After the last of my children left home, I started to walk. The mornings before work were the best times; the cold winds pushed me up the hilly streets, and around the winding roads of Sefat. It was exercise I told myself that I needed, but after a while I knew that I was really trying to walk away from the missing presence of my children. It was not their memories but the ghost of their memories that followed me wherever I went, emptying out my center, creating an undertone of anxiety. I kept walking though, because I was convinced I would find myself, where aloneness defined who I was, not what I had lost.
Leaving home for many of the children of Americans that grew up in Sefat meant going to live overseas. Three of my boys settled in my own home town – New York City. The oldest had left many years before, to settle in Australia with his wife. For me, my kids leaving home meant not seeing their children grow up. It meant photos, and phone calls, and never enough of either. It meant not really being part of their life.
After wandering through the city for a while, I began to climb up the road that led to the Metzudah Park. I rarely went in to the park itself, just followed the road blanketed between trees on both sides. I felt safe there, with the evergreens on one side, sifting the harshness of the wind.
There’s a sound the leaves make, not a rustling but a long soft shushing that seems to come from far away and long ago. And like a child listening to those fairy tales, I felt protected. It was okay, on that road to let the memories come. And though the barren trees on the other side of the road cut the sky with black winter limbs, I walked between the extremes, and felt, somehow, validated.
My mind wandered back to trips among the trees of the Gallil and the Golan, that I used to take with my kids. The excitement of driving in a van up and down the winding roads, the stretch of our breath in the openness of lake parks and waterfalls. I remember the time I watched the children kicking a ball into the sky. I could feel the power of the ball caught against my ten year old’s chest, the way it knocked him down, his face in the grass, rolling over and over, not wanting to let go.
And even now walking alone, I could not let go. I knew I’d pay for it later, when I returned home to the silence, and the memories that I had let in would envelop me with longing. But for the moment, walking between those trees, I felt totally alive again.
Later, in the afternoons at work in the Sefat Candle Gallery, my co-workers often commented on the dullness in my eyes, the heaviness of my movements.
I remember the day, my boss came in as I sat at the register. “Nu. How do you like the new candles?” He asked.
I blinked. “What new candles?”
He stared at me. “Esther, how long have you been here?”
“Since three.” I forced a grin. “Where’d you hide them?”
But he was not kidding. “They’ve been hanging right there in the middle room since the morning.” He looked worried. “What is it with you lately, Esther?”
I shrugged, but I knew what it was. If I tried to stop the memories, I’d feel dead, or worse…I be anxious all the time; if I kept them going I’d never stop mourning. I got up and went to look at the new candles.
Safed Candles was a charmed place, wondrous even, and people came from all over to experience it. Against the background of stone walls, there were candles of every color and shape. Rainbow tapers, crystal flaked pillars, silver tipped flowers, wax sculptures. Flames shimmered from glasses, scenting lavender and vanilla into the rooms.
After working there for so many years, though it was always there in the background, I stopped consciously appreciating the beauty. Or was it because I had stopped seeing beauty anywhere but in the past?
Still there was one place that still held magic for me.
I did not know why the Metzudah road pulled me, but I kept wandering back up there. It was late winter, and something about the trees was changing. One tree on the side of the slope had so many branches that they pulled the trunk completely down, reaching out for me. The branches were an ugly grey but all along the branches tiny shoots rippled. They were the color of newly turned earth. The huge tree down the road had thick black branches reaching upwards, their edges swirled with fingerlike fists.
Something stirred inside me, like the early flutterings of the baby, when you are not sure whether he’s actually kicking or just your own stomach rumbling.
Most of the trees were still closed in on themselves, but with watching closely, one tree after another began to open up for me. I walked beneath them every day, hungry for something. Was it the recollections of my own childbirths, I was obsessed with, or was it something else?
I could not say. But eventually I realized it was not the birth of new buds that I was really looking for. Something inside me ached to be present in the ‘moment before’; in that space of time in between, when the change in the tree is almost, but only almost, imperceptible…
Yet it was such a simple, everyday thing that eventually tore me away from there. One day as I sat in the park itself, resting from my walk, a young woman came in pushing a stroller. Her toddler, with curls of hair slipping from his pony-tail, pulsed against the strap of his stroller. When she released him, he shot out, landed on his bottom, and then ran on wobbly legs, laughing at the dancing of the trees around him.
That was it. So few joys compare to the dawning wonder of a child in nature, and few acts of giving are comparable for the parent who opens that world for him. The pain, always waiting, knifed through me. Trees were only trees after all, not humans who sharing their lives, had once filled mine with purpose.
After a while, even my longing for tree-watching became a sign of how empty my life really was. I found myself wandering less and less up the park road.
It was a few weeks later, that a young woman came into the candle gallery. “Can my friend bring her Labrador in with her?” She asked and then leaning closer her eyes caught mine. “Shimona is blind, and she really wants to pick some candles herself for her niece’s birthday.”
She led her friend in slowly. Shimona was in her mid-thirties, dark hair, dark look on her face.
“Nice dog you have,” I said trying to be friendly. Shimona’s dark expression did not change. It was as if I hadn’t said anything.
Perhaps it was the way she never smiled, perhaps it was the way her younger friend patiently placed every wax sculpture into Shimona’s hand and carefully described every different hue and color…but I realized that Shimona’s blindness was relatively new. She had the bitterness of one who has made no peace with their condition.
They wandered around the rooms, slowly filling the store’s metal basket with different shaped animals. When they came back into the front room, Shimona finally spoke to me. “We’ve been in all the rooms but perhaps we missed some animals.”
“Her niece has a whole collection of candles, but none quite like these.”
I led them into the third room. “Did you see these penguins?” I asked, pulling one from a side shelf. And then I realized my mistake.
But Shimona seemed not to notice. Her friend gently put the penguin in Shimona’s hands, guiding her fingers as she spoke. “Here in the back, it is black, and here,” she led her friend’s fingers to the rounded belly, “its snow white. And the eyes are crossed looking…”
A touch of a smile lit the blind woman’s face. But she shook her head no, and turned slightly towards me. “Do you have something a bit more colorful?”
Colorful. After that, I tried to work near them, following Shimona’s careful choosing of every piece. She ran her fingers tenderly over every object, pausing as she held it in her hand. She was doing the most important thing in the world, and I could feel the enchantment of that moment. Every time she paused over another sculpture, I could feel her thinking. “Does she have something like this? Will she love it?”
Finally, I went back to my desk unable to take in any more. Every piece of wax creation she took in her fingers reminded her of what she could never see again. Every color she heard about, left a hole of darkness in her mind, like the negative of an old photo. And still she chose to come in herself and select every single candle, to be totally involved in the decisions, so that when she gave those gifts to her niece, she could truly share in her joy.
When they were done, I wrapped up half a dozen presents, each in a separate gift bag, and we said good-bye. The door shut behind them. I closed my eyes, trying to understand. But it didn’t belong to the logical mind. Sometimes being present meant allowing the past, with all its lost beauty, to be fully felt. Sometimes it was the only way to move on to the future.
And then, with my eyes still closed, perhaps because my eyes were still closed, I could see the wonder of it.
It was before Passover by the time I went back to my walks along the park road. Most trees were in full bud by then, the tiny green tips already opened into leaves and flowers. Next year I wouldn’t miss this. I would take in every nuance, every change, from the first sign, from the moment before, where the trees shimmer with moist expectancy, to the first bud unfurling against the sky.
I stopped by tree after tree noting their growth, letting the bittersweet sense of loss rinse through me. And then I saw it.
In the shadows on the side of the road, stood a tree from whose branches hung dying shriveled grey pods, like the skin on an aging face, and right beside them, on the same branch, splashes of tiny purple flowers exploded in the sunshine. This can’t be, I thought, something dying and being born at the same time!
Then I thought again.
Esther Rubenstein is a freelance writer whose great love is to pull stories from her life and heart. She is usually inspired by the city and surrounding country-side of Sefat, where she has lived and raised her family for the last thirty years.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.