You take the small triumphs of motherhood where you can get them.
Last night, for example, Carmen wolfed down three bowls of my garlic-tamari stir-fry, proclaiming with vigor: "Mommy, this tofu is yummier than candy!"
Yes, this is a victory to trumpet in Mothering magazine or post on an organic parenting blog. It compensates for the breakfasts I’ve served of ramen or hot dogs, the last-minute frozen mac-n-cheese dinners, the bribes of gum and Oreos. The comment may not atone for my impatience or occasional incidents of swearing at my children, but I let myself savor it a moment.
I cooked the yummy tofu on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time to take stock of the past 12 months and consider what we’ve done, who we are. Being a slackerly half-Jew myself, I didn’t go to services but by evening regretted my decision, sitting on the front porch in late sunlight with two naked girls, dipping tart Cortland apples into a bowl of raw honey. Both my girls will strip naked at any opportunity, and I’ve given up trying to enforce clothing in the front yard, where they might be glimpsed by neighbors or passing cars. Is this naïve and neglectful of me? At what age does a child’s innocent nudity become inappropriate? It’s probably a different age in Vermont than in Manhattan, say -- but I choose to wait until my oldest (age 7) grows uncomfortable in her bare skin.
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday I don’t know how to share with my children. My father was an agnostic Jew who renounced religion at age 15; my mother eventually persuaded him to light candles on Hanukkah and play dreidel, but that’s about it. No temple, no Hebrew School, no stories about Jewish ancestors, no sense of lineage running back beyond my grandparents, Ukrainian Jews who immigrated from Kiev. After having children, I felt the gaps in family knowledge as visceral emptiness, and wondered if I could reclaim my inner Jew, if she’s in there at all.
Munching on apples and honey, Ava mused, "Mommy, if you’re half-Jewish and Carmen and I are both one-quarter Jewish, then together we make a whole!"
"That’s right," I said. "Nice math!"
This isn’t the first time Ava has expressed desire to be all Jewish -- her announcements coincide with the days her friend misses school for holidays or receives a present on eight nights of Hanukkah. I ponder her clever equation but sadly recognize the flaw: there’s not one whole complete Jew in our family, not one whole anything. Seen through a cynical eye, I’m a creative opportunist who picks and chooses the aspects of each tradition that appeal to her.
A little Buddhist mindfulness without the rigors of a formal meditation practice. A lot of Westernized yoga without the ascetic devotion to a guru. A touch of sensual Tantra mixed with a healthy dose of Vermont-woods Paganism, grounded in an abiding faith in literature. Add a dash of feminist Wicca and a cupful of cultural Judaism for that warm feeling of belonging to a larger community and you’ve got a melting pot of relativism. There’s no accountability, no backbone.
What moral framework do we want to pass on to our children? In Carmen’s Kindergarten, they have three classroom rules:
All other guidelines can be boiled down to these three, a distillation of how we treat others and ourselves. Sometimes it’s necessary for adults to appraise our own actions, especially towards the ones we live with and love. Have I been kind and respectful? If not, how can I atone for my behavior? Without formal religious penance, who will help me?
The heavy rains after Rosh Hashanah gleamed on our Rock Star pumpkins, piled huge and orange in the wheelbarrow. My husband started these beauties from seed and they grew effortlessly, swelling on a sea of vines. Rain beat the petals off the pink cosmos until I felt the weight of water on my chest -- some brooding dissatisfaction lurked within.
Why was there this longing to be elsewhere, to be different? I didn’t know if I wanted to don a calico apron and bake apple crisp while listening to "All Things Considered" or pull down the attic trapdoor and rummage through crates of old letters, journals, essays on French feminism and Sylvia Plath, for that pair of six-inch patent leather stilettos I knew were up there somewhere, stripper heels I wore in another house dancing to Prince and Joan Jett, spiraling my body around a silver dance pole before I became a mother.
Sometimes the contradictory extremes of my personality cannot be reconciled. Whatever innocence my daughters possess I cast aside decades ago, although they love me unconditionally, with a faith I don’t deserve. Some mornings they come and snuggle in bed and still nuzzle my bare chest with reverence. Chalk it up to our long years of nursing on demand, but these children are mildly infatuated with my breasts.
"Mommy, your bubbie looks like a fried egg!" says Carmen, lovingly patting the nipple.
"It’s like a door knob!" says Ava, giving the other one a little turn. I’m flattered by the attention and allow it for about two minutes until I run out of patience for being poked and prodded. I push their hands away and jump up to get dressed.
The wordless intimacy I shared with my babies through hazy nights of nursing is long past. And if there’s a doorknob on my chest, it doesn’t lead to anywhere anymore. My heart is locked up tight, full of the children I have, sometimes longing to get out of its red room and beat in the elements, blooming like a poppy. But there’s not even a crack to let the rain in. That door is closed.