Golders Green, London
hat?” I felt like my ears suddenly grew six inches longer from the shock.
Mrs. Lerner looked straight at me and continued her clipped speech. I had 30 days to wrap things up, leave, and find myself a new job. The semester was ending soon, in any case.
I was a dedicated and outstanding teacher. The girls always left my classes inspired and moved. I didn’t know of any incident that could account for this abrupt dismissal. Maybe I’d done something wrong, or there was some aspect of my performance that I could improve? But all Mrs. Lerner would say was, “Miss Heller, this decision is final.”
And so I sat in her office like an old, broken umbrella that just hangs around unclaimed. Surely this was all a mistake. It was chilling, the way she seemed not only impervious to my feelings and indifferent to the terrible injustice of firing me with no explanation at all, but perfectly sure she was doing the right thing. Firing me — the teacher admired by all the girls in Golders Green, the type who went to shul on Shabbos and nodded greetings to all the students and graduates who still remembered my shiurim and the heart-to-heart talks in Hendon Park, who couldn’t stand in line at Kosher Kingdom without being approached by mothers gushing in admiration and appreciation.
How could Mrs. Lerner do this to me? It just didn’t make any sense. And there was no one who could appeal to her better judgment. I was completely defenseless. If Sarah Malkah Levine had been fired, she would have called her wonderful husband and poured out her sorrow. If Frumi Kleiner had been fired, her husband, a sensitive mechanech, would have known just what to say. Who could I call now? I didn’t want to burden Mommy and Daddy with this.
Mrs. Lerner stood up, tall and erect, and gathered up her things. For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw a glint of compunction in her eyes, but if I did, it was gone as soon as it came.
We walked out of the building together in silence, she, a woman in her late fifties, mother of a fine family, in her tailored principal’s suit, and I, as single as I’d been for my three decades in This World, in a too-thin cardigan that made me tighten my arms at my sides like a penguin to ward off the cold. She hailed a taxi and left me there, alone in the cold London street.
I’ve always loved the London rain, quietly and elegantly washing the streets, but on that day, the cold was too fierce. I walked at a quick trot to the train station, just wanting to get home already.
Only when I came close to the fruit store next to home did I start feeling the tremors inside. I went in. The fruits and vegetables were arranged in perfect tiers. The bold oranges and the gentle yellow of the ripe bananas didn’t comfort me as they usually did.
I couldn’t bring myself to go home; I was afraid. So I just walked around in the gray chill, alone.
Like I’d always been.
I was a bit over 30. Over 30 and single. I’d had a good job at the school. I was beloved by 21 students who were like the daughters I didn’t have. I had a schedule, friendships with the other teachers, a regular salary, a reason to get up in the morning and get dressed. A reason to live! I may have been a failure at shidduchim, but I drew a wealth of success and accomplishment from my job.
I knew the trajectory: school, sem, a little job, then marriage and family. But in all honesty, I was perfectly happy with my lovely, quiet room in my parents’ home. When I wanted to spend time with sweet little children, I could just walk over to my nieces and nephews nearby. I might not have had too many single friends left, but I found real companionship in my personal trainer, Lori. Somehow I found myself sharing a lot of my personal triumphs and trials with her, over push-ups and sit-ups and jumping jacks.
To be honest, dating scared me. In the classroom I was confident and charismatic; on dates I was nervous and shy. Everything I’d planned to say would go foggy in my memory, and I’d find myself stammering. And it wasn’t just dating. The whole idea of being married felt scary. I’d read heartrending pieces written by older single girls desperate to get married, detailing all the experiences they were missing and their ache to build something eternal with a life’s partner — and I’d wonder why I didn’t share that ache. My life was fine, my life was full. Whenever my parents suggested a shidduch, I would sigh resignedly. I knew that marriage was supposed to be the next stage of life, but committing to a new person, a new schedule, a new existence — it seemed like such an insurmountable task.
So on my way to meet some poor, unsuspecting fellow, I’d be thinking, “What do I need this for?” and I’d make no effort to connect at all. I’d sit there, sour and boring, and every date would evaporate in a fizzle of tongue-tied stammers.
Now, with my job snatched away from me, my golden existence had turned dark. I stumbled home with a bag of fruit in my hand and arrived just as my father was getting out of his shiny Bentley. Our eyes met.
“I… I got fired today,” I blurted out, and the bag fell to the ground. An orange went rolling down the front steps.
“What? They fired you? Why?”
Inside the cozy kitchen, he made me a cup of tea, and hastened to reassure me that he would find out exactly what my legal rights were. The rage inside me was softened a bit by his show of support, and his British stiff upper lip made me feel that everything would be all right.
But it wasn’t. The next morning, I woke up to the same gray city, its sky stubbornly holding back the sunlight. While my former colleagues at work were whispering about my sudden dismissal, trying to understand what it was all about, I got a phone call from my personal trainer. “Hello, Rechy,” she said. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but I’ve been temporarily incapacitated, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to work with you for the next few months.”
How could this be? Lori was abandoning me. My trusted personal trainer, my faithful companion and friend who made me feel strong and vigorous twice a week, had just vanished from my life.
Suddenly I realized that I’d been sustaining myself on an illusion. I thought I had a rich, fulfilling life between my job and my personal fitness goals — a reason to wake up in the morning, a reason to ignore my failure in the intimidating world of shidduchim. But now all that was gone. I couldn’t get up the gumption to look for a new job, at least nothing beyond listlessly scanning the wanted ads in the Jewish circulars. I tried picking up a sefer now and then, but it would only remind me that I had no lesson to prepare. I couldn’t focus on anything.
“You need professional help!” my mother urged me, and I saw the worry in her eyes. She’d brought this up before — usually after a failed shidduch — and I’d always rejected the idea. I didn’t want to talk about my reluctance to get married, not with my parents and certainly not with some stranger. I didn’t want anybody poking around in my private world, digging up old memories and experiences, ripping apart my convincing faחade of success to find a very fragile inner core.
But I knew I was tottering on the brink. The chasm below scared me. One rare morning when a pale ray of sunshine slipped between the clouds and past my bedroom curtains, I got up and rummaged through the collection of therapists’ business cards in my desk drawer. Something made me choose Mrs. Englander. I called for an appointment, and the next day I was in a taxi, on my way to her office in Hendon.
I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing. Was I about to let someone into my most personal space — my heart — to take my feelings and play with them? Would she take a scalpel to me and then walk away, leaving me bleeding after open-heart surgery?
The work was hard, sometimes even painful. But it was laced with compassion. In Mrs. Englander I found a wise adviser who was able to tease through the different issues that had shaped me. Together we highlighted the positive forces and isolated the negative ones, practiced techniques to bolster the good and explored methods to mitigate the effects of the bad. I learned I was allowed to feel pain, that I was strong enough to weather imperfection and even rejection. Slowly I got reacquainted with myself and drew a different picture of what my future could be.
Suddenly, it was important to me to get to a new stage in life. I knew that the perfect surroundings of my parents’ home were not the most hospitable place for me to spend the rest of my life. Around Pesach time, I got another shidduch suggestion. And I thought, maybe I should take it seriously this time. After all, I was almost 32.
I went to meet him with the modest goal of being interesting enough that he would want a second date, at least. And of course, that meant showing some interest in him.
And for the first time in years, the shidduch didn’t die on the first date. There was a second date… and a third….
On Erev Yom Kippur, about a month after my second son was born, my father came to me and said he wanted to ask me for mechilah.
“Rechy, it’s true that you’re married now — you’re a mother, and a teacher in another school, and baruch Hashem, you’re happy… but Mrs. Lerner keeps asking us to explain about her firing you that day. You see, we were very worried about you, so we asked her to intervene.”
“To intervene? In what?”
Daddy took a deep breath. “Mommy and I asked Mrs. Lerner to fire you. And we also paid Lori to stop coming for those private fitness sessions.”
I just stared at him, openmouthed. Why on earth?
“We only wanted to help, Rechy. We felt you were stuck in place. Something was holding you back from moving forward, from stepping out of your comfort zone. You weren’t willing to go for counseling, and we were afraid you’d be single forever.”
I almost fainted. I’d never once suspected they’d orchestrated all that.
“Are you all right?” he said anxiously. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought this up now, when you’re still recovering from the birth… I just hope you’ll forgive us.”
There was a long silence while I took in what he’d told me, looking back on all those events and imagining Mommy and Daddy busily directing it all behind the scenes. The idea of my parents knowingly causing me all that pain was hard to imagine.
It took me a long, long time to come to terms with my parents’ actions. Only later was I able to separate the pain they’d caused with the blessed results they’d achieved. If I hadn’t found myself with all the cushions pulled out from under me, I never would have gone to Mrs. Englander. I never would have worked through the fears that were holding me back. As a parent, I am learning how fiercely you can desire happiness and fulfillment for the children you bring into the world. As a daughter, and as someone who’s worked hard to untangle the healthy aspects of people’s behavior from the unhealthy ones, I am learning that sometimes parents can do hurtful things even though they don’t want to hurt you.
Today I understand that my parents only wanted what was best for me. More importantly, I’ve realized that a Hand from Above was directing them to sever my hold on my tenuous lifelines and do the real work that prepared me for my future. And I’m so very grateful for the way that future turned out.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 721)
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