Can you feel the loss of something you
I didn’t connect with Larry until the next morning. He called my hotel at 10:30, his voice still thick with sleep. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I just got back from Starbucks.”
“I’m jealous.” He’d gotten home from his sixteen-hour workday at eight o’clock that morning, sat in a chair next to the dining table, and, he said, “That’s the last thing I remember.” His two-and-a half-hour siesta would be his sleep for the day; he was about to say his morning prayers, then wanted to get together. “I average fifteen or twenty hours of sleep—a week.”
“You realize,” I replied, “that would be considered a form of torture in most places.”
Larry was an emergency room doctor, working full-time in two different hospitals, often doing back-to-back shifts. Beth, meanwhile, was the principal of secular education at their kids’ Jewish day school. Most of her compensation came by way of free tuition, which at ninety-six hundred dollars a year for nine years for fifteen kids (plus summer camp) is an impressive sum. In actual cash, though, she made less than Roberta, the two youngest girls’ nanny.
By the time I walked over to the house, Beth had been gone for hours. She’d woken at five, slapped together two pans of lasagna and four loaves of garlic bread for dinner, driven the older boys to the synagogue for their morning prayers, then come home to prepare for a meeting. The older children dressed the younger ones and set them up with Cap’n Crunch and Golden Grahams (sugary cereals and junk food are almost universally kosher). By 7:45 they’d piled into the van and left.
Larry greeted me by taking a step back and clasping his hands behind him. Death is considered impure in traditional Judaism, and since menstruation represents the monthly loss of potential life, so is a woman having her period, or one who hasn’t subsequently dunked herself in the ritual bath. Since it would be rude to ask, Orthodox men err on the side of caution. They don’t touch women other than their wives and daughters. I was still bleeding from my miscarriage; I couldn’t imagine in this fragile state suffering the added insult of being forbidden to embrace my husband, to seek the comfort of his arms. Still, when Larry grinned and said, “The hug is implied,” I couldn’t help but smile back, duly disarmed.
It had been nearly ten years since we’d seen each other. He was thicker around the middle than I remembered, the curl cropped out of his hair, which, like his beard, was graying. But he had the same glinting brown eyes, the same amused smile of the boy I’d known—the one who’d once snuck a stack of LPs into Junior Congregation, slipping one under his tush each time we rose in prayer, then, his gaze piously innocent, plopping down to break it with a rude crack.
While Larry made coffee, I worked up the energy to snoop, convincing myself it was on Steven’s behalf. The Browns’ pantries were surprisingly lightly stocked, all things considered. There were a few industrial-sized items—cardboard boxes filled with packages of cookies or mac & cheese, a few jumbo jars of Jif, and some tubs of salad dressing—but most things were the same size and quantity as the ones I bought. “I’d buy more in bulk if it were up to me,” Larry explained, “but I’m not around enough. Beth is efficient, but she isn’t necessarily organized. So she’ll go to the grocery store three times in a day. And she has something like ten sets of keys, because she can never remember where she’s left them; that way she’ll happen across one if she needs it. I think she kind of has to be that way, though. Whenever she’s doing something, she’s interrupted. So she does what’s in front of her, and if she has to stop in the middle and start something else, she just does that.”
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Beth and Larry are amateurs. The greatest officially recorded number of children born to one mother is—wait for it—sixty-nine. Here’s the kicker: no one remembers the woman’s name. She’s gone down in history as “the first wife of one Feodor Vassilyev,” an eighteenth-century Russian peasant. That nameless woman had twenty-seven births, including sixteen pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quads. By the time she was done, she probably didn’t remember her own name.
I knew that five-and-a half dozen children was hardly comparable to one or two, but that story only reinforced my suspicion that motherhood made women disappear. “People with no kids think this is chaos,” Larry said. I didn’t disagree. “But it’s more settled than you think. Dressing or feeding two or three is hard, it’s relentless. But in a way we have more independence, because the older ones can change diapers, carry the babies—we have more help in the house than most people.”
“Even so,” I said, “the time, the energy—how do you even manage to make any more children?”
“It only takes fifteen times to have fifteen kids.”
“Seriously,” he repeated. “That’s not much of an exaggeration. We are very fertile.” And I’m not, I thought, imagining how much harder that would be to endure if I were part of Larry’s community.
I followed Larry to his basement office, which doubled as a storage space for bicycles. The shelves were stuffed with family photos; Hebrew texts; his old, beloved volumes of Nash and Silverstein; and a few contemporary best sellers. A collage he’d made to announce Beth’s eleventh pregnancy to his parents hung above his desk: rows of head shots of the ten existing kids followed by a sonogram. Larry’s parents, I knew, cringed at the news of each new grandchild, though over the years they’d developed a grudging tolerance. Occasionally, when I visited them in Minneapolis, one of them would joke, “It’s a good thing you didn’t marry Larry,” and we’d all laugh. Somewhere in their voices, though, was a hint of wistfulness. Maybe if Larry and I had wed, we would have moderated each other, met in the middle rather than spinning out to our respective religious extremes. Maybe by now we’d be a nice Jewish couple, living in a Midwestern suburb providing our parents with a socially acceptable three or four grandchildren. It was a comfortable dream, so much simpler than the path I’d followed—I sometimes mourned its loss myself—but it wasn’t ours.
I’ve always loved spending time with Larry’s parents. After nearly fifty years together, they are still affectionate, still enjoy each other’s company. They read the same books, travel, and attend concerts and theater. My parents are much the same, and that deep rapport was what I’d hoped for, what I cherished in my relationship with Steven. I would gladly sacrifice parenthood, I thought, before giving up any of that. Larry’s priorities were different. “Beth and I have never spent much time together,” he admitted. “We hardly saw each other before we were married, and then we had Yossi so soon after. I’ve asked her, ‘When the kids move out and we sit down to dinner, will we have anything to talk about?’”
“But don’t you miss that time?” I asked. “Wasn’t that what you expected?”
He shrugged. “You can only feel the loss of something you’ve had.”
“I just don’t get it,” I pushed. “You work eighty hours a week. You don’t see your wife and kids. You don’t take vacations. You don’t even sleep. What kind of quality of life is that?”
Larry nodded, leaning back in his char. “Two things give me pause about everything. Time and money. I use all the time I have and I’m still always behind with everything. Whenever I do one thing there’s an accounting of what I’m not doing.” He pointed to a broken electrical plate against the wall. “So am I going to fix someone’s bike, or fix that electrical plate? Am I going to clean and straighten, which could be a full-time job in this house, or am I going to take the kids to the library?
“And money. I have no idea how much it costs to keep this family afloat, but it’s definitely more than I make. But what is financial strain? We can still pay for clothes, for food. We could move to a smaller house, with three kids to a room. Stress is in the eye of the beholder.”
“You know that sounds insane,” I said.
“I know it does to you, yes,” he said. “But part of this for me is realizing we’re not in control of everything. Some people don’t use contraception and have no kids at all or, unfortunately, have difficulty.” I smiled weakly. “Other people have two children or six. If we have fifteen children, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
“And I like everything I do,” he added. “I like the kids. I like my job. By Tuesday I’ve worked as much as some people work in a whole week, but I never feel like I don’t want to be doing it. Everything is a gift from God, everything. To an outsider this all can look like a burden. But tomorrow I could have a stroke. I could have an accident. I could lose my wife, my house, my kids. So I work hard. But everything I do I find precious.”
Suddenly, Larry leapt up. “I almost forgot,” he said, and pulled out a volume by British poet Robert Service from his shelf. “Listen to this.” He read “My Prisoner,” about a World War I Tommy’s encounter with a German soldier, in a full-on cockney accent. “Isn’t that brilliant?” he asked, and without waiting for a response, launched into a second poem, “The Ballad of Sam McGee.” The swashbuckling saga wasn’t something I would’ve picked but Larry was so jazzed to share it with me. Every few lines, he would glance up eagerly, eyes shining, voice rising. Almost unconsciously, I slipped off my shoes. As I propped up my stockinged feet, I listened to my friend—I tried to hear what he was hearing.
A poster of the poem “Eishet Chayil” (“A Woman of Valor”) hangs framed on the wall of the Browns’ living room. A woman of valor, who can find? it begins. Her worth is far beyond that of rubies. It’s the traditional serenade by a groom to his bride, the song a husband sings to praise his wife at the Sabbath table. Most Jews I knew had dropped the custom long ago, considering it demeaning. It’s true, the Eishet Chayil is the original woman who does too much, staying up deep into the night and rising while it’s still dark to do for her family, denying her own needs, seeking no glory. On the other hand, our Ms. Chayil earns her own living selling cloth, farming, or acquiring real estate. She manages a household staff, gives to the needy, serves God. Rather than her looks, she’s cherished for her integrity, dignity, and wisdom. I’d always suspected the Eishet Chayil model was part of the reason that so many feminist leaders were Jews, from Betty Freidan to Gloria Steinem to Susan Faludi to Rebecca Walker.
If “Eishet Chayil” has ever come to life, though, it is in the person of Beth Brown. Shortly before my visit, a pregnant friend of hers with six children went on bed rest; Beth moved the woman’s entire family into her home for two weeks. This on top of her own fifteen children and full-time job. And I didn’t hear about it from her—Larry told me. To her it wasn’t a big deal: “I enjoy having a lot of people around” was all she would say. “There’s always something happening.” When I’d suggested that was what most people would dislike about it, Beth had only smiled. “It’s not an imposition,” she had insisted. “If our kids get sick, people are there for us, too. That’s just how it works.”
How, exactly, did it work for me? If Beth was a righteous woman, what was I? My own sense of obligation seemed shallow by comparison. Although I’d like to be the sort who whips up meals for sick friends, I rarely followed through, pleading the excuse of a busy life. Even at my most generous, I wouldn’t move someone else’s family into my home. Nor did I expect much from anyone else beyond Steven; I usually considered that to be a mark of self-sufficiency. Watching Beth, though, I began to wonder where—without children, without community—I truly belonged.
Back in my hotel room, I flipped on the TV to a flickering image of Kelly McGillis in a white lace snood. The film was Witness, the romantic thriller in which a cop played by Harrison Ford is forced to hide out among the Amish. Eventually, his derision is overcome by their simplicity and caring, he recognizes the soullessness of contemporary life. “I’m right there with you, Harrison,” I said to the screen.
Larry was wrong. I think you can feel the loss of something you’ve never had, or at least a phantom longing for it. I’d never had faith; it had sometimes buzzed toward me, as improbable as a hummingbird, only to retreat when I reached for it. Mine is a messy, inconsistent philosophy, one that is dominated by the shades of gray Larry shunned: the gun metal of agnosticism, the storm clouds of contradiction, the dove breast of ambivalence. How reassuring it must be to know precisely what was expected of you, to be free from the uncertainties of finding your own way. How consoling to feel that your miscarriage, or your infertility, or your fifteen children were God’s will. I could never do it, but sometimes I dearly wished I could.
Beth and I were repelling magnets. I was no Eishet Chayil and she was no feminist—she didn’t even expect her daughters to go to college. I would never want her life, was grateful to live in a time when it wasn’t forced upon me, and yet, to my surprise, part of me was jealous of her. Somehow she’d managed to “have it all”: a respected career, a loving husband, a warm family, a supportive community. Happiness. Could I say the same about myself?
Larry Brown was my first true love. My junior high school notebooks are a mass of arrow-pierced hearts, our names entwined inside. “Larry+Peggy,” “Larry & Peggy Brown,” “Peggy Brown,” “Dr. and Mrs. Larry Brown.” There are two parallel smudges in the creamy paint on my parents’ dining room wall where I propped my stockinged feet during the hours and years of our phone conversations, adolescent musings about poetry and God. We flirted and fought; he read me couplets from Ogden Nash and Shel Silverstein—not, perhaps, the most romantic of offerings—and I reciprocated with my own tortured verse. For years I sent his mom Mother’s Day cards; I still confide in his dad.
As we got older, though, Larry grew more devout—or frum—and I less so, unable to reconcile Judaism with my incipient feminism. He stopped mixing milk and meat after his bar mitzvah; I converted to Diet for a Small Planet vegetarianism. A few years later he rejected anything prepared in nonkosher cookware or served on treif plates, including those in his own mother’s home. I stopped attending religious services. By our sophomore year of college he’d banished all shades of spiritual gray: if the Torah was God’s word, how could he neglect any of its commandments? How could he pick and choose? Shared history, rather than shared belief or experience, kept our friendship afloat, though often just barely.
Shortly before graduation, Larry met Beth Karsh. He gushed to me about her intelligence, her compassion, her Jewish values. But there was a problem: he was about to go off to yeshiva in Israel for a semester before starting medical school in St. Louis; she had another year of undergraduate work to complete in Madison. Faced with the prospect of never seeing Beth again, Larry proposed. They’d been dating for just two months.
The following winter I flew in for their wedding from New York, where I’d moved after my own graduation. It was like being airlifted from the pages of Bright Lights, Big City into a Chaim Potok novel. A low wall, a mechitzah, ran the length of the sanctuary dividing the men from the women. The dancing at the reception was sex-segregated, too. On the men’s side, one of Larry’s friends performed Russian squat-kicks to klezmer music, jumping and twirling with a wine bottle balanced on his head. The women fanned out in front of Beth, skipping toward her and away, pretending to sweep the floor, to wash clothes, to rock a baby. I sat on the sidelines horrified. What kind of throwback had my friend become? The mechitzah wasn’t the only thing separating us.
Their first baby was born a year later; the second, sixteen months after that. I, meanwhile, was dating men with foreign accents, riding motorcycles, clubbing until dawn. By the time he finished his residency, Larry had five sons and three daughters; I’d long since lost track of their names. Once, when I’d worked up the courage to ask him how many children they planned to have, he’d replied, “As many as God gives us.” To date, “God” (along with unprotected sex) had given them fifteen. That is not a misprint. Larry and Beth have fifteen children ranging in age from twenty years to nine months old. Larry and I no longer talked much, partly because a guy with fifteen kids doesn’t have time for chitchat, and partly because there was too much tender territory between us. He disapproved of my marriage to a gentile, of the way I practiced (or didn’t practice) Judaism. I was confounded by his fanaticism and the ever-growing family. Our relationship drifted, becoming little more than a party trick I would bring out to stun new friends. But Larry’s mother had tipped him off: I was scheduled to give a talk in St. Louis that fall. He e mailed me, inviting me to his home. I agreed right away; I missed him, missed the piece of my past he held, missed our rambling talks, our private jokes. I wondered whether underneath it all, the fundamentalist was still fundamentally himself.
I had found out about the miscarriage three days before the trip, but didn’t consider canceling. I can’t say why. Maybe I was still in shock, cruising along on autopilot. Maybe it was because as soon as the surgery was over, the nausea lifted and I felt more energetic than I had in weeks. Or maybe on some level I thought it would be therapeutic—Beth was my inverse, the woman I might have become if my life had gone differently. After a few days hanging around her, I figured, I’d be relieved to be childless.
The main floor of the Browns’ brick and clapboard house is a straight shot from the living room through the vestibule to the dining room. There are no rugs, no knickknacks, no coffee tables, no sharp corners. The most distinctive piece of furniture is a life-sized wooden sculpture of a zebra curled on the floor in front of the hearth. It was carved by Beth’s stepfather. “That zebra is indestructible,” Beth would tell me. “Larry can stand with his full weight on one of its ears.”
Larry was still at work when I dropped by from my hotel the first evening. Beth was in the kitchen making grilled cheese sandwiches for the youngest eight children, slapping butter onto bread, peeling American cheese from a block of one hundred slices. She cooked them on her milchig, or dairy, stove. Kashrut demands complete separation of milk and meat, though the laws never say why. As practiced by the Browns, it requires not only two sets of utensils, dishes, and pots (one each for milk and meat) but also two ovens, two stovetops, two microwaves, two sinks, two sets of dish towels, and two dishwashers. They also have three refrigerators (one for holidays) and a freezer in the basement, though that’s more to accommodate the sheer quantity of food they require than to satisfy any rules of ritual.
I had never felt comfortable with Beth—her choices, her lifestyle, were (I have to say it) inconceivable. Even the way she dressed freaked me out. She’d cut her hair short when she married, according to the customs of tsnius, or modesty, and covered it with a wig. She had three of them, each made of human hair and costing several thousand dollars; the one she wore today was a lustrous auburn, cut in layers that grazed her chin. I wouldn’t have pegged it as a fake, except that occasionally when she scratched her head the whole thing moved. I’d never understood why a woman’s own hair, no matter how frowsy, was considered alluring, but a beautifully coiffed wig wasn’t—I guess the rabbis of yore didn’t make provisions for feminine ingenuity. Beth even wore the wig, called a sheitl, when giving birth. Although it was unseasonably, uncomfortably hot, she also wore long sleeves and a skirt reaching her shins; thick, nylon knee-highs; and low-heeled pumps. (Men, too, are subject to laws of tsnius, though less stringently; the racks of Larry’s closet were filled with identical white shirts and black pants. He doesn’t wear shorts, and his sons aren’t allowed to go shirtless, even in the house.)
My friends always assumed that Larry had “made” Beth have all these children, but that wasn’t the case. He would’ve stopped earlier. Orthodox Jews can, in consultation with a rabbi, use birth control due to financial strain, overly close spacing of children, or to preserve the marriage. Beth and Larry could have claimed any of those pressures. Among other things, Beth developed gestational diabetes with several pregnancies and, unsurprisingly, had grown dangerously overweight. I had always figured that Larry and Beth were compensating for Larry’s younger brothers and male friends who’d married gentiles, whose children (because Judaism is traditionally matrilineal) they didn’t consider Jewish. But that wasn’t it, either. They had so many children, Beth told me, because she wanted them. Unlike Larry, Beth grew up in an Orthodox community. “When I was young I spent a lot of time at our rabbi’s house,” she said. “They had eleven kids. I liked the atmosphere there. I wanted a big family, too. And I’m excited every time I find out I’m pregnant. It never gets old. It’s such a miracle. It’s the same with the milestones; it was just as exciting when number fourteen took her first steps as it was when number one did.”
I didn’t know how to respond, I who wrestled with the decision to have even one child. But it didn’t matter—with so many kids scampering in and out of the kitchen, banging into one another like bumper cars, further conversation was nearly impossible anyway. Nine-year-old Menashe, who wore a jersey emblazoned with the number ten (his place in the birth order) and—lucky for me—his name embroidered on his velvet yarmulke, had hitched a jump rope to a toddler ride-aboard and was pulling seven-year-old Gav through the house in a wild game of crack the whip. Four-year-old Noam was crying because they wouldn’t include him. I glanced over Beth’s shoulder and noticed Hadassah, twenty-three months, wielding a pizza cutter like a cutlass. A moment later I grabbed her as she toppled from a folding chair she was using to scale the kitchen counter, nearly tripping in the process over baby Ahuva, who was sucking her pacifier next to the stove. None of it fazed Beth. I had once read that parents of large families thrived on activity and unpredictability, yet I couldn’t figure out how that jibed with Larry’s and Beth’s fixation on arcane rules about the blending of cotton and wool. I wondered if the mayhem was an antidote, a counterbalance to such hyperregulated lives.
“Dinner!” Beth called. Eight children thundered in, performed the blessing for washing their hands, said grace, and dug in to the sandwiches, a salad of prewashed lettuce, and bowls of homemade salmon chowder. A few minutes later Beth excused herself to sort through hand-me-downs with a friend, and sixteen eyes turned expectantly toward me. Noam, who was wearing a magician’s cape, wanted to show me how he could pull a stuffed rabbit from a hat. Avishai, ten, wanted to describe in mind-numbing detail a roller coaster he once rode at Six Flags over St. Louis. Yonah, eleven, couldn’t figure out how I knew their dad, since in his world boys aren’t allowed to fraternize with girls. I tried to pay attention to all of them at once, to answer every question. Then Esther Neima, five, asked me how many children I had. I froze. “I have ten nieces and nephews,” I fudged, pasting a smile on my face. My response satisfied her more than it did me.
Suddenly it seemed that coming here had been a mistake. I had to get away from all of those kids, at least for a minute. I asked Esther Neima to show me upstairs to the bathroom. After their eleventh child was born, the Browns had added a second story to their home with six bedrooms and three baths. The rooms were spare, not holding much more than a bunk bed and a desk. One of the boys’ rooms had a computer (with no Internet access), another a drum set. No one had gotten around to putting anything on the walls, but streams of children’s belongings—dirty clothes, water bottles, rollerblades—overflowed from each room, merged together in the central hallway. Esther Neima gave me a tour of the bathroom, pointing out the toilet, the sink, the soap.
She gestured to the door handle with a flourish. “And this,” she said proudly, “is the lock.”
By the time I collected myself and headed back downstairs, dinner was over, the kids scattered. Beth beckoned me into the living room, where she sat with three of the girls. Already I was adjusting to the distorted arithmetic of the Brown household; it felt like we were nearly alone. When I had left for the airport, Steven had told me to be sure to look in the Browns’ cupboards. “How do people with fifteen kids get through the day?” he wondered. “Do they have gallon-sized peanut butter jars? Do they buy ketchup by the barrel?”
I was too dispirited to play Nancy Drew, but I did ask Beth for a few details. Every Brown child over the age of five had a job, she explained, such as setting the table, doing yard work, or taking out the garbage. Avishai packed all the lunches, though since that was one of the hardest tasks, he got summers and holidays off. Once they were twelve, they did their own laundry, too. Even so, keeping ahead of the clutter wasn’t easy. “You can pick up fifteen times a day,” Beth said. “You can wash thirty cups and two hours later there are thirty more.”
The family has almost never eaten out, which, when you consider the number of years of incessant meal preparation, is mind-boggling. Even if they could afford it, there are no kosher restaurants in St. Louis. Beth pops by the grocery store for odds and ends at least once a day in her fifteen-seat van, the kind hotels use to chauffeur guests to and from the airport. She drives the kids to school, to synagogue, to orthodontist appointments, to piano lessons. And with all of that, she still feels guilty when she misses a Little League game. “All of the other parents are there,” she said.
I smiled sympathetically, but I was actually thinking, Please, God, get me back to my superficial, self-absorbed friends who spend all their time discussing which overpriced eatery makes the best anise crème brulée.
Gav came running in. “Ima!” he shouted excitedly, using the Hebrew word for “mother.” “Hadassah said my name! She said my name!” He picked up the baby, spun her around, planted a kiss on her cheek. “Ahuva! Hadassah said my name!” Gav beamed, the joy on his face so intense that I had to turn away.
Avishai came in to see what the racket was about and noticed my pained expression. “Are you enjoying St. Louis?” he asked. “Or is there too much talking?”