I’m sitting on a little prop plane, Simone to my right, deep into the first rough chapters of my next young adult novel, while my charming psychotherapist cousin taps away on his laptop to my left. We’re returning from a weekend in Helena, Montana, where we were fortunate enough to be guests at my eldest nephew’s bar mitzvah.
I love family gatherings — I come from a very warm and mushy extended family; all huggy and kissy, in each other’s business, overwhelming, and ridiculously loving in a fully unconditional way. Those of the older generation — my parents and my aunts and uncle — are cluelessly inappropriate, talking over each other and constantly interrupting without listening to what the others are saying, but there’s a feckless joy and sweetness to them that’s irresistible. They drive me bat-shit crazy, and I love them all the more for it.
So we were sitting in the Saturday morning service for my nephew’s bar mitzvah, and I looked over at my youngest sister, sitting beside me with her new love (another single dad), and said, “I don’t think I can do this alone next year.”
I was annoyed with myself that I’d drifted away from the accomplishments of my nephew, standing at the front and reading from the Torah, and had turned the moment into one of those, “Holy-crap-Simone’s-growing-up-and-her-bat-mitzvah-is-next-year-and-there’s-so-much-to-do-and-damn-she’s-getting-older-by-the-second” stream of anxiety moments.
I write every so often about Simone’s journey into young lady land... how her attitude and body are changing, how she has become more sophisticated in her tastes and outlook. Even my cousin noted some of her more insightful and mature assessments of our family dynamic.
But she’s not struggling right now; I am.
Last month, I realized she didn’t really have something appropriate to wear to the big event. In fact, I was sick of trying to cobble together somewhat dressy outfits every time we had a social gathering, whether it was a restaurant opening or a religious holiday. Simone’s never been a dress person, so I reasoned that maybe giving her some say into how her dressy clothes were designed and how they reflected her personality might provide motivation for enhancing her wardrobe.
Lucky for me, I’m friends with a dressmaker who has a funky, cool sense of elegance, and Simone took to her designs right away. A fun session where she and Simone talked about preferences and styles was followed a couple weeks later with a fitting session in the little boutique.
No one else was in the shop — it was just the dressmaker, Simone, and her dad, who kept saying things like, “Um...that’s a little too low-cut for an 11-year-old,” and “I think that’s a bit too fitted for your body.” At one point, I had to help Simone into and out of a dress, and she was both embarrassed and annoyed that she needed assistance. Her bra went askew, the dress got caught on her shoulder, and we both had no choice but to laugh ruefully as she finally got herself sorted.
The dressmaker made some adjustments to Simone’s three favorites, and then suggested we hit up the Forever 21 store at the mall for appropriate accessories — belts, tanks, shoes, etc.
I sneezed three times in a row as we walked into the store, and Simone said, “Daddy, you’re allergic to teen fashion. But don’t worry, so am I.”
I felt hapless and aimless in the large, disorganized shop, not especially secure in how to select from different fabrics in the tank tops, or the appropriate width of a belt. Simone felt somewhat the same way, with an added measure of disgust over the choice of music playing and the awful clothing that was available for kids her age. We muddled through together, picking out stuff that we were both reasonably sure would work, then made a break for the fresh air of the parking garage as soon as possible.
As I write again and again, I’m not one of those feckless fathers from TV sitcoms; I take my relationship with my daughter seriously, and am generally secure in my ability to keep her safe and raise her well. But there are girl things I just don’t know, and though she has a few aunties here and there to help us out, they’re not in the house with us when things go awry. I’ve lived with women almost my entire life, but that doesn’t mean I know how to think like one.
For instance, it didn’t occur to me, when I was helping Simone pack for our Montana trip, that you should always pack lady products “just in case.” If my middle sister hadn’t been keyed into her niece so well once we got to Helena, we definitely would have had a serious disaster on our hands. I should have recognized Simone’s moodiness and skin changes the day before as a precursor, but it took my sister to point out the connection to me. That’s one mistake I won’t make again.
And it’s so important that Simone knows she can talk to me about anything, which means I can’t freak out or remain willfully clueless when it come to her changing, maturing body and attitudes. I have to remain engaged and supportive, even when I want to put my hands over my ears, close my eyes, and yell, “La la la la la!”
So there I was, my baby sister sitting beside me at the ceremony. We watched Simone, up front with her cousins, resplendent in her custom red dress, black leggings, and sweet ankle boots. She and the bar mitzvah boy’s little brother were behaving much better than my cousins, sisters, and I did at each other’s services — we’d cut up and giggle, barely suppressing our mirth — but Simone and Max sat attentively, supporting the first of their generation to take the stage.
“I can’t do this all on my own next year,” I said to my sister, feeling a sense of despair, not knowing what role Simone’s mom will be willing to take on, but understanding that Simone’s bat mitzvah would be primarily my responsibility — the details, the expense, the hours and hours of planning, and of course pushing Simone to study and learn her responsibilities for the big day.
We’ve been going head-to-head about homework, and it turns out I’ve been a sucker to Simone’s manipulations, resulting in angry emails to me from her mother about missed or incomplete assignments that Simone had told me were done or nearly so. I’m instituting some changes here in the house this week, and I’m not looking forward to the clash that will ensue; so the thought of adding in regular nagging about her bat mitzvah studies twisted my stomach into any achy knot.
And then one of the final prayers began; a joyful song of praise and wonder.
“Hear that?” my sister asked me. I stopped singing to listen, and heard Simone’s voice loud and clear and confident, riding along and above the melody of the adults in prayer.
I took a deep breath.
“We can do this,” I thought.