Oh, I know all about looking odd; I’m the oddly chubby daughter of a fit and fabulous mother
It’s Monday morning, and I’m early for my appointment at Fashion by Rosie. All winter long I wore the same four dolman sweaters to death, pushing off this shopping trip. But this week the wind seemed to be blowing differently, as if spring really is on its way, and that gave me the boost I needed to call Rosie.
I wrap my sweater tighter and scroll through today’s schedule on my phone. Clothes shopping, then client, client, client. Team meeting at two for Adina at Bnos Bais Sara. I smile. That should go well. When Adina first started seeing me she was suffering from severe social anxiety. I wouldn’t call her a social butterfly now, but in just eight months the girl’s opened up enough to make a couple of friends to call her own. I’m proud of her. Honestly, I’m proud of me. It never ceases to amaze me what the right therapy can do.
“Tova!” My younger sister slams the door of her gold Sienna, throws her black leather teacher’s bag over her shoulder, and hurries toward me.
“Hi, Brach. You park all the way over here every day?”
“I only park on the boulevard when the teacher’s parking lot is already full, which is not every single day. Just most.” She smiles. “Listen— I have the most amazing thing to tell you! Wait, it’s almost nine— why aren’t you at the office?”
“Rosie’s meeting me here, I asked her for an appointment before the store opens.” My fingers untangle the back of my sheitel as we talk. “I don’t know, I can’t shop with other people around.” I give a sort of half laugh.
“I hear that. Rosie would only do this for you.”
Rosie walks past us and opens the door to the store. We both wave. Bracha is still three blocks from the school, and classes start in ten minutes, but if she’s in any rush, she doesn’t show it.
Bracha takes a deep breath. “So, after the teacher’s meeting yesterday, Rebbetzin Cohen asked me to stay for a minute and she said—” She pauses for a second and holds up her hand— “Wait, did I tell you the theme for the tea this year?”
“Yeah, wellness. That lady from that magazine is doing a healthy cooking demo, right?”
“You didn’t hear the best part.” Bracha pauses, waiting for my reaction.
“No?” “Rebbetzin Cohen wants to call us up to present us with an award for Mommy’s fifth yahrtzeit.”
“Oh!” I clear my throat. “Um. Nice.”
“So, so nice. Mommy did so much. Besides teaching dance at the school for like 20 years and not even getting paid for it. Remember how she used to coach people before coaching was even a thing?”
As if I could forget. — Tova, let’s work out a healthy eating plan, shall we? My mother’s unfailingly chipper voice sang in my ears.
I try to keep my voice neutral. “Uh huh. Wait… you want me to get up there with you?”
“Of course! She wants you to speak!” Bracha claps her hands. “The mothers will be eating out of your hand. They don’t get a talk from a child psychologist with a six-month waiting list every day.”
I smile at her compliment.
“Rebbetzin Cohen reminded me about those Motzaei Shabbos workshops Mommy did,” Bracha continues. “She took along so many women on her health journey. Like for free, too. It’s amazing.”
Bracha takes out a water bottle from her bag and a pacifier falls to the ground. She tucks the pacifier into the bag’s outside pocket and continues. “She used to talk about getting everyone on the fitness train. She wanted to help everyone.”
I’m giving an exercise class for teenagers now in the school gym. You coming, Tova? The girls your age really want to be fit and healthy. My mother’s voice was a near constant soundtrack.
A large diesel truck rumbles by, blaring its horn. I feel a headache coming on.
“Bracha, I have to go, Rosie’s waiting for me.” I turn toward the store.
Inside Rosie’s the air is warm and smells like perfume and new clothes. Rosie walks quickly in impossibly high heels from the front racks to the back room collecting clothing for me and depositing it in the dressing room. The woman knows fashion and clothing even better than I know Beck’s Cognitive Theory.
I stand in front of the mirror modeling a black suede dress.
“I’m not loving it.” Rosie tugs at the hem. “It makes you look…”
“Like a large black bag?”
“No, no.” Rosie waves her hand dismissively. “It makes you look just a little built.” She pronounces the word “built” carefully, stressing the T at the end.
I know what built is code for. Bracha is just like Mommy, slight and wispy, but I have my father’s broad frame. I try on two more dresses. One Rosie loves and one she’s okay with. Rosie’s known for her honesty; it’s how she got her following.
“Do you like this?” Rosie hands me a chocolate-brown sweater dress. “Brown is the new navy. If you like it, I can bring it in it for you. I didn’t order this one in extended sizes.”
I hand it back to her. “Rosie, I don’t think I need, um, an extended size.”
“You do.” Rosie holds out a sweater to a young girl who silently takes it and hangs it on a velvet hanger. “It runs tiny tiny.”
I pick up a gray alpaca wrap and examine it. It feels too fluffy in my hands; some of the fibers look loose.
“Uch, I’m such a hard fit.” I look to Rosie for empathy, but she’s giving none of it.
Rosie walks across the room and says something else to the young girl. Her head is deep in her pocketbook. “Size is just a number,” she tells me. “You need confidence, you should practice what you preach — and lipstick!”
“Here, try this ‘Penelope Pink,’ it’s Charlotte Tilbery, it looks good on everyone.” She wipes the lipstick down with a tissue. “Tova! You are so accomplished. Hold your head high. You’re great! You’re beautiful! Both Berger girls are, just like their mother!” Rosie finishes with a flourish and before I leave she jots down “Penelope Pink” on her business card and hands it to me.
“Let me know if I should order that brown dress in a 2X,” she says as I wave a quick goodbye and head outside.
I toss the business card in a street garbage can on the way to my car. If only lipstick could solve everything.
Sliding my black Suburban into a parking spot in front of the office building, I think about Rosie’s pep talk. Of course she’s right, but my conversation with Bracha has thrown me off kilter. Before I leave the car, I’ve made up my mind. I send Bracha a voice note: “Hi, listen, I was thinking I don’t really want to accept the honor by the tea. You should, though. It’s just not for me.”
They want me to get up in front of all those women as the overweight daughter of Shuli Burger, legendary health and fitness guru! I get out of the car and slam the door. Mommy would be so embarrassed — I’m her biggest flop!
I arrive at the team meeting by 1:30. Setting down my lunch, I make myself comfortable and spend a few minutes reviewing my notes on Adina. Who could imagine that the girl who could barely get out a coherent sentence would be doing so incredibly well? In walks a blonde-sheiteled, 50-something woman who introduces herself as Esther, the school social worker.
“I only work with the girls in grades first through third, after that Marsha Hollander sees them,” she explains. We chit-chat as we both eat Greek salads. Turns out my favorite professor from graduate school is her old colleague, and Esther and I both primarily use CBT in practice. I smile at her. She’s so easy to talk to and seems knowledgeable and skilled. A sudden idea occurs to me: Perhaps I could hire Esther part-time to offload some of my cases. My waiting list has really become a problem.
“…I speak Russian and I did a lot of work under a city grant in Brighton Beach in the ‘90’s…then it was back to Boro Park for the next ten years.” Esther gestures animatedly. She certainly has impressive experience.
There’s a lull in the conversation. She tucks a sheitel strand behind her ear, and turns the conversation toward me. “Tova, where are you from originally?”
“I grew up right in town.”
Esther puts her hands to her heart. “I knew I knew you. You’re Shuli Berger’s daughter, aren’t you?”
I stare at the table, noting a crack in the Formica. “Yes, I am.” Where is she going with this?
“What a worthy honoree! I’m on the school’s tea planning committee,” she says by way of explanation.
I force a smile.
“Your mother—” she leans back, and looking proud, as if she’s just solved a mystery. “Wow, just wow. What a woman! What she did for this school… I can’t think of anyone else who donated so many hours, just out of the goodness of her heart. All she wanted was to help those girls, you know. Never mind what she did for me… she put me on such a diet after I had my fifth child… we’re going back many years, of course.”
Tova, you have to lose the baby weight right away. Ten extra pounds on top of ten extra pounds will become a problem before you know it.
“She restored my energy, changed the whole way I eat.” Esther gushes.
Tovala, when you say “no” to sugar, you say…yes to yourself.
Esther leans in. “I lost 50 pounds and never gained it back.”
I could gag.
“So nice.” My smile starts to wobble. I tighten it, intent on maintaining control of this exchange. From the corner of my eye I see Adina’s speech therapist, coming into the room followed by Marsha Hollander and Adina’s teacher. Saved! “Hello, Dr. Spitz,” I hear one of them call me. I turn toward the group, all smiles.
“I was just leaving.” Esther picks up her bag, waving as she makes her way toward the door.
She stops to touch my arm. “Tova, it was so great meeting you.”
“Likewise.” I nod. Then she’s out. I relax, back in my element. If I was unsure of my decision to decline the honor, this woman convinced me. There’s no way I can do it.
“Hi, hi! Come on in.” I look toward the door where Adina and her mother are standing. They both take seats at the round table, Adina with her arms folded and Mrs. Bloom holding her pocketbook neatly on her lap. Adina’s teacher starts off by telling the group how proud she was that Adina tried out for the choir in school production. The faces around the table beam and nod. Adina blushes and waves her hand. “Everyone gets into choir, they just call it tryouts.”
Mrs. Bloom is all business. At the first pause she asks if we can talk about the summer.
“Sure, of course.” I look to her daughter. “Adina, let’s start with you. Tell us what your thoughts are about the summer.”
Adina looks around the table. “So my friend Malky, her sister works at a therapy place for kids. They said they would hire me and Malky to help out there this summer.” She speaks carefully, taking her time, her eyes meeting mine.
“Cool, Adina! Help out how?” I notice Mrs. Bloom’s lips are pressed tightly together.
“Answer phones, file things, stuff like that. They would pay us.” The girl looks at her mother and stops.
“Thank you. Mrs. Bloom, would you like to say something?”
“Well, yes, actually.” She fingers the leather strap of her pocketbook as she talks. “Adina is a good girl. She does her school work, has good middos—” She looks at Adina whose face is bright red.
The teacher holds up her hand. “Stellar middos.” The speech therapist, who looks as if she could be my daughter, nods vigorously.
Mrs. Bloom continues, “I always tell my kids ‘In this family, we do.’ Life is for doing, experiencing, accomplishing. And Adina likes to read!” She throws up her hands. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with reading, I myself am quite well read, but there is a time and place.” She recovers from her tangent. “I don’t want her spending the summer in a stuffy office. She has to go to camp.”
Marsha, looking mildly horrified, raises her eyebrows at me.
“Working in an office isn’t reading on the couch,” Adina mumbles.
“You’re both bringing up interesting points here.” I hastily cut in. “You want different things. Adina, can you tell us why you’d prefer to work in an office rather than go to sleepaway camp?”
“It just doesn’t sound fun to me. I’m not the ra-ra type. My mother doesn’t understand because she had an amazing fun time in camp and she was like head counselor or something. We’re different.”
I glance at her mother, who avoids my gaze. She must be about my age.
“The thing is, Adina doesn’t realize that she’ll love camp,” Mrs. Bloom persists. “She just has to try it.”
Tova, you’ll love aerobics once you get into it! Just try it!
“That’s all I’m asking,” Mrs. Bloom says to all of us, “that she try.” She cranes her neck over her daughter’s head to address Marsha, who’s sitting on the other side of Adina. My hands are sweating.
“I mean really, what 12-year-old wouldn’t like camp. What’s there not to like?”
I fan myself with a school calendar that’s lying on the table.
What’s wrong with going to an aerobics class with other girls your age? Why do you keep objecting? Why are you being so difficult?
“We’re all trying to help her here. Isn’t this a step she has to take for herself?” Mrs. Bloom finishes with a question.
“Not everyone has to like camp.” I hear myself suddenly say. It comes out all wrong, my usual even tone laced with something I usually keep under wraps.
Marsha looks at me quizzically, then interjects. “You know what? Maybe you can continue talking about summer plans in the next private session.” She smiles cordially to Mrs. Bloom, and I feel my face flush. “I know Adina has made some progress in speech.” Marsha motions to the speech therapist, who clears her throat.
“So Adina and I are working on communication skills, specifically breathing and voice projection exercises…” The meeting swirls around me and I am here but not here. I can barely hear their voices. I’m a million years away.
I finish cleaning up the kitchen and shoo the boys back to bed from the second drink of the night.
Yosef texts to say he’s staying late in the office. How was your day?
I’m too tired to start getting into details over text. Good, I’ll leave supper on the stove.
After that, the phone in the kitchen rings. The landline is reserved for my kids and telemarketers; Bracha must be desperate to reach me. I can’t ignore her forever. Soon she’ll be calling Yosef’s phone asking to talk to me.
“Hi Bracha, what’s doing?” I try for casual and hope she won’t bring up this ridiculous dinner. No such luck.
Bracha gets right to the point. “I’ve been trying to reach you ever since you left me that voice message.”
“What’s this whole thing about?” Her voice rises. “You and Mommy were so close! I just don’t get it!”
Mommy and I were close. I would have struggled with my weight either way, I know, but Mommy’s subtle and steady disappointment turned it into a thorn in our relationship.
“No issues or tissues!” I know that sounded strange but I’m trying to keep my tone light. Once this conversation gets heavy there’s no telling what dark hole it will lead to.
Bracha doesn’t laugh.
“You’re right. Me and Mommy were close. I just feel that it makes more sense for you to accept the honor alone. I’ll still come. I just won’t get up there.”
Bracha’s still silent so I continue. “I don’t work in the school, you do. It just seems odd for me to be accepting the honor.”
“What looks odd is if just one daughter gets up there — and one doesn’t.” Oh, I know all about looking odd; I’m the oddly chubby daughter of a fit and fabulous mother. I drum my hand on the counter.
“I guess I have a different way of looking at it,” I say with a note of finality, hoping she’ll accept it.
Bracha’s tone turns from bewilderment to petulant. “What am I supposed to say to Rebbetzin Cohen? She’s my boss, you know.”
“Tell her I’d be happy to give a workshop to the teachers on, um, anxiety in the school setting or something like that. I gave a similar lecture to the teachers in that new school on Main and they loved it.”
“I’m sure they did, but that is so not the point.” Bracha’s voice has an edge now.
“Bracha.” My voice has no more humor in it. “I love Mommy, but we were different. We didn’t connect in the way maybe other people did or remember…” I let my voice trail. The kitchen clock reads 8:30. I feel tired, so tired. I’m tired of weighing my words and skirting around the truth with Bracha. Is she really so clueless? I find a pen on the kitchen table and sit down and doodle on a napkin.
Bracha drones on. “It’s not about you, it’s for Mommy… insulting to Rebbetzin Cohen and the entire school… the community has a right to remember Mommy.” My sister’s upset and spinning, spiraling, twisting this whole thing. My clients do it in therapy all the time, but now I’ve had enough. The clock glows 8:52.
“Bracha stop, just— stop.” I cut her off mid-sentence. “I mean, I’m tired. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
I do a quick check of my email and see a message from Mrs. Bloom, Adina’s mother, asking me to call her when I get a chance. I almost ignore the email, but a sudden image comes to mind: Adina at camp surrounded by screaming girls at night activity, her large eyes scanning the room for an exit.
I find her number in my cell phone. She picks up on the second ring and asks if we can change the appointment time to Thursdays. Sure, sure. I wonder why she called me. I take a deep breath. “Adina is really doing great, no?
Mrs Bloom responds with an enthusiastic “Absolutely.”
“Mrs. Bloom, I know it got a little tense in there, and I take responsibility for not maintaining the flow and emotional rhythm of the meeting as would have been best.” My voice is composed and even.
“Oh. Okay. Yes, no problem. Looking forward to continuing the discussion Thursday.” Mrs. Bloom sounds surprised. My shoulders sag. What good is any of this tiptoeing if it doesn’t do anything for Adina?
“Mrs. Bloom, there’s something else,” I take a deep breath and shake some of the crispness from my voice. “I know that as Adina’s mother, you love Adina with all your heart and soul. And as her mother, you know her best. You want her to be happy — to be her best self.” I cringe as I say “best self.” I pause, silently davening for the right words. “Sometimes we think we know exactly what our kids need to succeed, but the thing that I’ve learned is that our kids are so much more than we even realize. Adina is a great girl with unique talents. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we can accept her so she’ll accept herself and really soar?” I’m advocating for my client, but I realize I’m talking to myself.
There is a long pause and then Mrs. Bloom speaks. “Mothering is hard.” We laugh together and our connection, through the phone, feels a little warmer. They’ll be all right, Adina and her mother. After we hang up I sit very still, staring at the wall. My mother’s voice is there, it’s always there, cajoling, suggesting, echoing in the back of my head, but suddenly it feels softer, warmer. There is love there, in places I couldn’t see back then, but it was there.
I sigh as I scoop up the boys’ clothes and put them in the hamper. Can I do this? Should I do this? My hands shake but before I can change my mind I grab my phone and text Bracha.
Okay I’ll do it. My speech will be titled “Accepting Our Children; Accepting Ourselves”
I can do it. I’ll honor the mother who pushed me, loved me, built me. It’s true Mommy didn’t understand, chose not to understand, was misguided, wrong even. But she was coming from love, and I can honor that.
I look closely at myself in the hallway mirror. I’m not bad looking. Pretty, even. But Rosie was right; I should buy some new lipstick.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 743)
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