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Faith to Grow On

A mother at her wits' end discovers that personalized prayers help her daughter through the trials of adolesence.


It was a plea she couldn't ignore, coming as it did in the dead of night from a 13-year-old in deep despair:

"Mom, I need a new prayer."

The request from her older daughter shocked Celia Straus, as did her attempts to comply.

"We were not a religious family," Straus says. "I'm Episcopalian, my husband is Jewish. To avoid the issue of how to raise our kids, we practiced neither. The children grew up with nothing." That is, nothing except the little bedtime prayer she'd taught them as toddlers:

Bless me, God, the whole night through.

Bless my mommy and daddy too. . . .

And thank you, God, I humbly pray

For all you did for me today.

It had managed very nicely, thank you, until Julia hit 12.

"We were close until then," Straus recalls. "She was a happy child.

"But then her behavior changed. She stopped communicating, lost confidence, worried about her looks, her schoolwork, her friendships. She decided she was ugly because she had braces, pimples, her body was changing. She sat up worrying instead of sleeping at night."

When Julia's growing pains started, all bets were off about their great mother-daughter relationship.

"I'd whine at her, 'Julia, why aren't we close? Why don't we talk any more?'

"She'd say, 'Whatever, mom,' in that awful, sarcastic voice. Then she'd throw me the stony cold stare that only a 13-year-old can muster. Then she'd ignore me."

Straus perceived her daughter's midnight request as a straw worth grabbing at. So she quickly wrote a prayer in the form of a poem and left it on Julia's pillow the next day. Then she wrote another and another--one a day for an entire year.

That collection of prayers has become a hit book, now in its fourth printing: "Prayers on My Pillow: Inspiration for Girls on the Threshold of Change" (Ballantine). The book also has spawned a Web site (, which receives up to 35,000 hits a month, some from girls who have read the book and want Straus to send them prayers to help ease their own problems.

In essence, Mama Straus now has a second career with her online youth ministry, as prayer-meister to a legion of girls seeking comfort for the inevitable changes that occur as adulthood approaches.

All these changes in her own life are almost too much to contemplate, Straus now says. She is still surprised that her daughter sought solace in such an unexpected way--and that she has been able to supply it, not just to her own child but to thousands of others.

"I've been so humbled by this--by the fact that Julie accepted the prayers on faith, that she shared them with her sister Emily [who was 9 at the time], and then allowed me to put them in a book to help others. I'm humbled that the prayers worked. To me, it's a gift I didn't deserve."

Until the book came out, Straus' sole career was writing documentary films, working from home in Washington, D.C. It may sound like a low-key lifestyle to those who leave home each morning for work. But during phone interviews, it is clear from Straus' frenetic tone of voice and rapid-fire speech that she's probably just as stressed as mothers who are away all day.

"I do work constantly," she says, "but for a long time I felt proud that I was here when the children needed me." Indeed, Straus felt her availability was one reason she and the girls had been so close.

Forget about it.

Daughter Julia, now 16, says she saw no advantage to her mother's physical proximity.

"Sure, she was around the house. But she was always busy. We didn't discuss important things," Julia said in a separate interview.

"I was in seventh grade, which is a tough year. I had changes going on--with friends, with school, with me. I often wanted to talk to my mom, but she never really had time. We'd talk at dinner and again before bed. But it was never anything personal or deep."


Then came the night when Julia, beset with undefined agonies, sought her mother's comfort. Neither knew how to bridge the gulf between them, Julia recalls. But during their talk, the girl remembered the prayer she used to say when she was little.

It had brought her solace, made her feel safe. Now it was insufficient. Without really thinking, Julia says, she asked for a more grown-up replacement. She never expected her mother to remember or respond.

Straus recalls what happened next: "I knew my daughter thought I didn't understand her. But I also knew that her problems were exactly the same ones I'd suffered at the same tormented age. I reached back and tapped into my own unhappy memories. I went back to the time when everything I'd counted on--my looks, my friends, my family--all suddenly seemed to change. I couldn't trust anyone or anything."

Straus wrote a prayer and left it on Julia's pillow. It began:

I think I'm afraid to grow up, God,

For I see how much pain there could be.

I want to stay young and protected.

I'm scared that I'll lose what is me.

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