As a mom who writes about the intersection of life, work and parenthood, I sometimes smugly think that I have the higher ground when it comes to musing about the parenting life; how can a man possibly understand the complicated lives we mothers live? And the few dads who do take it upon themselves to write about their fathering experiences often couch it in standard-issue stupid/funny dad-stuff – teaching their kids how to make icky bodily noises, playing baby-too-high-in-the-air with their young children, and an abundance of pre-adolescent whining about lost youth and opportunity.
But David Ebenbach has created a completely different paradigm of man-into-dad literature. His beautifully-crafted stories take the reader into the lives of his characters, both men and women, and leave us wanting more.
Although each story stands alone, four of the book’s gems follow the life of Judith, a new mother but not by choice. Judith is single, a young and hungry journalist, and like many young urban dwellers, still in search of herself. But a night fraught with indecision and passion leads her to an unplanned pregnancy, which she, surprising even herself, decides to keep.
We meet Judith after the baby, whose name has not yet been chosen, is coming home from the hospital. Her parents, in from Indiana, are crowded in her small city apartment, trying to make the best of a complicated situation. Once they had accepted that Judith was indeed, having a baby, that there was no apparent father, and that she was in it alone, they swooped in, determined to help.
While grateful for her parents, Judith still struggles. The most difficult question is what to name her baby girl. Judith, although not observant, is Jewish, and the question of naming the baby – an important Jewish ritual – takes on gargantuan proportions in her first days as a mother.
Judaism plays a large role in many of Ebenbach’s stories, including Elliott, the divorced dad who takes his children to “Jewish Heritage Day” at the ball park, where families align with Jewish organizations who buy blocks of tickets so that there’s a presumed feeling of comradeship as people eat their kosher hot dogs. However, all Elliott can feel is deep uneasiness at not knowing how to talk with his son and daughter, young adults who are caught in between two parents who also don’t know how to talk to each other.
One of the many marvelous things about Ebenbach’s stories is that he is equally at home in the voice of a divorced dad as he is in the voice of single mom unmoored by new motherhood. As a writer, I find the most challenging thing is to move out of myself and my own voice and experience, which has a habit of slipping into almost everything I write. Ebenbach, however, has found a way out of his own dad-experience and embeds himself in each character in a fresh way.
There’s the out-of-work father, taking his grown son out to a very inexpensive meal, but one in which their slim conversation cements their relationship. There’s the lesbian couple with a young son, forcing a friendship with a gay couple with a child so that their son has other role models. There’s Naomi and Jacob, a story within a story within a story, caught in a vortex of not knowing whether they should shatter their oneness as a couple by having a baby.
And there’s Judith. Judith, who, in the very last story, “Life is the Fruit,” still hasn’t settled on a name for her baby. Despite the rabbi’s tender assistance, despite her parents’ impatience, Judith’s journey to naming her baby seems to represent her journey towards accepting motherhood at large. Judith makes it all the way to the naming ceremony at the synagogue without a name in mind; possible names flash across her mind’s eye and get rejected one after the other – as the torah is taken out, as she puts on a tallis, as she sings the opening blessings.
And finally, as she watches her baby focus for the first time, and peers at her sweet face, Judith has a revelation. She understands that this tiny being, despite being only a few days old, has a soul of her own, and that it is Judith’s job as her mother to help her find that soul – her neshamah – and keep it pure. At last, Judith knows her daughter’s name.
Neshamah. Soul. And the souls of Judith’s story and each of Ebenbach’s stories about the wilderness of parenthood shine brightly in this lush, honest and beautifully written collection.
Into The Wildnerness
by David Ebenbach
October 2012, Washington Writer's Publishing House