It’s April, the snowbirds are flying back from Florida and Hawaii, and on Tuesday mornings at 7:30 a few are to be seen perching again in the little sanctuary at B’nai Shalom—Children of Peace. In the winter, many retired people go away, so it’s hard to raise a full minyan at the synagogue: ten adult Jews. Without ten there are prayers that can’t be said—the Barekhu, a Kaddish.
For most of the winter, Gershom and Susannah Samuels visit their children and grandchildren—in California, in Arizona. Everyone’s pleased to see Gershom back at the morning service. He’s important to the community not just as one counted among ten; he’s deeply, knowledgeably Jewish—one of the wise old men of the larger congregation. He grew up in Brooklyn, son of a family that fled Austria just in time, leaving limbs of the family behind. The limbs died.
He’s observant, though not, like his parents, Orthodox. But when he’s in town, it’s Gershom—even more than Rabbi Stein—they turn to when a question comes up. Do you remove tefillin when you chant Hallel? What’s the history of the Sabbatai Zevi heresy?
He’s a scholar. Retired from Middle Eastern studies at Boston University, he writes for Jewish newspapers and since his retirement has published a book called Zionism and the Diaspora. Every Friday he and the rabbi and a professor from Tufts, Ira Koenigsberg, do a page of Talmud in the rabbi’s office. Yet he’s a mild, even humble man. Long and angular, a Don Quixote by Picasso, he has a sweet smile with overtones of sadness. It’s a sadness that those who meet him read as wisdom. He doesn’t feel wise, certainly doesn’t mean to come off as wise. It’s simply, to be in this world, how can you be not sad?
Tuesday. Sam Schulman, leading the morning service, without, as yet, a full minyan, turns from the ark to greet Gershom. “You’re back! Welcome. Welcome.” And Kate Schiff says, “Shalom, Gershom.” They’ve noticed a small boy at his side, how old?—six? seven?—holding on like a shadow beside his leg. Sam wants to run his fingers through the child’s hair—but knows better, refrains. Just smiles. “And who’s this guy?” he asks.
“This guy? This is Kyle.”
This winter vacation was initially undramatic, pleasant. First they visited their son David and Cindy and their two girls in Seattle. If there was unease, urgency, it was merely in trying to make up, in so little time, for being grandparents a continent away. Not easy keeping a relationship going by visits a couple of times a year.
Then the more problematic visit—to their daughter, Eve, in San Diego.
Eve is alone now with their grandson, her son Kyle—she’s been alone for six months—and now laughs that she’s a “full-fledged single mom.” Eve always tries to be upbeat. So at the airport she tells them, Oh! She’s doing so well. “My career! There’s so much to tell, but first let’s get you settled.”
Everything seems lovely, but something’s wrong. Eve seems uneasy. Gershom knows right away and exchanges a glimpse with Susannah. She nods. On the way home, they pick up Kyle at school, a private school. Eve pulls her Lexus into line, and when the kids burst from the front door, she hops out of the car to kiss Kyle, leads him to the back seat, to his grandmother’s lap for a moment and then plunks him onto his booster seat. He straps himself in.
Susannah puts her arm around him and asks, “May Grandma kiss you? Oh, I’ve missed you so much,” she says, and doesn’t wait for an answer. Eve, catching a glimpse in the rear-view mirror says, “Mom! What are you crying about? Kyle, honey—do you have one silly grandma?”
Such a beautiful child, Gershom thinks. Tall and lean, golden hair like his absent father’s.
They drive north out of San Diego toward La Jolla. Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine. Houses with perfect lawns and pools. A beautiful, broad, tree-lined road, no potholes from freezing and melting. Why in heaven’s name, he wonders, do they continue to live in the Northeast? Oh, Gershom knows why. Friends, community, volunteer work. And then there’s simple inertia. But every time he comes here, he wonders if they’re crazy to live where they don’t see the grandchildren and where one day it’s freezing rain, the next snow, then for a change an ice storm.
Sitting up front, Gershom, looking steadily at his beautiful daughter, sees that Eve is nearly in tears. Are her eyes wet? Her eyeliner is blurred and the rims of her eyes are red. He doesn’t ask.
She asks. “What?”
He shrugs. “You, honey. You. Are you really doing okay?”
“Sure. Sure, Dad. A good bit of okay. Wait. I’ll tell you when we’re home.”
She’s always been their drama child. At thirty-six, no difference. He can imagine how she reacted to Dan when she felt frustrated. Sure. Dan must have gone totally silent, retreated into himself and she, she would have beaten at the high walls to get at him. He imagines nights of broken plates, high-pitched demands, and a wall of silence. When they split up, Dan called them to explain and said as much. A nice enough man. A dull man. Successful, steady. Not much of a father. But she chose him eyes open. A heartache for Gershom and Susannah because it’s a heartache for Eve.
Eve says nothing till they’ve unpacked and given gifts. Kyle wanders off to play a video game on the big-screen TV. The noise of laser whines and machine-gun chatter makes Gershom wince. The adults sit in the breakfast nook surrounded by tall windows and French doors. “Well, the big news,” Eve says, almost whispers, “is my New Position. Capital N, capital P.” Before she tells them about it, she dances her hands through the air as if she were conducting an orchestra. “Look, just look at this house. Lovely, right? All the latest, etcetera, right? Granite countertops, a basement for exercise machines, plenty of space for a small regiment. But what are we doing here, just the two of us? And I hardly know anyone. We have to get in the car and drive to San Diego to see a friend or find anything happening. We should be in a city. We should. So, folks, I started putting out feelers, and a headhunter came after me. Looks like I’m going to accept the position of marketing manager for a European firm, a French firm, Vive, a line of specialty foods—cheeses, sauces, herbs—and if it works out, very soon I’ll be named vice president in charge of marketing.”
“Why, how wonderful,” her mother says. And Gershom can hear Susannah’s quiet sigh—she’d been waiting, as he had, for something awful. “Why, that’s marvelous,” she says. “Eve, darling. Why didn’t you tell us right away?”
“Well,” Eve says, “the thing is, I’ll be in New York.”
The kettle whistles; Eve jumps up to prepare the tea.
“And?” Susannah prompts.
“We’re delighted,” Gershom says. “We’ll see much more of you.”
“The thing is, the thing is”—and now she’s really whispering—“how can I take Kyle? I can’t. There’s no way. To New York? Ugh. So hard. School? You think I could get him into a decent school midyear? Even for next fall it’s too late to apply.”
That she’d even consider not being with Kyle pulls heavy darkness into Gershom’s body. “But oh, Eve,” he says, “you can find help. We’ll come down and help.”
“Oh, my God. No! I’ll be traveling around the country. And back and forth to Europe. I’d have to hire a live-in nanny, and I won’t have that kind of money. Anyway, it would be awful for Kyle. You see? And so I thought, well, maybe my dear brother…until I get settled, at least. But David absolutely refuses to have Kyle come to them in Seattle. Or Cindy refuses. You know what a selfish bitch she can be. Oh, my God.”
“But they’re both working,” Susannah says.
“You always favor David.”
“Not true, not true,” Susannah sings.
“And as for Kyle’s father—Dan’s new honey bunny won’t take Kyle even if I wanted that. Actually, I’m delighted. Anyway, he told me. We talked. He offered more child support. I accepted. They want nothing to do with children.”
“Then what are your options?” Gershom asks—though he knows.
“Well. It’s a fabulous job, Dad.”
“Sounds it. I’m proud of you. But what are your options if not a nanny?”
“I thought. I thought that I’d take the job—of course—and you and Mom could take Kyle. For awhile. Months. A year? Give him a stable home. And when I’m in the city, I can come up to Boston and be with you and Kyle on weekends. Well. Some weekends.” She brings cups and a wooden box filled with tea. “What tea would you like?”
From the living room they hear the sound effects of the video game. Screams and explosions. Gershom and Susannah look through the box of teas, as if tea leaves could tell them something.
“You’re upset,” Eve says. “I really thought you’d be overjoyed.”
And in a way, Gershom is overjoyed and knows Susannah is overjoyed. But to manage an active six-year-old boy? He’s seventy-five. He creaks. Susannah is sixty-eight. And then—and this is the real heaviness for him—he’s disappointed with Eve. Kyle’s lost one parent; how can she let him lose another? He’d lecture her about values, but what good would moralizing do? At once, he takes it inside himself: What kind of parents were they if Eve could turn out this way?
“With you, Mommy?” Kyle says.You’re going to visit your grandparents, a nice long visit,” Eve says after dinner as they take a walk along a pretty suburban street with no sidewalks. The sun’s gone down; it’s still light out, but Eve has brought a flashlight so drivers notice them.
“Not right away,” she says. “But soon.”
“Mo-m!” Two syllables, ending down a fifth.
“Honey?” Susannah says. “You do have to come soon. Soon as you’re settled.”
“Of course, of course. Don’t you think I’ll want to?”
Gershom knows she feels guilty and wants to blame her parents. They’re the ones making her feel guilty. Then: “Oh, you’re gonna just love it,” Eve says to Kyle. Or to her parents. Or to herself.
And now, two weeks later, it’s at the Tuesday morning minyan. “So, this is your grandson?” Sam Schulman says, turning from the ark, smiling at Kyle. “Nice! Will it be a long visit?”
“We’re putting him in school in Brookline. His mother has a big job—international. We’re lucky to have him with us.” He turns to Kyle, wraps his arm around Kyle’s shoulders. “See this nice man in the big white shawl with the fringes hanging down? This is Sam Schulman. He’ll lead us in morning prayers.” Gershom plunks a maroon yarmulke on Kyle’s head.
Sam reaches out a hand for a shake. “Kyle,” he says, “you’ve come to a minyan that’s got lots of grandparents. But most of them”—he says this for Gershom’s benefit—“aren’t lucky enough to bring their grandchildren. Welcome!”
Kyle is, Gershom knows, somewhat spooked by the full-body tallis, the little black boxes strapped to arm and forehead. Eve isn’t religious, and Kyle’s father is a secular Episcopalian. Now Grandpa puts on his tallis, straps on the little boxes. Gershom asks Kyle to help him strap his arm, hoping to make tallis and tefillin less strange. “We’re going to pray and sing,” he says to Kyle. “It’s like a play, but the main character, God, has no lines.”
All right, all right! He knows how little Kyle can make of that!
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it wonderful,” Susannah asks, “at her age, a position like that?”
“Sure. She’s a smart girl, a go-getter, and she’s learned the language of business. Yes, I’m pleased for her.”
“So what’s so bad if we take care of our beautiful, exceptional grandchild for a while?”
Kyle has been registered in the Brookline Elementary School system. Filling out the data online makes both Gershom and Susannah feel the semi-permanence of their new condition: suddenly (at their age) to be bringing up a first-grader. He’ll be at the Driscoll School, within walking distance. Susannah is busy this afternoon at a committee meeting for a food pantry; Gershom picks Kyle up and takes him for an ice cream; then they drive to a playground and he pushes his grandchild on the swings. “Watch me on the bars,” Kyle says, climbing. “Watch! Can you climb like me?”
“I’m an old guy, Mister Kyle.”
So Gershom climbs. Twinges of arthritis but basically he’s in good shape.
“Now the slide, Grandpa!”
Lean as Gershom is, he only just fits between the wooden sides made for the hips of children. Up he climbs, down he comes, and Kyle yells in support.
“Suddenly,” Gershom says, “I’m a climber of monkey bars.”
Susannah, closing her laptop at the kitchen table, looks on the bright side. “You see? It’ll keep us young.”
“It’ll make us old,” he says, pretending to groan. “Or so my muscles say to me. ‘Old,’ they say. ‘And especially in the morning.’”
“Mornings are hard.”
“Mornings are very hard. My bones cry out, just when Kyle’s up and crying out of his morning joy and bouncing off walls. But seriously, that’s not my issue. Eve is my issue.”
“Aren’t you demanding she be the 1960 version of a mother? What an old-fashioned man you are!” She’s teasing but not teasing. “We’re all so lucky. The grandparent option. Right?”
“She hasn’t called for two days.”
“She’s getting settled. Please, Gershom!”
Kyle is digging into a box of books and toys they’ve brought up from the basement—once David’s or Eve’s. Gershom thinks, as he helps Kyle connect Lionel tracks and set down the locomotive and the cars, I’ve got to show her I’m not condemning her. Susannah’s right: His basic attitude is that a mother has to think first about her child. Period. I should be happy about Eve. It’s hard enough for her, I’m sure, being without Kyle. Why make it worse?
He says this to himself but doesn’t believe a word.
Eve’s house sold within a week. She’s a good organizer; the moving company has helped her sort and box. She’s taken a little one-bedroom in the West Village, not far from the river. The company is paying for the move. “Grandpa? Will we go visit Mommy?” Kyle asks. “When?”
“Soon. We will, we will. And soon she’ll visit us. She wants to see you so bad!”
But on Thursday, three weeks into her move, she still can’t take a weekend off. “I can understand that,” Susannah says. Gershom doesn’t answer. Ach! It is what it is. He has begun to know the child, to love him not as a generic grandchild but as a particular kid—soulful, a questioner, someone with curiosity, with attention. Annoying, complaining, fussy, but wonderful in a way he couldn’t appreciate as a father in his thirties. In the bathtub Kyle sings to himself and makes up stories about pirates and aliens. Maybe, Gershom thinks, maybe he can help give Kyle a grounding in what it means to be a Jew, part of a Jewish community. Eve never wanted that. Maybe Kyle. On Friday night they sing “Shalom Aleichem” and chant the blessings over the candles, the wine, the challah. Susannah prepared the challah dough on Thursday night, and on Friday, after dinner, Gershom sits with Kyle and tells a story from the portion of Torah for the week. Then he teaches. One week he teaches about their challah. “This challah. Kyle, who helped make this challah and get it to the table?”
“Me and Grandma. Right, Grandpa?”
“Sure. Right. But is that all? Who else helped?”
“The people who grew the flour?”
“Good! Very good. That’s the idea. And what about the truck driver who brought it to the store? And the workers who built the oven? You see? Who else?”
“The store people where we bought the flour?”
And together they started adding in the people who built the truck and the people who made the roads and the chickens and farmers who gave us the eggs and the people long ago who developed the recipe—millions of people—and then he got weirder: “And what about the yeast and the water and the air, and what about the laws of nature that let the dough rise—remember?” And on and on. He knew that with some of this teaching he was losing Kyle. But he was on a roll. “So we praise God who brings all this together, creates all this. We call it God. But it’s a mystery. There’s a single unified energy that makes it all come together. It’s beyond amazing. We go ‘WOW! Thanks!’?”
“Dear,” Susannah says very quietly, “that’s enough. He can’t possibly understand.”
“Yes I can, Grandma! I can so! We go ‘Wow!’” And he runs around the kitchen. “Wow!”
“To teach a child, a grandchild, it’s the most important thing,” he says, raising a teaching forefinger. “The most.”
“Enough. Have you asked Eve?”
“Eve? Eve’s not here. Do you see her behind the sofa?”
“You can’t give him a crash course in being a Jew. And without his mother’s permission?”
But that’s exactly what he intends to do. “Teaching is the norm,” he tells Susannah. “You don’t wait till a child grows up to teach him. It’s to be built into his bones.”
He teaches Kyle about Shabbat. “For one day a week we don’t work—we just try to live, live simply and happily. We remember that God rested on the seventh day after making the world. Let me tell you the story.”
On Shabbat they shut off computer and TV, he walks to synagogue. He’s not consistent about avoiding work on Shabbat, but, especially now that Kyle is with them, he tries.
If Kyle stays with them, maybe in the fall they can send him to a Jewish day school. And maybe he can help wean Kyle from computer games and TV and the empty culture waiting to gobble down children. Already they’ve established some rules: TV or an action game for an hour a day, no more. And no killing games, period. He can exchange emails with his mom or his friends all he wants.
Kyle is, so far, polite, agreeable.
Oh, this won’t last, Gershom knows. Kyle’s a kid full of life. He’ll begin asserting himself. But so far, it’s been tiring—but a joy. They play games with Kyle, take him to the park, arrange play dates with classmates. Maybe it will keep them young.
It’s a delicate balance. Gershom doesn’t want to be the tough guy, the repressor, Susannah the giver. So he, too, gives. It’s a wonderful time. He gets used to having pillows from the couch made into a cave on the living-room carpet, enjoys crawling on hands and knees into a pirate cave. One afternoon Kyle kicks a soccer ball in the living room. A photo on the coffee table spins to the floor and the glass breaks.
“Sorry, sorry,” Kyle says. “Sorry, Grandpa.”
As a young father, Gershom would have grumped and guilt-tripped. “No problem,” Gershom says now. “You’re a pretty careful kid. I’ll get you the broom and dustpan. Please—try hard not to get stuck by the slivers of glass.”
Some nights they sit together after dinner and watch goofy old movies that Eve and David watched as kids—Kyle laughs at the Marx Brothers in Night at the Opera. He dons a coat of his grandfather’s and a clown wig and waddles around the house honking a toy horn.
The longer Kyle stays, the more they can’t bear the thought of losing him.
Eve calls, some evenings, at Kyle’s bedtime, to say goodnight. And finally she says she’ll be free the next weekend. Can she come up?
“Of course, of course,” Susannah says, laughing. “‘Can you come up!’ And how’s the job? Going well?”
“Quite well,” Eve says. “Absolutely. And, oh yes, I might be bringing a friend.”
“A boyfriend. I might.”
“So you’ll be seeing your Mom,” Gershom says, helping Kyle get into his pajama shirt. “Are you excited?”
“Uh huh. Is the man coming with Mommy?”
“I don’t know. A man, some man. A big, tall man. He’s not nice.”
“She hasn’t mentioned. You don’t like him?”
“I hate him.”
Should he say something to Kyle about hating? No. That’s how the kid feels. This isn’t the time for a lesson. Gershom knows his own tendency to moralize. There are so many better things to do to help a lovely six-year-old boy grow into a mensch.
And let’s be honest: He knows himself. He’s a little pleased—and is ashamed of being pleased—that Kyle rejects this new man. A little flurry of delight: It’s ignoble. And bewildering.
He’s dying to probe, to question. Did she meet the man in San Diego? Must have. But how did he get to New York at the same time? Nothing wrong, he tells himself—Eve meeting a man. But he’s dying to know more.
They pick her up on Friday afternoon at Back Bay. Carrying the bags, walking behind her, is a very tall man. “Meet Richard Miller,” she says. “My parents, Susannah and Gershom.”
“Gershom,” the tall man says. “Moses’s son.”
“Very good, very good,” Gershom says.
They come, Eve and Richard, bearing gifts: fine chocolates, pesto and tapenade from Dean & Deluca, an expensive bottle of white wine. And for Kyle a compass and a DVD with a ribbon around the case—“a video of your mommy’s little apartment.” Smart, Gershom thinks. Encouraging Kyle to feel connected to her life. They sit in the living room and watch the video just before lighting candles for Shabbat.
“You see how small and simple my place is. But it’s sweet and comfortable now that the furniture’s here. A lot of it I sold or gave away. But it’s magical how well my best pieces fit. I couldn’t stand losing my precious things. You know? And what a fabulous location!”
A good little Greenwich Village apartment. But so pristine. He can’t believe anyone actually lives there. No books, no mess. Maybe she worked hard to make it look perfect. Why? For them? Certainly, Kyle wouldn’t care about mess.
Richard is maybe 6’5,” 6’6,” with a long, handsome head. Well-groomed, slightly long hair just beginning to gray. He displays a Harris-tweed sports jacket, an expensive watch, pale-blue silk shirt, shiny, pointed Italian shoes. He’s quiet. Maybe he’s so used to standing out that he feels no need to make an effort. He listens, he smiles. If he speaks at all, it’s informative, calm, thoughtful, precise. Eve’s the flamboyant one, as she was when she and Dan were a couple. Wait a couple of years, Gershom says to himself. Of course, Richard has power; that may make a difference.
“So find where you want to sleep,” Susannah says, waving her hand around as Gershom sets the candles in their holders. Eve’s too old for discretion. “Your old room?”
“Sleep with me, Mommy!”
“You know better than that, kiddo. I’ll tuck you in,” Eve says, petting him but clearly embarrassed. Kyle pouts, but he squiggles up next to her on the couch. He’s smelling her, Gershom thinks; he’s taking her inside himself.
Gershom blesses the lighting of the candles, says Kiddush over the wine, blesses the bread. Eve dims her eyes and slumps in her chair. Richard puts on a yarmulke and seems invested in the ceremony. Kyle wears a yarmulke but seems cut off. “Do you remember our song?” he asks Kyle. Last week and the week before, Kyle joined right in. Not tonight.
Gershom and Susannah sing “Shalom Aleichem.” Surprise—Richard sings along. “We sang ‘Shalom Aleichem’ at home when I was growing up,” he says. “Seems the words are still in my mouth. Funny!” The song and blessings annoy Eve. Kyle, regressing from six to about four years old, slumps like his mother. Gershom sees him playing with his mother’s hand, sees that he avoids ever looking at Richard—which is hard: Richard takes up so much room.
Next morning, Richard still in bed, Eve comes downstairs and fixes breakfast with her parents. She’s plunked Kyle in front of the TV, and Gershom hasn’t acted like Shabbat policeman. It gives them, after all, a chance to talk. They toast bagels in the oven, though on Shabbat, Friday night to Saturday night, you’re supposed to not use the oven or stove.
“So,” Susannah says to her daughter, “you’ve found yourself one handsome big guy. He works with you, right?”
“Right. I met him at a trade show. Some hunk, huh? I have to let you into a secret. He’s my boss. He’s the one who really worked to bring me to New York.”
“Didn’t you say it was a headhunter?” her mother asks.
“Oh, I say that so it doesn’t look like just a personal connection.”
Gershom says, “But it is a personal connection, right? Let me play Sherlock Holmes. That video. It tells me you hardly live in that apartment.”
“Well, Dad, that’s kind of true. Two nights a week. At most. When I’m in the city.” They’re at the kitchen table not even pretending to eat. “Frankly, Dad, I don’t like it when you play tough cop with me. Truth is, I’m trying to cement our relationship. If Kyle were with me—you see?”
“I don’t see. Tell me. If Kyle were with you—go on. Then what?”
“Then everything would fall apart. Richard is uncomfortable around children. Even his own by his first marriage. I know that sounds awful, but he’s a sweet man otherwise. I’m hoping I can relax him about Kyle. Actually, that’s kind of what we’re doing here.”
“And you’re hoping that as he becomes completely head over heels in love with you, et cetera, I mean as you come closer, Kyle will be slightly acceptable to him. Will be bearable.”
“The way you put it, Dad, makes it sound terrible.”
“You know why?” Gershom leans forward and says, as if it’s a secret he’s revealing, “That’s because it is terrible.” Gershom doesn’t like himself at this moment. He feels ugly. But. But we did something wrong if our daughter is what she is. He knows that Susannah will try to soft-soap him. Shouldn’t she build a career? Shouldn’t she have a love life? Richard seems like a decent man. And he does. Apparently, he just doesn’t happen to want children. Meaning our beautiful Kyle. How long will a union based on romantic love last?
“Are you engaged to this man? Have you talked about marriage?”
“Dad, please. I’m not sixteen years old. Omigod! No, we haven’t spoken about marriage.”
Gershom’s head is pounding with pain. He doesn’t say, Then he could dump you both as a lover and as an executive. No, he can’t say that. He goes off to get a couple of ibuprofen. He passes through the living room. There’s Kyle on the floor, watching cartoons. And beside him, surprising Gershom again, Richard Miller, seeming twice as long as the boy. He makes Kyle look like a toddler. Gershom mumbles “Hi,” sits down on the sofa behind them. He watches them watch cartoons. Richard’s joking about something; Kyle’s nodding but not laughing.
Theater! Theater going on everywhere you look. He knows that in the kitchen Eve will be complaining about her father’s treatment of her, and Susannah will soothe. And the complaint will be, partly, dramatic enactment, as will the soothing. He can see that here in the living room Richard is playing a role as good guy, trying to soften the stiffness between him and Kyle, and Kyle is making him work for it.
Theater, constantly. Players acting for each other but also for themselves as audience.
He heads offstage. To the medicine cabinet upstairs. But absent, he’s as much part of the drama as when he’s present. Returning through the living room, he asks Richard, “Want some bagels?”
“Aren’t you going to synagogue this morning?” Richard asks.
“Not this Shabbat. It’s too precious here, having our daughter with us.”
Richard leans over, roughs up Kyle’s hair and follows Gershom to the kitchen. Kyle stays in front of the TV. “One more minute, one more, okay?” So it’s Gershom and Richard. Ten steps to the kitchen is all. Halfway, Gershom stops, puts a hand on Richard’s sleeve and says, outright, “Tell me. Richard. How do you feel about children? Do you like children?”
“Some children. Sure. Kyle I certainly like. I like him a lot. And my own kids. But I was a sucker. I let my ex take them to Chicago. It’s terrible.”
“I thought so. Richard, we have smoked salmon. Can I get you some?”
Kyle comes to the table—he seems happy and unhappy. His bagel and cream cheese goes untasted. As if the bagel were a hockey puck he slaps it from one side of his plate to the other. He wants to tell about his new school, wants to sit beside his mother and just tell and tell, and she should listen and no one else should talk to her. And Gershom can see she’s caught between agendas. She’s pretending to smile, half-listening to Kyle, while keeping her eye on Richard, looking for his attention, wanting to make sure he’s comfortable. And Kyle knows this and talks more and more frenetically. Gershom predicts, seeing his daughter’s discomfort, that it won’t take Richard long to tire of her. He hopes that won’t damage her career. And maybe, if they break up, she’ll figure out how to live with Kyle, get some help, be a mother.
What he knows is this: The one who doesn’t want Kyle isn’t Richard.
Gershom sips his coffee and smiles, mellow paterfamilias, pretending ease, knowing that while his every breath is permeated with the stink of moral judgment, he’s eager to hold on to Kyle. Of course! In fact, in fact!—he can’t stand the idea of being without the boy, so isn’t he pleased that he can blame his daughter?
So much going on over bagels!
“More coffee?” he asks.
They take a Sabbath stroll on the gravel path circling the Chestnut Hill Reservoir by Boston College. Kyle walks up ahead with his mother, Richard between Susannah and Gershom. Gulls soar. Runners run. A light breeze makes the water tremble. Susannah says, “We’re so blessed to have a spring day like this.”
“It’s lovely to be with you whatever the weather,” Richard says. “And to have a quiet weekend with that young lady up ahead.”
Oh, Richard is a charmer. Right now it’s Susannah he’s charming. “What a daughter you’ve raised,” he sings. “Do you know how smart she is? How flexible, how creative. She comes into a new position and shapes it fruitfully. She’s already begun to grow new markets. Let me speak frankly, Susannah, Gershom: I was uneasy bringing her to New York. But it is working out.”
Now he stops and turns to Gershom. “At the same time I know Eve is desperate to be a good mother. She’s a little afraid that she isn’t meeting your expectations in that arena, Gershom. Is she right? Believe me, she couldn’t love that boy any more than she does. You know, actually—it’s one of the things about her that really moves me.”
Gershom is impressed by his openness. And hopeful. But he can’t resist saying, “I’m sure you’re right. But at a distance, how much good does that love do Kyle?”
Richard says, “It’s not easy for either of them. We’re both grateful that you’ve been able to take care of Kyle.” Richard’s too smart to get in an argument. Gershom finds he admires the young man. He’s shrewd. And when he talks to you, he’s really with you. They walk in silence.
“Love,” Gershom sighs at last. “This is what I think, Richard. Feelings can’t be relied on. Your life must be known by, has to be grounded in, norms of conduct—you get me?—norms of conduct that hold feelings within borders—that trump feelings. Eve gushes love, love, love over Kyle. And really feels it, feels that love. I know. Meanwhile, she doesn’t even call to say goodnight.”
“She’s been so busy.”
Again, there’s silence. Finally, Richard, not wanting to be put in this position, calls ahead, “Mind if I join you, Eve?”
“Three’s a crowd,” she says, her hands to her mouth like a megaphone. “Kyle and I, we’re discussing heavy matters. Wait a few minutes.”
Gershom is uneasy. He wishes he had a parabolic surveillance microphone he could aim up ahead and find out what Eve is saying to Kyle.
What’s real? People may think they love children and yet want to be the one pampered and fussed over. Or they love one minute, are bored the next; or love in one context, not in another; feel one way when with their lover, differently when with their lover’s child. Love the child but not be ready to be a full-time mother.
“All right, Monsieur Richard,” Eve calls. “I think we’re ready for you.”
And Richard excuses himself and jogs the gravel path to join mother and son. Gershom takes Susannah’s hand.
They’re in pajamas, brushing their teeth when Eve knocks at their bedroom door. “Can we talk a minute?”
Susannah says, “Of course, dear. Close the door behind you.”
They sit on the bed, the three of them. How long has it been since the last time Eve hung out on her parents’ bed? Gershom, remembering Eve as a child, finds tears welling up. He doesn’t let her see.
“You guys, you’ve been such a godsend. My baby seems so much bigger and stronger than when I left him. It’s been what?—a month?”
Gershom keeps himself from saying, Almost two months.
“Maybe we ought to take Kyle to New York. To live with us.”
“Didn’t you say—”
“—that Richard didn’t like kids? Yes, well maybe I was wrong.”
“Maybe you didn’t want him to like Kyle too much. Maybe you’re afraid that if you were with a child full time, it would dim your ‘display’—I’m thinking of the display by some birds—male birds, but you get the point—to win a mate. And to shine. Isn’t that what you’ve been doing?”
“Mother, am I so terrible? So I want to give myself to my work for a while. And yes, yes, I want to be seen as a fabulous, independent woman—why not? And Richard and I—I know how much harder it will be for me to build something with Richard if Kyle’s under foot. Richard and I both know it. But maybe I can find a grad student to help. Okay?”
Suddenly, Gershom, tears brimming, wraps his arms around Eve. He’s in panic; he has no idea he’s going to say this: “Listen, I’m sorry, honey, I’ve been the way I’ve been. So tough on you. Please, please don’t take him. Please, leave him here with us. For a while. A few months? A year or two? We can work it out, visit back and forth.”
“I wonder, Dad.” She shakes her head and shakes her head. “I’m afraid that in a year he’ll be this kid in a yarmulke.”
“I’m not Orthodox. Do you see me wearing a yarmulke?”
“You know what I mean. No video games. Forcing piano lessons on him, the way you did on me. I want him to be my nice free American kid. Anyway, Richard wants this. So we’re going to try.”
It’s a Tuesday morning in early June. Gershom arrives at the minyan a few minutes late and hurries to catch up—to wrap himself in the tallis and strap on his tefillin. Sam says good morning, Kate says good morning. Nick Shorr, executive director at the synagogue, says, “Boker tov. So—where’s the grandson? No Kyle?” Sam asks.
“He’s with his mother in New York. She couldn’t stand it anymore, being away from him. We’ll see how long that lasts. We’ll be going down this weekend for Kyle’s seventh birthday.”
Kyle’s beautiful face comes between Gershom and the prayers. The boy will be back to the foolish apps on his smart phone. Where there could have been depth in his life, at least a mix of cultures, of values, there’ll be only—all right, all right!—if he’s judgmental so let him be judgmental—the emptiness, the vulgarity of popular American culture. It’s lose-lose. Eve will focus on the glamor of personal success. On display! And he and Susannah will be without the child and the life he brought. They’ll visit back and forth, but not enough to help Kyle’s soul flower. But ahh, who’s to say? Who’s to say his soul won’t flower while he’s with his mother? Who’s to say Kyle won’t help his mother grow?
And after all, it’s partly his own fault—making Eve feel it was her obligation to take Kyle.
He prays for Eve to grow up.
And he prays that his stiff, judging heart can soften.