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Windows and Mirrors

Stories and Reflections on Life Experiences.
Malkie Feig

© Copyright 2005, by MESORAH PUBLICATIONS Ltd. (718) 921 -9000
487 pages

They'll Never Know

They'll never know, I thought to myself, as I waded across her dining room, wet skirt slapping against my knees. Over two hours had passed since I'd been summoned to my sister-in-law's fourth-floor apartment by a frantic neighbor, and still, I was far from finished.

Actually I was finished; it was the apartment that required some serious overhauling to get it back to its original state.

The boiler on the roof of the building had burst, and by the time the neighbor on the second floor had tracked me down to tell me that the roar of gushing water could be heard from my sister-in-law's apartment, I knew it was serious business.

My sister-in-law was abroad with her family, and was scheduled to return in two days' time. When she had asked me, before leaving to the airport, if she could leave my number with her neighbor "in case of emergency," I had chuckled in response. "With you and the family on the other side of the ocean, exactly what kind of emer­gency are you anticipating?"

Well, now I knew.

I'd made quick arrangements, and had arrived on the scene of the flood, equipped with boots, a wet vac, and a sponga stick. And as I started off saying, I'd been working relentlessly for a couple of hours, when I stopped for a moment to assess the extent of the second-degree damage inflicted on the apartment.

Endless, it was endless. Although rivulets of water cascading across the kitchen and hall floor of an Israeli apartment are usually a healthy sign of a robust balabusta at work, even a born and bred sahra would have stared in wide-eyed horror at the devastation wrought by this flood.

The toys were floating in the water, as were the chairs, throw rugs, and plants. Not to speak of the electrical appliances like the vacuum cleaner and the radiator, that were almost completely submerged in water. The ceiling was a horrific sight, huge faults dividing it like the plates in an earthquake zone.

I made a mental note to call a painter, as I emptied the wash­ing machine of the towels I had put in, and filled it with a load of soaking bedspreads. Thumbing through my sister-in-law's per­sonal phone book, I jotted down the numbers of a painter and an

electrician. Then I got busy emptying the lower cabinets of her dining-room buffet, gingerly laying out one item at a time on the towel-lined dining-room table to dry.

I made a quick calculation of the family's return date, and the list of chores that had yet to be completed if they were to arrive to home, sweet home. As things stood, it seemed more likely that they would experience somewhat of a bittersweet homecoming.

It was precisely then that the thought passed through my mind, She'll never know. Sure, she'll hear there was a flood, and she'll notice all the aftereffects of it on her usually perfectly maintained home. She'll see water rings in some places on the walls, and she'll realize that the Oriental carpet had become slightly rippled.

She'll probably cluck her tongue in dismay at the discolored legs of the dining-room table, and she'll swallow her annoyance at the tablecloths folded in the cabinet where the photo albums belong. Her neighbor will listen sympathetically to her tale of how difficult it was to come back to such damage and disarray, how hard it was to arrive home in the wake of the flood.

And of course, it goes without saying, she'll thank me profusely for being there, for getting the water out, for administering first aid on her apartment in her absence.

But she'll never know. She'll never know what the apartment looked like when I first arrived, how it looked three hours later, and then the next morning, after a night of wiping, emptying, folding, painting, varnishing, and wiping again.

There's just no way she'll know how many calls to the babysitter, visits to the hardware store, urgent messages to the handyman, and trips to the dry cleaners the whole two-day operation entailed.

She'll never know how many times my weary eyes stopped to survey the progress, and how many times I was almost tempted to leave well enough alone. But I didn't. I aimed at getting the place back into perfect order, because I knew what it meant to my sister-in-law.

I also knew that as perfect as things would seem from my vantage point, they'd seem more like well enough to the owner of the home who was familiar with every corner and was expecting to find things as she had left them.

Not that she was an ingrate, or even the critical type. Not at all. She was just perfectly human, and tended to see things in relation to what she was used to, to what was normal, expected, comfortable, routine. Like me. Like many of us.

How often do we get to be backstage, cleaning the flood, clearing away every vestige of water from someone else's home? How often do we get to see what goes into it — rather than what comes out of it?

Most of our everyday dealings bring us into contact with people who are doing something for us, something that requires a lot of big and little details we'll never know about.

Who'll ever tell us that the green suit we gave in to the dressmak­er last week for alterations had to be taken apart four times before the darts looked satisfactory? Who'll ever make us aware that our daughter's kindergarten teacher was up until 3 a.m. because some­one misplaced Chany's cape and crown the night before gradua­tion? And who'll ever disclose the secret behind the neatly stocked shelves in the Pesach grocery; the hours upon hours of cleaning, sorting, unpacking, and organizing that went on before the doors to the humble-looking, slightly cramped store were able to open?

Most probably no one. And most probably we'll notice that the hemline on the suit was puckering, that Chany didn't seem to know the motions, and that the lighting in the Pesach grocery was really dim.

No matter that we think of ourselves as courteous, positive, appreciative people. No matter that we do pay the dressmaker, thank the kindergarten teacher, and smile at the grocery owner. We still won't ever know what went into it to make it happen, how many efforts were expended to make it this good, and how many hindrances were strewn in the way.

We may have asked a neighbor on her way to the supermarket to pick up a roll of aluminum foil and some detergent for us. When we find the shopping bag with the items and the receipt slung over the doorknob, we'll never know that the aluminum foil had been left in the taxi and had warranted a half a day of playing cat and mouse, before it had landed on our doorstep.

And when we analyze our teaching schedule, neatly printed out on a sheet of paper, we won't ever know that the secretary had confused our preference for Tuesdays and Thursdays with someone else's Mondays and Thursdays, and had been forced to rearrange the whole schedule.

That's as far as the human beings in our life are concerned. And it's much the same with the thousands of big and little acts of good­ness bestowed upon us from Above.

As we dart across the avenue in a rush to make the trimming store before closing, we won't ever know that we have just escaped a tragic accident, and that some heavenly defense in our favor pre­cluded the tragedy at the last second. We may notice, with a trace of annoyance, that the trimming store was closed despite our efforts to get there in time.

Here and there we catch glimpses of Hashgachah Pratis, and we constantly thank Hashem for "the miracles You perform with us daily," but how often do we really, deeply, feel those miracles? How often do we stop to contemplate the many things that could have gone wrong, that should have gone wrong, but didn't?

It's not that we're ingrates, or killjoys, or even critical. But like my sister-in-law, we're very much human, and we expect to find things as we left them (when we leave them in order, that is). We tend to see things in relation to what we consider normal, expected, com­fortable, routine.

Sometimes, we've got to step backstage, and see the frantic flurry of action behind the perfectly, or not-so-perfectly coordinated scenes. Sometimes we've got to use our multiplication tables to figure that whatever we see in front of us is in fact that many more times more difficult, tedious, and involved than we may realize.

And many times, all the time, we've got to cultivate our sense of gratitude, of appreciation, of thankfulness, for all those details we'll just never, ever, know about. Whoever said that ignorance was bliss?

Opening the Door

It started innocently enough, the way these things tend to begin. When the doorbell rang on an ordinary Monday morning, I had no reason to suspect that it was anybody other than my next-door neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar or returning three eggs. "Just a minute," I called breezily, as I lowered the volume on the stereo, and hurried to open the door.

That was mistake number one. It always is. Somehow I never remember about the peephole rule until I am squarely facing some odd character at my doorstep.

This time the man was short and stocky, his facial veins bulging with exertion, as he heaved a rolled-up carpet to its full height, and propped it against the wall so that it was leaning on the doorframe. If I had harbored intentions of closing the door, it wasn't a feasible option any more.

"Carpet, Giveret," he announced.

"You must have the wrong address," I informed him. "We haven't ordered any carpet. I'm sorry."

The fellow, though, seemed unperturbed, and made no sign of budging either himself or his carpet even an inch.

"These are Oriental carpets, Giveret, made of the finest quality English wool. I'm selling them at rock-bottom prices. It's a real one­time opportunity. Compare them at any store. You'll never beat the price."

"How much are you selling it for?" I asked.

That was mistake number two. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I would have done anything to take them back. What I should have said is, "No, I'm not interested." Period. No questions, no explanations, no apologies. I didn't need a carpet. I didn't want a carpet. I had never harbored even the remotest thought of buying one.

But like the peephole rule, my logic came lagging in a little late. What I could have and should have said were things of the past. My carpet vendor had this gleam in his eye, and I could tell that as far as he was concerned, the carpet was as good as sold. He began unroll­ing the prize, assuring me all the while.

"These usually go for 800, but for you, Giveret, I'll give it to you for 400."

I almost asked him if he meant shekels or dollars, but I bit my tongue. There I was, going for the bait again. Say I'm not interested, my mind commanded, but I just didn't have the heart to interrupt the fellow's enthusiastic wishes for mine and my husband's continued health and happiness, and the prosperity of our family forever after.

The carpet was now unfurled in all its glory, and I almost leapt for joy. It was a paisley design colored in the brown and gold family, an obvious clash to the mauve upholstery on my dining-room chairs. Anybody, even the most enthusiastic carpet merchant, could see that the carpet would be an eyesore in my dining room.

I quickly grabbed at the excuse. "It's really beautiful," I compli­mented, running my hand over the soft wool, "and the price does seem very reasonable. But it doesn't match the room."

For a moment, the carpet vendor wavered, as he made a lame attemptto convince me that brown was a neutral color, and why, what color were my dining-room chairs? I was not about to lose my turn a second time. I firmly reiterated that I simply would not consider brown in my dining room.

That was strike three, although I didn't know it at the time. For the time being I was off the hook, liberated, and I was smug with relief as I offered my apologies and wished the fellow success with his sales.

It was only a week later, the incident completely forgotten, that I was made to face the grave consequences of my gracious dismissal. Again, it was an ordinary ring of the doorbell, and again, I had the door opened before I remembered to check the peephole. My heart dropped when I recognized my visitor: same face, same voice, same carpet.

"This time! Just for you. Giveret. I had the factory custom make it in shades of mauve and pink especially for your dining room."

There he was heaving the roll into my front hall, beaming with pride, heading straight for my dining room. I stood there, twisting the dishtowel in my hand, fumbling for something, anything, to say that would get the fellow and his carpet out of my house.

"I don't have any money, sir," was the first thing I thought of. I knew it wasn't very good, but it was better than "I'll have to think about it," which I knew would prompt a replay of the scene on yet another innocent Monday morning.

"Oh, that's no problem, Giveret. Check, Visa, I'll take anything. I usually prefer cash, but for you, Giveret, you deserve this carpet. It was made for your dining room."

"We don't write checks, and I don't have a Visa card either." I was desperate. He was too busy flattening the carpet on my dining-room floor to respond, though.

"If you want, you can leave it here as a present," I joked feebly.

"Hm, Giveret, I've never done that before, but with such a beau­tiful carpet that blends in so perfectly, you know what? I'll leave it here. I know I can trust you. I'll come in two or three days for the money."

I wanted to ask him how he knew he could trust me, when I couldn't even trust myself to keep a stranger out of my own home, but I kept quiet. I was too frantic pumping my mind for some way out of my predicament.

Why does this always happen to me? I moaned inwardly. I was willing to bet that this guy hadn't managed to get his carpet even one tile past any of my neighbors' doorsteps. They must be in cahoots, I decided, this man, and that lady who came around with cosmetics last month, and the towel peddler who wheedled me into buying a set of bath sheets Erev Pesach.

They must just know that the lady on the third floor of the corner house is easy prey. No wonder they were all so willing to halve their prices "just for you." After all, how many customers did they come across who fell for their bait, hook, line, and sinker?

The guy was sweating at the temples, pushing and tugging, try­ing to slide the carpet into place beneath my dining-room table and chairs. In a brief moment of weakness, I even managed to glance down and admire the rich aura that the tapestry lent to the room. And in the split second it took me to recover my wits, the man was off the floor and hustling through the doorway, telling me he'd be back, and that I, Giveret, should enjoy the purchase in good health.

Well, well. I'd always secretly prided myself on my inability to say no. Although I referred to it as a weak point, frankly, I liked to think of my tender side as a sort of noble trait inherited all the way down from Avraham Avinu.

I was the sort who always bought a cup of lemonade at the 8-year-olds' makeshift lemonade stand, and who couldn't turn a raffle book down, even if it was the fifteenth one in the span of an hour. Not that I particularly liked lemonade, or that I ever won a raffle. I just found it too difficult to diffuse the eager optimism on those children's faces with adult pragmatism.

It wasn't only children, mind you, either. Over the years, I had collected an impressive assortment of tapes, books, wall hangings, and ointments, that had one thing in common. They served abso­lutely no purpose in my home, other than the sole role of reminding me of my virtuous weak point.

My indulgence had never taken me this far, though. To humor someone on a blustery winter day, and buy a tube of hand cream, was one thing. To watch your dining room undergo a metamorpho­sis in front of your eyes, while you stood by in passive silence, was quite another story. Not a very admirable one, either.

Being nice did have a limit. There were other people in my life whose feelings took precedence over this total stranger's. Like my husband, who would have to handle the embarrassing job of getting me out of the pickle.

It suddenly struck me as it had never hit me before. One needs to know how to keep the door shut. One needs to learn how to say, "No, I'm not interested." Absolutely and unequivocally. Not always were pleasantry and generosity the compass by which one's moral standards were to be determined in times of doubt and uncertainty.

Yiddishkeit definitely called for a staunch stand at times; a stand in which one didn't violate one of the three cardinal rules: Don't open the door. Don't ask questions. And if you've trespassed the first two, then number three may save you in the nick of time. Don't offer reasons or excuses.

The yetzer hara is a pro at making housecalls to unsuspecting customers like me. He knocks at the door selling a variety of wares in the form of practical suggestions, and attractive offers. And if we're not wise enough to look through the peephole and identify him at first glance, then we risk falling for the bait.

Once he's engaged us in discussion, he's won half the battle. At that point, our only hope is to retreat and say three words: "I'm not interested." If the yetzer hara starts again with his sales pitch, we've just got to stick to that boring assertive, no-nonsense refrain for as long as it takes him to back off and look for a better address.

It took the carpet incident to teach me the third inviolable rule. Don't, by any means, offer any reason or excuse for your flat refusal. Don't let him in on your rationale, because he'll come up with a hundred and one plausible counterarguments to prove you wrong. Tell him the carpet doesn't match, and before you know it, he'll be hauling a perfect match straight into your dining room.

That's how it is with these fellows. They're trained to do their job well. And we've got to do ours. So I'm learning how to say, "No, I'm not interested." Slowly. But that's okay. After all, it takes time to get rid of the dust that's been swept beneath the carpet for so many years.

In Debt

Free rides are an expensive proposition. What they don't cost in money, they cost in time and convenience. If you've ever tried hitching one, you know what I'm talking about.

Sure, you can come with us, but we don't know exactly when we're leaving.

Call in about fifteen minutes.

Oh, no, we aren't ready yet; we should leave within the hour.

We're leaving this minute; can you be waiting at the corner?

Sure, sure, anything. What don't you do for a free ride?

It isn't only rides. Try getting an opinion, an estimate, a tutorial session, gratis. Not a serious job, of course; just a quick look, a general idea, a few lines.

You may have a cousin who's a carpenter, a friend who's an editor, a neighbor who's a play therapist. They may be the nicest people with the best of intentions. They're also busy individuals, parents, jobholders, service people. They want to help you, they really do. You just won't get the same commitment a dollar will buy.

Money has binding power. Even $5 earns you consumer's rights, turns you from a beneficiary into a benefactor. It buys you your dignity, your sense of proprietorship, your independence. A pretty worthwhile deal, in my opinion.

Which is why I like to pay my way, thank you. Hire a baby-sitter rather than take advantage of a neighbor, call a repairman rather than rely on my nephew's good graces. Tell me what it cost, and I'll be happy to oblige.

Last week, when I needed to spend an afternoon in Tel Aviv, I put my policy into effect. The older girls were thrilled to spend their afternoon with friends, the boys would be in yeshivah. The younger clan posed the problem.

All my attempts to locate a responsible baby-sitter failed. The woman I generally use was out of town, and her daughters couldn't help me. Baby-sitters are a hard-to-come-by species all year round. With finals and state exams to study for, finding one was an impos­sible feat.

I was beginning to get really discouraged, when I suddenly remembered the baby-sitter in the next building. True, she usually worked morning hours, but I would explain the urgency of the situ­ation.

And I would pay her, of course. "Hm," she sounded hesitant. "How many children?" "Three," I said, holding my breath, "But the two girls don't need much. They usually play together quite nicely."

I heard her uncertainty as she considered the proposition. There went her afternoon nap, her list of errands, her plans to do anything of consequence all Tuesday afternoon.

"I'll pay you, of course," I interjected quickly, trying to tip her deliberations in my favor, "whatever the going price is for afternoon hours."

"Tomorrow afternoon, until about 7, you say," she calculated out loud, disregarding my mention of remuneration.

I hung quietly on the line, nervously doodling threes all over an envelope, as she mentally fiddled with my request. "O.K. I'll do it." I exhaled with relief.

"But please don't tell anyone. I don't usually accept afternoon jobs." "Of course," I gushed in compliance. At that point, she could have asked me to move a mountain.

At 7:30 the next evening, I stepped off the bus, tired, disoriented, checking my watch in disbelief. There is something about spend­ing that hour between dusk and nightfall on a dark bus that makes you lose your sense of time. The little ones were usually fast asleep at this hour. It seemed like an eternity since I had left the lighted streets of Tel Aviv.

Squinting into the mirror plaque on the baby-sitter's door, I tried to smooth my disheveled appearance as I knocked. I listened to the sounds of running water and the patter of feet, then the turn of the lock, and a weary smile. Three little displaced persons were sitting in the front hall, washed and combed, waiting for their mother.

"There was terrible traffic on the way back," I apologized as I scooped up my bathed booty into a sweeping hug. "I can't thank you enough."

I fumbled for my wallet with my free hand and pulled out two bills, a hundred and then a fifty, which I handed to the baby-sitter. "Mah pit'om?" she protested, sticking the fifty into the hood of the baby's stroller, "It's 100 shekels; not a penny more."

"But I told you I would pay the afternoon rate. I know what it means, working during off-hours."

"I don't have an afternoon rate," she countered emphatically. "I work for 7 shekels an hour, 6 for a third child, and that totals exactly 100 shekels."

"But I want to pay you for making the exception," I almost plead­ed, as I handed back the fifty. The limp purple banknote fluttered to the floor.

"You're confusing two accounts," she told me with typical Israeli forthrightness. "Choivos darf men tzulen; toivos darf men shuldig bleiben." (Debts are meant to be paid; favors are meant to be owed.)

I looked at the bill on the floor, and considered leaving it there. Then her words penetrated, a minute late. I stooped to pick up the money, thanked her profusely, and freed her of my charges.

Tovos darf men shuldig bleiben. I chewed the sentence over in my mind. It didn't taste very appealing.

This lady, a woman whom I had never paid much more than a perfunctory nod when I passed her, had tended to my three children all afternoon. She had fed them and played with them and showered them clean. And all the while, I had felt completely at peace.

I wasn't taking any free rides. I had 150 shekels in my purse. A hundred for the job; 25 for the off-hours, and another 25 to wipe my ledger clean.

Flawless math; it was the accounting that had been faulty. Gratitude, the baby-sitter was telling me, was not about clean led­gers. It wasn't about 50 shekels either. It was the art of remaining beholden, of acknowledging that you were the recipient of a favor.

The hundred shekels were her due; debts had to be paid. For a measly 50 shekels, though, she wasn't ready to auction off the favor of having given me her entire afternoon. All she wanted was my genuine appreciation.

We all love being the benefactors. Paying empowers us, neutral­izes the vulnerability of having to ask another human being for some­thing. As long as we pay, we can tolerate someone scrubbing our stoves for us, ironing our shirts, making supper for our families.

Sometimes, though, circumstances force us to be the beneficia­ries. “I’ll pay,” we offer benevolently, proffering the magic bills that we think will bail us out of indebtedness. Not always, however, are the things we need from others the stuff that money buys.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we've got to accept a free ride. Time and inconvenience, emotional and physical energy, embarrassment and anxiety aren't things that bills can gloss over. Even if we've paid the token $10, we might be getting a free ride. Knowing that is part of being human. And integral to being Jewish.

A Jew is beholden. Period. We owe our lives, and we owe our souls. We owe our health, and we owe our success. There is no cur­rency that can pay for the gifts of strength and sanity, friends and family. Our existence is rooted in gratitude.

And gratitude isn't a thing. It isn't silver and it isn't silk; it isn't a present and it isn't a check. It isn't that uneasy feeling that we try to smother by sending elaborate gifts and arrangements.

It might be a card. Or a poem. A phone call. Or a letter. It might be a favor a few months down the line. Or a heartfelt tefillah. Gratitude is anything that blooms from the humble, heartwarming knowledge that someone else has done us a good turn.

Gratitude doesn't cost money. It's pride that costs.

So keep the difference.

You'll be a richer person for the change.

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