Guys.” I beckon six little bodies to the table. “I need all eyes on me.” Twelve eyes focus reluctantly. “OK. Except those who don’t do eye contact. Or have a squint. Or conjunctivitis.” I lose five sets of eyes. “We’ve broken up from school. Who knows which Yom Tov is next?”
Tumbleweed. Someone is texting under the table. Someone else has surreptitiously re-started Minecraft. Someone else is drawing on their face with permanent marker. We pay out a monthly sum larger than our considerable mortgage to Jewish schools. “I’m looking for engagement here…”
“Christmas,” ventures a child. The atmosphere brightens considerably.
For this, I am driving the oldest Previa in Edgware. I flourish a J-cloth: “It’s Pesach!” The atmosphere round the table plummets considerably. Boy One starts getting into his pyjamas. “Wake me up when everything’s normal again.” In our family, we like routine, we like structure. We really, really like bread. And pasta. And crackers. In fact, we do not eat anything else. So, as you can imagine, we do not like Pesach.
Try as I might, I approach Pesach with guilty dread. The quintessential time for family can be hard if your family doesn’t want to be quintessential. If your kids won’t/can’t/don’t provide those Mah Nishtanah moments. We have six kids. Boys One and Three are autistic. Girl One has Down’s Syndrome. Boy Two is a grumpy pre-teen. Girl Two is a grumpy tween. Boy Four speaks solely in dialogue from Star Wars. At Pesach, the should-bes and could-bes of family life are strong in me, as Boy Four would say. “You must get such naches from your family at Pesach,’ says the butcher as I place my mega-order. “That depends,” I answer, “on your precise definition of naches.”
You can sail through Pesach with a large family if you plan everything in advance: shop, cook, clean the house and turn over your kitchen before the kids break up. So, when the holidays start, Mum is calm, prepared and ready to embark on fun educational trips and interactive baking sessions. You arrive at the Seder rested and inspired, not hastily wiping down your week-old tracksuit with a wet-wipe.
Unfortunately, what actually transpires is that I book a whole load of fun educational trips and sit on the sofa reading novels and drinking coffee. I fail to shop, cook, clean the house and turn over the kitchen. Three days before Pesach, I am with the girls at “My First Ballet”, Ashley, my husband, is at the top of the Shard with the boys and the chickens have yet to be defrosted. Two days before Pesach we have day passes to Butlins Bognor Regis. Erev Pesach we are adopting two kittens.
Time to trot out my “families are a team” speech.
I sit everyone down in front of a mountain of Lego. Girl One promptly starts diving into it. “We are a team. We help each other out. Especially before Pesach.”
‘What do I need to do to get dropped from the team,” asks Boy Three. Funny, I was wondering that myself. “Suspension is not at option,” I tell him, “now start checking through this Lego.”
“I’m not your slave,” he howls.
The Pesach spirit has arrived.
Boy Two is upstairs concentrating intently on his Haggadah. Is he really preparing for Seder? My spirits soar.
On closer inspection it turns out that he is meticulously sticking articles from Match of the Day magazine over the pages.
“This is the most creative, independent work you’ve ever done.” I tell him, patting his head affectionately. “Don’t let it happen again.”
The one certainty of Pesach is that we sit down to Seder eventually. “Eventually” being the key concept here. Boy Four arrives in full Storm Trooper regalia. I knock on his helmet. “This isn’t what I meant when I said dress up for the Seder.”
“I’m extremely impressed with the interest you’re showing in your Haggadah,” Ashley tells Boy Two, who accepts the compliment gracefully. I follow the story as Girl Two falls asleep on my lap. “Hey,” cries Boy Three with interest and disgust, “we learned this exact same story in school!”
Pesach for me is the story of momentous journeys, of pushing ourselves beyond our limits. I imagine the end of all familiarity. Leaving everything you know and embarking on a time of chaos but also wonder. Of trying your hardest moment-to-moment and hoping that faith and love will be enough. “Is Pesach over yet,” asks Boy One, emerging from his room as Ashley sings Chad Gadya and I swig the leftover Kiddush wine from the bottle. I pass him a plate of coconut pyramids. He recoils in disgust. Understandably.
“Sorry,” I tell him. “It’s only just beginning.”