My daughter, Atara, is five going on six, going on twenty. She sits at my kitchen table in her pink striped sweater, coloring endless pictures of hearts and rainbows and talks to me about life. Mostly, I am interested in listening because much of what she says comes as a big surprise to me. Her blonde head is bowed and I can see the narrow white stalk of her neck. The tip of her tongue sticks slightly out of the side of her mouth as she concentrates. She clutches the crayon tightly, pressing so hard that there will be marks on the papers underneath. Perfecting this rainbow is very important.
In fact, to Atara, everything is important. She thinks very deeply about feelings and questions, what people say and what they mean, what color crayon to use, what color tights she should wear tomorrow.
“I wonder what it’ll be like to be me when I grow up,” she said yesterday.
“I do too,” I answered. And I do. What a surprising pleasure it is to watch this small bundle of contradictions sort herself out, to learn along with her right from wrong, want from need, truth from kindness.
But it isn’t always rainbows and roses.
She went on a fierce truth telling kick recently. In a way, you could say it’s my fault. After all, I’m the one who told her to always tell the truth. And that was a big mistake.
On a recent Sunday evening, distant cousins came to visit. As they settled themselves in on the couch, I went back to the kitchen, preparing drinks and a plate of cookies when my little daughter sneaks in.
“Mommy,” she stage whispers, “Should I tell Mr. Katz that he’s bald?”
“No, cookie.” I say fervently, “Please don’t.”
”Cuz I think he already knows.”
“Oh,” she thinks for a minute, “Well, then should I tell Mrs. Katz that she has crinkly lines on her face?”
My heart drops into my stomach. That’s all I need. “We’ll talk about this later,” I say quickly and hurry into the room with the tray. Then I promptly forget all about it.
The very next day she burst into the house after school, “Mommy! Guess what?”
“What?” I say, smiling.
“I told Suri that she’s fat! Because it’s true! She is!”
She beams. My face falls.
“Oh, don’t worry, Mommy,” she hurries to reassure me, “I told her that it’s okay to be fat because now she might get a baby!”
I head to the counter for the phone book. I need to call Suri’s house and apologize.
That night, I talk gently to Atara.
“Tari, there are some things that we just don’t say, even if they’re the truth. Like, for example,” I think for a minute, “if someone isn’t Jewish, we don’t have to say that out loud, even though it’s true, because it might make them feel bad.”
“You mean like the girl with the brown face in the park?”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
“Oh.” She nods sagely. We exchange kisses and hugs and my little darling is off to sleep.
The next morning at eight, the doorbell rings. It’s Clara, the cleaning lady. Moments later I hear Atara. “Mommy,” she calls in a happy sing-song, “I told Clara that she’s really very nice, and she shouldn’t feel bad that she’s not Jewish and she has big teeth!”
But her honesty is not just for other people. Sometimes, she turns it on me.
“Mommy, do you know what?”
“When you wear a snood, your ears stick out and you look like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” She hesitates. “But not really like Snow White. Like one of the dwarves.”
“Thank you, Atara,” I squeeze out from behind clenched teeth.
I told my husband that night and he laughed. He didn’t laugh so hard the next day, though. “Mommy,” Atara asks, staring seriously at our wedding picture, “did you really like Daddy when you got married, even though he had such funny looking glasses?”
It wouldn’t be so bad if she just kept in the family. But mostly she doesn’t.
On Shabbos, she came home from shul squirming with excitement. She saw her friend, Chevi, an older girl, who always picks her up and hugs and kisses her. “When I saw Chevi I gave her a BIG hug, and I told her that I’m so happy that it’s not Yom Kippur anymore. Because when she hugged me in shul, her breath was really stinky!”
Exhausted, I reach for the phone. I need to call Chevi.
And just when I am running out of patience, out of answers, out of my mind, the truth-telling kick is over. Somehow it has penetrated and she understands that honesty is not always the best policy. In some tiny increment she has grown up. I breathe a deep sigh of relief and wonder what I will do with all the extra time I have now that I don’t need to constantly call people and apologize.
It turns out that what I’ll be doing is answering questions.
“How old are you Mommy?” Atara asks on the way home from carpool. “Thirty two,” I say and I look at her in the rearview mirror. Her forehead is squinched down over her twinkly brown eyes, she’s thinking hard.
“But, how old will you be when you turn into Babbi and I turn into you?” I laugh.
“That’s not how it works, silly goose. Mommies become Babbis when their children have babies and children turn into Mommies after they grow up and have babies. Understand?”
She nods emphatically. She says she understands but I’m not so sure. Honestly, it raises an interesting question. Because secretly, deep down, I’ve always wondered ‘How old will I be when I finally turn into my mother?’
I know what you’re thinking, Oh no! To turn into one’s mother, how awful! How horrific! It’s a cliché, it’s a joke. The whole world is trying so hard to avoid getting older, becoming our mothers. But not me. For me, turning into my mother sounds pretty good. In fact, my mother is who I want to be when I grow up.
Well, not really when I grow up. At thirty two, I have a house and a husband, four kids and six loads of laundry waiting. Sounds pretty grown up and I guess by most measures I am. I drive carpools, cook nutritious meals, speak seriously to teachers at PTA. But inside me I’m not grown up at all. In fact on the inside, I’m probably about twelve. Insecure, awkward, and a little sullen. Luckily, I get to cover it up with lipstick and high heels.
So, when will I be grown up? I wonder, as I watch Atara stare out the window and count trees. I think I’ll be grown up when I know the answers to my children’s endless questions and when I have the patience to repeat them over and over and over again without blowing a fuse. Or maybe, I’ll feel grown up when I learn to be selfless, to be giving, to be cheerful and gracious and wise, like my own mother is. It’s a tall order. And I’m not all that certain that I can achieve it.
But then I look at Atara trying so hard to grow up and I realize that it’s a lifelong effort. And there’s no other way to do it than by asking silly questions and saying the wrong thing sometimes. It seems that along with my daughter, I am always re-learning the difference between right and wrong, want and need, truth and kindness. I’m just doing the best I can and there’s no shame in that.
This morning, I woke up to Atara bouncing excitedly at the side of my bed. She has something important to tell me and it clearly cannot wait for a reasonable hour. “What’s up, Tari?” I ask sleepily.
“Mommy, you know what?”
“Last night when I said Shma, I spoke to Hashem. And do you know what I said to Him?”
“Nope. Tell me.” I answer, groggily.
“I said thank you Hashem for always giving my Mommy the strength to help me,” she says and beams.
I’m wide awake now. And I’m beaming too.
So maybe, we’re all just little girls in high heels and lipstick, still trying to grow up. And maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for me yet.
Yael Zoldan is a Brooklyn girl, who lives in Passaic, New Jersey, with her husband and children. Somewhere between carpool and laundry she finds the time to write. This article is reprinted with permission. It was originally published in Mishpacha magazine
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.