I recently made my first visit to an orthodox synagogue. The son of a friend of Mr B's was having his bar mitzvah and we were invited to attend. Happy to be included in this celebration, we of course accepted the invitation.
However, as the event drew nearer, I started to suffer from some misgivings. Some of you may remember that on a previous occasion I put myself through considerable (and eventually unnecessary) worry on the subject of what to wear. At that time, it was a mixture of insecurity, vanity and previous experiences of frock buying which worried me. My anxiety on this latter occasion, however, was of a completely different and frankly more alarming nature: the possibility of dressing entirely inappropriately and offending people.
Then the inevitable happened, as any busy mother of very small children will confirm: I completely forgot about the entire event until the day before. I had taken the Inexhaustible and the Infant Phenomenon to spend the afternoon with my dear parents and Mamma asked me towards the end of the day whether we had any plans for the weekend. I went through that strange paralysis of the mind, knowing we had an important engagement, but unable to remember exactly what it was. Then suddenly it burst upon me - and you can only imagine the mounting swell of panic which I now started to feel.
"What were the rules? Where would I go? What would happen? Did I have to keep the children completely silent?" Mr B filled me in on the basics: that the men and women would sit separately and I would have to take charge of both children, in an unfamiliar place and no means of getting Mr B out to give me a hand, should one or other of them require an extraordinary amount of attention. We didn't think Mr B would be able to take the Infant Phenomenon into the men's section and were absolutely certain that the Inexhaustible Baby would be too disruptive. This was somewhat alarming but the Infant Phenomenon has superb company manners and I was confident that with her on her best behaviour, I could keep the Inexhaustible Baby under control. That is a mistake I shan't make again...
We then came to what - at that moment - seemed like the most important issue: how was I to dress? I had some idea of where to start: as a married lady, I would be expected to cover my hair. This I think we can honestly agree would be the greatest challenge for me. If you look at the photograph of me at the side of this page, you will see at first glance that I have rather a lot of rather unruly hair. I have over the years come to consider it as a 'crowning glory' but for many years it really was rather a difficult matter. It now reaches my waist and is both voluminous and noticeable when unrestrained.
I simply couldn't think what to do with it. Nor did I know exactly how covered up it was supposed to be. Should it be completely invisible? Was that even humanly possible? In increasing nervousness I discarded one idea after another. I tried tying it all down and putting a striking coloured headscarf on - and nearly burst into tears when Mr B could scarce restrain his laughter. "Don't you dare laugh! It's easy for you!" I shrieked in increasing despair. But I could see well enough that it was not a becoming style on me.
We had already been in telephonic communication with another friend who would also attend and had more experience of this than we. Until my conversation with her, I had thought that I would know fairly well how to dress smartly and appropriately. I could not have been more wrong: long sleeves, long skirts or dresses, no trousers and no sandals. I was saved from committing a whole series of sartorial solecisms by this conversation, yet nobody could solve the problem of my hair for me. I had to tackle that one alone.
Finally at 11.30 that night, in a state of desperation I finally remembered that I owned a couple of hats which had originally been bought for weddings and scarce worn. Retrieving them from the airing cupboard, they were a little squashed, but capable of rescue. However, I had bought them a considerable time ago, when my locks were shorter and much easier to manage. Nonetheless, it was my only option. Exhausted I betook myself to bed.
The next morning I still was in a quandary. If I put my hair in its usual plait, it would be extremely visible all the way down my back and I simply had no idea whether this would be acceptable or not. Also the mass of hair rendered the hat tight fitting and uncomfortable. So in a final attempt to solve all my problems, I divided the hair into two, made two plaits and looped them up so that the barest minimum was visible at the back beneath the hat brim. It also solved the problem of volume so I would be able to keep the hat on for as long as necessary. I must have stood in front of the glass for fully five minutes by the clock, checking different angles and using a small hand mirror to see how it looked at the back.
Mr B was matter of fact, but unenthusiastic about the style, which I had actually started to rather like. I suspect he was simply exhausted by the subject and my anxieties. Then came the terrible doubt, of which I still cannot free myself: had I managed to get my hair into an elegant, almost 19th century style, or did the plaits just make me look like a rejected extra from an especially bad cinematographic adaptation of Miss Spyri's Heidi?
The most important question of course, was the one I didn't think to ask. "How long will it last?" And that makes two mistakes I won't make again...