Home Ground: Chapter 11| March 21, 2023
But always remember that you have the strength inside of you. I believe in you, Ashira
Sweaters. Skirts. Tights and shoes and books and accessories, hair dryer and photobooks and my favorite cozy sweatshirt….
I pull items from my cases in a kind of daze.
I can’t believe I have them back. By now I’d thought they were lost forever.
I slip the thick hooded sweatshirt over my head, pull the drawstrings so the hood is snug around my ears. I wait for the old, familiar feelings of home to assuage me, but somehow, they just… don’t.
These clothes, the friendship bracelets I made with my sisters, the sparkly toiletries bag personalized with my name… they feel like they belong to another girl. A girl from another era. A younger sister, maybe, a girl whose life flowed predictably, revolving around her family — parents and siblings and home.
A girl without questions and secrets.
I pick up a pile of tops, and a package falls from between them. Something rectangular-shaped, wrapped in shiny gold paper.
For a moment, I panic — has someone tampered with my suitcase? — but then I realize it’s a lot more likely that Ima stuck this in before I left the house. She probably wanted me to find it on that lonely first night in my new home.
A wave of something — loneliness, longing, pain — overtakes me. I imagine how it could have been, if only my suitcases had arrived on time. Unpacking on that very first night, filling my new room with my familiar clothes and mementos, pieces of home. How much easier it would have been to prepare for school, to adjust to everything.
I would probably never have explored those desk drawers if I’d had my stuff. I’d never have seen that letter in the first place.
Would that have been better? Not to even know what I don’t know?
I run my hands over the neatly wrapped package, trying to figure out what’s inside. It feels like a book.
Gently, I slit the wrapping paper along the edge of the package, and slide out a leather-bound volume.
My Diary, it says, the letters embossed gold on a cover of deep green.
Underneath is my name: Ashira.
A note flutters out. I pick it up and the color jumps out at me: Of course, it’s written in purple ink.
By the time you read this, you’ll be far away in physical miles… but close where it matters: in our hearts.
I swallow. I don’t feel close at all. The letter… the secret… Ima’s mysterious past.
Enough. I shake myself, focus, continue to read.
I thought about what present you would like most, and I decided to gift you with a diary. Why? Because as a teen, I found writing to be cathartic, a way of expressing my feelings, even if no one would hear me or understand. And in the years ahead, I thought you might enjoy discovering the power of writing, for no one but yourself to read, reflect, and express your feelings.
I read that paragraph again. Is Ima sharing? Trying to tell me something? Like, she suffered as a teen and poured her heart out to her diary… so she’s expecting I’ll need to do the same?
Why did you send me here, Ima? You ran away from this home, this country… how could you bear to send me here?
I don’t understand. I almost want to shove the letter and the leather-bound diary far away out of sight, but of course, I don’t. I keep reading, hungrily, devouring every word as if this — maybe, just maybe — will reveal the secret.
Moving across the world, starting a new school, can be tough. But always remember that you have the strength inside of you. I believe in you, Ashira, and I believe that with your beautiful personality and inner strength you will find friends, find a home, find your way — no matter where you are.
I ruminate over that paragraph. I can’t help but feel warmed by Ima’s belief in me, but I wonder — is she trying to say that I’ll do better than she did? That I’ll succeed in spite of being somewhere where she suffered, struggled, failed?
The last lines of the letter are cramped, Ima trying to squeeze too many words onto the end of the page.
Remember, Ashira, that I’m only a phone call away and am thinking of you all the time. And remember that often, the treasures we seek lie closer than we think. Sometimes, they’re as close as our own hearts.
All my love,
What on earth is that all about?
If I’d seen this back when I arrived, like I was supposed to, I’d have assumed it was just Ima being mystical again: She’s like that, full of soul and spirit and creativity and imagination that paints the world in vibrancy and magic. Talking about hearts and treasures is just… her, somehow. But now I find myself turning the words over from every angle.
The treasures we seek lie closer than we think…
What is she saying? Does she regret running away, all those years ago? What she did?
My thoughts are a mess. Why, why, did I have to read that letter? I wish I could un-see, un-think it all.
My vision blurs, purple writing and gold wrapping paper meshing in front of me, and suddenly, the diary in my hands is wet with tears.
For all my classmates’ complaining about how boring school is, I honestly think recess is the most boring thing of all.
They don’t seem to ever do anything but lounge around the classroom, moaning about homework (“We need to complain, she gives us far too many tests on Chumash, like, doesn’t she know she’s only one teacher out of twenty?”) or talking about what the teacher was wearing and whether Miss Wolff is dating (“For suuuure she is, she always acts stricter to make as if nothing’s happening”).
I don’t know what I expected, but like, maybe talk about something interesting? Or, like, doesn’t anyone want to play a game of machanayim or something?
I’m reviewing the pesukim for our weekly Chumash quiz next period (literally takes ten minutes to study, I don’t know what the big deal is) when Tammy comes over, perches on the edge of my desk.
I glance up and immediately wish she would move. This position is not only far too close for comfort, it’s leaving me in the very awkward position of having to look up at her.
She smiles, pink elastics around her braces flashing into view.
“Hey, Ashira. Am I interrupting you?”
Well, yes, kind of.
Okay, I’m not going to actually be rude.
“Nah, totally fine. What’s up?”
Tammy is definitely one of the Characters in this class. She just… talks. A lot. And she’s genuinely friendly and nice, which is more than I can say for everyone in this class. But I have absolutely zero personal connection with her, and I think she thinks we’re on the fast track to best friendship.
“I was thinking, you wanna study together for the geography test next week?” she asks. “You could come over after school, we could make it fun.” She grins. “Well, as fun as geography can be, anyway.”
Something about her eagerness, her expectation that we’re friends, irritates me. What does she actually want? Am I her chesed project? Or am I still a novelty, the girl from India, something exciting and fresh.
“I prefer to study on my own,” I say.
Her face actually falls. So much for not being rude. Oh, well.
I think about apologizing, trying to soften the blow, but I don’t want to give the wrong message, either.
We’re interrupted by an older girl opening the classroom door with a flourish, and looking straight at me.
“Ashira Newman, you need to go to the mechaneches’s office,” she announces. “Mrs. Gerber wants to speak to you.”
To be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 954)
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