There are moments we wish would disappear from our memories, just be swallowed up in our past, leaving no trace, no painful residue. Most of those moments involve our doing something we wish could be undone: harsh words we dream of stuffing back into our mouth, hasty actions we yearn to erase. But sometimes, our regret comes from our inertia, our inability to stand up for what was right while there was still time. And that something right can be as seemingly trivial as a plate of creampuffs…
Several years ago, when I was employed as a social worker, my boss asked me to arrange social events for the women our agency helped. Most of our clients were mothers of large families who were being crushed under the double burden of too much stress and too little money. Social ties were weak and emotional resources not often present. My boss dreamt of arranging monthly events which would give the women a much needed social outlet as well as foster interdependence.
I had the necessary experience – I had co-headed our block’s Neshei events for a number of years. Now I just had to trim the template I already used to make it fit a very different population. I picked themes, invited speakers, planned activities and arranged for refreshments.
Much as none of us like to admit it, food is a very important component in any social event. Serve good food and, providing the event itself isn’t abysmal, people will leave feeling satisfied, physically and emotionally. When the food is mediocre, even the best speaker will often leave people grumbling. So I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about refreshments. But I didn’t want this to be my event – I wanted the women to be active participants. So I made a general appeal to all the women invited to bring a nice dairy or parve dish to our opening event.
This was a gamble; a number of these women had a difficult time getting their kids to school on time. Would they be able to find the time and energy to whip up quiches and cakes? The night before the brunch, I made a huge Greek salad and prayed it wouldn’t be the only food present.
My prayers were answered. I walked into the community center the next morning and was greeted with groaning tables. There were homemade rolls, little hors devours, a cornucopia of salads, and desserts with enough calories to knock any scale out of whack. The crowning glory was a big platter filled with homemade creampuffs. It was clear that an enormous amount of time and effort had gone into making these creampuffs. They were perfectly formed, filled with fluffy cream, and drizzled beautifully with chocolate.
I asked around to find out who was the creator of these delicate confections. Someone pointed out Avital. Shy, withdrawn Avital who seemed perpetually unsure of herself. I was surprised and thrilled – even if nothing else came of this event, Avital’s showcasing her culinary skills to a large group of women would have justified its existence. I quickly went over to Avital to give her a warm compliment. She was standing a few feet away from her creampuffs receiving a shower of compliments. Her face had an uncharacteristic glow. My heart sang.
Tempting as the food looked, courtesy dictated that nobody touch it until after the speech by the well-known rebbetzin we had invited. I noticed the rebbetzin enter the room and tried to usher the women to the seats we’d arranged. But there was something else I was noticing, and it caused a worm of worry to eat at my heart.
As the room filled up with women, there were a surprising number of children as well. Not just small babies, as I’d expected, but three, four and five year olds. The cacophony and din was growing by the moment, and I had to dodge a group of preschoolers playing tag. I’d clearly stated that this was for women only – what had happened?
Then it dawned on me. I’d set the date for Rosh Chodesh thinking it would be a nice time to have a get-together. What I hadn’t taken into account is that on Rosh Chodesh, many preschools end early. Rather than have to leave in middle, many mothers had opted to pick up the kids early and bring them along. I offered up another prayer, this one that all go well despite the many little people racing around the hall.
The rebbetzin began speaking. I listened with half an ear, while spending the rest of my time watching what was going on. The kids, bored of their game of tag, were headed over to the refreshment table. There were bowls of pretzels and chips. I hoped mightily that they would limit their foraging to those snacks. For a while they did.
Then they began eyeing the more tempting morsels. Three of them stood before the creampuffs, whispering and pointing. From across the room I silently mouthed, “NO!” They didn’t hear me. After a little more whispering, the most daring of the trio reached out and grabbed one of the exquisite treats. Her two friends followed suit. Once the dam broke, a flood ensued. One by one, the kids marched up to the table, grabbed a creampuff, and walked off, faces buried in cream and chocolate. Not one mother protested.
I looked on in horror, torn with indecision. Should I get up in middle of the lecture, walk across the room and take away the plate? Cover it? Stand by and guard it? I was young, and unused to being in a position of authority. I didn’t want to make a scene. So I took the easy way out. I did nothing. I sat rooted to my chair, watching the miserable scene unfold. It took just six agonizing minutes for the entire plate to be emptied. Not one creampuff remained.
I looked over at Avital. Her shoulders were slumped, her eyes downcast. She had once again been given clear proof that it simply wasn’t worthwhile trying – nothing works out the way you want in any case. The hours she had spent had all vanished into the mouths of unappreciative tots while not a single one of her friends so much as tasted a morsel.
As soon as I saw Avital, I realized the enormity of my mistake. Yes, I should have stood up. Yes, I should have stopped the children, and set down the much needed boundaries that their parents were not providing. Yes, I should have preserved Avital’s efforts and allowed her to receive the recognition she deserved, and so desperately needed. But I hadn’t. And all that was left were sticky faces and a regret-laden heart.
I wish I could erase that creampuff moment from my mind forever, swipe the picture of the empty tray and Avital’s slumped shoulders from my mental photo album. Yet every once in a while, at the slightest provocation, the image arises once again and my heart constricts in pain. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. For it serves as a regular reminder that doing nothing is an active choice, that neglecting to act can be just as deadly as doing the wrong thing. As the Chinese proverb counsels “Many a false step is made by standing still.”
Bassi Gruen is a licensed social worker, a professional writer, and the Editorial Director of Targum Press. She’s published hundreds of articles in numerous Jewish publications. Bassi is the author of A Mother’s Musings, a collection of articles taking an honest look at the challenges and joys of motherhood. She lives with her husband, her children, and her dreams in Beitar Illit. This article is reprinted with permission form A Mother’s Musings.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.