Almost ten years ago, on a ridiculously cold December night, I nervously ventured out from my cozy house to the JCC. I had been matched as a volunteer mentor through Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister with eleven-year-old Stephanie, and this was to be my first time meeting her. One of the agency’s social workers met me there, told me a few details about Steph and her mom, and then drove with me to their house. I am often awkward and shy around new people and this meeting was no exception. After a few minutes in the living room, Heidi, the social worker, invited Stephanie to show me her room. Off we went, humming and hawing all the way.
It wasn’t a particularly promising beginning, but first pages are not the whole story. I entered the mentorship program with high hopes, but with a fair degree of selfishness and pomposity. I thought I could be a brilliant influence, filling a child’s life with hope and adventure. I thought I could rewrite my own history of total, hopeless un-coolness by showing the youth of today that it really is cool to be a know-it-all snob geek.
In my mind’s eye, I saw myself weeping glamorously in the bleachers as my charge gave her valedictory speech at high school graduation, the one saying that her life was given meaning by her relationship with her Big Sister. Repeat four years later as she graduates summa cum laude from Harvard with a triple degree in international relations, astrophysics, and organic farming — another speech thanking the true center of her universe (moi) as I shed glamorous tears in a seat of honor next to the graduation speaker. (Mikhail Baryshnikov, if you please.) Hell, I even saw her thanking me as she accepted her Academy Award — calling me her role model as an actor and as a person. Oh, and there I am beside her as she takes the Oath of Office.
Ah yes. Where was I?
The years passed. We went to movies. We ate at the diner. She drew me amazing pictures. We went to the theatre. We drove around with the top down and Frank Sinatra blasting on the CD player. (Who’s uncool now?!) I travelled a lot and sent her boring post cards, always saying the same two things. The record will show that she never wrote to me during those years. (Not that I’m bitter.) We went on hayrides. We went bowling. We went to the movies some more. We tortured the agency by never meeting with our social worker. We were a rogue pair. We had a blast.
Somewhere along the way to my being the perfect Big Sister, the wonderful influence, I discovered that exactly the opposite was happening. She was the perfect Little Sister, and by far the better influence. As she grew up, she helped me grow up. She showed me by her amazing example what it’s like to be present in a relationship, what it’s like to give quiet support when a friend is in need, what it’s like to let go when that’s what’s next. She shows me still, and I’m in awe of her.
She’s had rough path. G-d did not grant her the parents she deserved, and she’s had to face at a young age decisions and revisions that most adults would quail at. School was not easy for her, and she needed to take some time off to regroup. Eventually she did graduate from a funky cool alternative high school, and yes, I wept in the audience. Although she was invited to speak at graduation, she declined. I may forgive her someday.
Along the way she has discovered depths within herself I can only envy. She joined The Food Project and versed herself in sustainable agriculture. She moved in with a family with a developmentally challenged daughter and proved herself indispensible as a caregiver and friend. She studied the cultural currents in hip-hop and the poetry of Neruda. She’s milked cows at 3 a.m. and taught art skills in an intentional community that embraces disabled people.
The spring before Gideon’s birth, I was looking for someone to keep Akiva company and help out around the house during the end of my pregnancy and the beginning of the baby’s life. Stephanie brazenly suggested I should hire her. At first I was hesitant because of the potential for awkwardness; I felt funny about employing a friend. As is characteristic of her, she addressed my concerns directly. We agreed that we’d try it out and if it wasn’t right, we’d just go back to being friends. No worries, mate.
As it turned out, she was the perfect helper for that summer. She is great with kids — mellow, resourceful, creative, respectful. She and Akiva became very close even before the baby was born. She always came to work with a little something extra: a book she wanted to share, clay, a sketch pad, bubbles, a Dance Party mix CD specially made for Akiva, tie-dye materials. She started coming with us to synagogue on Saturday mornings and taking Akiva to the library when he got restless in the service. She held my hand when I got all weepy reading from the prayer book. She happened to be babysitting on the day Gideon arrived (quickly, breech, and on our third trip in 24 hours to the Birth Center) and despite wild circumstances she kept Akiva happy and calm during the times we were not able to be with him. Through the magic of her personality, she made a time that could have been alienating and turbulent for Akiva blissful instead, and in so doing, she gave our family an incredible gift: the chance for the two boys to start their relationship in a loving way. That summer, my Big Sister relationship with Stephanie expanded, and she became truly a part of our family.
On August 19, Stephanie turned 21. It is impossible to find a gift that is truly worthy of this amazing young woman, but I think I came pretty close. Happy belated birthday, Stephanie. Watch your mailbox.
P.S. The pendant is made by Lisa Leonard, whose work I love. I particularly appreciate Lisa’s willingness to redo this pendant when my failure to communicate resulted in its not being quite what I wanted. She got it exactly right this time, and I’m so grateful.