I knocked on the door.
“Go away, traitor!” she shouted.
And I could picture her sitting on her bottom bunk, kicking her feet against the side, pink-cheeked and indignant.
I knocked again.
“I said GO AWAY,” she screamed, a scream from deep in the back of her throat like a raptor, or like an angry ten-year-old carrying all that shit that ten-year-old girls have to carry – mean girls, (and mean boys), the imperceptible changes in their body, big feelings, all that stuff I remember carrying too.
I knocked a third time.
“Listen baby, I’m sorry for laughing. It wasn’t kind. I hurt your feelings and I feel rotten about it. We have a chance to fix the evening, but in order for that to happen, I need you to come out so we can set things right.”
She didn’t reply. I backed off and two minutes later, she opened the bedroom door and came to the table.
“Nu?” she said.
And her brother and I apologized.
We had ice cream for dessert.
But today is another day just like the one a week before because even though we live and even though we learn, we are still the same frail creatures we were – human to our core.
And it is hot out, and the day is long, and we’re all tired of the white-hot sun and the long hours of buzzing flies and wilting flowers no matter how much water we give them.
Ten minutes before dinner – a dinner I actually bothered to cook from scratch, instead of the frozen schnitzel I sometimes throw into the toaster oven.
I had hoped that this dinner would make things easier – for all of us. Like the kinds of dinners I had as a kid around the table with my parents, back when there were grownups with pretty plates on the table, and glasses, and napkins in napkin rings. I even lit a little tea light because even when the days are hard, it’s important to try.
On days like these, I miss my mom – on days when there’s this heaviness, I want her to lighten the load for me, and so I try to be like her because sometimes you have to fake it till you make it.
I miss her every day – it’s a wound that will never heal, but some days I feel it more, and today is one of those days.
Dinner’s ready and smells good – another feat worth mentioning. Not too “creative,” as my daughter says when I add too much curry or sumac or cayenne pepper. Not too “boring” as my son says when I don’t add enough spice. Just enough garlic to make it special, salt and pepper, and freshly grated tomatoes. A little basil. Some goat cheese. Summer pasta, between her tastes and his tastes and my tastes, this is the perfect Venn diagram.
And they are playing – brother and sister, and maybe if it hadn’t been so hot I would have the sense God gave me to let them play a little longer, but I’m hungry. I’m hungry and I’m tired, and I want to get through the day as fast as possible, so I call them to the table.
They ignore me.
I’m literally two feet away from them but they don’t respond.
“Dinner time!” I say with an edge to my voice – not too sharp, but enough to cut through the room.
“NO!” my son shouts.
“WE ARE BUSY” my daughter shouts.
And I just crumple.
They’re glaring at me – and I’m just so sad. I feel like a failure.
I am tired. I am so goddamn tired. I am tired of pretending that I’ve got it all together. I am tired of chopping vegetables and boiling pasta, of the honey and the ants. I am tired of watching the hours eke by and then wishing it would all slow down and I could turn back time and do it all again. I am tired of feeling frustrated – and I am tired of myself for ignoring how precious this all is, and how fast it goes.
I remember when I was still my mother’s daughter how I would feel so many of the feelings I feel now – limited sometimes, trapped. And yet, when I think back on those days – even the long hot ones, it’s only with this ache of longing, and here I am in the middle of my own days, and I can’t bring myself to enjoy them.
I tried – I lit a goddamn candle and set the table, and my kids are being assholes, and I can’t see beyond that to the fact that I am so goddamn lucky that a 10-year-old sister is playing with her 8.5-year-old brother.
I put the plates down on the table, and say in a voice like the wind over the desert: “Dinner’s on the table. I’m going to lie down. I’m done.”
And I walk into my room and quietly close the door.
I don’t chastise. I don’t shout. I just close the door.
I. Am. Done.
I’ve never done this before, but it feels familiar, and then I remember one night back when there were grownups and I was pink-cheeked and indignant in the living room over having to clean up my Legos, and my mother quietly walked down the hall and closed the door.
I remember in my darkened room while I sit on the bed my tears hot and fresh from that wellspring I can never empty, that there is nothing quite so awful as that sound.
No rancor. No passion. No tears.
And I sit there in the dark and I am a little girl again, just like my daughter must have sat in her room swinging her legs against the bed the week before.
There’s a knock on my door.
And I hear my daughter’s voice outside:
“Please come out.”
“I don’t want to.” I just want to sleep. I just want to sleep. I just want to sleep.
I hear her take a deep breath. “Mama, we are having a bad day, and we weren’t kind to you, but we have the chance to make it better, but we can’t do that unless you come out.”
The same words I said to her a week before.
And then I remember how my mother came out of the room, and she said “family forgives each other no matter what,” and she picked up my Legos with me, side by side.
I take a deep breath, and I get out of bed, and I open the door.
They had put an empty plate on the table, and we eat. Dinner is still hot. We are very careful with each other, and the truce holds, but the end of it, the mood has broken, and the air is sweet again.
We have ice cream for dessert. Two scoops.
“You saved the day,” I tell my daughter when I tuck her in.
“Family forgives each other,” she says. “And you taught me how to take the first step.”