Many years ago, when I decided to become an observant Jew, someone asked me how I knew God existed. I thought for a moment. No crimson sunsets came to mind. No radiant gardens, star-filled skies, or babies’ births – not even chocolate. I answered his question by relating a memory of a middle-aged woman tenderly feeding her elderly, incapacitated, incoherent parent. The woman lifted each spoonful to her father’s lips with the exquisite grace borne of profound care and respect. I suppose I was saying that it is to the extent that we actively demonstrate and appreciate how deeply we care for one another that we will feel God’s existence. It was during my visit to Toby Bachman last week that this long ago insight made its way from my head to my heart.
Lately my mother has been calling old friends, some she hadn’t spoken with for years. It’s something she needs to do since my father, her husband and beloved companion of nearly sixty years, left this world three months ago. My parents met in a Displaced Persons camp shortly after the war, after most of their families were brutally murdered. My mother lost everyone. My father was more “fortunate.” One brother survived the camps and another waited in America. My father became my mother’s rock in this world.
My mother asked me last week if I knew what ever happened to Toby Bachman, an old family friend with whom she had lost touch. She had repeatedly tried phoning her, but kept getting the same recording informing the caller that the number has been disconnected with no further information. I felt compelled to help her find Toby.
I found her son Robert’s phone number on my wedding invitation list, which I had saved in my ever-growing do-not-throw-away pile. Since I married late in life, I drew from several decades of human connections. Toby and her son were among the earliest.
I remember, as an eight-year-old, sleeping over at Toby’s apartment, when my parents went on vacation to Israel. Her, then, teenage son, also then, nicknamed “Bobbie,” favored me over my sisters, which despite the not-so-slight guilty feelings this stirred, suited me just fine. With one exuberant leap into the living room, Bobbie made it clear that he was there to entertain me. Toby and I reveled in her son’s adept version of the best of the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan Shows. “Ello. My nem Hosay Heemenez!” I gobbled up the attention and knew my eruption of hysterical little-girl giggles won me ever greater affection. Before bed, Toby asked me to talk about myself, what interested me, and about my life at home. I opened up a crack or two, but hesitated shedding my protective shield; I knew I would soon leave this all-too-brief hiatus from the painful world of the invisible. For that moment though, I was a little “Momeleh” whose head gets stroked and then kissed before sleep; I hermetically sealed the feeling deep inside me.
Those nights at Toby’s wrapped a comforting balm around a childhood fraught with neglect from Holocaust-damaged parents, both bereft of the emotionally wherewithal to healthfully love a child. I call on that memory when I find myself searching for evidence that someone somewhere delighted in getting to know me during those crucial developmental years. Unfortunately, Toby and her son couldn’t make it to the wedding. I hoped we’d meet again another way.
Robert sounded pleased to hear from me. I told him about my father. “He was such a good man,” he said. I swallowed hard remembering a man whose very essence was goodness. “How’s your Mom doing?” He paused before telling me that Toby had a stroke a year prior and was living in a nursing home a few miles from his home. I could now taste a desperate desire to see her. I asked for the address and said that I would really like to visit her soon.
A huge nondescript red brick complex sat absolutely institutional-still amid towering trees and manicured lawns. I thought of its elderly occupants, at best placed for safe keeping and at worst abdicated burdens. If buildings could talk, this one would be weeping. My husband and I parked and entered. We walked through hallways lined with photos of oversized flowers and a “day room” filled with TV starers, attempting to connect to a semblance of life. I longed to behold Toby’s kind face. As we approached the information desk on her floor, a woman called out from her room. “Excuse me, rabbi.” Often, in the world out there, a black hat, yarmulke, and beard warrant ordination. My husband smiled, accepting the momentary semicha. “I like your hat,” she said. No pressing halachic inquiry, just a congenial compliment, an outward gesture, to welcome another into her solitary world. We introduced ourselves to Esther Feinberg. “Come! Let me show you my apartment!” We gladly followed behind, as her fervent desire to share struggled against a faltering stride. The modest room housed two single beds ( one for her “apartment-mate” ), a bathroom, and a few photographs. She proudly introduced us to her photographs, we thanked her for the privilege, and as politely as possible hurried to resume our original journey to Toby’s room. As we left she excitedly called out to us, “I really like that hat!” I wanted to give Esther Feinberg so much more. I wanted to embrace her with a round-the-clock hug – reassuring her that she was not alone. But she was.
Finding Toby’s room empty, we asked an attendant where she might be; the attendant pointed to a large window-enclosed dining room. Amid the sea of tables and chairs sat a little lady with a sweet-faced smile seated before a plate of meatloaf and baked potatoes. She noticed us too and continued smiling, searching her mind, wondering who we were. As I walked toward her, my pace quickened; I couldn’t hold back the torrent of love rising inside of me, racing past the days and years to this moment. “Hello Toby. I’m Joseph and Masha’s daughter, Becky.” It took a second to register. “Oh my God!” She remembered. I kissed her soft cheek and wrapped my arms around the person responsible for connecting her joyful spirit to my own in the very beginning, when I needed it the most. I realized I had come to shower her with some of the riches from her generous investment.
I introduced her to my husband and showed her some old photographs of my parents and sisters I had brought, counting on the sharpening of long term memory. Her eyes gazed beyond the photos’ surface to a time she remembered well and missed deeply, days when she felt more connected to the world, with the future still a loving promise from a trusted friend. Her eyes and mouth beamed. “Joe! Oh Joe.” That was my Dad. She too recalled his inimitable charm. Toby looked up and blew me multiple kisses. “I love you,” she said in her warm raspy voice. I had that rare and distinct feeling that I was in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing. And the best part was I had the soul-sense to put myself there.
We talked about the summers in the Catskill Mountains, our families’ joint escape from the endless concrete and oppressive city steam. I recalled the welcoming smile and the caressing cry of “Momeleh!” following my screen door slam. A princess proudly donning her crown, I sat myself down at her flimsy Formica table in her bungalow cottage, awaiting the inevitable royal heavenly goodies. Toby loved chocolate as much as she loved sharing it. Toby loved life as much as she loved sharing it.
I urged her to eat some more of her meatloaf, cold by now. She wasn’t interested. I then remembered the present. “There’s always room for chocolate,” I announced and fished a bar from my bag and slid it before her. Even before lifting it, she offered us some. We each took a square, smiling, as we chewed, savoring the perfect embodiment of our sweet moment together. I pulled out my cell phone and asked her if she’d like me to call my mother. “I’d love it,” she said. I dialed the number and watched her eyes widen and body stiffen as she tried to contain something. The anticipation gave way. “I’m so excited!” she said. Toby’s excitement turned to profound gratification as she hungrily absorbed the voice of her longtime friend, who knew well her tragedies and triumphs; the sound of a beloved landsman took her home to her most longed for self. “Masha dahling, I miss you.” I’m sure my mother welcomed the exchange as well; it brought her back to a time my father was very much in this world. They agreed to speak again soon.
We asked to see her room. Like Esther, Toby shared her small space with another resident. Numerous pint-sized plants lined her window sill; the facility’s horticulture activity, no doubt. “What a nice view!” I commented to no response. No matter the window sill foliage, familiar photographs, view or no view; it wasn’t home.
During the drive back, I hurt. I hurt for all the Tobys and Esthers, so starkly alone on their last stretch on this world, facing dark, cold, uneasy nights with their only company the bureau and the photographs. I wanted to call them every morning, visit them every day. I emailed a friend asking if she would bring her child to visit. I asked a colleague to bring her children. I abruptly shut the lights on my worry and asked myself what it was I was really agonizing about. We had brought genuine happiness to another person, actually two; Esther Feinberg, the hat maven. And if I truly cared, then I owned the responsibility to continue. The potential invigorated me; the commitment scared me; the love catapulted me. I’ve called Toby every day since and plan to visit regularly and of course stop in to see Esther “down the block.”
I hold firmly to my answer; I know God exists when I see a person reach out open heartedly to another. In the middle of a typical day here on earth, filled with impatient car honking, cavalier pushing and shoving, unreturned smiles, and bags on bus seats announcing: ‘Don’t sit near me,’ the daughter of Holocaust survivors visits an elderly family friend, whose precious adult attention so many years back taught her she counted. I suppose that’s the essence of God’s message and He wants us to give it to others over and over again: “You are valued!”
Toby’s voice continues to light up with every call. I keep thinking about the other residents and how, to the naked eye, they have so little left in their lives. The truth is their greatest possession, a lifetime of love expressed and unexpressed, is still very much alive and waiting for a most fortunate recipient. I am grateful to be one.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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