9: Mother Knew Best

9: Mother Knew Best

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride

Mother Knew Best

One good mother is worth a hundred schoolmasters.

~George Herbert

When the phone rang, we were nestled under the covers. The double bed sat on a low wooden frame, and the sheets were dark and masculine with swirls of midnight black and forest green, a constant reminder that I had moved into his bachelor pad nine months earlier. Neither the pillowcases nor the duvet cover matched, but we didn’t care. The smudges of dirt on the old graying walls didn’t bother us either. As twenty-four-year-old new immigrants to Israel, Philippe and I were blissfully unconcerned with domestic details.

The shrill sound of the phone startled us out of our Sunday morning slumber. I fumbled for the receiver and said a groggy hello.

“Oh, good, you’re up,” my mom said. Even though it was late at night back in California, her voice was full of its usual vigor. “Quick, I need to know something.” I was quiet, still wiping sleep out of my eyes. “I had an orthodontist appointment last week and was told I have to get braces — again. And I don’t want them on for the pictures.” I remained silent. “Can you please give me a date for the wedding so I can arrange to have them put on afterward?”

When my mom’s words finally registered, I opened my mouth wide and rolled my eyes at Philippe. The queen of chutzpah, my mom had a ton of nerve and very blurred boundaries. Since there was only one phone and it didn’t have a speaker, I asked her to hold.

“C’est ma mère,” I whispered to Philippe, covering the receiver to tell him it was her. “Elle veut savoir la date — for the wedding. Hahatonah shelanu.” We spoke in a mish-mosh of languages — Hebrish, Fringlish — depending on our mood. I quickly told him about her orthodontic dilemma.

“Attends,” Philippe said, turning his palm up and touching his fingertips together to indicate savlanoot or “wait a minute” in Hebrew. “I need mon agenda,” he grinned.

Over the past few months, we had each landed jobs. I was working as an editor for a University of Haifa professor in the field of Arab-Jewish co-existence, and Philippe was a chemical engineer for the Israel Electric Corporation. Prior to this position, he had never owned an appointment book, planned ahead or written down dates. He reached across me to grab the book from his backpack on the floor.

Until this moment, we hadn’t discussed the big “it” — getting married, spending our future together, starting a family — and I certainly had never mentioned anything about “it” to my mother. Not only had I arrived in the country with no more than a duffle to my name, never intending to make Israel my home, but I had also moved in with this man after an intense two-month courtship. My grandparents thought we were living in sin, but my perceptive parents had rented a car on their last visit to help me move in with him, transporting my worldly possessions from Jerusalem to Haifa.

Despite the intensity of our relationship, our union wasn’t seamless. Philippe dreamed of growing old in the Promised Land, while I was en route to graduate school in the United States and had no desire to call Israel home. Upon moving to Israel, Philippe had decided to become more religious, observing the laws of the Sabbath and of keeping kosher; I had grown up in a God-less, pork-eating, do-what-you-want-on-Saturday Jewish household and had no interest in adopting an Orthodox lifestyle.

Still, in spite of our differing views, we were enraptured with each other’s ability to speak several languages and our mutual yen for travel. We knew our relationship would evolve into marriage even though neither one of us had uttered the words. It was so like my mom to mention it first. She had always felt free to comment on my love life. She had been devastated two years earlier when I broke up with the man whom she thought I should marry, and she had stayed in contact with him long after he and I had parted company.

Flipping through his book, Philippe stopped at September. “How about ze nine?” I loved his non-perfect, heavily accented English. “It’s good because nine-nine-ninety is easy to remember.” I stared at him and smiled. In France, they say the day first and then the month and year. For this date, it wouldn’t make a difference. In typical Philippe fashion, he was logical and unemotional; his voice didn’t change its tone, and his facial expression didn’t budge. Jittery and lightheaded, I uncovered the receiver and spoke.

“Mom, would September 9, 1990 work for your orthodontia? It gives us — you — nine months to plan.” Somewhere in my subconscious, I realized it gave Philippe and me much-needed time to work on bridging our religious differences.

After we hung up the phone, I propped myself on one elbow and gazed at my unofficial fiancé. “D’accord, now you have to ask me,” I announced, wanting more tradition. I was relieved that he didn’t mind my mom’s chutzpahdik intrusion, something I had accepted and probably inherited from her long ago. Staring into my eyes, Philippe proposed in French. I nodded my head yes.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said.

“Quoi? What do you mean?” I laughed.

“You ask me — to marry you,” Philippe said with a semi-serious face. Clearly, nothing about our engagement was going to be done in a customary fashion.

I sat up in bed to face him. “Will you marry me? S’il te plaît,” I asked with a smile, trusting that our unresolved issues — where to live and how much Judaism to live by — would be discussed and dealt with one by one, year after year. He laughed, and we kissed.

When I look back over the last two decades, I am amazed by our commitment, our deep desire to stay together despite our differing ambitions and plans. In an effort to achieve shalom bayit or peace in the house, we have each made tremendous compromises about country and religion, following an unconventional road, moving between Israel, France and America, with one, two and now three children in tow. We continue to talk, flirt, and fight in a mixture of three languages not found in any one dictionary. My mom has chutzpah, but she did know best.

~Jennifer Lang

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