Talking to the Wall

I'm trying to follow my mother's example and not tell my children what to do. At most, I'll give them a hint.

Ever since I found two new grandchildren for myself recently (yes, yes, congratulate me! ) on the "Music School" television program, I've been searching for more grandkids to adopt on a one- or two-hours-per-week basis. Even my own kids have noticed that entire days can now go by without me telling them, for the thousandth time, that someone, some woman they barely know - if at all - has just had another oh-so-darling grandchild, and that this lady is now deliriously happy, of course.

From this perspective, I'm a faithful pupil of my mother, who never exerted direct pressure on me, but always chose a convoluted way to do so, which is actually the shortest way when the objective is to inspire guilt feelings. My mother did warn us about life-and-death matters like drinking water after eating grapes, rubbing your eyes after touching oleander bushes, taking a dip in watering holes on Tisha B'Av, accepting candy from strangers, walking barefoot like savages in the middle of the winter, running into the middle of the street, or using even numbers to count odd-numbered objects (and vice versa ). But aside from these survival lessons, she made every effort to avoid telling us what she really wanted from us.

Illustration by Avi Ofer
Avi Ofer

If she wanted, say, a cup of coffee with a few pretzels to dip in it, she would never dream of asking someone to prepare it. Which is not to say she never asked for anything for herself, just that she never addressed her requests directly to any particular person - say, her daughter who just happened to be with her at that moment in the house (me, in other words). "Oh, how I would just love a cup of instant coffee with three packets of sweetener and some milk - but not too much milk - and three or four little pretzels - but not too many since I'm on a diet - to dip in it," my mother would say, addressing the room in general.

This habit of hers, of talking to the wall, which generally helped her demonstrate metaphorically the obliviousness of certain people, made me believe for years that the walls really had ears. For as soon as my mother uttered her fondest wish, like magic, the very person who just witnessed her speaking to the wall - usually me and sometimes my brother - would hurry out of the room and, for example, return bearing a cup of coffee and a green plastic saucer with 10 or 12 pretzels on it. Maybe she could trick the wall, but she couldn't trick us. And once again my mother came out looking like a saint who never asked for anything for herself, but whose wishes were magically fulfilled.

And if my mother would never directly say what she wanted for herself, she was even more guarded while explaining what the hell she expected from us. Over the years, she was perfectly justified in claiming, "I never tried to tell you what to do." In terms of the dry facts, this was the pure truth: Our mother never "told" us stuff. At most, she "hinted." Just little hints, about as subtle as a Mack Truck - like my subtle hints to my own children, who for some reason insist on referring to them as "manipulation."

And when my mother's hints and diversion tactics somehow failed to be comprehended, she would "gently let so-and-so know." As in: "So I gently let him know what I think of his rude and disgusting behavior."

"I was never one of those mothers who tell their children what to do," my mother would gently remind me whenever I bristled at her perceived bossiness. "I even let you pick out your own shoes when you were just a little four-year-old girl" - she always cited this single historic example to bolster her unassailable argument.

This happened, for example, when we took the bus to Herzl Street in Haifa where the Butterfly shoe store was located. It was here that I was surprised to discover that the shoe saleswoman was Bella, whom I'd known up until then as "Bella the preschool teacher" from "Bella's Preschool" (which she opened in her home and which I'd attended). Bella didn't actually have any pedagogical training, but she lived on the street where my family moved after living on kibbutz. Her ground-floor apartment had a yard, and she had one unbending educational principle: You must finish everything on your plate. From that standpoint I turned out to be quite a success during the time I was under her care, and thus I was very fond of her.

Bella may have made a career switch to shoe-selling, but to me she would always be Bella the preschool teacher. And this only gave more credibility to her recommendations in the shoe department. I wanted patent leather, Bella recommended another pair and my mother came to my defense like a lioness and declared: "If she wants patent leather, even if they can't be polished, then that's what she will get because the most important thing is for my daughter to be happy."

And that's how it went. My mother allowed me to choose the shoes I wanted, and thus I was decreed happy.

As I've mentioned, my mother never told me what to do, and I have been scrupulously following her example. I don't tell my children what to do. I only hint. Sometimes I might gently let them know my opinion. But still there's a difference between my mother and me: The main reason I don't tell them things is that I have no idea what to say. And even though, just like her and like every other parent, I dearly wish for my children to be happy - I honestly have no idea what constitutes happiness when you get beyond patent-leather shoes, so I have no ability to sketch out a map to happiness to give to my children. Most of all, I know that they have no responsibility when it comes to my happiness.

Anyway, it's not all that urgent right now, now that I've got those adorable little singers from the TV show, Shon Gitelman and Ophir Elbaz, to fuss over.