What do I mean?
Good Morning, Miserable Mommy
No smiling, no talking, and no response to her children’s talking either.
Even if her children complimented her on the pretty lipstick she had on from the night before or enthused about how the buttered toast came out, their mother didn’t even look at them or smile.
Also, cartoons or any kind of child-oriented programming was never ever allowed, not even once.
My friend said that she remembers wanting to watch cartoons instead of Joan Lunden droning on, but didn’t think much beyond that because she was a child and this kind of dismal start to the school day was an unquestionable part of life. Her parents made it clear to her that their mother simply wasn't a morning person and that was that.
Decades later, this same woman found herself needing to get her grandchildren ready for school on a daily basis because her daughter-in-law had cancer and her son was tending her, taking her to appointments, and staying with her at the hospital.
There was no one else to watch their children except this woman and her husband.
And this time, my friend noted, her mother couldn’t allow herself to be a miserable apathetic news-gazer. "But I'm just not a morning person" wouldn't go down with her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law. Her grandchildren would’ve made a fuss to her and also complained to their own parents, who turn would complain to all their friends and paint this woman out to be an awful caretaker of their children during this stressful time.
And my friend’s mother knew this.
So for a year, she was forced to get two children ready for school on a regular basis—and do so in a decent manner. In fact, while my friend could tell that her mother was kind of miserable about it, she claims her mother didn’t outright complain about it for fear of people seeing her as selfish and petty.
This is just one example.
"Victim" vs "Victim"
Even when her children reached adulthood and moved out, she continued with her game-playing: playing siblings against each other, playing spouses against each other and inciting fights between her married children and their spouses.
In one case, a married daughter refused to speak to her husband for 2 weeks due to a perceived slight against the mother. The mother would always claim “Poor me” and play the innocent (“I just want everyone to get along; I’m always davening for your shalom bayis”).
She screamed at neighborhood children for running and laughing too loudly near her kitchen window (which bordered on a community lawn) even though she wasn’t sleeping and the children’s behavior wasn’t inappropriate.
Her main handle was The Victim. She was always the victim, so she could behave however she wanted. She could yell at people, lie, criticize, slander, incite fights, throw things, and so on because she was being treated unfairly by the very people she was yelling at, slandering, lying to (or about), criticizing, inciting, and so on.
And this is how she honestly saw things.
The Lobby War
But in her old age, something very disturbing happened. A little girl wanted to walk through the lobby of this woman’s building to get home from school. This tiny lobby possessed two entrances, making a short cut for the little girl.
But the woman didn’t like it. She claimed that extra people walking across the lobby dirtied the floor faster and insisted that the little girl should go around the building.
However, the little girl’s father was a bitter man who’d grown up somewhat Orthodox but now had soured on religion completely. Also, the neighborhood wasn’t the best and anyway, he wanted his daughter to have the easy and quickest journey home for her own convenience. He saw nothing excessively “dirtying” about his daughter walking across this tiny lobby (which was only a couple of yards long) once a day.
The Battle Continues
Undaunted and used to winning, the woman resorted to her usual tricks.
Living on the ground floor, she had access to control over the lobby doors. So she locked them. But the little girl simply pressed the buzzer until someone came to open the door—that someone being this same woman.
When confronted by the girl’s father, the woman insisted that she had a right to lock the doors of the building for security and warmth, and now in addition to the dirt theoretically tracked in by the girl, the woman was unjustly harassed by the insistent noise of the buzzer and the necessity to go out and unlock the doors. She was widowed, 70, and not in the best health, and these factors usually worked in her favor.
Unfortunately for her, she’d finally met someone who was just as bitter, selfish, and self-pitying as herself.
He only cared about his daughter’s convenience and not about the lobby floor, or the age or health of the woman he confronted. Because he saw himself and his daughter as victims, because he saw himself as a protective father out for his daughter’s best interests, he felt he had the right to behave as he saw fit.
Things Get Worse
Next, the woman disabled the buzzer so no one could hear it. The little girl pressed and pressed and banged and banged on the door to no avail. When the father heard what happened, he stormed over to the woman’s apartment. She claimed that the buzzer was broken, so how could she hear it? But the incensed father knew this was a lie. Unlike all the other people throughout her life who just let her go with her shtick, this man instead started yelling and cursing before finally throwing a chair at the limping old lady.
He threatened her that if she locked the door or in any blocked his daughter from passing through again, he would climb up on the roof and break her solar panel and hot water heater.
The woman called different family members to call him up and talk to him (this had always been a favorite tactic of hers: get others to gang up on her “persecutor”), had a tall robust grandson threaten him in person, and even called the police.
He doesn’t care about the police. He doesn’t care who hates him or anything else. He’s the kind of guy who will throw a chair at a 70-year-old woman with diabetes and a bad leg.
Just like all the people she’d hurt over the years, people who had no recourse against her and her tantrums and slander, people who couldn’t get her to see reason or compassion no matter how pitiable their situation (she herself showed little mercy if her victim was sick or post-partum or enduring domestic abuse or suffering severe financial problems—even if that person was her own child), there was nothing she could do against this man.
It’s almost exactly middah-k'neged-middah (measure for measure).
(It finally ended when the police finally called the man in after the woman turned to them several times. Faced with charges, he backed off.)
Why the Heck is This Inspiring?
(Another increasingly common scenario is adult children blocking controlling parents out of their lives or turning life-support off neglectful or cold parents. Parents who were consistently abusive or neglectful in some way also can find themselves dumped in a nursing home with a visitor coming 'round every few years at the most or faced with fault-finding and unforgiving adult children. Death rituals can also get wonky, with a Jewish body just lying in the morgue for days unguarded while the descendants plan the funeral, insulting eulogies, and in one case, the mother's body just shipped to the cemetery for a perfunctory burial by whatever gravedigger and no child or grandchild in attendance.)
It's a chessed really, because it gives people one more chance to get it right before they face the big judgement Above (may we all live in robust health until 120!).
(And no, it doesn't mean that every time some suffers in their old age, it's middah k'neged middah for years of bad behavior in that area. There are other reasons for suffering.)
Anyway, these middah-k'neged-middah situations are giving me pause for thought. Why?
Because in all the circumstances, the person was suffering for behaviors they’d engaged in consistently for YEARS.
These weren’t one-offs or the struggle-stumble people experience when they’re trying to improve themselves. These people simply weren’t trying at all. And they just indulged the lesser parts of themselves for years, even decades.
I guess it sounds depressing. But really, it’s inspiring me to work more on my own self.
Yes, I can lie to myself as much as I want, just like the second woman did.
And yes, I can just indulge my selfishness as long as I can get away with it like the first woman.
But ultimately, Hashem won’t let me get away with it. Whatever I choose to skip out on now will just come back to bite me when I’m 70. And it’ll be a lot harder to deal with then.