We’ve said the blessing, eaten the dreidel-shaped chocolate candies, the lesser, only-exciting-because-we-dumped-a-gallon-of-sprinkles-on-them menorah-shaped sugar cookies, pried my new Barbie free from her plastic casing, helped my baby brother open a new set of Matchbox cars, and now it’s time to sing.
My mother really, really loves to sing. The rest of us do not love to sing. We do it only to indulge my mother, who, despite the pleasure she takes in singing, cannot sing. She knows this, but remains undeterred. She’s so serious about it that she keeps a stack of pale yellow photocopied songsters in the drawer of a display table in the dining room. I’m not sure where the songsters came from, but I’m picturing a Jewish Girl Scout troop; inside are songs like “Mi Y’malel” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
My father, tired from his office job, sets his glasses on the coffee table and rubs his eyes. He’s still in his suit, which smells like smoke; he doesn’t smoke, but his co-workers do, and the smell of stale cigarettes mixes with Hanukkah candle smoke. We barely get halfway through “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” before we trail off. My mother doggedly continues, though my father is nearly asleep. Perhaps, working at a company that sells lighting fixtures, he is weary of praising light. By the time we get to “Maoz Tzur,” my mother’s is the only voice in the living room. Even the cat, who’d been meowing underneath the coffee table, has curled up, head tucked beneath a paw. Before words can break swords, my mother stops, song unfinished. She stands. Something in the air has shifted. My father’s eyes open. My eyes move from my new Barbie to my mother’s face. She looks at each of us, even my brother, who’s too little to know Hanukkah songs and is crashing a cement roller Matchbox car into a table leg.
“You can’t even sing? I’m done.” She flings her songster onto the coffee table.
She opens the hall closet, shrugs on her neon ski parka, slams the door. The garage door opens; the car peels out of the driveway. I guess that’s it. We’ve really done it now. My mother has left the family. She’s had it. I can only assume she will not return. I begin to cry. My brother sees me crying and joins in. The living room is a mess—gift wrap strewn about the carpet, candle wax melting onto the coffee table, cookie sprinkles ground into the lime green shag carpet. One of the songsters is, mysteriously, wet.
My father clears the crumb-filled dishes and washes them in the sink. Then he retreats to the family room with a mug of root beer and turns on Cheers. I hear the rustle of newspaper. He seems oddly unconcerned about our family’s state of emergency. I sing softly, sadly, to my Barbie, whose name is Jennifer. But even a Barbie, the crowning pinnacle of Hanukkah gifts, is no consolation—not even the fact that her blond hair hangs down to her waist, not even the fact that she comes with a purse and shoes. I play games to alter the course of events: If I brush Jennifer’s hair in eight strokes—one for each night of Hanukkah—my mother will change her mind and come home. If I make Jennifer turn eight perfect cartwheels, she will come home. I pretend Jennifer is an ice skater, and draw figure eights in the carpet with her toes over and over.
To be fair, today my mother has: attended a parent-teacher conference at kindergarten, listened to Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Pinwheel in between naptime and toilet training. She’s baked chicken, potatoes, and carrots—the one vegetable everyone can agree on—for an early dinner. We’ve also melted chocolate over a double boiler, which we’ve poured into dreidel-shaped molds and set in the refrigerator to harden. Not to mention the cookie dough we’ve rolled out and cut into menorah shapes and decorated with chocolate sprinkles and rainbow sprinkles and red sprinkles and sugar stars. My brother’s thrown a cookie cutter at my head; I’ve thrown a tantrum. By the time we’re done, the kitchen is a wreck. Sheets of wax paper are spread over the table, encrusted with bits of discarded dough. A Star of David cookie cutter has ended up on the floor, next to the oven. Chocolate is burned so badly onto the bottom of the pot that the pot may need to be thrown away. The cat has stolen part of a cookie and vomited. There’s chocolate on my brother’s face and flour in his hair. Despite his protests, he must be given a bath. So it’s no wonder that she’s had it with us. If I were her, I might’ve left us, too—though none of us could’ve predicted that our failure to sing Hanukkah songs would be the coup de grâce.
What will life be like without my mother? If she never comes home, who will pick me up from kindergarten? Who will dress up like a witch and serve apple cider to my class at Halloween? How will we make Hanukkah cookies next year? Will my father marry someone else? How is my father so calm right now? On the couch, I press my nose to the picture window that faces the street and track each passing car in case one of them is hers, but it’s too dark to see much.
An hour and a half later, the garage door rumbles open; the car engine dies. My mother opens the door and unzips her boots, unaware of the gravity of our family’s situation. I cling to her leg.
“Where did you go?” I’m crying again, not that I ever really stopped.
“Deanna’s house.” Deanna is a friend of my mother’s.
My mother wrangles a hanger from the closet and hangs up her parka, though I’m still glued to her leg. She hangs her keys on the hook that spells Shalom in wooden letters.
“Wait, you thought I wasn’t coming back?”
I heave another sob. My eyes are swollen; snot dribbles over my chin. She hugs me, tells me she is sorry, that I have nothing to worry about. It’s past my bedtime, but she lets me stay up and we play Barbie together. Normally I hate how she plays Barbie because it’s very unrealistic, but this time I don’t mind the sound she makes to indicate that Barbie is drinking Pepsi. By the time she tucks me in, I’m reasonably convinced that my mother is here to stay.
The next night, we gather around the menorah. My mother strikes a match, lights the candles. My father is wide awake, my brother in his lap. I am perched at the edge of the couch. Even the cat sits primly upright, ear cocked. My mother begins the blessing, the conductor of her personal choir. This time, we sing our hearts out.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.