When I’m on vacation, I do it all the way. Not only does my physical self go off-duty; my mind, too, takes off on a leave of absence I know not where. This means that one summer when I as a young mother was visiting relatives in America, it was very hard to carry my children’s dishes to the sink, and hard to move their dirty clothes out of the laundry hamper into my mother’s washing machine. Thinking, too, was not my style – a disappointment to our various hosts because as a representative of the Israeli Perspective, my opinions of the Oslo Peace Process were occasionally solicited regarding “The New Middle East” and “Israel’s intransigence.”
So on our day in Long Island with Aunt Sophie at her condominium apartment, perhaps she should have known better than to remark that in spite of the lifeguard, the children weren’t allowed out back by the swimming pool unless accompanied by an adult. With hindsight I realize why she thought that I, as their mother, was somehow the one to assume this responsibility. But Sophie had always been the great dynamic anchor of our extended family; an indomitable source of strength; the revered matriarch upon whose tireless energy we all depended, and just as I was about to get up off the couch, a photograph album on her coffee table caught my eye. What an amazingly interesting album! Sophie and Sam before their engagement, their sons Michael and Bobby as little boys in summer camp, my parents in the first years of marriage, my sisters as teenagers, my father as a four-year-old….
I remember glancing out to the yard and was just about to go round up the kids, when they came walking across the grass with Sophie, in their wet bathing suits, already on the way back. I thought: good, they’re getting to know her, and the album and I stayed put on the couch.
Then there was that incident with the key. All of us were getting ready a little later on to go visit Michael and his family in the next town, and everyone had gone out to the car except me. I heard their voices outside, I had my purse, I had the children’s sweaters. I do remember pausing to wonder if I should go ahead and close the door, then I looked around, shut the door, and proceeded to the parking lot.
Sophie, who’d been loading the car, straightened and turned in my direction. Her face fell. “You shut the door?”
“I didn’t take out my stuff yet! My purse is inside!”
For the next hour, the children and I sat on the curb and melted in the sun as Sophie walked round and round the condominium buildings, searching for the office manager or for someone with a master key. I remember now how she looked – my aunt was then in her late seventies– walking around with what I realize now was considerable strain, hands on hips, lips pressed together in concentration, squinting in the hot glare (her post-cataract operation sunglasses were in the house). “I’m sorry,” I told her on one of her trips around the buildings. “I’m so sorry, Sophie.” She waved a hand to dismiss my worries, focused as she was on just trying to get into her apartment. “Can I help?” I offered the next time she came around. She shook her head distractedly, and I thought to myself, “She should really try to make me feel better about it. How was I to know the door locks by itself?”
At Michael’s house later that evening, I decided for the sake of our relationship to come clean and have an honest talk. “You know, Sophie, when I apologized to you for locking us out, I wish you’d been more forthcoming about accepting my apology. I did feel terrible.”
She took her hands out of the dishwater and rested them on the edge of the sink. “Sarah,” she said, her brown eyes locking quietly with mine. “It wasn’t the key so much. It was the way you just assumed someone else could watch the kids when they were in the pool.”
“Oh,” I replied, taking it in. “I see. I’m sorry.”
Then she died.
Not right there on the spot, of course, and of course I wouldn’t be so silly as to suggest it had anything to do with the strain of that afternoon. But that was the last time I saw Aunt Sophie. Upon our return to Israel, my mother called with the news that she had died of a heart attack on Friday night.
* * *
For the sin we committed in Thy sight unintentionally, reads the Yom Kippur Machzor. For the sin we committed in Thy sight willfully or by mistake. For the sin we committed in Thy sight for casting off responsibility.
I didn’t do anything so terrible, I reassure myself, it could happen to anyone. Be more forgiving of yourself! I was so overtired. It was my vacation, much needed, much deserved, and I did apologize. Couldn’t she have made me feel better about it, after all?
But it’s I who got pinched by the belated understanding: in a world in which all things except memories are secretly fragile and shockingly temporary, there’s no such thing as being on vacation. The mental movie’s still playing, nineteen years later, of her in her pink shirt on the green lawn, eyes downcast, eternally walking toward me as she returns from the pool.
It’s I and I alone who must live with the image – more precise than in any photo album – of Aunt Sophie circling the Long Island condominium again and again, perplexed, thwarted, squinting into the heat of a July afternoon.
Reprinted with permission from Don’t You Know It’s a Perfect World (1998). Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. She teaches writing in Israel and the United States.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.