By Dina L. Relles
The beat-up Volvo station wagon hummed softly. It idled in the vacant parking lot of the sports stadium at the far corner of campus. My hands lay in my lap, my legs folded underneath me against the tan leather interior. We weren’t touching; I could feel his familiar look of desperation from across the console. Even in the half-light, I glimpsed that endearing gap between his two front teeth.
The clear New England night tapped at the windows, but the air that hung between us was stagnant. Heavy with the weight of our weekend away, it held the closeness of two people who’d traveled together. I fiddled with the fraying fringe at the bottom of my jeans as he spoke.
“Which is more likely?” His voice cracked. “That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
There it was: our impasse. It was just like him to cut to the heart of the matter.
There is a framed picture on my parents’ mantel of my father holding my face in his hands. We’re both crying, though he is not a man of tears. He was whispering the traditional blessing parents give to their children every Friday night—and there was something else too, words I can’t quite recall. But what remains in the sieve of memory is the sound of relief mixed with hope.
Moments later, I walked down the aisle to someone I’d long known but waited until adulthood to love. We shared a common past, a summer camp, and now a cup of wine under the huppah, the Jewish wedding canopy. The room rejoiced. It was just as I’d always pictured it.
A phone rang in my freshman dorm room in early October. He’d sat three rows in front of me in the massive lecture hall with his perfectly tattered baseball cap and freshly pressed prep school charm. I’d noticed him instantly, and every day thereafter.
An innocent request to borrow a course packet was quickly followed by an invitation to meet for coffee one evening. Easy, endless conversation flowed over my grande house blend and his hot chocolate with whipped cream that stuck to his top lip. First kisses on a dimly lit dorm porch led to nighttime snowball fights in Roger Williams Park and private flights in the campus Cessna.
One February night, my right arm dangled off the edge of the top bunk in his dorm room. A thin white undershirt separated his skin from mine as we exchanged pre-dawn confidences. He told of the time he sang to a dying pigeon as a child. Then, propped up on one arm, he looked down with aching eyes that ripped right through me. “I hope this doesn’t scare you,” he said, “but I think I’m falling in love with you.”
He sailed in regattas, sang a cappella, piloted planes. He was the captain of the squash team and several numbers punctuated his last name. His parents were Republicans.
He was Episcopalian. I was the rabbi’s daughter.
We had nothing in common.
We fell in love.
I shouldn’t act so surprised. It was, in a way, inevitable.
Something about winter stirs up memory. Tiny reminders drift down like snowflakes, settling just long enough to make me shift with unease.
It was winter when I first stepped foot in a church. On a family trip to London, I’d insisted we visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Religion had become academic for me; I was endlessly curious, inevitably skeptical.
St. Paul’s was dark, quiet, ornate. Candles cut through the black and cast strange shadows on the coarse granite stones underfoot. It was silent, save for shuffling feet and serene hymnal music. It felt thrilling, almost scandalous somehow, to be there, and with my family. As we stood in its echoing, cavernous belly, I was struck, above all, by how familiar it felt.
I’d long stayed the course—years at Jewish day schools bled into summers at Jewish camp. Synagogues were second homes where I’d spend Saturdays sneaking around back hallways and swelling with pride at my father perched on the pulpit, masterfully holding court.
But even the most charmed childhood is no match for coming of age. My small, unconventional high school encouraged critical thinking about religion in a way the Orthodox schools of my youth had not. Long after class let out, I spent late nights sprawled on my gray carpet, a telephone cord tangled in my fingers, debating and dissecting faith with provocative friends. Questions led to more questions with answers that all ultimately led to God. It felt cyclical and unsatisfying, and I hungered for proof that wouldn’t come.
The quest itself became a kind of creed, and if I believed anything at all, it was that we were all connected in our shared uncertainty. I felt suffocated by the singularity of perspective, the smallness of my world. I still followed, more out of familiarity than faith, but it grew harder for me to reconcile religious practice with my steady skepticism. Doubt became my dogma, and I set out for college drunk with desire for diversity and distance.
Even in the earliest weeks away, I’d stopped observing the Sabbath and avoided eager solicitations from the Jewish groups on campus. I drafted term papers disputing the divine and touting the relativity of morality and truth. I rolled the word agnostic around on my tongue.
Now my safe, inner explorations had propelled me into the arms of another. Now they lived outside of me—in pleading eyes that reflected back my deepest doubts.
I hear a knock on the bedroom door and I throw on a damp towel, droplets from my hair tickling my arms. My middle son stands on the other side, gripping a glass perilously filled with electric green smoothie.
“Daddy made this for you.”
Ours is a different love, no doubt. No two people love the same. Not even the same two people over time.
Ours is no forbidden affair and our first kisses have long since faded. We share a mature love of burden and responsibility, of bearing other people who fill our hearts and hours.
Ours is a love not of questioning, but constancy and comfort, of leftovers and lights left on. It’s routine and real, not sexy, but sturdy and sure. It is as it should be.
I was the one who subconsciously sabotaged our secrecy over winter break. He’d given me a single iris on the night before we left campus. I’d brought it home, openly clutching it so as not to crush it in my carry-all. Never one to lie outright, when my parents asked its origin, I uttered his Anglican name. On a sleepless night, through streaming tears that distorted the once familiar fixtures of my high school bedroom, I sat opposite my mother and father as they drew their line in the sand—and I was too close to home, in age and at heart, to cross it.
We returned to campus that winter with renewed resolve to plot our relationship’s untimely death. Our lips locked, but our hands were tied. Come summer, we vowed, we’d end it. In the meantime, we busied ourselves with letting our love linger longer than it should.
One October afternoon, my high heels click-clack on the uneven Philadelphia pavement as they carry me home from work. I clutch my cell phone with my free hand, catching up with my mother en route.
Our conversation is casual as we chat about my husband’s sister and her strong interfaith family. But then, with a carelessness more misguided than malevolent, my mother flippantly remarks that perhaps she could have made peace with me ending up with a non-Jew.
My reaction is not my standard-issue irritability, but a searing blood boil that turns me inside out until words form at my lips.
“You’re not allowed to say that.” I choke out. “It will never be okay.” And it isn’t. I hang up and hurry home, holding back tears until I cross the threshold of that cozy first marital apartment on 24th Street.
By late spring, under the pretense of a squash tournament in the neighboring state, we set out on a secret road trip to Concord, Massachusetts. I’d shifted uncomfortably on plastic bleachers as I watched his lithe, lean body flit back and forth across the court. I impatiently awaited our evening reunions, our no-frills dinner fare. We wandered Walden Pond in late afternoon light and spent nights on dorm room floors of dear friends. We’d driven ourselves deeper into the heart of the thing.
Upon return, unwilling and unready to reenter campus life, we hid out in his old station wagon at what felt like the edge of the world. In this makeshift refuge, we talked of our incompatible faith and future. We imagined a world where our love could live, where it could defeat difference.
“I believe in the god that brought us together,” he whispered into the darkness. As if that settled everything.
It’s nearing bedtime on a visit to my parents’ home, and eight o’clock finds my mother and me jockeying for access to toothpaste, sink space, and my two older sons’ mouths. The boys are wound up, and I steel myself for the inevitable resistance to lights out.
My well-worn “time for bed” speech is met with their most fervent protests until the volume in the little bathroom reaches a fever pitch. My mother, a panacea always at the ready, offers up the Shema—the daily prayer—if the boys get in their beds. They dutifully file out of the bathroom and climb under covers, my mother trailing behind.
Instead of turning right, with them, I duck left into my old bedroom so they wouldn’t see the tears forming.
I could hear my mother’s soft voice sending the ancient words of the Shema into the night—Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord Is One.
An innocent profession of belief and devotion. But also, unavoidably, a pronouncement, a tribal rallying call, ushering my children off to sleep as it once did me.
I leaned against the car seat, exhaling deeply. My mind wandered back to the open road, to that stretch of New England highway that rose and fell while Fields of Gold played in the background. Where we could quietly consider a different life.
Just the day before, we’d slipped into a diner on the side of the road, flushed with the promise of two more hours together. We sat across from each other, laughing and coloring on the backs of our menus with kid crayons. We were stealing time. Eventually, our casual conversation stuttered, giving way to the familiar desperation that followed us everywhere. To the outside, we must have looked so normal, I thought. Like a regular couple.
I stared straight ahead. There we sat. Steeped in the thick, black night. The station wagon. Our impossibly idealistic love.
“Which is more likely? That your parents would get over you marrying a non-Jew or that you would get over me?”
His words hung there. I didn’t answer. I didn’t know.
Winter again, and I’m sitting on the scratchy den carpeting surrounded by the smiling, soft-skinned loves of my life. They watch kid TV while I sip afternoon coffee. A silly bit flashes across the screen featuring cartoons introducing the Chanukah holiday to their wide-eyed audience. A character turns to the camera and simply says, “Chanukah celebrates the miracle of light.”
Yes. I look out the back deck door and up to the gray afternoon light of a quiet December day. For a moment, I let out the breath that it feels I’m perpetually holding and my shoulders slacken. Maybe I could do this, I think. Extract morsels of meaning and weave a tradition that could draw me back in, make me whole.
It’s true—it remains where I am most at home.
In the smell of freshly baked challot on Friday afternoon. At an evening prayer service overlooking the lake at my summer camp, where I now return to work. Familiar melodies float up in the open air; I mouth the words without intention but through force of habit.
And yet. If I let myself think, I no longer belong. Familiarity, even love, cannot foster faith.
I tiptoe through the hallways of my childhood home. I sit with secretive silence and summon a smile. I’m an outsider looking in, faithful to a faith in which I only have doubt, belonging to a life that accepts only almost all of me.
I will forever be stuck in the stagnant air of that station wagon, staring into the darkness, searching for answers.
We stayed late on campus, a week past semester’s end—he to sing a cappella, me to be with him. Both of us to savor and suffer a relationship that felt far from over. Our months had become minutes, but we kept our vow. We left for summer separate and single, admitting—only to each other—that the love lingered on. Of course it did.
Still, we ended it. A choice made when there was none: a promise to a faith I no longer had and an inability to imagine traveling the unpaved road that lay ahead.
I collapse on the bed one night after tucking in my boys. I can hear my husband clanking around in the kitchen below, fielding a few last phone calls as he readies his evening tea.
New impossible questions follow me: “Maybe God is like the wind?” asks my oldest after lights out. “Invisible and everywhere.” I hum a non-response, then softly step into the baby’s room to stare with longing at his simple sleep.
In this season of life, the day’s demands leave little room for worry or wonder. I welcome intrusions—endless child chatter, babies stirring in the night. I’m uncertain, yet content. Winter’s restless reminders, the grounding weight of home, the not knowing—it’s who I am now. It’s what’s left.
He finishes his work, climbs the stairs, and settles at the edge of the bed. I wedge my feet under his legs for warmth and finally drift off to sleep.
DINA L. RELLES is a lawyer, writer, and mother of three young sons. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a blog editor at Literary Mama and writes regularly on her own site, Commonplace. You can find her on Twitter @DinaLRelles.