I’ve always had a special place in my heart for my oldest daughter, Chava’le, named after my beloved grandmother. She was always a wonderful child, and she still is. At the age of 18 months she’d march a mile to shul and back with never a complaint. Helpful, bright and articulate, she had lots of friends, which was a delight for me to see because I’d always had trouble on the social front. I made sure to arrange plenty of play dates, even though I was overprotective and tended to worry. Most of the time, though, I’d ask her to bring her friends over to our house.
Then life became busy. More babies joined the ranks of our family, along with the commensurate cooking, cleaning, shopping and laundry, not to mention hobbies, volunteering and jobs. I prayed that my kids wouldn’t suffer from lack of attention, and we all survived more or less. Play dates fell by the wayside as I figured that there were enough siblings in the house to entertain each other. Whichever child was capable of helping and was cooperative at that particular moment ended up being called upon to assist in the merry-go-round of each day.
Years passed, until one Friday night many years later. Twelve-year-old Chava’le and I were snuggled up on the couch in our velvet robes after lighting candles and were having a conversation. “Whatever happened to your friend Malka?” I asked her. “I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Ma,” she replied with a disgusted sigh that I’d always thought of as “the teenage sigh,” even though she wasn’t even technically a teenager. “Malka hasn’t been in this house for two years. You never noticed?”
What a horrible mother I was! I’d had no idea. “And what about Surie?” I asked hopefully.
She snorted. “Surie hasn’t been here in three years.”
I started to panic. I was so proud that I had somehow produced this social butterfly of a child; I could hardly believe she came from me. “Did you get into a fight with them? Were they mean to you? Are you…embarrassed of the mess? Is that why you don’t invite them over?” I was blabbering, sounding desperate.
“Ma,” my daughter reassured me. “There weren’t any fights. We’re just different now. People change.”
“What about Ilana? Rochel? Orit? Where did everyone go? How come you never go over to them?”
I was sounding accusatory and she became defensive. “What’s the big deal? You don’t go to people’s houses either.” I could almost hear the unspoken words: You don’t even have friends, Ma.
I sighed, the “disappointed mother” sigh. “So you just see Malka and Surie in the hall at school and ignore them?” I prodded. Of course, I was hoping to hear a no, but instead she retorted, “I can’t start having conversations with every random person.”
My heart was sinking a little more with every additional detail.
“So that’s it? Just because I don’t have a lot of friends, you stopped having friends?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I have friends.” She then rattled off a few names I’d never heard before, girls she never invited over and who never invited her.
“I’m fine, Ma. Really.” By then I had to set the table anyway, so I got up and walked away.
I had a lot of thinking to do, but I didn’t know where to start. At home, Chava’le was the life of the party, and up until recently she’d had a wide circle of friends. I couldn’t believe that my own less-than-outgoing personality could possibly influence her choices.
I pondered this for many sleepless nights as I thought about all the friendships I’d had over the years. Some of the memories brought me tremendous pain. I remembered how one best friend had allowed her shul friends to make fun of me; I’d been numb with shock. Another friend had started ignoring me out of nowhere. One refused to talk to me after a heated philosophical debate, and another simply stopped taking my calls because she was “too busy.” And in the event that a sibling took a message, she never bothered to call me back. Now I was left thinking: How had I gone through all those rejections and remained whole? Then again, maybe I hadn’t emerged unscathed. The tears that were now drenching my pillow, decades later, attested to some part of me that had never healed. Had all these partings of the ways been their fault? What role had I played in them?