Thursday, November 19, 2015


I had three choices: I could drag over the step stool that was across the aisle, climb to the highest shelf, and reach up and snatch the bottle of house brand Vinegar and Oil salad dressing. Or I could wander the supermarket to uncover a clerk. Maybe, I could catch the first tall person I'd see and plead for help.

Because I'm prone to disaster scenarios, I envisioned bitty me atop the stool, losing my footing, hanging onto the shelf itself, hauling it and its contents down with me, and falling flat into a sea of Caesar, Italian, and Ranch.

Instead, I chose option three and called out to a man who entered the aisle: "Tall person!"

He pointed to his chest, indicating he was unsure if I was referring to him, or if he had encountered a demented elder mistaking him for a wayward son.

"Could you get that bottle of salad dressing?" I said, pointing upward and smiling to make sure he understood my mirth. "I'm horizontally challenged."

With the ease of a basketball player, he put one hand around the neck of my prey and handed it to me. "No problem," he said, likely relieved I was sane.

Such episodes describe the life of an adult under five feet tall and shrinking. The towering supermarket shelf is just one inconvenience we wee ones endure. The other side includes the adjectives assigned to our stature. For example, this scene in the women’s locker room at a former health club: I was at the mirror, putting on makeup, nude except for a towel around my torso. She was to my right, smiling down at me. A tall woman, five ten, I’d guess.

 “You’re so cute!” she had said. “How tall are you?”

I shifted to the left; afraid she might next pat my head, as if I were a puppy or toddler. “I used to be four eleven and a half, but now I’m four nine,” I said. “You shrink as you get older.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, images of Dorothy's Wicked Witch rode into my brain. Instead of a broomstick, I saw the crone dissolve into a puddle with only her pointy hat remaining.

I suppose by now I should be  used to cuddly responses to my height. After all, I’m 77, and have always been the shortest in a group. Early class photos are evidence: first row, first seat, and feet barely touching the floor.

“You were so cute,” that’s how my best friend Ruth remembers me in sixth grade when we first met. “Just like a doll.” We have been close friends for more than 60 years. Ruth says she’s shrinking, too, but she’s still at least five nine.

I don’t remember it bothering me in grade school, but I think by high school the words started to chafe, and the older I got, the more irritating “cute” and “doll” became. If it were up to me, I’d select comments about my personality, not my dimensions.

To be honest, I've never felt handicapped as a short woman. I do my best work sitting, where size is irrelevant. Yes, I have to perch on a phone book to get my hair shampooed, and I have a hard time at the movies if someone tall fills the seat in front. And, there's that supermarket thing.

Now that I think of it, one reason I fell for my first husband, who at six feet proposed despite my size, was because he thought me smart, clever, and funny. As for me, I loved his tallness – believing I had gained stature, just by hanging on his arm.

But from the beginning there were problems with our differences in altitudes. “Can’t hear you,” I'd shout up as we held hands walking down the street. And when we danced, his arm around my shoulder, my nose at his navel, we were comic.

My sweetheart of a second husband was a perfect five seven. No communication or waltz snags. While he did throw in a few “you’re so cute” endearments, I knew it was my accomplishments he bragged about to friends.

I've been a widow for three years now, and am thinking I'd like a male companion -- not a husband, just a buddy for early dinners, TV watching, and chaste spooning. If he's somewhere in my age range, his height has likely dipped a few inches, too. Fortunately, for the three activities I've just identified, that shouldn't be a problem.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


I slipped into an aisle seat figuring I could sneak out early if I got bored, or if I felt out of place. I looked up as others entered the synagogue's sanctuary and I'd nod a greeting when I'd spot a familiar face. As a pianist struck up notes and a choir of four began to sing prayers for the Friday night service, I settled in.

But why, in the midst of this fellowship and serenity, did I feel as guilty as if I had crept into a casino?

I was embarrassed to tell friends and family of my evening activity because upon returning to Chicago from Los Angeles three months ago, I had declared: "I've given up religion. I'm not going to High Holiday services this year or join a synagogue."

My dear crowd accepted this decision without debate because they have been witness to my forays in and out of Judaism. Growing up in the 1940's, my family's relationship with religion was cultural, rather than observant: We devoured fatty foods; championed Jewish athletes, movie stars, and comedians; supported Israel; and prayed that headlined criminals were not part of our tribe. And we attended synagogue services only once a year on the High Holidays.

But that mediocre piety didn't prevent my parents from pushing my brother Ron to become a Bar Mitzvah. As for me, in 1951, when I was 13 -- the age for this rite of passage -- girls in my group weren't similarly coerced. So I faltered on my faith for several decades.

Things changed in 1989, and I peg it on Empty Nest Syndrome. Both of our daughters were out of the house and I was seeking a project my spouse and I could do together. Instead of moving to a new residence -- which was my usual solution for our feeble marriage -- I suggested we join a synagogue.

We did. I jumped in, submerged, and resurfaced with a desire to have an adult Bat Mitzvah. I hired a tutor, learned to read Hebrew for my Torah portion, chanted, and hosted a celebration. Alas, one year later, our marriage expired and my link to that Reconstructionist synagogue ended, too.

In 2012, after my second husband Tommy died and I moved from our house to a downtown apartment, I joined a Reform synagogue where on Saturday mornings a group of 20 or so debated the week's Torah portion. "I love the intellectual stimulation," I told those skeptical of this fresh trail in my religious journey.

In Los Angeles, I quickly found another Reform temple and another series of Saturday morning studies. So why, after these two seemingly worthy religious experiences, did I vow, upon returning home to Chicago, that I would be avoiding Judaism, Torah study, and the High Holidays?

"I wanted to feel part of a community," I told a friend, whining like a pathetic teenager who had been excluded from the popular girls' clique. "But I was never invited to anyone's home for dinner. At both synagogues, they'd all been together for decades, and evidently weren't interested in squeezing in this newcomer."

"Maybe if you had stayed longer," she suggested, "or joined committees, then you'd feel more part of the group." But I wanted to be immediately bonded. I was impatient, felt wounded, and decided I was finished with religion.

So, what happened last Friday to send me to evening services at the very same Chicago Reform temple I had huffed my way out of? My theory is while I originally believed I was seeking community and intellectual stimulation, I was really searching for something deeper, something to heal losses. In the first case, I was a recent widow who had buried a dear husband, and in the second, a transplant who moved away from good friends in a beloved city.

 Evidently some pains remain: Tommy's death still feels fresh. And by returning to Chicago, I left behind my adored Los Angeles family. Add in, some in my circle face health challenges. Perhaps it is these facts of life that propelled me to find a harbor.

At last Friday night's service, as I sat in the synagogue's sanctuary, I listened to the choir and absorbed the rabbi's words. (In my absence, a new rabbi and assistant rabbi came on board. The latter is a woman -- a bonus in my view). And, I joined the congregation in reciting communal prayers for healing and mourning.

Based on my seesaw history with Judaism, my relatives and friends may be skeptical about this current religious plunge and wonder how long it will last.

Does it matter?