“But that’s crazy!” I was mad. “Who chooses their friends by the number of ears they have?”
Dr. Barclay’s waiting room had interesting displays. Photos, models, paintings. Lots of stuffed animals, all with detachable ears stuck on with Velcro. While I waited, I pulled ears off of big, soft elephants, bunnies, and even a crocodile. Then Dudi said, why not mix them up? So we took a furry dog and gave it one elephant ear and one rabbit’s ear.
The other kids in the waiting room looked on, smiling.
There was one grown-up girl there, maybe 19 years old. Dudi took the dog we did “surgery” on and struck up a conversation with the girl’s father, who told him they’d come from Colorado (so there really is such a state — it’s not just a square drawn on a map). Dudi translated everything they said.
They’d wanted to do a Medpor implant years ago, the father told Dudi, but it took them all this time to save up the money to pay for it. The girl herself, whose name was Amanda, had worked in a pizza shop to help raise the money.
I thought of all the people who’d donated money for my operation, and I felt guilty. Instead of me working in a pizza shop, these people had worked extra hours, and handed the money over so I could get my ear.
“I got the whole thing funded for me,” I said quietly to Abba.
He didn’t look me in the eye. He took the stuffed dog away from Dudi, took off the mismatched ears, looked in the ear box for the right pair of doggy ears, and stuck them in place. My father likes things orderly.
Suddenly I thought: What about Abba’s feelings?
“Was it hard for you, too, taking money from the tzedakah fund?” I whispered in his ear, so Dudi wouldn’t hear.
“You do what you have to do,” Abba said. “We don’t let our emotions control us.”
Meanwhile, Amanda’s father was still rambling on, and Dudi translated for us. “…so she didn’t have friends. We had to make it worth their while to come and play with Amanda. We’d have to buy a lot of expensive toys, and buy presents for them to get them to come over.”
He was a small, thin man, wearing a blue T-shirt. Dudi stopped translating for a moment. The father said one more thing, talking fast in English. “But we didn’t have money even for that.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why didn’t she have friends?” I thought maybe Dudi translated it wrong, maybe he missed a word or two.
“Because of that,” Dudi said, gesturing just slightly toward the doctor’s office.
“What? Because of her ear?” I looked at Amanda again. She looked like a very nice girl to me. She had a little bit of an ear on her right side. (I don’t even have that, on my left side.) And braces on her teeth.
“Yeah,” Dudi answered me, keeping it short.
“But that’s crazy!” I was mad. “Who chooses their friends by the number of ears they have?” I thought of my friends — Chaya Leah, Gitty, Penini Deutsch. I mean, I couldn’t imagine any of them not being my friend. What does an ear have to do with friendship?
Amanda asked a question. Dudi listened, and then said to me in Hebrew, “She’s asking if you have friends.”
“Sure! I have lots of friends. And they all want to study for tests with me, and come to spend time with me, because it’s fun at our house. But don’t translate what I just said.”
“Why not?” Dudi asked.
“Because it might hurt her feelings. She thinks people don’t like her because of the way she looks, and because her family doesn’t have money. But if we tell her I have plenty of friends, it’ll make her feel bad — she’ll think there’s really something wrong with her.”
“Oy, Tovi, you’re so funny.”
Fortunately, just at that moment her name was called— “Amanda Lingerfeld” — and the girl went into the doctor’s room. There was another girl with us in the waiting room, a dark-skinned girl, and at first I couldn’t understand why she was even there. She had two nice, complete ears. I counted them — one, two. Her cheekbones were normal. She had a nose, a mouth, a whole face with every part in place. So why was she coming to Dr. Barclay?
I was so curious, I finally said to her in my sixth-grade English, “Can I ask you something?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” she said, smiling at me.
“Why did you come here, to Dr. Barclay?”
She answered with a word I didn’t know.
Dudi translated it for me: “For a checkup.”
“A checkup for what?” I asked her.
The girl answered, and Dudi translated.
“She’s had her surgery already, Tovi,” he explained. “She had grade 2 microtia. The left ear that you see now is the final result of the surgery.”
My mouth stayed open for a few extra seconds, I was so amazed. You couldn’t tell that she had ever had a problem!
Then a redheaded girl with a tiny ear came over to me, asked politely if she could see my microtia, and wanted to know if I have Goldenhar Syndrome (I don’t). I took off my headband to show her, and she peered at the earless side of my head. By this time Abba was getting a little irritated that I was talking with all these kids from all over the world, and he actually asked me to stop. So I opened the book I’d brought with me (B’Ikvot HaAnusim, the serial from the paper that just came out as book), and I sat down to read.
Today Chaya has to make a quick stop at the community center — they have a check ready for her, payment for that municipal project she did. She didn’t realize that the Stitch ‘n Social Club is in session. But now, as she passes the room, she sees a group of women grouped in a cozy circle, knitting and crocheting with cotton yarn. They’re busy making cute little dolls, blankets, and scarves.
Chaya keeps walking, but then she hears a familiar voice — Ruchama’s — holding forth loud and clear, and she peeks in through the slightly-open door. There’s Ima and her circle of friends, all of them over 60. All good-hearted women, some of them too much so. They don’t notice her, focused as they are on their craft and conversation.
Someone stands up — it’s Yocheved — puts down her crocheting, and steps out to the corridor for coffee. She’s surprised to see Chaya there.
“Will you join me for a hot drink?” she asks.
“That sounds great,” Chaya says, thinking of Yocheved’s intelligence, which a line graph would depict rising sharply above that of other women in the room. She hushes her thoughts. All those women deserve her respect, no matter their intelligence.
“So how are things with you, Chayushke?” Yocheved asks warmly.
“Everything’s good,” Chaya says, a big smile on her face.
“My, what a big smile you have!” Yocheved chirps in a Little Red Riding Hood voice.
That’s because I swallowed a wolf, Chaya refrains from saying. It’s not true anyway, she tells herself. The wolf is part of you. You didn’t swallow it, you were born that way.
“Yocheved, you know I can’t complain to you.”
“Of course you can. Ask my friends,” Yocheved says, and she laughs. She fills a cup with hot water and a spoonful of decaf, then adds low-fat milk. “Why do you think you can’t?”
“Because…” Because your Raphael makes my troubles look so trivial.
“Go ahead and complain, be my guest!” Yocheved says pleasantly.
“No… everything’s fine,” Chaya insists.
“Your mother tells us that your young husband is not only a budding talmid chacham, but he has his feet on the ground as well. She says he’s punctual and organized, and never forgets anything.”
“Yes, he’s good that way,” Chaya concedes.
“You remember the bag of clothes that got lost at Ohr HaTzafun?”
“I sure do.”
Years ago, Ima had flown to Europe for a cousin’s wedding. There had been a major sale in the Primark store over there, and she’d filled a big bag with summer clothes for all three of Nechami’s little boys.
“You don’t need to buy a thing,” she’d told Nechami happily. “I found outfits for every day, for Shabbos… beautiful sets.”
On the very day Ima came home, Chanochi had come down with pneumonia. In Nechami’s house, winter ailments were an all-year thing. Nechami was hardly leaving his bedside, and Shua had volunteered to go and pick up the clothes. On the way home, he’d passed by Ohr Hatzafun and remembered there was a shiur there on a topic he was really interested in. He’d gone in, met friends from kollel there, listened excitedly, and wandered out deep in thought. It was unclear at what point the huge bag, meant to constitute his children’s entire summer wardrobe, had disappeared.
Years later, Nechami would still look up at the laundry lines when she passed through that neighborhood, wondering if she might catch a glimpse of the cute matching sets from Primark that she never even gotten to see, except in pictures.
“Right, so it’s true that Moishy would never forget a bag of clothing,” Chaya says. “But… he’s different from Shua in other ways too. Shua never wanted anything from Nechami. He barely has any needs, and doesn’t ask for anything.”
“And your husband does have needs, and he does ask.”
Yocheved takes a sip of what she calls coffee. She doesn’t know that real coffee is a whole different thing — it’s loaded with caffeine and finished off with full-fat milk and a little light cream. Once, Chaya had been telling Ima that coffee with slightly sweetened cream was an item that had to be on the menu in Gan Eden. And Gedalya, of course, had objected and pointed out that Gan Eden is a spiritual place, and there’s no gashmiyus there. Chaya had clarified her statement and said that she’d meant spiritual coffee, and Dudi had burst out laughing. Then Gedalya had quietly cornered Abba and Ima and implored them to make sure this “wayward youngster,” as he put it, wouldn’t corrupt their youngest daughter.
“But Moishy never imposes on me,” Chaya quickly clarifies. “He doesn’t try to force me into anything.”
Yocheved raises an eyebrow, then lowers it. “It’s okay for him to want, and it’s okay for you to want. People who want are people who are alive. Accept the conflict, Chaya’le. Accept it with love.” She pats Chaya on the shoulder.
Sometimes Ima’s friends aren’t so useless.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 906)
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