My Great Aunt Ella was a legend in her own time. “The Johnny Appleseed of chessed,” one irreverent cousin once declared, after reading a book about the well-known figure, and the name stuck. In our family, Aunt Ella was the soft touch, the gentle, kindly soul that could see no harm in anyone, even boisterous ten-year-old boys who tracked mud into Mom’s spotless kitchen or rowdy teenagers who pelted each other with the harvest of the lone peach tree that stood in our back garden. Ella, who, in all likelihood, was unaware of the nickname bestowed on her by her impertinent nephew, liked to view herself as a gardener planting seeds of kindness, even in the most rocky, infertile soil. She served on countless committees, collected money for the most obscure charities and visited the lonely and ill.
Years after she had settled in Israel, she decided to return to South Africa for a niece’s wedding. The events of that visit have been added to family lore about that enterprising woman.
Ella sipped a second cup of coffee in her sister-in-law’s bright, spacious kitchen. A plate of warm cinnamon buns perched on the table in front of her.
“So, what are your plans this morning?” Sima asked, joining her at the breakfast table. Ella had arrived in Cape Town, South Africa the previous day for her niece’s wedding, which was scheduled for later that week. It had been five years since Ella’s last visit from Israel, and she was eager to make the most of her ten-day trip. It was December, summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The sky was robin’s- egg blue, the sun a yellow magnet drawing her out.
“I’ve got a long list of things to do, but I’d really like to just go down to the water. I’ve missed the ocean,” she admitted. She loved living in Jerusalem, but having spent most of her life in Cape Town, she longed for the soothing roar of the ocean as it rippled and crashed, the blue green waves that lapped the rocks and pounded the shore. As a child, she remembered spending hours gazing out of the large picture window of her house, which overlooked the sea.
Particularly during its violent moods, the ocean held a special charm for her. She had been awed by the angry waves that leaped like bucking horses in furious storms and swirled ferociously in almost black waters.
“There’s a new mall at the waterfront now. You could do some of your shopping there,” pointed out Sima practically. “You said you wanted to pick up some gifts for your kids. There are some beautiful crafts and handiwork shops you might find interesting.”
“Wonderful. I’ll take a walk down there this morning.”
Ella strolled down the familiar streets of Sea Point, enjoying the pleasure of bumping into old acquaintances. She passed a kosher restaurant, which she didn’t recall from her last trip.
“I might as well pick up something for lunch here. I don’t know what time I’ll be getting back to Sima’s,” she decided on a sudden impulse. A bell tinkled above her head as she pushed open the heavy glass door. A young woman behind the counter smiled sweetly.
“Good morning. May I help you?”
“Yes, thanks. I’d like a sandwich and some salads.” She explained that she wanted the food put in small, disposable containers.
“No problem. Would you like some plastic cutlery, as well?” The sales girl offered helpfully.
“I’m actually going to have a picnic by the water,” Ella confided. “Would you have a box I could put this all into for the meantime?”
“I’ll check at the back, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes.” A short time later, the girl appeared, triumphantly waving a small, Styrofoam box. She arranged the containers neatly inside, and presented it to Ella.
“Thank you so much, I really appreciate all your trouble.” Ella paid for her food, and continued on her way.
Ella explored the waterfront for several hours, wandering around the converted warehouses that had been remade into attractive shops. She marveled at the mass effort that had gone into changing the once rundown waterfront area into an upscale, appealing tourist attraction. When she began to feel her stomach rumbling, she was surprised to see that it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon. She searched for a quiet spot to have her picnic, overlooking the ocean. The waterfront was shaped in an arc, and she found a perfect spot that offered her a magnificent view of the remodeled buildings and the Atlantic Ocean, which also afforded her some measure of privacy. With Sima’s repeated warnings about nimble-fingered pickpockets ringing in her ears, she hid her purse behind her back, concealed by several shopping bags. She opened the deli box, eager to sample the tasty looking salads, when she noticed a small boy standing in front of her. She closed the lid of the box, and examined him closely. A raggedy scarecrow of a boy, dressed in torn, shabby clothes. His enormous dark eyes were two pools of hunger and neglect. Her heart melted with pity at the sight of the scrawny black boy. He held his palm out, and shuffled his dusty, bare feet.
“I’s hungry. Can you give me money?” She hesitated to take out her wallet, unsure of whether the starving boy might not just grab it and run. Taking her hesitation for a refusal, the boy shrugged his thin shoulders and wandered away. Ella picked up her fork, and tried to eat, but a flickering movement caught her eye. Hunched on the end of the bench was the little boy, furtively watching her. She beckoned him over with a wave of her hand. Heartened by the kind look in her eyes, he drew closer, a wraithlike shadow stepping gingerly on the polished stones.
“When did you last eat something?”
“Dunno. Maybe yesterday.” The mask dropped over the pinched features again. Bleak eyes regarded her stolidly. She glanced once more at the white box on her lap, and then handed it over gently to the startled lad.
“Take it. It’s for you.” Not waiting to be told twice, he bolted, clutching the food in grimy hands. Ella saw him at a distance. Crouching near a wall, he shoveled the food hungrily into his mouth, ignoring the plastic fork and knife.
“Well, he certainly needed that more than I,” she thought to herself, as she collected her shopping bags. She began the long trek home, up the hill to her sister-in-law’s house.
The Thursday morning of Tanya’s wedding dawned bright and clear. The birds were chattering cheerfully in the trees outside Ella’s window. The perfumed smell of the blue-headed agapanthus, crimson roses, and bougainvillea that grew in such profusion in the lush garden reminded her that she was back in the Cape. She hummed softly to herself as she dressed for the wedding.
After the chupah, she wandered through the hall, greeting old friends and family members.
“Excuse me, aren’t you Mrs. Schumacher?” It was Jenny Cramer, one of her daughter’s oldest school friends.
“Jenny, how nice to see you again. Yes, I came in for Tanya’s wedding. Yael is fine; I’ll be sure to tell her I saw you. She and her husband live in Jerusalem, that’s right.”
Jenny was chatting easily, telling Ella about her husband and family, when the words ‘Sea Point restaurant’ caught her attention.
“Did you just mention the new eatery in Sea Point?” She asked. Jenny nodded. “Yes, my husband is the manager. He’s been working there since it opened.” Ella smiled.
“I was just there several days ago. The saleswoman was very helpful. The food looked delicious, too.” Jenny was intrigued by her account and curious about her description.
“Most people generally go into a restaurant to eat. Didn’t you taste anything?”
Ella suppressed a chuckle. “You’re right, it was kind of odd.” She proceeded to tell her the tale of her picnic lunch, which had been eagerly anticipated but given away to a hungry-eyed boy.
“I must tell my husband what happened,” Jenny insisted. “He would appreciate a story like that.” She disappeared into the milling crowd for a few minutes, and then returned with a tall, bespectacled man.
“Mrs. Schumacher, this is my husband, David.” After explaining her connection to the older woman, she summed up the incident at the waterfront.
“I’m sorry you never had a chance to eat the food you bought,” David apologized. “I’m really impressed with what you did. Please do me a personal favor, and come back to the restaurant tomorrow. I’d like to treat you to lunch, on the house.” Ella was touched by his gesture, but firmly refused.
“It’s very kind of you, but I could never accept.” At his crestfallen look, she added, “Don’t worry, I would be happy to come back and buy my lunch. But I have no intention of giving away my good deed in helping that starving child.”
“Yes, I see your point. You’ve certainly given me something to think about,” he said pensively.
“Food for thought, hm?” Ella quipped, as Jenny and her husband laughed.
“I suppose I’ll have to find my own waterfront beggars to help. I might just do that,” David mused, contemplatively. Recognizing the determined look in David’s gray eyes, Jenny was convinced that he had already settled on a plan.
The following day, the staff at the deli was given new instructions. Any food not fresh enough to sell was to be collected at the end of the day to be distributed to the local soup kitchen for needy individuals.
Ella returned to Israel, pleased that her good-hearted gesture, like a small ripple of benevolence, had created wider waves of charity and kindness, resembling a pebble thrown in a pool of smooth water. And on a hot, dusty street in the Cape, an emaciated youngster with inky black eyes was just a little bit less hungry after that day.
We weren’t surprised-after all, that was our aunt Ella, the Johnny Appleseed of Chessed.
Sheila Segal teaches in a women’s seminary in Israel, where she has been living for the past 23 years. She enjoys writing in her spare time
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.