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Alone

alone

Fiction

Mindy sits in the neurologist’s waiting room. To her right and left, patients—most with pinched brows and downturned lips—flip through magazines or scroll through Instagram.

Directing her eyes to the worn book in her lap, Mindy resumes the chapter of psalms she’s been reciting. Her mother has been in the examining room for the last 20 minutes. Since Tatty died fifteen months ago, caring for Mommy has fallen on her shoulders.

With sure, practiced lips, Mindy forms the words of King David. They are barely audible to the others in the waiting room.

Checking the clock again, she sighs—23 minutes.

The door to the examining room opens. Dr. Park ushers out Mindy’s mother. Noticing hesitant steps, Mindy’s heart clenches.

“Ms. Lester?” Dr. Park gestures to another door. “Your mother would like you to join us in my office.”

Rising from her seat, Mindy tucks her psalm book into her purse and follows her mother and the doctor down the hall. The office has no windows but is otherwise welcoming. Letters from patients, photos, and child-like artwork are tacked to a bulletin board on the opposite wall as framed diplomas. On an end table, there is a model of the human brain.

Mindy perches on the edge of a yellow chair and waits for Dr. Park to speak.

“Ms. Lester, your mother’s tremors have worsened since our last appointment, and there’s increased muscle tone in her limbs.” Mindy glances at her mother, then back to Dr. Park. “I’d like to schedule an MRI. I’ve also adjusted Mrs. Lester’s medications and would like her to continue with occupational therapy.”

Mommy slides her hand into Mindy’s. As usual, it’s shaking.

Dr. Park tucks a glossy braid back behind her ear. “I’m also concerned about Mrs. Lester’s living arrangements.”

Suddenly, Mindy wants to let go of her mother’s hand. She wants Perel, Rina, Kalev—someone—to take it from her, to lead her mother out of the office, away from this mess.

Finally, her mother starts to speak in a hoarse voice. “I’m afraid. What if I fall, and no one is there?”

A swift intake of breath. “Mommy—”

“I already come to you for Shabbos almost every week. Pesach is coming—I can’t make Pesach like this.” Mommy finally lets go of Mindy’s hand so she can indicate her body, from head to toe, malfunctioning.

“I thought Rina and Dov Ber said you could join them in Flatbush. Don’t you have a plane ticket?”

Dr. Park interrupts. “I would like to keep her in town while we monitor how the meds are working.”

It’s hard enough finding a shidduch when you’re 44, Mindy thinks. No one will marry me if Mommy moves in with me. No one.

It’s over.

#

In the end, Mindy moves into her mother’s house. It isn’t the home she grew up in. That had been sold 25 years ago, while she was in seminary. But it’s nearly paid off, purchased before real estate prices skyrocketed in their neighborhood.

But there are five years left to pay on the mortgage. There are bills not covered by her mother’s savings, her social security, Medicare. Her siblings—the two in Israel, the one in New York—have large families, their own straitened finances.

Three days after Mindy moves in, she knocks on the principal’s door. As she arranges her skirt to fully cover her knees and waits for Mrs. Haller to get off the phone, Mindy reminds herself that the only way to hear yes is to ask in the first place.

She whispers, “Hashem, please let this work.”

Mrs. Haller hangs up, smiles. “What can I help you with, Mindy?”

“You know I’ve worked here for 21 years.” Mindy tries to relax the muscles in her face.

“Twenty-one remarkable years. All those Chanukah plays! And my own children still sing the songs you taught them when you were their morah.

Encouraged, Mindy goes on. “I know I’m not a rebbe, but I spent my youth in day schools, studied two years in seminary, and have a master’s degree in education.” She swallows. “And now I’m the primary provider for my mother.”

Frowning, Mrs. Haller says nothing. But words hang in the silence: And no husband.

Mrs. Haller says, “Go on.”

“I want…” Mindy straightens up in her chair. “I want to be paid at the same rate as the rebbes.”

Frowning, Mrs. Haller begins to flip a pen between her fingers.

Mindy adds, “I teach fourth grade—we cover the same material as the fourth-grade boys.”

“Not mishnah.” Mrs. Haller doesn’t look Mindy in the eyes.

Pirkei Avos is mishnah. And we cover it in-depth.”

“True.”

Mindy’s voice rises. “I’m doing the same work as a rebbe—spent the same years preparing. Work the same hours. I want the same pay.”

“You deserve it.” Mrs. Haller catches Mindy’s eyes. “But it’s not my decision to make.”

Mindy’s heart sinks.

Mrs. Haller drops the pen with a clack. “I’ll ask. But I can’t promise anything.” She reaches across the desk, pats Mindy on the arm. “You know I would make this happen if it were under my control.

#

The answer, two days later, is no. Her mother finds Mindy crying on her bed. Mommy reaches out and draws her in slowly for a hug the way she did when Mindy was small, and her troubles were small.

“Mindele, you want to tell me about it? Share your troubles and they are halved–right?”

But Mindy doesn’t want her mother to know just how bad their financial situation is. And what can Mommy do to help, anyway? Mindy pulls away and dries her tears. “Nothing Hashem can’t fix,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mindy must do Passover shopping for two. Not only for food—since her father’s death, Mommy has dropped 18 pounds. She needs new clothes for the holiday. Mindy mentions this to her siblings, but nobody volunteers to pay for a new dress or skirt.

At least Dov Ber sends the monthly check for cleaning help a bit early.

While Mindy is scrubbing the oven grates alongside the maid, the phone rings. Mommy is out with a friend at a shiur, so Mindy dries her hands quickly, before the phone stops ringing.

It’s their rabbi. “Everything okay with you? Your mother?” Rabbi Weingarten sounds anxious.

“We’re all fine…um, but…”

“Yes?”

Mindy forces herself to admit, “No one has invited us to seder.

“I see.”

“I thought about paying to attend one of those communal ones.” Mindy thinks of last year’s seder, at her parents’ home, with her father still alive, and Perel and Nachman visiting from Modi’in with their four youngest.

“They’re expensive?” Rabbi Weingarten asks.

Mindy sniffs and wipes a tear from her cheek. “Yeah.”

“You’ll come to us for both sedarim. And—you’re not going to like this—I want you to apply for tomchei Shabbos.

Gasping, Mindy says, “But I have a job! I work hard!”

“Of course you do.” Rabbi Weingarten’s voice is placating.

More tears come. “I just can’t.”

“Ask for your mother—a widow. Not for you.”

Mindy did not reply.

“Just think about it. Okay?”

#

Mindy is still thinking about it the next day when the Rebbetzin shows up with a check. “For Pesach,” she says, closing Mindy’s hand around the envelope firmly enough that Mindy knows there is no arguing. “And we’ll see you on the first night of Pesach, okay?”

Shame and gratitude mingle as Mindy deposits the check after her mother’s OT appointment.  Then she takes her mother shopping. They find a dress that fits just right, with a modest hemline, in purple—Mommy’s favorite.

“Do you want help?” Mindy asks as they head for a dressing room.

“I can handle it,” her mother says, then she shuts the door.

Mindy waits on the other side of the door, thinking. Maybe I will sign Mommy up for tomchei Shabbos—just Mommy.

Her mother’s soft voice floats out of the dressing room. “I…I need help.”

After Mindy guides her mother’s stiff limbs into the sleeves and buttons up the dress, she admires herself in the mirror.

“I like it.” Her voice is almost a whisper, and her face is rigid, as usual, but then she spins around, very slowly, with hesitant steps, clearly showing off. She flips the ends of her wig coquettishly and winks at her reflection.

For the first time in ages, Mindy giggles.

#

The day before Passover vacation, Mrs. Haller calls Mindy into her office. “I have a question for you.”

Mindy sits into the leatherette chair and nods.

“We have a donor who wants to pay for a drama program next year on Sundays—just 9 a.m. to noon.”

Mindy leans forward. “What would I be doing?”

“Teaching singing, acting to 9 and 10 year-olds—culminating in a show.” Mrs. Haller grins. “You’d get an extra $150 a week.”

Not a rebbe’s pay, but better than what I’m bringing home now. “I’ll have a budget—for costumes, supplies…?”

“The donor says they’ll cover it. What do you think?”

“I think it sounds good.”

Mrs. Haller claps her hands, rubs them together. “This is going to be great!”

#

It is seder night. Mommy leans heavily on Mindy’s arm as they stroll to the Weingartens’. The night is clear, and thanks to warm jackets, the breeze is pleasant.

On the opposite side of the street, Mindy spots one of her students. When she calls out, “Chag sameach,” Dina Moshayoff smiles, waves, then ducks shyly behind her older sister. Their parents walk behind the girls, side by side. Mrs. Moshayoff is heavily pregnant; she leans on her husband’s arm.

For a moment, Mindy watches them, and then she turns away, clutching her mother’s hand tighter.

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Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, writer, and editor who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her books include A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, Glixman in a Fix, and Mazal’s Luck Runs Out. Her articles, essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in many publications, including Hevria, Inyan, The Jewish Press, Binah, Kveller, and Tablet Magazine.

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