Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2004 / 2 Teves, 5765
A Question Of Light
By Libby Lazewnik
"I want you girls to write a composition, titled, 'The Best Day I Ever Had'," Miss Steingut said in her cheery way. "For some of you, I know, it will be hard to choose. But do your best. Pick one extra-special day, and write me all about it."
As I say, I was tempted to laugh out loud and not with amusement, either. I was feeling bitter and angry. That's how I felt most days. Life at home, never easy for me, had become increasingly unpleasant. The best day I ever had? That would probably be the day I took up residence on some desert island, far away from civilization meaning, as far away as possible from my seven younger brothers and sisters.
I picked up the assignment book I'd chosen with such care at the start of the new school year now colored with vivid purple marker, crumpled and creased and generally destroyed under the loving attentions of Elimelech, my three-year-old hurricane of a brother. I would have written down the assignment with the pretty pen I loved, had not my sister Dini lost it somewhere. And the Social Studies report I was about to hand in to my next teacher would have been about ten times better if I'd had the time to work properly on it. Instead, I spent precious hours of every night helping all my younger siblings with their homework. And helped Ma wash the dishes... and dry them... and fold laundry... and put the baby to bed... Not to mention struggling against all odds to try and keep my room reasonably neat when sharing it with two ultra-messy sisters.
My best day ever? It hadn't happened yet!
We were dismissed early that afternoon, because that night would be the first night of Chanukah. I dawdled as I left the school building, reluctant to face the endless requests of, "Help me put my candles in my menorah, Etty!", and "Etty, look at my Chanukah project!" "No, mine!" "Mine first!"
And that was besides the endless latkes I'd help Ma fry, and the table I'd set, and the chins I'd wipe, and the dishes I'd wash afterwards. Just thinking of it all made me tired. Life was simply too hectic. My family was too loud. I'm the type of person who needs a little solitude now and then. In my house, solitude is as rare and as precious as gold.
I reached the corner, when I had to turn left to head for home.
Instead, I turned right.
School was dismissed early today, I thought mutinously.
Don't I deserve a little bit of that free time for myself? Just a tiny little bit was that too much to ask?
There was a small park, about three blocks away from school. I'd passed it sometimes, on the way to a friend's house, but had never actually had the leisure to go inside and sit on one of the benches by the dainty little pond. Almost of their own volition, my feet were taking me there now.
The park was just as sweet as I'd remembered it. In the center, a doll-sized pond lay sleek and shiny in the last of the afternoon light, flanked by two wooden benches that had seen better days. On one of the benches sat an oldish woman, wellwrapped in a woolen coat and head scarf. I hardly glanced at her as I made for the other bench. A feeling of delicious freedom set my heart soaring but knowing how short-lived that freedom was to be, it didn't soar too high. The best day of my life? That would be a day that belonged completely to me, to do with as I pleased.
I sighed. Being the oldest of eight children was no picnic. As I gazed at the still, calm pond, like a peaceful oasis in the desert, I longed for an oasis of peace in my own home. Aplace where I would not be on call twenty-four hours a day. A place where I could be still and calm, too. Where life was quiet instead of noisy, and you could stop and think about things instead of hurrying to take care of them. In short, a life very different from the one I had...
A thud beside me made the bench shake slightly and shook me out of my thoughts, too. I looked up. A girl had plopped herself down beside me. Our school's uniform peeked out from beneath her long winter jacket. Above, I saw brown hair, a pert nose, and a downturned mouth. Like me, the girl was staring at the pond. Also like me, she did not look very happy.
I must have made some noise, because she jumped as if someone had shot a gun near her ear. "Oh! Sorry, I didn't notice you. Do you mind if I sit here?"
I shrugged. "It's a free country."
She seemed to take this is an invitation to exercise her freedom of speech. I was not exactly in the mood for company, but the girl didn't seem to notice. In fact, I don't know if I could have stopped her even if I'd tried. She seemed so worked up that the words just boiled out of her.
"Have you ever noticed," she asked, "how unfair life is?"
Wryly, I said, "Now and then."
"Most of the time, if you ask me! And it's especially unfair when you're the youngest in the family!"
I had to say something, so I politely asked, "You're the youngest?"
"You bet I am. By seven whole years! That is, the sister just before me is seven years older than I am. That makes her 18, and getting ready to fly off to Seminary in Israel next year."
That made the girl 11, I thought nearly two years younger than I was. She rushed on, "My other sister is already married, and both my brothers are away in yeshiva. Which leaves just me the baby of the family. The overlooked baby of the family!"
This last was uttered in such a bitter tone that it clearly lay at the heart of whatever it was that was bothering her.
"You feel you're overlooked?" I asked, interested despite myself.
"I know I'm overlooked! Take tonight, for instance."
Glancing up, she met my eyes for the first time. Hers were blue, and right now filled with self-pity. I winced, thinking how similar they must look to my own...
She spread her arms dramatically. "It's the first night of Chanukah, right? A special night a happy night! A night that should light up your life!"
All at once, she seemed to run out of steam. Her shoulders slumped and then, to my horror, the eyes filled with tears. But this girl was made of tough stuff. In a moment the tears were blinked away and she was talking again.
"Well, it's going to be a night to light up someone's life, all right," she went on bitterly. "My favorite cousin, that's who!
And her chasan (fiancé), of course."
"Oh, your cousin's engaged?"
"Not yet. But she will be tonight. They're having a 'l'chayim'[celebratory party]."
"Yeah," she said gloomily. Rousing herself, she added,
At the start of this uninvited conversation, I'd been hoping she'd either dry up or go away. By this time, though, I was curious. I leaned forward and said, "I don't get it. She's your favorite cousin, and she's about to get engaged. You should be thrilled! Why the sad face?" And why had she stomped into this park, and onto this bench, looking like a black cloud was resting on her head?
"Because no one bothered to tell me about it that's why!" she burst out. "Not Simi, the baby of the family. Oh, no. Everything has to be kept a secret from Simi." She checked herself. "Wait a second. That's not exactly right. They didn't keep my cousin's upcoming engagement a secret from me. That would have meant that they remembered I existed! No, they simply forgot to let me in on the big news. Until this morning the very day of the 'l'chayim' mind you, when my mother finally told me about it. The very day!" She groaned and put her head in her hands. "This is the worst day of my life!"
"Come on, Simi," I urged. "How can it be the worst day of your life? Aren't you exaggerating just a little? So you didn't know about the engagement until today you'll still be a part of it tonight, won't you?"
She glared at me, and answered my question with one of her own. "Do you have any idea what's it's like to be the youngest kid in the family?"
"No," I grinned sourly. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be the oldest?"
A faintly interested expression crossed her face. "Are you the oldest?"
"You bet I am," I answered, in a perfect imitation of her own manner earlier. But even as I said the words, the grin faded from my face and the old self- pitying feeling settled over me again, like a heavy, itchy, well-worn blanket.
"You lucky thing," she said enviously. "I wish I were the oldest. Then I'd be in the thick of everything!"
"That's the trouble," I sighed. "I wish I didn't have to be in the thick of everything. It's not as glamorous as you're making it sound, you know. You never get a minute to yourself.
Someone always needs you for something whether it's your parents or your younger sisters and brothers. Peace and quiet? Privacy? Forget it!"
She shook her head. "No way you're going to convince me that being the oldest is worse than being the youngest. At least people remember that you exist! I have plenty of peace and quiet... because I'm left out of everything. Big deal!"
"Excuse me for interrupting," said a new voice, startling us both.
Both my head and Simi's whipped around to the second bench, where the old woman was regarding us thoughtfully, out of a pair of round brown eyes encased in a network of soft wrinkles. Before either of us could say a word, she went on.
"I couldn't help overhearing your conversation." She gestured around at the tiny park, as if to make clear why. "If you don't mind, I'd like to join in. You see, I was a middle child."
We looked at her, waiting. It was clear that there was more to come.
Tilting her head sideways and narrowing those brown eyes as though seeing something far away or long ago, the woman said, "How I hated being in the middle! I longed to be the oldest"
(She nodded at me) "or the youngest" (another nod for Simi). "Being the middle child was no good at all, it seemed. You got none of the privileges of being the oldest, and none of the freedom of being the youngest. The way things were, I got saddled with some responsibility but not enough to make me feel important. And I had some freedom from responsibility but not enough to make me really free. I was stuck in the middle, and hating every minute of it.
"Nobody consulted with or confided in me, as they did with my oldest sister. And nobody pinched my cheek and said how cute or clever I was, as they often did to my youngest brother. My life was one big, gray, unexciting blob of nothing." A wry smile. "As you can imagine, I often felt quite sorry for myself."
Simi, I noticed, was listening raptly. As a matter of fact, so was I. Here was something I'd never considered before. What was it like to be a middle child? And what was it like to be the youngest, like Simi? I'd always been so wrapped up in my own experience as the oldest that anything else seemed unreal. Listening to Simi, and then to our neighbor on the next bench, I realized with a guilty start that they were anything but unreal. They were as real as I was. And that meant that so were my brothers and sisters...
I pushed the thought away for the moment, eager to hear more from the old woman.
"Interestingly enough, it was on Chanukah that I began to see things differently."
"Chanukah?" Simi prompted.
"Yes. My father always said that, even though you're not supposed to use the Chanukah lights to do things by, its special spiritual light helps you see to things more clearly. Well, it certainly did for me." She twinkled, deepening all the soft creases around her eyes and mouth. "With a little help from my father, of course."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Here's what he told me, on that first night of Chanukah a long, long time ago. I was only ten years old then, and filled with my usual anger at the world for making me a middle child. He patted the couch beside him, and I sat down facing the menorah with its single flickering light. 'Tell me,' he asked. 'Which is the most beautiful night of Chanukah?'
"I considered the question. On the first night, only one can dle was lit. The rest of the menorah was bare and dark. On the second night, there was one more, and so on. I told my father, 'The last night. Because all the candles are lit then.'
"He nodded, as if he agreed. 'But it's not the first or the last candle that makes the difference, really. It's all the candles in between. That's what makes the menorah a single, beautiful row of lights. Imagine one of those lights plucked out of the middle of the row! Imagine a gap! How would that look?'
"'Not good,' I said.
"'Not at all good,' he agreed. 'And what do you think our family would look like without our precious middle children?' He waited a minute, smiling down at me, and then answered his own question. 'Not very good at all, in my opinion.'
"I went away feeling much happier. But here's a sequel to the story, girls. The next year, I happened to overhear my father telling the same idea to my youngest brother, who had grown old enough to be upset at being the youngest. 'It's the last candle that completes the whole,' he told my little brother."
The woman smiled. 'And you know something? I'll bet he could have told my oldest sister something similar about the first candle! Because they're all necessary. And they're all precious."
As if she'd just become conscious that her remarks had turned into a rather long-winded speech, the woman smiled and fell silent. Simi and I were quiet, too, thinking over what she'd said.
I thought of Simi, struggling to feel a part of things, and hating the fact that, as the "baby" of the family, she was so often overlooked. And I thought of this old woman whom I'd met by chance in this park, feeling like a "gray blob of nothing" because she was sandwiched in the middle.
And then I thought about myself. Something in the woman's words had switched a light on in my head, and in its glow everything seemed very different than they were before.
I was needed at home. I was wanted and confided in. I was, as Simi had put it, in the thick of things. And really, wasn't that where I wanted to be? My brothers and sisters were not a bunch of annoying flies, to be wished away if they became too noisy or too demanding. They were precious people my people. And if I sometimes felt an overwhelming urge for some space, some quiet well, there was always this sweet little park. My own private oasis my peaceful haven.
I blinked. Somehow, the day had slipped away from me. It was nearly full dark now. In a window across from the park I saw a bearded man at a window. He was pouring oil into the cup of a menorah. There was the flick of a match.
"Oh, no!" I gasped. "It's Chanukah!"
Simi leaped up, electrified. "And my cousin's l'chayim!" We both began to hurry for the park gates. Suddenly, I stopped, and turned around.
The old woman was a dim figure behind us. She was leaving the park, too, making for her own home and her own family children and grandchildren and merry dancing lights. Noise and laughter and responsibilities and the sizzling smell of latkes...
"Good-bye!" I called. "And thank you!"
"Yeah, thanks a lot," Simi said shyly. "I feel a lot better now."
"You're welcome," the woman said. I could sense her smile in the darkness. "And happy Channukah, girls."
She passed through the park gates, right behind us. And then all three of us, with murmured good-byes, separated into our different ways heading for our own special set of lights, in the special circle of home that Hashem had created just for us.
As I hurried away toward my home, I had a feeling that maybe if I just remembered to keep that light switched on in my head this could actually turn out to be the Best Day I Ever Had.
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© 2004, Yated Ne'eman