HomeMarch 2012A Little Glimpse of Heaven

A Little Glimpse of Heaven

The hair-straightening solution caused a slight tingling on my scalp but after all these years, I actually enjoyed the blend of acrid odor and cacophony of Easy Rock music and blasting blow-dryers of my neighborhood salon.  This twice-a-year “time out” – replete with manicure and pedicure – never fails to remind me that at both the beginning and end of the day, I’m a woman.
Reflected in the mirror, I saw the honey-blond girl.
She couldn’t have been more than twenty years old but, of course, all those girls look alike in their street-sweeping skirts, baggy sweatshirts, and shlumpy backpacks, their hastily and sloppy assembled pony-tails and random ear-piercings create a look I’ve come to think of as “Seminary-Chic.”  Sporting fashionable eyeglasses despite her slapdash look, she crossed her legs and beneath the skirt I espied gray sweatpants that she’d probably been wearing since going to bed the night before.  Wrapped around her neck for extra warmth was a knitted scarf that I recognized as having been sold at The Gap approximately three years earlier.  The girl undoubtedly came from Englewood, Kew Garden Hills or Skokie.  Never LA, Lawrence or London; they appear more polished in pleated knee-length skirts, expensive black hosiery and the requisite suede/patent leather flat shoes.  Always, hair swept back with either a bone or velvet head-band.
Her reason for being in this high-end salon became obvious when a timorous voice shouted out in English, “Is it time to wash this dye out?”   Turning my head to the left, I saw a woman – tiny and wizened with age – nearly hidden by the salon’s protective apron and multiple head-wraps.  Her feet dangled several inches above the foot rest and she appeared so helpless that for a brief moment I wanted to scoop her up and hold her on my lap until the technician got to her.  No one seemed to hear her, and, altruistically, I repeated her request to the stylist in Hebrew.  He asked me to assure her that she wasn’t forgotten, that the staff knew how long the dye was setting.
She was obviously hard-of-hearing, and when her blank stare indicated that she hadn’t heard or was frightened of me, the young girl raised herself from the settee and, kneeling before her, imparted the information directly into her face.  The old lady smiled and put her hand onto the girl’s cheek.  She smiled, stood and returned to the sofa
Establishing eye-contact through the mirror, I said, “You’re a wonderful granddaughter.”  She paused a moment and answered, “I’m Nava.  It’s a little complicated, because I’m not her granddaughter.  This is a paying job.”
Oh.  My.  She explained that the elderly widow had outlived her only two sons; one boy had married a lovely Israeli girl and had children before he passed away.  The other son had Down Syndrome and lived at home with her before dying of causes natural to the condition.  The daughter-in-law paid Nava’s salary.
“I share this job with another seminary girl.  I have three afternoons and she has the other three.  It works out because I’m always back in time for my evening class, which I would never miss.  The teacher is so special; it’s an amazing honor to learn with her, and this class is actually why I chose my school.”  When I asked where in the States she lives, she offered another surprise.  “I live here.  My father is a Rosh Yeshiva (Head Rabbi) in Beit Shemesh.”
Suddenly the old woman, Mrs. Rifkin, called out, “Nava, I need the bathroom please.”  Again the girl rose and, taking her charge by the elbow, guided her with snail-like slowness to the corner lavatory.  As she stepped outside the teeny room, she said to the woman, “Take your time.  I’m right outside if you need me.”
With at least twenty minutes remaining before they would rinse the first round of harsh chemicals from my relaxing mane, Nava shared that she was one of nine children, has a younger sister with mental disabilities and had spent two years at the University of Chicago before returning home for good.  We covered subjects from the recent “modesty protests” in her community that have amazingly peppered the pages of the international press, whether or not she has already registered with local matchmakers and the most emotionally taxing part of her job with Mrs. Rifkin.
“Whenever we see an adult with Down Syndrome, she wants to ask if the person knew Allen.  Is this a problem?  You bet.  Because first of all, he’s been dead for thirteen years, and the second thing is that she doesn’t speak Hebrew, and these poor people think she’s shouting at them!  You can’t imagine how long it takes to get the situation calm, especially if the person she’s shouting at is working in a restaurant clearing tables.  The person becomes so agitated and confused, and a lot of the time the manager has to come over, and then I have to start at the beginning in explaining her entire life history.”
When she finally emerged, the hair-washer gently guided her to the sink area.  Rinsing out the now-caked dye, she sat up to show off her spiky, chestnut-colored mop.  During the rinsing, Nava made a phone call to her seminary that I could not help but overhear.  Sensing the passing of time, Mrs. Rifkin called her over.
“I’m so sorry, dear.  This is taking too long.  You’ll be late.”
“It’s all right.  Don’t worry.  The rebbetzin cancelled the class.  I have all the time in the world for you.”  To prove her point, Nava pulled off her bulky scarf and tossed it onto the magazine rack.
The remaining hair was sparse, and Mrs. Rifkin’s shiny dome was clearly visible, but the salon owner treated each strand with loving attention and would not release her until she was sprayed and attentively coiffed.  This caused me to smile almost as much as much as Nava’s apparent fib regarding her class’s cancellation.
Bidding them goodbye, I left soon after with a much lighter wallet, sleek hairdo and a bottle of too-expensive miracle shampoo.
I also departed with something far more precious; the gift of fewer assumptions and knowledge that angels come in different costumes, some of whom wear sweat-pants underneath too-long skirts.

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