If Sondra had known how much agitation her invitation to the spring play would cause Helga, she would have never suggested it. Ever since she was eleven years old, she had tried to be sensitive to her mother’s past, but Sondra was still only fourteen. She had not thought The Diary of Anne Frank would be problematic, since it did not deal with the camps at all. For Helga, however, it was an opening to a door that she did not want to go through, at least not with her family by her side.
Helga’s college courses were her way of coping with all the horrors she had suffered. Somehow, she reasoned, if she learned enough world history, she would be able to understand why it had happened. Her dream was, in time, to get her doctorate and funding to begin a Holocaust Studies Department at Lincoln State. She was able to relate some of her worst experiences in the college classroom, but with her own family she was mute. Julius was understanding and his family was accepting, but Helga worried about how long Sondra would be patient with her mother’s silence on the subject.
When Sondra had entered junior high school, Helga had worried about how her daughter would do socially. Her two best friends from grammar school had moved during the summer, and Helga did not want Sondra leaning on Howie to lead her along. With trepidation, she had watched her daughter’s growing friendship with the Methodist minister’s daughter.
Sondra was too young to remember how Bernice had wanted to join the youth group at the Baptist church just so she would have someplace to socialize. Berta had had her hands full with that. Everyone had understood Bernice’s need, but they all agreed that Berta had been right to forbid it. Fortunately for all, Professor Cohen had come to the university and his daughter and Bernice became good friends.
As far as Helga could see, Jane didn’t proselytize. Her suggestion that she and Sondra get involved with the drama department had been excellent for Sondra. Now she had a group of friends and a busy social life. Helga hoped it would keep her satisfied until she graduated from high school. She decided she must do her best to encourage Sondra and so she agreed to go to the show. Afterwards, Helga told her daughter that it had been an excellent production, especially for a high school, but that was all she would say about the topic.
Sondra swallowed her disappointment that the play had not opened up a discussion with her mother and concentrated on final exams. Once summer came, she was really busy. There were cookouts at Christine’s farm, boat rides on the river in Joy’s family’s rowboat, and sleepovers at Jane’s. Julius took all the girls to the rodeo and the county fair, where Frayda won first prize for her embroidery. Joy suggested that they volunteer at Head Start, and the girls spent several hours a week working with Afro-American pre-schoolers. Uncle Simon asked Howie and Sondra to help out at the store during the three-day sidewalk sale, which was a lot of fun. There were plays at the university summer theatre and a new movie each week at the Orpheum. Still, when vacation ended, Sondra was happy to go back to school. She had signed up for Drama I and it was her first class every morning, a great way to start the day.
They had been in school a month when Mrs. Wiggs announced that the yearly musical would be The King and I. Only music students would be allowed to try out for the main parts, but there were parts for the tone-deaf drama students, too. Jane, Christine, and Joy all urged Sondra to try out for one of the children’s parts. Being so petite, and with black hair and dark eyes, she would be perfect, they declared. After hearing their encouragement for a week, Sondra went to the tryouts with her heart beating wildly. Two days later the cast list was posted: Sondra was one of the children and so was Jane. Mrs. Wiggs had told Jane that her blonde hair would be a problem. There were wigs and hair rinses to change the color of hair, but Mrs. Wiggs declared, she had no solution to making a high school student smaller.
Learning lines, costume fittings, and play practice took up almost all of Sondra’s time and thoughts. A willing worker, she radiated enthusiasm and team spirit and caught the eye of Roger Morris, the junior who played the King of Siam. It was a wonderful two months and then came the final performance, the cast party, and it was all over. Before Sondra could get depressed, though, Roger asked her to go with him to the Winter Prom. She had totally forgotten about her indignation with Howie for giving his ID bracelet to non-Jewish girls. She also felt that at the age of fifteen, she was old enough to start dating, especially if the boy was already sixteen. Despite the stormy day outside, Sondra’s face was full of sunshine when she came home with her good news.
“Mom, guess what!” she called as she wiped her feet.
“What?” Helga stuck her pencil behind her ear as she rose from her studies to greet her daughter.
“Roger Morris asked me to the winter prom!”
“Roger?” Helga asked, preoccupied. “He’s the one who was in the play with you?”
“No,” Sondra laughed. “I was in the play with him.”
“He brought you home from practice a few times?”
“Almost always.” Sondra nodded, wondering why her mother was not showing more enthusiasm.
“Is he friends with Howie at all?” Helga was grabbing at these seemingly inane questions as she tried to decide, on her own, without talking to Julius, how to tell Sondra she could not go out with this non-Jew.
“They’re friendly, yeah” Sondra shrugged, walked into the kitchen, and opened the refrigerator.
“What does his father do?” Helga followed her daughter.
“He’s a lawyer,” Sondra tried to keep the impatience out of her voice.
“Oh, he has an office downtown?”
“I guess so. What are all these questions for?” Sondra voice rose and she bit her lip to control it. “Why can’t you just be happy for me? Why am I getting the third degree? Other mothers would be thrilled to have their daughters asked out by one of the nicest, most popular boys in the school.”
“I’m not like other mothers,” Helga spoke softly. Her tone was dangerous. Sondra knew in a minute her mother would go into one of her icy silences.
Sondra took a deep breath and spoke softly, too. “I know, Mom. You’re great as you are. I just want you to be happy for me.”
“I know,” Helga smiled sadly, “but Roger isn’t Jewish.” It was said as innocuously as if Roger did not have curly hair. Still, Sondra caught the message and tears welled up in her eyes. Before anything more could be said she ran upstairs and threw herself across her bed and began crying.
She cried for herself. Why did she always have to be different than everyone else? Why could Howie do things she that she couldn’t? Why couldn’t they live in a place where there were more Jews? Why couldn’t her mother understand her better? It was that thought that made Sondra catch her breath. Turning over on her back, she studied the crack in the ceiling and concentrated on her mother. Poor Helga. Of course she couldn’t understand. Her high school years had been spent in a work camp and she had never gone to any dances with anyone, Jewish or not. She had no idea how it would feel the next couple of weeks to listen to all the other girls talking about their new dresses and what kind of corsages they wanted. Even Jane was going. She had been asked to the dance already a week ago. Probably Christine would be asked, too. Sondra had noticed that the quiet senior, who had played the Prime Minister, was interested in her friend. At least Joy would, most likely, not get asked. Sondra supposed the two of them could go to the movies on the night of the Prom. They certainly would have no trouble finding a good seat. No one would be there.
Blinking hard to keep the tears from falling again, Sondra looked around her room and studied it as if she was seeing it for the first time. The white, muslin curtains at the windows, the pink and gold-stripped wallpaper that matched the bedspreads on the twin beds could be found in hundreds of teenagers’ rooms across America. The gold and white furniture that she and her mother had traveled together to Augusta to buy was beautiful, but dozen of girls in Lincoln had similar such furniture. What was it that made Sondra feel so different? As always, whenever she pondered the question, she vividly remembered that day, four years earlier, when she first learned of the tragedy her mother had suffered.
Other girls she knew would have screamed at their mothers if they had tried to keep them from going to the Prom. Or they would have pouted until their mothers gave in. Or appealed to their fathers, or grandparents, or someone to be on their side. Sondra knew she would do none of those things. Ever since she was eleven years old, she had felt a need to protect her mother as much as she could. In the last year she had talked to Jane and the others enough to know that all the irritations she felt with Helga were a normal part of adolescence. Still, she wondered whether Helga knew that they were normal.
Life really seemed unfair. She was finally beginning to feel like a normal teenager with a real boyfriend. Hanging out on the weekends with just Jane, Christine, and Joy no longer seemed like so much fun. Aunt Irene’s Hanukkah party did not sound exciting either. Nothing sounded exciting. Sondra did not want to go downstairs for dinner, she did not want to go to school the following day, and she certainly did not want to face Roger and explain to him that she would not be able to go to the dance with him. She felt as if she could see a little devil from her old comic books at her shoulder telling her to stay in bed and hide from the world for as long as she wanted. At the same time, though, there was an obnoxious little angel at her other shoulder telling her to pull herself together.
Just as it seemed that the little angel was winning the phone rang.
“Sondra,” Helga called from the foot of the stairs. “it’s for you.”
Reluctantly, hoping that it wasn’t Roger, she picked up the pink Princess phone that had been her birthday present and heard her Aunt Lotte’s voice.
“How are you doing, dear?”
“Okay,” Sondra tried to make her voice sound cheerful.
“We were wondering if you could help us out here?”
“In a few weeks, Joey is going to have a special part in Shabbos morning services and you know how he looks up to you.”
“Well, he wants to know if you can come here to watch him.”
It was no surprise that Aunt Lotte mentioned the same date as the dance. Sondra was certain her mother had orchestrated the invitation and she was sure Aunt Lotte knew that she knew. Still, she didn’t care. It would give her an excuse to get out of town and away from everything. As far as she was concerned, she’d be happy to go right then.
Sondra confided in Howie the next day at school. He was in between girlfriends and the two sat together in the lunchroom. To Howie’s credit, he did not even hint that Sondra had criticized him only a year earlier for going out with a non-Jew. He just listened and was all sympathy.
“I just don’t know what to say to Roger,” Sondra concluded, playing with her roll instead of eating it.
“Would you like me to explain to him about your parents?”
“Would you?” Sondra smiled gratefully.
That afternoon at sport practice her cousin pulled Roger aside and explained why Sondra would not be able to go to the dance with him and how badly she felt. Roger called that evening to tell Sondra he understood.
“We can still be friends, can’t we?” he asked.
“Of course,” Sondra answered happily. But, she heard though the school grapevine that Roger had asked another girl to the dance the following week. Sondra knew that there would be no more long talks together or rides home. While the other girls were buying their prom dresses, Sondra went shopping with Helga to buy a new outfit for Kansas City. And while many of the girls got out of school early on the Friday of the prom so they could go to the hairdresser, Sondra did not go at all. Instead, she boarded the Greyhound bus that would take her to Kansas City.