Five-year-old Greta Salmi as Queen Esther.
Five-year-old Greta Salmi as Queen Esther.

An eye-opening moment for a 5-year-old Queen Esther (me)

Some things that happen a long time ago stay with us forever.

When I was 5, a long, long time ago, my Hebrew school planned an event to celebrate Purim. This holiday was always fun for us children to celebrate. People would dress in costumes, have parades, make special desserts and pastries, and generally feast and rejoice, that once again, the Jews had survived.

My school decided that all the children could dress in costume and they would have a contest to pick the best of each character. This was an easy choice. A few boys wanted to be King Ahasuerus. A few boys wanted to be Mordecai. A few boys wanted to be evil Haman. All the girls wanted to be Queen Esther.

I am one of three sisters. No one bought costumes in the 1950s, at least not in my world.  My mother made Queen Esther dresses for each of the three of us. I have no recollection of my sisters’ dresses or their feelings about the contest. Five-year-olds have a very narrow worldview. They are the sun of the solar system; everything circles around them. Shamefully, even years later, it never occurred to me to wonder whether my sisters were set for glory, too.

I was in heaven. I was so entranced with my dress, some gauzy pink stuff and a long skirt. I even had a paper crown with glitter on it! I was convinced that I was the most beautiful girl dressed in the most beautiful dress, and that of course, I would win the contest. I never had a doubt.

That morning, after our hour of lessons, we formed a long line and the judges gathered in front, ready to tap certain children on the head, the signal to move forward to the final round of the contest. Today, the comparison to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show does not escape me.

The judges walked slowly toward us. When they came to me, they didn’t stop.  I was stunned. I never ever expected that to happen. I could not believe that these dimwitted adults couldn’t see that I was the beautiful Queen Esther, and that, of course, I should be tapped to step forward and win.

I didn’t cry, although I was known for crying at just about everything. It was such a moment of disbelief.

“Mommy,” I had begged, “Please take my picture before Sunday school.” I had wanted to memorialize this momentous event. And now, years later, I still have that photo, grainy in black and white, with my little white socks and Mary Jane shoes peeking out from under Queen Esther’s ethereal skirt.

It is a very serious picture. I am not smiling. I am serene and confident. I am royal. Except that, really, I was just a round faced 5-year-old with delusions of grandeur.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to hear that I never entered a beauty contest again. I entered speech-and-debate competitions, and essay contests. I even competed to be a cheerleader in high school and ran for office in student government, but I learned my beauty contest lesson early.

Now, looking back, I think: What kind of adults have beauty contests for small children? Did they know anything about fragile little egos or did they think these were harmless exercises preparing us for the real world? There are better ways to learn life’s hard lessons.

A friend and I were looking through some of my iPhone photos the other day. “You know,” she said, “I am always surprised when I see a picture of myself and I don’t look as good as I think I look in real life.” And I replied, “That’s funny, because I see a picture of myself and I am surprised that I look better than I think I look in real life.”

Memories of Queen Esther. We so often let others determine our self-image and self-worth.

I am not bitter about that childhood experience. It is even a funny story to share now as an adult.  I told my husband about this memory one day, 63 years later. I was making hamantaschen for Purim.

My husband listened carefully. He has a rare form of muscular dystrophy and, at the time I shared the story with him, could not really move much at all. But, somehow, he cajoled me into getting that little photo of my 5-year-old self out of the album and showing it to him, and he watched where I put it away. When I was out doing something, he found the photo again and talked his daughter into using her technological expertise to make it into a card.

The card read: “You will always be a Queen to me.” And he gave me that lovely, special card for a gift.

And so, who cares if I won the contest? I am learning to appreciate my image in the mirror and in photos. The sweet ending to this story is that in love, I am truly the winner.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Greta Salmi
Greta Salmi

Greta Salmi is a retired school principal now working part time coaching new school administrators. She lives with her husband in Morgan Hill.