| Calligraphy: Pesach 5784 |

Follies of Youth

 Disgust is really the only way to describe her facial expression. And the worst part is I know I deserve it

Spring has sprung.

I would enjoy this fact — the scent of trees budding, the twitter of birds migrating their way back to the telephone wires, the bluest skies we’ve experienced in months — except Basia’s stupid course flyer is stapled to every tree I pass. I almost reach out and rip them down and then think how society has not had much understanding lately for people who rip down posters. But still. I settle for grinding my back teeth until I arrive home.

I bang the door open like a crazy person; Avraham jumps like a foot in the air.

“Menucha! What on earth?”

I sink into a chair and close my eyes.


Avraham, I want to say snarkily. “Those flyers,” I snap instead, “are getting on my last nerve.”

He nods, saying nothing.

This isn’t the first time the flyers have appeared. Oh no, before Chanukah they had adorned every bulletin board and circular our community has to offer. Those were even plastered with little yellow stickers proclaiming “SOLD OUT” after a while.

“I just find it amusing,” I say in a voice that is anything but amused, “that she lectures to the general public about family harmony and unity when she barely speaks to her own mother.”

Avraham lifts a shoulder. That’s the most I’ll get out of him. He won’t say a bad word about her. Not, of course, that I’d want him to, but still, it’s annoying.

“Basia has always done her own thing,” is all he’ll say.

Which is a stupid answer. I settle for grinding my teeth again.

Of course it’s not official. It’s not like she decided point blank that we won’t have a real relationship. There was no dramatic “I’m never speaking to you again!” soliloquy with a slammed door.

It’s just… quiet. She doesn’t call. Or text. Or WhatsApp. Or Voicenote. Or telegram. Or carrier pigeon. Absolutely no method of communication is initiated. And that’s hurtful.

She’ll answer my messages, of course, in the most superficial way. Everything is always, “Great, baruch Hashem. Fine. And how are you?”

There’s no sharing.

Which, I’m pretty sure, is the point.

“Clients today?”

I nod. “Yup. Just going to wash up from my walk, then I’ll be out back all morning.”

Ten years ago, when we realized my cute hobby was bringing in a lot more than pocket cash, we converted the backhouse to a proper gym; my clients appreciate the privacy, and I love the convenience.

Avraham rolls his bad shoulder. “Hatzlachah rabbah. I’m off to a meeting.”

I take a deep breath and try to put the flyer out of my mind. “Hatzlachah to you!”

We smile at each other. At least I have Avraham.

When we first married, it took me a long time to understand that Avraham wasn’t going anywhere. I tried to push him away, to make him stop looking at me like that — like I was the golden ticket to the chocolate factory — but he wouldn’t stop and hasn’t since.

I’m a textbook case, really. My own mother spent most of her life in bed with a stack of books, trying to escape the demons that chased her, and that left me feeling unworthy of love. Yada, yada, yada, yawn.

But Avraham was there, at my side, as the babies came one by one, catching me unaware, unprepared, and at a total emotional deficit.

I’m the first to admit it, I was a wreck. And a terrible mother.

But don’t I deserve a second chance?

I’d ask Basia, but she’s too busy giving “a five-week course on harmony in the Jewish home.”

MY studio is what I like to call my spym, or spa gym. This is not your mother’s yoga mat and bar bells. Oh no no no. This is a climate-controlled oasis of calm to stretch the body and ease the soul. It says so, right on my website. And hey, at least the clients must somewhat agree; they always come back for more.

Lani Brody is clutching the flyer as she waits for me to stretch.

“Is Basia Baker your sister?” she asks excitedly. “She is, isn’t she? I went to her Chanukah shiur; she looks exactly like you.”

I wave a hand, extremely flattered. I’ve always liked Lani. “My daughter,” I say. “My oldest.”

Lani’s jaw drops. “I’m shook. You are joking. How old are you?”

I ignore this socially-off question, smile tightly, and turn on the music. When she leaves, still gushing over how young I look, I take the stupid flyer and rip  it into a million vindictive shreds.

Kayla Marks is telling me about the parenting classes she just started attending Wednesday mornings. Between yogalates and Mrs. Toporowitz, she’s doing great.

Of course she is. Mrs. Toporowitz has been around since I was a newlywed. I never went, of course, too busy trying not to actually die from stress, but she’s got groupies all over the globe.

“Mrs. Toporowitz is just beyond,” Kayla says, stretching happily. “It’s like I finally received the instruction manual seven years into parenthood. Can you imagine? All those years I wasted….”

She looks at me. “When did you go to parenting classes? Your oldest must be dating already… How old’s your youngest?”

I bite the inside of my cheek. My oldest was definitely dating… 12 years ago. Right now, she is busy, harmonizing Jewish homes world round, bless her soul. And my youngest is a 14-year-old teenager who has inherited her older siblings’ intolerance for me.

Chip off the old block, and all that.

“Let’s tighten our core now,” I say lightly.

She breathes in, still smiling. “Mmmmm. Mrs. T. is starting a new Monday night group; you should join. Life-changing, I promise.”

I ignore her as we lower ourselves onto the mat.

“This looks gross.”

I turn around, my spine straightening automatically. Just breathe. Breathe.

“The supper I just rushed in from work to make for you looks gross?”

Leah smirks. “Oh, yeah, that commute must’ve been a killer.”

I will not explode, I will not explode, even though I see that smirk in my nightmares.

“Anyway, yeah, that looks vile. Is it turkey? You know I hate turkey.”

And… I’m done with the breathing. “WHAT is WRONG with you? Who TALKS like that? You call yourself a Bais Yaakov girl? What would your precious Morah Lerner say? I had to choke back my laughs at PTA when she told me what a nice girl you are with such sterling middos.”

I close my eyes, steady my breathing. Leah doesn’t even look shocked. Disgust is really the only way to describe her facial expression. And the worst part is I know I deserve it.

I settle onto the chaise lounge next to the French window in my room. Avraham has his corner — a leather armchair, a shtender — but everything else in our enormous master suite is mine. This is my oasis. My sanctuary. I earned this. My children may despise me, but here, with the money from the clients who need me, I’ve built myself an island of refuge.

I pluck the Hermes blanket from the blanket tree, pull on my Ferragamo fur-lined slides, and settling back, pull out Basia’s flyer. It had been stuck in my mailbox and was the cover of the weekly circular. Who is her marketing team? They are incredible. I low-key hate them.

Avraham comes in, stopping when he sees me.

“How was your day?”

I lift the mug of chai off the side table, and I almost tell him. He would just love everyone’s misconception that I’m 40 years old instead of 52. But I don’t because of the fear, the one ingrained in my very essence, that if I point out how flawed I am, he’d finally understand that I’m unlovable and head for the hills. My kids, the ones I carried and bore, got the message early on. It’s only a matter of time until he does… except he never does.

“It was fine,” I say. “How was yours?”

He rolls his shoulder, twitches his neck. “Eh, stiff as a board. My day was all right — of course Jonathan started the meeting late and Conrad and Becker were unprofessional. Why is it so hard for people to conform to office policy? It’s five hours of your day, even if you lack basic menschlichkeit, fake it. Just for a few hours….”

I close my eyes, let his annoyance flow over me, and think about how all this keeping things inside is probably terrible for my core balance.

Sundays are hard for me. Avraham works 24/6, so he’s not available, and while I have a session or two with the odd working mom who only has time on Sundays, most of my clients are at the aquarium or zoo. I usually hit the shops on Main. But today, I’m weary. Worn out. And maybe that’s because I know Basia’s course is beginning this evening. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.

Something niggles at me as I peruse my appointment book for lack of anything better to do. Monday… tomorrow is Monday. Oh. Kayla Marks said Mrs. Toporowitz was starting a class. I shake my head, smiling. She thought my oldest was in shidduchim. Too cute. Well, it can’t hurt to hear details….

I find an ad for her classes in the circular with Basia’s program on the front.

Mrs. Toporowitz sign-up information:

For early childhood course, call # 213–8667

For teenage courses, call # 24–3581

For children struggling with ADD, call # 349–5250

I’m impressed.

My fingers, apparently, have a mind of their own, because they’re dialing the number for the teenage classes.


“Hi,” I say, instinctively pitching my voice higher, so I sound younger, like my oldest might be a teen.

“Um, hi,” I say again, “I’d love to sign up for Mrs. Toporowitz’s teen class, the one that’s starting on Monday?”

I pitch my voice even higher as the woman starts to apologize, “I KNOW. I know,” I say, trying to sound a bit less desperate, “that you have a policy about signing up and then a waiting list. But I need this.” I need this. I hadn’t realized it up until I started begging this faceless stranger.

“Please,” I say again.

She’s quiet.


“Okay. Okay, I really never do this, Mrs. T. is very adamant that we stick to the waiting list, but just this once. And please don’t tell anyone, all right?”

I take a deep breath. “Thank you! Thank you, I won’t.”

“There’s an opening in the teen class in November.”

“NOVEMBER?” Again, I try to sound like a normal person, “I mean, tomorrow? I heard there’s a new class? Is there any way? Please.” I’ve already thrown away all vestiges of dignity, might as well jump all in.

“Tomorrow? Absolutely not. Even if I sign you up right now, there are still no available slots.”

I sit back. When did I start crying? “Oh. Okay. I understand. Thank you, I really—” I’m mumbling when she cuts in.

“Someone Up there is looking out for you, because I see we have a cancellation. Someone moved away. I honestly can’t believe this, but the spot is yours.”

Her voice warms. “Tomorrow, nine p.m., the Torah V’Emes shul on Sunbay. Okay?”

“Thank you!”

So I now have exactly 30 hours to turn back the hands of time. Good thing I have a whole lot of money just sitting around.

Talia agrees to do a rush job and highlight my sheitel, Dassy sticks me in for an emergency Juvederm facial. And after stalking the young marrieds on Main for an hour, I know I need to purchase black combat boots and a wool beanie.

There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, mixing with the scent from the jasmine plants out front. I feel the way I did the day of my kids’ weddings. Excited, nervous, and anxiously praying all the pieces fall into place.

Monday morning, my sheitel is ready for pickup. Oooh, it’s quite highlighted. I’m 52.

I hand it back to Talia; she stuffs it back in my hand. “Just. Try it,” she says through gritted teeth.

Sighing, I stick it on. Not bad. Not bad at all.

I wait for Avraham to notice, silly girl that I am.

I could wear a rainbow-colored Bozo-the-Clown wig, and he’d still smile and say he’s the luckiest guy in the world.

Which is sweet, but also, if I’m being honest, low-key annoying.

OH, this was a big mistake. Huge. I’m mortified. I look around at all the wool beanies and combat boots, the young fresh faces of girls in their early thirties, and think that I can be their mother. I wonder if any of them saw me from the back and then ran shrieking upon seeing my face, warning their friends, “Help, there’s a grandmother in that hat!”

The better to see you with, my dear. Oh, now I’m channeling the Big Bad Wolf. It’s time to leave.

Except Mrs. Toporowitz has just walked up to the shtender. I settle reluctantly into my seat, pull out a notebook and pen, and very carefully don’t look to the right or left of me.

“Welcome, ladies!”

I blink in shock, because I’ve heard this woman quoted for the past 30 years, but I’ve never seen her and she’s nothing like I’d imagined. I guess I’d pictured a stiff rebbetzin in greys and browns.

This woman is short and slight and her face is shining with warmth.

I find myself leaning in. I want that, I think. Shine your warmth on me. I’m cold.

“Ladies, welcome back! Last we saw each other, you all had small children, delicious and messy and saying the funniest things. You thought they ran your lives, and now that we’re at this point, let me tell you, that was the easy stage. Now, your houses have been taken over by terrible creatures called teenagers.”

The women laugh, obviously used to her and her mannerisms.

I sit back and think invisible thoughts.

“So, teenagers. They’re not children. They’re not cuddly and cute, and if you try to cuddle one, you might get bitten.”

The women laugh again.

“But they’re not adults yet, either. It’s a hard, hard tekufah, ladies. The first thing I want you to try for is empathy. It’s absolutely awful to be a teenager. Literally, the hardest stage in life. It’s mamash nebach, no?”

Empathy. I think of Leah’s sneering face. Empathy. When my children have never offered me an ounce of empathy in their lives. Never once thought about how everything I did for them was yeish mei’ayin! I had no role model, no tools, no mothering skills to speak of.

I clear my mind. Listen, Menucha. Just listen.

She looks around the room. “We’re going to break our goals up into five main points. The first one….”

I’m cynical at first. Prove yourself to me, I think silently. My hat is itchy, I’m tired, and my phone is blowing up with messages from Motti, telling me he wishes they could join for Shabbos, but Rikki really wants to drive up to Monsey for a bit.

Which I totally hear, except they’ve been to Monsey twice in the past month, and the last time I saw them was at Nachi’s upsherin.

I tune back in. “… and like we discussed in the early childhood class: If you don’t show them you want a relationship when they’re six, there’s no way they’re going to wake up when they’re 16 and decide they want to schmooze with you.”

The room is silent except for the sound of my breaking heart. But what if it’s not my fault, I want to scream. What if I’ve never seen a mother, not really, and I didn’t know how to nurture the little people who looked up at me with such big, trusting eyes?

Mrs. Toporowitz looked around. “But okay, let’s say you were sleeping for the past ten years and now you’ve just woken up and want a relationship with the creature in your kitchen who grunts and is afraid of light and sun and drinks enough coffee to fuel a jet plane yet is still somehow always tired.”

I carefully look around. A pretty blonde near me is laughing ruefully as she elbows the girl in a green waffle beanie next to her. You can just tell she loves her daughter. Gets a big kick out of talking to her friends about her teenager.

You know nothing, I think at her, and then I feel bad. She looks like a nice girl, Hashem should bentsh her.

“The first thing to remember is: Don’t react. These creatures are specially designed to push your buttons. Remember we learned about button pushers? Well, all teenagers are button pushers. The thing you need to remember is not to be pushed. You are the adult. They are the child. Don’t react, just act.”

My hand is flying across the page. I think of what Kayla Marks said, how she was given the instruction manual seven years into parenthood. What if I’m getting it 31 years in, I think.

And then I get up and surreptitiously walk out, even though there’s five minutes left to the class. Because, trained as I am in the worlds of disappointments, I know a lost cause when I see one.

BY the time Thursday rolls around, the material has really sunk in and I’m a much better mother. Ha, I wish. But, I think, as I begin my power walk, I really just might invite Leah out on a date. Just the two of us. Wait, my brain chimes in, she hates you, remember.

Oh. Right.

My arms swing powerfully as I walk. Breathe, breathe, in and out. I take a swig of water, check my heart rate. Perfect. I love this, the control, the strength I feel. I slow to a drift, feeling the sun on my newly youthful face. Yeah right. Good thing no one is looking at my hands. They look old and weather-beaten. I’ll head to Macy’s and buy a nice hand cream later.

Mrs. T. told us to take our teens to a neutral setting and let them vent their frustrations over their perfect little lives there. Okay, not in those words, exactly. I guess I could take her out for frozen yogurt….

I look around as I enter the park. It’s mostly empty, but there are several stay-at-home mothers pushing toddlers on the swings.

Oh, gosh, it’s the blonde from the parenting class. Quick, hide my hands.

Her son’s hair is so light, it’s practically white, and he’s leaning back in the baby swing like a little old man on a hammock.

I could take Leah to the park! Wait, I can’t, she’s not two. Okay, but I really can take her for frozen yogurt. But what if she tries to tell me about how hard her life is with her Moncler coat and her live-in maid and her own bedroom….

“Wheee,” the blonde little boy trills, “Wheeeee!”

His mother laughs, a loud, happy sound. “Moshe Dovid! You are going so fast!”

“Wheeee!” he says again.

And I watch as this girl, the same age as my Basia, leans over, kisses his face, and says, “Moish, you are my gift, you know that?”

It looks so easy, so natural for her. You’re a great mother, I want to tell her. You want to spend time with your child. It’s obvious to me that you had a great mother. Not everyone is so lucky.

Oh, gosh, now I’m not only a total stalker, I’m a stalker who’s crying.

I eat the frog. I text Motti later, Does Rikki not like coming to us for Shabbos?

The ping is almost instantaneous. Rikki has no problem coming to you.

The implication is clear.

I wear a new beanie to the shiur, but swap out the boots for my flats. I’m sorry, they’re just so heavy!

The rest of the women seem to have grown younger since last time. They’re going to throw me out on the grounds of ageism, I think, when a little redhead turns to me, a smattering of freckles on her nose, eyes alight with life. “Hi! What’s your name, you look so familiar? Your daughter is in Beis Tehilah, right? Ninth grade?”

Oh, myyyy. Major points for my sheitelmacher and facialist. And, of course, my mother, bless her soul, who at least gave me her good genes.

“Mmmm,” I say, pointing my chin toward the front of the room, where Mrs. Toporowitz has just taken the shtender.

“Ladies,” she says, “before we continue, are there any questions?”

A tall woman with a short lob raises her hand. “Brand names,” she says simply. The room erupts.

“… Alo and Lulu!”

“… Canada Goose….”

“… 14 years old… diamond chokers….”

I am officially lost. I listen to the clamor, failing to make heads or tails of it. Mrs. Toporowitz is nodding and laughing, chiming in to two women in the front row, answering a woman wearing big round glasses in the middle.

“…. sleepaway camp and Eretz Yisrael… not a neb….”

OHMIGOSH, I want to scream. You all sound ridiculous. You are the mothers. Stop kowtowing to your children’s absolutely ridiculous needs.

Leah asks me for things every other day.

I buy her plenty of them, but I make it very clear that if she wants extreme extras she can buy them herself. Then again, our relationship is far from stellar, and I’ve sneaked into a class of 32-year-olds to learn how to get along with her, so maybe I should quiet my inner voice and actually listen.

“It’s a real need,” Mrs. Toporowitz says, once everyone quiets down. “To you, it’s trivial — a hat, shoes — but to them it’s something real and existential. They need it. I’m not saying to buy it. But I am saying not to belittle it. Validate.”

I scribble away, barely coming up for air.

Validate. It seems so simple, in this brightly lit room, filled with healthy women and their healthy homes and their smooth faces and woolly hats. Just validate her. The good Mrs. says nothing about having been validated in order to validate. What if you don’t need one for the other… what if all this time, I’ve been carrying this banner, this burden of being wronged, a hall pass excusing me from working to be a good mom, when really, a good excuse was no excuse….

The shul empties out, Mrs. Toporowitz leaves surrounded by a gaggle of chattering women, and I sit alone, on a bench in the heichal of the shul, and I mourn the reality of my life, maybe for the first time ever. I’m not angry, just filled with grief. I’d always said I’d never had a mother, so I had no idea how to be one. It was a good line, a true line, but it didn’t really fill the hole when, after Avraham saw me losing it with the kids, he looked at me like I was a stranger.

I knew I could do better, but I didn’t have the grit to try.

I’m ready now, though. An eternity too late.

I think about doing the bravest thing: picking up the phone and calling my children, one by one, telling them I’m sorry their childhood was less than idyllic, but that I’m here now.

My breath actually catches at the idea. I’m too afraid. Too afraid of losing the children I’ve already lost.

But there’s Leah. And as much inherited baggage that she’s carrying, there’s still hope there. She still shares her life with me.

And I’m going to make the most of that. I dab at my eyes — don’t want mascara settling into my fine lines there, old people problems — when the shul door swings open and two women come bustling in, wheeling trollies loaded with cases of water bottles.

I blink, because one of them is my Basia.

The woman who must be her assistant looks from each of us, faces white under the gold of our highlighted sheitels, says, “Whoaaa!” and backs out.

“What are you doing here?” The words fall from my lips like little pebbles.

She swallows. She looks beautiful, I notice, but her eyes… they look empty as they gaze at me.

“Setting up for my shalom bayis course,” she says, raising her chin. A look of horror flashes across her face.

“You didn’t! Not for my—”

“No! No. I take….” my voice trails off.

Basia looks at me, her lip curling.

I swallow. “I’m taking Mrs. Toporowitz’s course. For teens.” I raise my own chin. “For Leah.”

Basia looks at me, from my Chanel flats to my striped beanie.

A giant smile breaks across her face, and it’s so overwhelming, I feel myself grow weak in the knees. Or maybe it’s just my age.

“Well, Leah is lucky to have such a young, cool mom,” she says.

And then we both laugh.

It feels so wonderful, I want to do it again. I close my eyes, savor the moment.

“Mrs. T. is incredible, no?” Basia says, and her voice is so sad, so filled with helplessness. And I know how she’s wishing I’d gone all those years before, that maybe things could have been different.

“Basia,” I say, my eyes wide open now.

And that’s as far as I get.

“I know, Ma,” she says suddenly, “I know.”

And then she walks up and down the rows of seats, placing a water bottle and a notepad on each one. And I need to go power walking, and there are clients to train and non-turkey dinners to be cooked, but I ignore it all, and just stand and watch my daughter, my heart bursting with both pain and pride and maybe, hopefully, just a whisper of promise.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

Oops! We could not locate your form.