“Open this fall.”
Last spring I left myself this message in my Notes app hoping that I would remember to take a look at it as I begin to get swept up in the whirlwind of my final year of high school and dive into every senior’s favorite experience—the college application process. In the note, I told myself about a Friday-night dinner I had earlier this year with my “aunt” Barb (she’s not really my aunt, but she and my mother go way back) and a couple of other family friends in upstate New York.
I haven’t seen Barb in several years, the story started, but she stays the same.
And then it went on:
She has the same silver bangles and the same little black shoes. She’s wearing the same asymmetrical black tunics that are at once indistinguishable from one another and each unique. She sounds the same, she drinks the same, she wears the same red lipstick. She’s an unchanging character of my childhood who shows up seemingly unannounced like a gothic, croaky fairy godmother. Barb’s the same—but I’m not.
I’m not the same because instead of sitting on the floor the way I used to when I was younger, I’m sitting next to her at the table and I’m drinking with her (a bit) and listening to her talk (a lot) to the rest of us—Jo Anne my mother, Michael my father, my mother’s old-time friend John and his husband Daniel—and I get to hear, and hear differently, her more adult comments, like, “I’m so glad I never had children!”
It’s spring break before my senior year of high school, and my parents and I have stopped for the night in Hudson, New York. Even though two-thirds of us are Jewish, nothing about this dinner says “Shabbat”—not outwardly. In the moment I’m just happy to have a break between touring college #13 and college #14 (or something like that; I’ve lost track). My life is about to take this big step in a new direction, and for the past weeks I’ve been feeling the pressure of change as I’m forced to imagine myself into a different unknown future with each campus I visit. My future is at least to some degree out of my control, and I’m feeling overwhelmed—in fact, it’s practically all I can think about, and I hate it. Then, just as I’m becoming more and more caught up in my internal dialogue of Do I like this school? Will they like me? along comes this evening.
“Lu! Come draw with me!”
The accompanying tug on my jeans reminds me that at tonight’s gathering with these familiar people, my role as the child in this group has been newly filled by John and Daniel’s four-year-old daughter, Patsy. She sits at the coffee table in her glittery plastic mermaid costume drawing Picasso-esque portraits of her family, her mop of blond curls adorned with a tiara. She’s surrounded by the same group that I was, only around 10 years later.
I take a break from the adults, sit down on the carpet next to Patsy, and pick up a colored pencil. “What should we draw?”
Her curls flop to one side as she tilts her head to think on my question.
“A mermaid?” I ask.
She smiles, nods, and we get to work.
As I draw the tail, making sure to outline each scale carefully, I can feel the excitement emanating from Patsy, who intently watches my every move exactly the way I used to watch the older kids, and I find myself thinking about something a 99-year-old friend of our family said to me a few weeks earlier about Shabbat: “I believe it’s the greatest gift that Judaism gave to human beings,” she told me, “a mandated break from work and routine—from whatever moment you find yourself caught up in—so that you can stop, breathe, and reset. On Shabbat, even animals get to rest.”
I think about what she said as I focus on my drawing. I make each scale on the mermaid’s tail a different color—forest green here and cerulean there; I polka dot some and cross-hatch others; I shade, blend, and highlight. I’m almost done with my masterpiece when it hits me: 10 minutes ago I was Patsy; 10 minutes from now I won’t exactly be Barb, or John or Daniel, or either of my parents (hopefully!), but I probably won’t even remember what I got on the SAT.
At dinner, it starts before I take my first bite—even from Barb: “I know we’re not supposed to ask, but…City? West Coast? East Coast? Midwest? Big? Small? Women’s? Greek Life?”
As I listen, I imagine these normally anxiety-provoking questions written on little scraps of paper and taking flight, floating through the light of the Shabbat candles and up toward the ceiling. I answer: preferred, maybe, probably, unlikely, medium, open to, and God forbid.
Everyone laughs at “God-forbid,” except for Patsy, who asks, “What’s so funny?”
I smile at her. “In about a dozen years,” I say, “you’ll understand.”
Five months after this dinner, it turned out, I’d forgotten many of the details of the evening. But one afternoon as I was searching for my notes about some of the colleges we visited, the words “Open this fall” caught my eye. Like a message in a bottle, the story of my own personal Shabbat spoke out from the past and comforted me more than I imagined it would.
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