Yosef, age 10 (and very cute), provoked Fisseha, age 13 (and very strong), who slugged him. And threatened to hit him again if he kept being a pest. Yosef came weeping and whining to me, and made a great point of showing he feared for his life. All this happened at the dinner table at a lovely Erev Rosh Hashonah dinner at our friends’ elegant and art-filled house. Our friends smiled compassionately. What cranky children; I felt we were doing something wrong.
We made it home that night, and everyone dressed up the next morning for synagogue, but rifts deepened. There were any number of people now to whom Yosef was not talking. After services, we went to our traditional First Day Rosh Hashonah lunch at the home of other close friends, along with our crew of well-dressed sourpusses. The kids descended to the basement for ping-pong, but Helen ran upstairs to report that Yosef was hiding from Fisseha and Fisseha was searching for him, expressing a desire to kill him. Such combative children.
Back home after lunch, hostilities worsened, with Yosef screaming in the backyard that Fisseha was throwing rocks at him.
I was near screaming myself now. I took Fisseha aside and commiserated. “I know it’s hard to have new brothers…”
“Not Daniel,” he said. “Daniel’s not hard.”
“OK, I know Yosef can be a pest, but I need you to stay calm, to be a team-player.”
He seemed unmoved.
“This is ruining the holiday!” I cried.
He sighed, as if to relay, “Yep, Yosef is ruining the holiday.”
Mrs. Azeb Arega, a gentle and kind middle-aged Ethiopian woman who has babysat for us for five years, was giving Yosef a talking-to in the kitchen in Amharic.
I went on a walk. I stayed away most of an hour; I admired yards and houses in which fewer children than nine were growing up. I ran home in a cloudburst. The landscape was suddenly drenched, the trees bending, the gutters flooding. As I reached our driveway, I heard shouts in the backyard. Four of my children—Yosef, Helen, Daniel, and Fisseha—wearing raincoats, were jumping on the trampoline and sliding across its slick surface, crashing into each other with great hilarity. I ran into the house, put apple slices and cookies on a plate, and carried the snacks outside under an umbrella. “Watch!” they yelled, showing me how the rain allowed them to slalom across the trampoline. They devoured the apples and cookies. They were all happy. What wonderful children! How cute and funny! I really must be doing something right after all. Such handsome children!
The next day I mentioned to Azeb what a lovely surprise I had yesterday afternoon, coming home to find the children peaceful and playful. “They’re really great kids,” I said. “I guess I helped them see how much better it is to live peacefully together.”
“I told them,” she said. “I told Daniel and Yosef.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told them they need to behave. I told Yosef: ‘Five years I work here, I never saw behavior like this.’ I asked Yosef, ‘What happened at the foster home, if you acted like this?’ ‘I got hit,’ he said. ‘I know that,’ I said. ‘Your new mother won’t hit you. But I will hit you, just like in Ethiopia, if you don’t behave. Do you want it to be like Ethiopia? Do you want me to hit you?’”
Next thing you knew, the children were all the best of friends, hopping together on the trampoline in the rain.
No hitting of children, needless to say, will take place here. But I enjoyed the sound of laughter in the backyard far more than the sound of whimpering, screaming, and punches around the holiday table.