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As a child Beth’s father frightened me. Today, I recognize that he suffered from mental illness and his rages against his family were all symptoms of his disorder.
The Greenberg* family lived around the corner from us. When I was eight, I knew there were differences between our two families but I wasn't able to articulate them. I had many friends and I was used to playing in other homes where I felt like part of the family. There was a welcoming feeling of warmth and inclusion. But in the Greenberg’s house, I felt something distinctly different.
Looking back, I understand why. The Greenberg home was chaotic. I remember noticing holes punched in the walls and feeling utterly perplexed by the assault that must have occurred. Those walls held my attention, making it impossible for me to relax. Seeing the ruin in this home left me feeling disoriented. The damage to the house was never repaired, and the family continued to live in this pernicious environment. Since I always felt terribly uncomfortable whenever I went over to play with Beth, most of the time she and I played at my house.
Beth’s father really frightened me. Today, I recognize that he suffered from mental illness and his rages against his family were all symptoms of his disorder. As a child I knew none of this. All I knew was that he terrified me and I stayed out of his way. But feeling Mr. Greenberg’s presence in the house was inevitable. I remember one night I was invited to sleep over at Beth’s house. As we lay in bed, I heard Mr. Greenberg erupt in anger, berating his wife for allowing me to stay the night. Listening to him roar at his wife left me trembling with fear, and I mustered the courage to get out of bed and call my father to come take me home.
Among the many peculiarities that the Greenberg family had, there was one that struck me as especially odd. During the winter, Beth’s mother wrapped her up in many layers. She seemed to be trying to protect her from the storm outside because she could not protect her from the cyclone that raged within their home. The oddest part was that Beth’s coat collar was always fastened with an oversized safety pin. Before leaving my house, Beth would approach me with safety pin in hand. I knew that she needed my help; there was no way that she could fasten the pin on her own. Today I realize that pinning her coat fell far short of the help she really needed. But it was all this eight-year-old girl could do.
With safety pin in hand, I would face Beth, standing inches away from her. She would crane her neck while I tried to stick the pin through the thick cloth. This took a considerable amount of time. It wasn’t an easy task for either one of us. She needed to stand there patiently, looking up at the ceiling so I would have better access to her coat collar as I tried to jam the blunt pin through the thick fabric. This ritual somehow served to deepen our friendship. Everyday, as we stood facing one another, I would struggle with the pin and she would struggle with standing still, and with all the other struggles that came along with belonging to the Greenberg family.
Things changed when I turned 10. My family moved to a different neighborhood and Beth’s daily visits came to an end. But I never forgot her or her safety pin.
When Beth grew up, she moved away. I had lost all contact with her but heard through the grapevine that she had separated herself from her family by thousands of miles. She became an accomplished attorney and married an architect. They had two children and she never came back home to visit her family – until her father died.
Although I hadn’t seen Beth or her family in decades, I felt compelled to go to the funeral. When the rabbi stood with the male mourners to rend their garments, he stopped when he reached Beth. He looked up at the women as if to ask, “Which one of you will step forward to do this mitzvah with Beth?” Usually not one to volunteer in a crowd, I was surprised when I found myself walking towards the front of the chapel. I took the blade from the rabbi, and then turned towards Beth. We stood there facing one another and feeling very drawn to her, I moved closer still. Then, I lifted the blade to cut her blouse. As I began tearing kriyah, Beth turned away, craning her neck. Seeing her turn her head as I adjusted the torn collar on her blouse propelled me back in time.
I looked at Beth and softly said, “Beth do you know who I am?”
She shook her head, “No.”
I waited a moment before I replied in a whisper, “I’m Michelle.” She gasped quietly and tears welled up in her eyes and in mine. We looked at one another and saw the children that we once were. In that moment, she and I traveled back 40 years to a cold winter day of our youth when I lovingly pinned the collar of her winter coat.
A version of this article first appeared in Ami Magazine