As told to A. Asaraf
hen I enter a room people notice. I am poised tastefully dressed and never without a mask of flawlessly applied makeup. This description slips off my tongue so naturally you wouldn’t dream that until not so long ago I considered myself a loser. But few ever realized how deep were the fault lines beneath the glossy surface.
I entered marriage weighed down by the falling bricks of a dysfunctional childhood. Throughout my teens I was an amorphous shadow flitting through my home. While my parents engaged in round after round of mutual recriminations sulks and sarcastic retorts I slunk noiselessly through the growing chasm of their marriage. Cloaked in invisibility I barely knew who I was or what I stood for.
I found some sort of answer by aligning myself with the cool crowd in high school. It wasn’t hard to tag along and gain a reputation for coolness by association. I’ve been blessed with good looks and my sophisticated set made sure I knew exactly how to make the most of them. Looking good became my ticket to society and an inviolable one at that.
With marriage came a semblance of identity. It was a heady feeling. No longer the tall enigmatic figure who hovered on the fringes I was now an irrefutable part of the jet set. Married. With a name I was proud of.
Despite being a gift sent from Heaven my husband schlepped his own set of baggage into our relationship. He had never watched his parents share a friendly conversation never heard them offer each other comfort after a rough day. The noxious weeds rooted in our backgrounds kept poking through the foundations of our home threatening to choke out all that was good between us.
Seeking to strengthen our shalom bayis I turned to the one tool in my arsenal I believed I had handy — my looks.
Shopping became an all-consuming preoccupation. For years my husband had been buying up ailing companies turning them into profitable ventures with an uncanny business sense. So when his fledgling business skyrocketed into a publicly listed company I used my newfound credit to dazzle in every way.
I splurged regularly. Tops, skirts, shoes, scarves, everything boasting a designer name. I aimed for glamor and worked to constantly redefine the perfect look. Each time I left a store, new purchases in hand, a thrill ran through me. But nothing could compare to the attention I garnered when I walked through a simchah hall. I had a presence no one could ignore. And even though my sense of significance was always hopelessly fleeting, I craved that visibility.
Following the birth of our second child, I began suffering from chills, and inexplicable aches and pains plagued my joints. A soul-numbing fatigue washed over me, putting a damper on my shopping. The diagnosis was an auto-immune disorder that, in retrospect, may have had more to do with inner stress than with any physiological weakness.
In desperation, I sought out a therapist, Cheryl. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Over the years, Cheryl helped me learn what other women pick up through osmosis — healthy relationship patterns, parenting skills, how to love myself and others, and how to set boundaries. All these things took constant work, but I was determined to spare my children the deficiencies of my youth.
Still, even Cheryl couldn’t save me from myself.
Our family expanded, our fortunes grew, and I slowly healed on the outside — evolving into the confident wife of the business mogul. And yet, I frequently felt like a cowering puppy, pawing at the floor of a yawning pit, never quite finding its way to freedom. I obliterated the maddening whimpers of my soul by spending increasing amounts of time in the friendship of women whose busy chatter could have drowned out a thunderstorm. It was the path of least resistance.
They sought my company more than I sought theirs and we became a recognizable clique. We attacked the high street stores as if fashion was going out of style. Mercilessly. I began reliving my high school days all over again. With one difference. If I used to falter on the edge, these days I flitted in and out of the shadows. “Let me try that hat!” Sheila would ask-demand, and pull the one I was about to try on right out of my hand. I said nothing.
We’d jockey for space in the mirror, and somehow I was always the first to step aside. “You look ridiculous in that pillbox; you know…” Leah would say with a laugh.
I’d laugh in return. But, truthfully — I’d thought the teal felt hat quite winning, even if it may have been a little too retro. As sales ladies crowded around us, eager to gain their bonuses, we could try on 20 pairs of shoes as we searched for the ultimate sandal. It was fun. A harmless reshaping of a disappointing childhood — or so I thought. In reality, another, more insidious dynamic was at play — they treated me like a biddable child.
I recall the day I pulled a satin blouse off the rack, thinking it would go perfectly with my new camel skirt. “Oooohh!” said Sara. “That’s a stunner! Can I have a look?” She took a quick peep at the price tag and held it up against her neck. “I love it,” she declared. “Just the thing for Debbie’s graduation, don’t you think?”
I nodded congenially. “Hey, lady!” she called to the petit Afro-haired girl hovering near the mirrored column. I winced. Her name was Tabitha — her name tag said so clearly. “Hey, you! We need another blouse just like this one. ‘Kay?”
But Tabitha couldn’t help us. “No, maám, there aren’t no more of those in stock.” I was holding the one I’d picked out, the one that happened to be the right size for both of us… My fingers curved tightly around the satin. I’d found it first. By all rights this one was mine. But Sara was giving me one of her looks. “Come on… what kind of friend are you, anyway…” A combination of hurt, anger, and disdain compressed into one all-powerful, guilt inducing stare. I waivered an infinitesimal moment. And then, even as I berated myself for being such a wimp, I handed over the blouse and sunk low into my boots.
Looking back, I realize how warped that interaction was. It would have been lovely if I could have made a conscious decision to make my friend happy, but there was nothing altruistic about my behavior — it was pure insecurity. If I got tired and suggested: “Let’s call it a day!” they brushed me off with barely a word, even though I was the official chauffer. We continued shopping till we dropped, or until another, more vociferous woman decided it was time to go home.
Today, I know I could have just jiggled my car keys and said: “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m done. You’re welcome to continue… I have to go. Bye!” I could have tempered my statement with a wave and a smile and walked away. Back then, however, it would never have occurred to me.
Still, these were minor concessions. There were things I paid a far higher price for. Literally. Like when Leah had finally settled on the burgundy belt and the studded sling backs, and Sheila had decided she would go with the pink pocketbook, we would make our way to the register to ring up our purchases. Our purchases? Strike that. My purchases. My friends always found a way to vanish. And even though I had come to expect this, the trick never failed to send an angry jolt through me. I would paste a shaky smile on my face, wink elaborately, and hand over the bags, saying: “Hey, ladies… forgotten something?!” They’d peal with laughter and disperse effusive thanks, but I would be left with a feeling I couldn’t quite name; a shakiness that filled my mouth with bile and made my head swim, as if my universe was tilting far off its axis.
I hated myself for allowing them to exploit me; for letting them make me feel so foolish. I saw through their behavior, yet, what would my world be like without their raucous companionship? Walking away to seek a better version of myself was never an option — I had no sense of self, I had no idea who to look for. Instead, I lived with a constant fear that I would once again dissolve into a shivering mass of nothingness. Transparent. Invisible.
Things may have continued this way indefinitely. Who knows how convoluted these ties may have become? Would I have been expected to pay for their home renovations? To foot the bill for their grandchildren’s weddings? How much longer would I have played along? I have no idea. Life has a way, however, of pulling us along with its current, maneuvering us into sudden whirlpools, forcing us to sink or swim.
I am ashamed to relate the following sequence of events. But things got a whole lot worse before I rose above the waves and learned to back-paddle.
I don’t recall when or how our crowd began to slip in ehrlichkeit, but I imagine it must have been when my friends, looking for excitement, convinced me to shop further afield. “Oh, come on… do you truly think these boutiques stock the entire line…? How naïve! You should visit the flagship stores — get the real deal!”
Convinced, I was soon hopping on planes to London, Paris, Milan, or New York — heading for the great showcases of modern couture. I even flew to Tokyo once, though I found the cultural differences more frustrating than fun.
I wasn’t in the habit of flying alone. There were times I accompanied my husband on business trips, and on occasion, I travelled with my daughters. But more often than not, a friend or two would join me. It didn’t take much begging — they were delighted to pack their bags, and I needed the company, even though it meant I would be picking up the tab for the entire trip. As long as I wasn’t alone. Alone, I barely existed.
As our choice of shopping venues grew increasingly sophisticated, my friends began adopting a more cosmopolitan style of dress. With their encouragement, my sleeves inched back from elbow length, to just about, to just above. My skirt lengths — never my strong point — became ever shorter, and I began wearing necklines I’d always avoided.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this transformation. Certainly, I enjoyed coming across as tres chic, and yet, I also felt a secret measure of shame, revulsion even, at how easily I had let my standards slip. Still, unwilling to offer a dissenting voice, I went along with their every suggestion, including, at one point, disposing of the need for stockings. And all this time, my husband, bothered by the direction I was taking, said nothing. We had worked so hard to achieve our shalom bayis that he was afraid to rock the boat.
But Hashem has His ways.
Overnight, my husband’s towering empire began to teeter. New zoning regulations that worked against him; a legal dispute that favoured the opposing council; the imminent signing of a significant merger that was pulled at the zero hour; the list of unfavorable circumstances went on and on. My husband began walking around with a tousled, sleepless appearance. It was hard to ignore his growing anxiety, but I was preoccupied with other concerns.
One by one, my cohort of friends, who had clung to me like leeches throughout our years of plenty, dropped me. Just like that. Overnight. Leah didn’t even bother to take her leave in person. She just wrote a scathing letter, full of words, empty words. They said a lot but explained nothing at all. As I read her missive, my heart went cold and numb. My hands cradled my forehead. Their abandonment was too cruel, too treacherous. It almost destroyed me.
I couldn’t share the betrayal with my husband — he had enough on his plate, and after years of cultivating one sort of crowd, and one crowd alone, I was left without any true friends to turn to. Finally, clarity dawned. I had only myself to blame, for maintaining the company of charlatans. And slowly, as perceptibly as the light of day, along with that hard-won clarity came strength. Something I had never known I had.
Our financial woes paled, however, in the face of the diagnosis given to our youngest daughter, born long after we had dismantled the solid pine crib and given it away. For years Ruchy had shown signs of developmental delays, and now, at five years of age, was placed definitively on the autism spectrum.
Coming on top of everything else, the pain seemed unbearable. And yet, there was also a sense of relief. At last we knew what we were dealing with. It would be a long and arduous process learning how to help our Ruchy, but without the distraction of friends, I could throw myself into the job. I sat in every therapy session, asking questions and taking notes, and was careful to do the exercises with her at home.
I was just being to come to terms with Ruchy’s diagnosis, when misfortune struck once again — and this time it almost flattened me completely. I had tried to find out all I could about autism, but nothing — nothing! — could have prepared me for the sight of Ruchy’s suddenly thinning hair.
One sunny morning, a bald spot appeared in the middle of her golden curls. It was about the size of a dime. Gradually, it spread, fast turning into an ugly white lake covering most of her scalp. I knew its contours intimately, for I spent countless hours gazing at it, trying to wish it away. My daughter! How could my daughter look so terribly ugly?! It seemed inconceivable, and yet — there it was, staring me in the face. We scoured phone books, medical directories, the Internet; we ran from doctor to doctor and cosmetician to cosmetician searching for effective solutions. We came up with zilch. Zero. Absolutely nothing.
This might sound crazy, but I found the bald spot harder to contend with than Ruchy’s disorder. I had spent most of my life pursuing beauty. It was torturous facing such an unsightly blemish on my own child. I was repulsed, and I struggled with myself for hating my daughter’s looks. What kind of a mother did that make me?
I got creative. I bought Ruchy the trendiest caps and the niftiest little straw hats. They camouflaged the problem, but whenever I thought of that bare spot lurking beneath the fashion piece, my heart contracted.
One day, as my eyes locked yet again on that detestable bald spot at the back of her head, the thought pierced me.
Heads. Bald spots. Hair. I knew all about holes at the back of one’s head. Or, at least, I should have known. One of the most ingenious beauty tricks my “friends” had imparted before turning their backs on our losses, had involved slashing the netting of my triple-k custom sheitel, creating a gash the width of my scalp. A bald spot of sorts. I was then able to pull a swath of my own naturally thick tresses through the opening, where they were free to mingle with the sheitel’s strands, creating a beguiling natural illusion.
Once I had tried it, there was no turning back. I was captivated by the difference it made. As to halachah? What difference could that make? I reasoned that no one would know. It was between me, my sheitel, and Hashem.
But that day, as I stared at my daughter’s balding head, I swallowed slowly and looked away.
I gave my daughter’s shoulder a quick caress, turned on my heels, and ran to my room. I reached for my sheitel. Turned it inside out. The gash in the netting stared at me. My personal bald spot. We can never glean the truth behind Heavenly accounts. And yet, there I was, grappling with my own innate truth.
I opened my closet and looked for the sewing kit I kept for emergency repairs. This was an emergency. My hand shook as I threaded the needle. I stitched up the gash, from right to left. I sewed carefully; I couldn’t afford a replacement. After weaving the needle under and over a couple of times, I gave a slight tug on the thread and formed an everlasting knot. One quick snip and the deed was done. Done.
With the sheitel back on the shelf, I returned to Ruchy and gave her a long, tight hug. All things considered, I was glad her condition had led me to do the right thing. I hugged her again. And again.
Still, I dreaded wearing my sheitel. I had to convince myself I looked just as good, and that I hadn’t paid too high a price when gambling on doing good. I fluffed out the remaining curls endlessly between my fingers, trying to convince myself the sheitel’s natural beauty hadn’t suffered. It wasn’t easy.
And Hashem saw. Within a few months — without visiting any more doctors, or trying any more lotions, Ruchy’s hair, inexplicably, grew back. And I? I was done with my bald spot forever.
I still needed to look perfect. But I also began to realize that perfection comes in many shades — not all of them visible. Sometimes, just sometimes, invisible is okay. It means that Hashem alone sees your perfection.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 510)
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