This afternoon, I had the opportunity to speak to a very wonderful group of women. I had no inkling that it was I who would be spoken to.
It was a work thing. I was to go and give a lunch-time talk about our organization to a group of elderly ladies at the Jewish Community Center in the city where I work. I had stressed about what I was going to wear. I’d been nervous in the car on the way there. The director of the program had said that there would be about 60 ladies present, ranging in age from 60 to 93.
When I arrived, the women were finishing their ice cream, and chatting amongst themselves at tables. I said hello to this one and that one, all with my professional face on, glowing and smiling. I’m pretty good at putting up the polite societal barriers, draping myself in the persona of my profession. I was oh-so-charming.
The director of the program was wearing a blood-red blouse, fierce glasses, and had jet-black hair. She led me to the lectern, which was designed for a man twice my height. I felt conspicuous. I had worn black sneakers.
One of the ladies came forward to introduce me. The others slowly finished their desserts and then drifted forward to their chairs by the lectern, on canes and walkers, slender hands steadying themselves on the backs of metal seats. As all of this was very slowly happening, the woman who would introduce me silently read my bio, a little nothing that I had self-consciously cobbled together earlier this morning. She looked up at me and said, nodding, “You, are a very special lady.” I smiled, looked down, and then we exchanged a glance.
That glance… Her eyes pierced though the polished persona in an instant, leaving me vulnerable and clumsy. She, she was indescribably beautiful. A tiny little thing, not more than five feet tall, with lovely coiffed hair and translucent porcelain skin. Her eyes…
Now, I have to tell you something here. When you are raised by a pathologically narcissistic mother, you have never, ever, heard the words “I love you” without suspicion. They are always followed by a demand, a slap (or worse), or a painfully manipulative cruelty. I’ve spent my entire lifetime hiding behind a wall, unable to hear love, unable to trust it. But, I’ll tell you this, I’ve peeped out from my fortress for each of my 52 years whenever I’ve heard a kind voice, hoping… hoping…
This lovely woman slowly walked the three steps to where I was standing, and carefully, gently, reached up to touch my face. “You are a very, very special lady” she said again. She patted my cheek. She patted my arm. She took my hand in hers. I confess, I pretended for a moment that she was my mother, drinking in the feminine kindness that radiated from her, devouring it like a cool draught of water, stolen in the desert.
Then, this graceful, beautiful woman said softly, “I survived the holocaust.”
My tears came hot and insistent behind my eyes. Fighting the urge to kiss her hands though the tears, I said to her, “I will tell my son about you, about having met you. Many of his father’s family did not survive.”
“Do you know what the most important thing is?” she asked, patting my hand, her grey-blue eyes dancing, “I have learned one thing in my life. You tell this to your son. The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.”
My son and his girlfriend came by the office this afternoon. He wanted to borrow a few dollars for some medicine. His allergies are acting up. I told him the story, and passed on the old woman’s words. He stood in my office and wept.
The most important thing, the most important thing, is love.