In one of my favorite childhood photographs, I’m dressed like Queen Esther on her wedding day, holding a nosegay of purple flowers. It was taken on Purim when I was a little girl, at an age when I normally eschewed frills and fuss. According to family lore, I liked to tear the ribbons off my dresses. Occasionally, I’d even disrobe, leaving the offending frocks in heaps on the ground.
My Purim costume was the exception. I loved it more than I did prune-filled hamantaschen right out of the oven.
So, I was delighted to see it again when a long-forgotten jumble of family pictures, loosely packed in a produce bag, came into my possession a few months ago, plucking the dress from the back of the closet of my memory.
As a child, I had only two dress-up options for Purim: Vashti and Queen Esther. I chose the latter, knowing the rudiments of the Purim story well enough and wanting by nature to be the “good” girl. Because my mother could sew, a store-bought costume would have been sacrilege. Instead, she stitched matching gowns for my sister and me from a bolt of white lace that wasn’t as itchy as it looked. The skirts swept the floor, Cinderella-like, and I was grateful for the length, which hid the unsightly orthopedic shoes I had to wear to train my feet not to point outward.
The dress made me feel all grown up—not a princess, but like a queen. What I treasured most, though, was that it allowed me to hide right out in the open. In it I could shroud not only my shoes, but the whole awkward rest of me, no small wonder for a discomfited child seeking hiding places wherever she could find them. I was too young then to understand the challenges that Esther faced in concealing her true identity from King Ahasuerus. Nor could I appreciate that the Book of Esther is among the most magnificent hiding places of all, for G-d—whose name does not appear in the text of the megillah—chose to secret Himself inside it. All I knew was that the feeling of hiddenness comforted me, and that I delighted in twirling in front of the mirror to admire how I looked.
The bolt of white lace was long, enabling me to dress as Queen Esther several years running as I grew, my head topped each Purim with a new paper crown. Then one year, with or without a grand pronouncement I cannot recall, I sloughed off my royal attire, placed it in a box that would later succumb to a flood in the basement, and set off to find new places to hide. By the time I was old enough to notice the absence of my childhood photographs, the memory of that beloved costume had long ago been left behind.
The Purim sparkle in my eyes faded, too, only to return in new clothes when I had my sons. I couldn’t wait to hand-make their costumes, and did for a while until they requested store-bought ones instead—a statement of their burgeoning independence, a tiny fissure in their tether with me. That first time, my husband did the kindness of taking them shopping, returning home with the uniforms of a Hatzolah medic and two policemen. The charming figures my young sons cut in them soothed my sore feelings, my heart skipping a beat to watch them act as mini-adults, my mind projecting forward to when this wouldn’t be child’s play anymore.
Purim is different now with three teenagers, and I miss the anticipation that once defined the lead-up to the holiday and the pageantry of the day itself. Last year, only my youngest dressed up, throwing together a costume of his own making minutes before we left for shul. It was the final vestige of an era. This year, he tells me, he won’t be bothering. I still dress up in part, though: In a nod to my erstwhile Queen Esther crown, I plan to wear the Princess Leia beanie I crocheted a few months ago for a Star Wars-themed Shabbos dinner with friends.
If I look closely, I can still see the Purim sparkle in my sons’ eyes, even as it dims with passing time and adolescent cool. One asks when I’m baking hamantaschen, shrugging to appear as if he doesn’t care at all. A second offers to wear his Yoda hat in solidarity with my Leia. A third sends pictures of the megillah he is learning to write, the one in which G-d’s name is nowhere to be found. Yet G-d is there, concealed between the lines and the letters, maneuvering us toward salvation in Persia thousands of years ago, while we carry on, alert to the Hamans of our own generation.
One day, when my boys conjure up their own childhood memories, I hope their blessings will not slip through their hands as easily as I let mine go. For it is what we remember and which stories we rescue from oblivion that entwine to teach us the most valuable lessons about how to live and how to love.
“It’s me! It’s me!” I shout, greeting the flood of stories from my childhood released by the arrival of those family photographs. I grab them, lest these blessing once hidden in plain sight rush past me again and disappear into the ether. And I marvel how it’s possible that I could have ever been a little girl looking to hide in a Queen Esther costume, because it was while I was hiding that I first blossomed into view.
Merri Ukraincik is a blogger and essayist who is at work on a memoir. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.