Lessons learned as daughter became a woman during her bat mitzvah

Ava Villalpando celebrates her bat mitzvah on June 3, 2017. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

Last weekend, while parents all over Austin were having their own moments of overwhelming pride as kids walked across graduation stages, held their diplomas and turned their tassels from one side of their cap to the other, we were having our own coming-of-age ceremony: a bat mitzvah.

It’s a ceremony where my 13-year-old daughter, Ava, stood up in front of friends, family and members of her synagogue and led the worship service as an adult. Now in the Jewish faith, she’ll be able to do everything that her mom and grandma before her can do: Read from the Torah, be counted as a member of a minion, fast for Yom Kippur, etc.

These coming-of-age ceremonies — be it a graduation, confirmation, quinceañera— are important. It’s not just about the party, though there was a lot of discussion leading up to it about who would be invited, what the theme would be and what food we would have.

Instead, it’s about marking time and celebrating the person she is growing up to be.

Here are 10 things I learned watching my daughter become a bat mitzvah:

Ava Villalpando celebrates before her bat mitzvah on June 3, while her parents watch her. Carol Calvery/For American-Statesman

1. It’s not about the actual day, it’s about the struggle to get to that day. We had to canceled Ava’s original bat mitzvah date. Her health had declined and it seemed like an insurmountable task to learn Hebrew, learn the prayers and how to read from the Torah, even to focus on writing a sermon in English. It all felt like so much. Even the kid who doesn’t have chronic illnesses, struggles in some way to reach this day. The struggle makes the actual day even sweeter, even more unbelievable, even more filled with happy tears.

2. The days are long, the years are incredibly short. It feels like yesterday when I was pregnant with her, bringing her home from the hospital, rocking her to sleep. And yet, every day with a teenager can feel like a century. Hold on tight. We might go from crying to happy in five minutes flat. In other words, it’s not that much different from when she was a baby, except she can mostly feed and dress herself. When you’re in the thick of it, you often lose perspective on how far she really has come.

3. Your children are listening to you all the time. I heard her parrot back words of advice I had given her to another person and not in a sarcastic way. Amazing! All those values you’ve been trying to instill, they show up, and in glorious, unexpected ways.

4. Traditions matter. I never thought she would want a tallit (the prayer shawl) or a kippah (the head covering), and yet, she wore the ones her grandmother brought back from Israel with pride. I wasn’t sure if she really knew the service, and yet, I caught her singing along with tunes she hadn’t practiced. I also caught her brother, three-years post-bar mitzvah singing along as well, too.

5. Your kids have deeper thoughts that you probably give them credit for. Ava’s sermon was all about loving who you are and not having to be perfect. That’s a hard thing to know at any age, but especially hard to take in as a middle-school girl.

Ava Villalpando celebrates her bat mitzvah on June 3, 2017, by eating ice cream and talking to her uncles and brother. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman

6. Your kids really do appreciate all the hard work you do. Sometimes they forget to say so, but when they do, it’s especially sweet. Ava walked into a reception hall that took her dream of a zoo-themed party in a red motif and turned it into reality. Red tablecloths with red candy bags and only red candy and stuffed animals as centerpieces, I can make that happen. “It’s beautiful, Mom,” she said to me as she walked in the room. No eyes rolled, no muttering under her breath or deep sighs. I got the Ava seal of approval.

7. It’s important to have a community. All throughout the day, I kept introducing Ava to women who I would literally say, “She diapered your butt when you were little.” They have consistently been there, been my sounding board, worried with me and prayed with me over this child. You cannot get through motherhood and your child cannot get through adolescence without an army of women (and men) who will lift you up, be your backup and love your children.

Nicole Villalpando celebrates her daughter’s bat mitzvah with her mother, Tina De Stephen. Carol Calvery/For American-Statesman

8. Genetics is a powerful thing. We’re all who we are by that magical concoction of DNA from the two people that made us. Our mannerisms, our expressions, our philosophies, we share them and those threads come out at weird times. We’re all becoming our mother, becoming our father. I saw this over and over again as I watched my husband’s family and my own family last weekend. I just hope I didn’t blow it for Ava.

9. We don’t mark the good times enough. How often do your family and friends get together? Saturday was this amazing mix of our worlds colliding — family, friends, co-workers — around one kid’s milestone. When’s the last time we threw a party and invited them all? Um, her brother’s bar mitzvah. When was the time before that? Her baby naming, his bris. When will the next time be? It should be sooner, rather than later.

10. Embrace this joy for years to come. So much of our lives is about the mundane. Did anyone feed the cats? What are we having for dinner? Did you do your homework? To have this special moment, this designated day to celebrate one person is important. I kept wanting to slow down the ceremony to really savor it. I didn’t want this unique moment in her life to fade into memory any quicker than I knew it would. The next time I get sass handed back to me, or feel my frustration level hit record levels, or the next truly heartbreaking day of worrying about her future, I will try to hold those memories close to me and know that for one shining day, Ava was truly awesome.


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