The Knotty Underside of the Well-Woven Life

We're fond of talking about life as a balancing act, but maybe the secret is that it's not a solo gig

Elissa and I once introduced ourselves as "partners" to a man we met at a wedding. He looked at us quizzically, trying to guess the enterprise—law office? gourmet bakery? dog grooming?—in which we collaborated.

"Partners," he said finally. "So, what exactly is it you two do together?"

Every Thursday night, Elissa pours a hillock of flour into a wooden bowl, adds eggs, salt, canola oil, water and yeast, then kneads it into a springy yellow mass. On Friday morning, I sink a fist into the dough, twist it into four-strand plaits, swipe the braided loaves with beaten egg, dust them with sesame and poppy seeds and bake them until, when I tap on the browned bottoms, they sound like hollow trees.

We have been tag-teaming this challah operation for so long—24 years of Shabbat dinners, give or take a few dozen Fridays—that it's become a seamless, speechless dance.

On other days, I buy the postage stamps. Elissa changes lightbulbs. I clip coupons. She feeds the cats. I think nothing of driving 20 miles with the needle shuddering on "empty," while Elissa doesn't let her tank drop below half-full. I tend to daydream past my exit; Elissa eases into the right lane half a mile in advance.

You might deduce that I am more reckless and distractible, while Elissa embodies caution and mindfulness. But you would be wrong. Because I am also the one who balances our checkbook to the penny, and she is the one who hustles off the curb while I wait serenely for the light to signal "walk."

We fell in love in the late 1980s, enamored by one another's competence at Scrabble, friendship and short-story writing. Elissa could knit a sock and fix a jammed bicycle chain. I could do calligraphy and change a tire.

Flip forward a quarter-century. We have a daughter. I'm in charge of hair-straightening and Spanish homework help. I also kill the bugs, even the flying Mexican cucaracha that was big as a baby carrot. Elissa clips toenails and takes temperatures. She bolts from bed in a nanosecond when Sasha coughs at 4 a.m.; I mumble in my sleep and burrow into the warm spot.

RELATED: I'm a Believer

In sociology, differentiated systems are thought to be more highly evolved; a rainbow of responses makes them flexible in the face of crisis. So, I reason, when the hurricane hits, maybe it's good that one of us will be coaxing the cats out from under the bed while the other is stockpiling canned tuna in the basement.

Of course, I'm not so concerned about the hurricane because, you see, I am the optimist. I figure the weird mole is nothing to worry about, the eight-quart kettle of soup will be more than enough and the thunderstorm will be over by the time we reach the campground. Elissa is convinced the itchy spot is melanoma, the dinner guests will starve for seconds and the rainfall will become a deluge. We've learned to talk each other down from our respective perches of buoyancy or doom, but also how to peek through the other's lens: Sometimes, things really do turn out OK. Sometimes, the news is truly bad.

My father died not long ago. And during his first weeks in the hospital, when my mother was starting to contemplate a future without him, she murmured one afternoon, "But I don't even know how to use the TiVo." They were a harmonic duet, my parents: He cooked and captained the remote control, while she managed the investments and remembered birthdays. "Yeah," I said, "but if you went first, Dad wouldn't know where any of the money is." And we laughed, darkly.

RELATED: The Death of Alexander Hamster

It was the same with my in-laws. When Alvin died, Judy realized all the tasks she'd ceded over the years: He'd programmed their cell phones, fielded the e-mail and shopped at King Soopers every day. It was her job to read the Sunday New York Times aloud, keep track of the calendar and make the salade niçoise.

To us, these half-century-long partnerships looked seamless. But the well-woven life has a knotty underside. We don't intend to become hopeless at, say, baking biscuits or mowing the lawn. It's just that the other person does it so much better, and then she does it always, and then we forget we ever knew how.

I've read that babies are born with the capability of making every sound in every language—the trilled Spanish "r," the gargly Hebrew "ch," the Xhosa click—but that their brains gradually prune out the sounds they don't hear, the utterances they don't need. In long-term partnership, too, we edit each other's capacities. You can call it codependence, or you can look from the flip side and laud the efficiency of this energy-saving, talent-honing system. Practice has made me deft at braiding challah; Elissa's dough has grown more delicious through the years.

We're fond, in this striving age, of talking about life as a balancing act. Usually, it's women who do the tipsy work: Picture the gal juggling a laptop, a sex toy and a jar of strained peas. But maybe the secret about balance is that it's not a solo gig. No person can "do it all" or "have it all." At least, not all by oneself. Which is why, when a spouse dies, there's such a vast landscape to relearn. All those dormant pathways, those capacities long since spliced away: how to drive to the airport; when to plant the daffodils; where the hell to find the wrapping paper or the aspirin or the money market funds.

It's a sobering flash-forward, watching a parent stumble down that lonely road. Perhaps I should prepare myself. While Elissa's out of town, I could drag the lawnmower out of the basement and into the shaggy grass. Or I could—as I did on a recent Friday morning—gamely undertake to make the challah by myself.

I dumped flour in a bowl, set the yeast abloom in water and sweetened it with honey. I added the eggs—one, two, three—checking each for blood spots before I stirred. But something went awry. The dough, as I kneaded, felt dry and tough; the finished bread was more sinewy than supple.

It wasn't until Elissa was home the next week, and I was savoring a hunk of her steaming, perfect loaf, that I realized my lapse: I forgot the canola oil. Of course. The metaphor was almost too pat: without my partner, even the bread was poor.

At three, Sasha asked, "Who will die first—you or Mama?" and I thought my brain might snap. "I don't know," I told her. "But it won't be for a very long time." A few days later, she'd solved the riddle. "I think Mama will die first," she told me matter-of-factly. "Because she's older." And I glimpsed, for an icy moment, an image of Elissa, ashen-faced and fading. If she goes first, who will weave the lattice crust for the blueberry pie? Who will arm-wrestle Sasha out of a bad mood? Who will remind me, once again, that I've missed my exit? Not for a long time, I tell myself.

Meanwhile, we two-step through the days or head out of town for a weekend. I cancel the newspapers and pack the cooler. Elissa remembers the card games and the second set of keys. I tuck three Goldenberg's Peanut Chews in the glove box; she'll treat us to lattes before we hit the highway. Sasha will be first in the car, sunglasses on and ear buds plugged: "Mama, Ama—let's go!"

Elissa checks the tires. I check my list. We buckle our seatbelts.

What exactly is it you two do together?

All of it. Everything. For now. For as long as it lasts.

I drive there.

She'll drive home.