A few weeks ago, some delightful Shabbat guests presented us with a simple but striking flower arrangement. Six yellow roses stood in a long, narrow vase, while colored stones nestled on the bottom. On my own, I would not have thought of arraying roses in such a way, but I did see that I could, more or less, duplicate the look.
This past week, using the same vase, I did so. We happened to have a number of out of town guests, each of whom was meeting us for the first time. This put me in the uncomfortable position of accepting compliments on artistic talents that I do not possess. When I deflected the praise with an explanation, I simply sounded artistic and modest.
In the grand scheme of things, this was unimportant. After all, none of our guests are going to hire me to do the floral arrangements for their daughters’ weddings based on their visit to our house. In fact, they probably forgot about the flowers by the time they finished dinner. But I was left with a reminder of how frequently we categorize people based on first impressions that lodge stubbornly in our minds.
Paradoxically, “first impressions” of the people with whom we are closest can form over years rather than instantaneously. For instance, we might pigeonhole two of our children as the shy one and the one who loves the limelight, or perhaps the studious one and the athlete. It’s almost impossible to separate label-fulfilling prophecy from what might have been had we treated behavior at a certain age as simply that – behavior at a certain age.
My second daughter, Rena, communicated quite well with facial expressions and hand motions as a toddler. However, she shunned verbal communication until way beyond the “normal” window. Two years later, we nicknamed her Chatty Cathy when we couldn’t get her to be quiet. Instead of learning from that experience not to stereotype, a few years later when Rena wasn’t thriving in school, I jumped to the conclusion that while she was a lovely child, she simply wasn’t terribly bright. While this assumption serendipitously introduced me to the wonderful world of homeschooling and as such was a blessing to our family, I discovered that it was totally erroneous. Rena was perfectly intelligent. She and the classroom – at that early age – simply weren’t a good match.
When I was pregnant with our next daughter, Rachelle, she kicked so hard that I was often propelled forward a few steps or woken up in the night. Since I was unaware of the baby’s sex, I used to joke that while the baby might be a girl, it certainly wasn’t a lady. Rachelle’s lively behavior in her early years and disinterest in the finer arts of embroidery, sewing and cooking, did nothing to dispel that conclusion.
This week, Rena and Rachelle, along with their respective husbands, Yoni and Zev, celebrate wedding anniversaries. (My husband calls all four of our sons-in-law, along with our son, Ari, “The Great Nobleman” and considers them to be far better sons than he deserves.) Rena and Rachelle as adults are quite distant from the childhood first impressions. Rena’s conversation is interesting and intelligent while being neither too loquacious nor too taciturn. Rachelle is a charming and sophisticated hostess whose Shabbat table is laden with plentiful and delicious food. Had I only known how wonderfully they would grow up, I could have saved myself many nights of worry.
Flowers may be arranged in different ways, but a rose remains a rose and a tulip remains a tulip. Fortunately for us, people grow and change, which means that first impressions can be just as wrong as they are powerful.