This excerpt has been adapted from the author’s recent memoir, “The Book of Separation.”
In my parents’ backyard in Memphis, where my three kids and I go to take a break from the Passover preparations being made in the kitchen, we pile into the hammock. It’s early April, and the azalea bushes are in bloom, along with the lacy white dogwood trees. Spring is the prettiest time of year to be in Memphis, when the blazing summer days still seem like misremembered exaggerations.
The school year is winding down, in what has been a year of change — the first in which I have left my marriage and left the Orthodox Jewish world in which I have always lived. Until this year, I’d held on to the idea that nothing could change. Married, with three kids, and a home in the Orthodox community, it had seemed far too late to question the foundation upon which my life was built. I had tried to remain the person I was raised to be, tried to meet every expectation laid upon me, even when it felt like a role I was uncomfortably playing.
Now, on the other side of this change, all those expectations have come loose. There is no longer a map that must be followed. In place of the old rules and the proclamations of certainty is the lineup of questions. How to parent with someone with whom I don’t share a worldview; how to help the kids move between houses that are just a few miles apart but that sometimes seem like alternate universes. How to create a feeling of home when sometimes that word feels like one to which I can no longer lay claim.
Each of the kids is on the cusp of personal change as well: each will start new schools next year, my daughter finishing nursery school, my older son graduating from elementary school and my middle son switching from a Jewish day school in which he struggled to a public school a block from our house.
For each of them, these changes are both nerve-wracking and exciting. I have the same urge I once did to protect them from the worry, to shield them from any possible pain. I had once aspired to be the kind of mother who could smooth away all imperfections, present my children with a world that was safe and whole. I glued photographs into albums to create the definitive stories of their early years. I changed the words of songs as I rocked them to sleep; down will come baby, not cradle and all, but safely in my arms. When an old lady swallowed a fly, there was no perhaps she’ll die but perhaps she’ll cry — the outer limit of the bad that could exist.
I look at the three of them now though, snuggling in next to me, then jockeying for better spaces, threatening to knock one another out of the hammock, which sways and tilts at all this shifting weight. Before any of us are thrown overboard, there is a quick reshuffling and rearranging so that we all still fit inside. I know now that there is no complete protection I can offer. Every change carries with it loss and possibility. One change, I know now, leads to so many other changes — with no overarching system or set of rules to which we all belong, we are always shifting into new spaces. All of this is now part of their stories as well, stories that come with bends and turns, areas of fracturing and inconsistencies.
Now, in place of the complete protection I once so badly wanted to give them, I can instead offer them my honesty — a more complex vision of the world as I see it. When they were babies, and I read all the right books and tried to follow all the rules, I also bought the expert-recommended black-and-white toys that I displayed on any surface their eyes might pass over. Then, black and white were supposed to be the only colors they could see, but now I trust that my kids can understand a world that comes in a multitude of shades, dizzying and beautiful at once.
Image: Helena Perez García