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"I'm Sorry"

Mishpacha Contributors

Two tiny words to bridge chasms, repair rifts, mend hearts. Five women, and the ways they said, "I’m Sorry"

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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Forgiveness Unfurled 
As told to Leah Gebber

IIt was an ordinary message that came through my website: We were both, ostensibly, strangers. Her youngest son was getting married, she wrote, and she wanted a handmade kesubah for the chasunah. They always write that, their youngest. It’s like their way of warning me that their emotional barometer reads dangerously high. It also means that while with their other children they economized, this time they want it done right. And right means a custom-designed, hand-illustrated kesubah, the text written by a sofer. Parchment, no less.

I felt a little thrill. There’s a special joy in creating a unique piece, allowing your work to reflect that expansiveness inside. In letting myself experiment with design, inks, perhaps even some gold leaf.

I suggested setting up a conference call with her and the chassan and kallah. No go: this was a surprise gift — she’d deal with me directly. A little unusual, but okay. Then, as I took down her details, little sparks of memory flashed in my mind.

This wasn’t just another ubiquitous Feldman. This was Feldman from Pine Grove. And this was the youngest Feldman, a boy. It all fit.

I knew them. Well, not her — her husband, alav hashalom. Years before, at least 20 years earlier, he had taught me science. I remembered him. Oh, how I remembered him, the teacher I tortured relentlessly, cruelly, for a full year.

It wasn’t the subject. Many claimed that science was irrelevant to them, but I never felt that way. Although my present work may seem set firmly on the art spectrum, I’ve studied the chemical makeup and properties of different inks: adding wood tannin to black ink, and different pigments to colored ink to produce a pearl or jewel effect. Science is not so far from me.

 

I unscrewed a bottle of ink and dipped in my fingertip, watched the darkness creep across my skin, staining it. What was it? Why was it, that for every statement he made, I had found a counterstatement? 

For every call for quiet, I’d begin to hiss, and urge my friends to follow suit. For every punishment, I’d coolly defy him further? 

What was wrong with me, that I had taken flesh and blood and human heart and treated it as an object of derision, scorn?

 The next time we spoke, my words were slightly crisper, the quality of my listening deeper. There was an added politeness. As if, if I pitched my voice correctly, chose just the right words, everything would be wiped away. As if it were that simple.

The chassan’s name was Dovid, the kallah’s Feigy. Easy. I suggested either a border incorporating both a harp and a bird, or what I often do, shunting the text to one side to make space for a larger painting; perhaps the text could be wrapped around the dove’s wing tips.

She didn’t like that idea, preferring something more understated. A border.

Even as I wrestled with my memories, I gave her a lower price for higher tier work: I offered her parchment, the best inks, everything included in a quote that barely covered my expenses. I figured it was my way of making amends.

I spent two weeks making sketches, figuring the best way to seamlessly weave in the symbolism, to create a memorable and personal kesubah, to somehow make right everything I’d done wrong. Finally, I was satisfied, and I called in Mrs. Feldman to take a look.

She came in, stood over my desk, looking, looking. Her sheitel was auburn, but her eyebrows were gray. She was older. She was marrying off her son. She was alone.

My mind returned to her husband’s science class. What is it about students that we believe we can categorize teachers as a unique brand of humankind, without wishes, feelings, ego? And if they get angry, we wave an accusation of incompetence, as if to say, well, whatever we did, you deserved it.

September 3, he had entered the class with idealism: He had given us a speech about his great-grandfather who had learned under Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and how learning about the world could enhance our emunah — crucial for the future mothers of our nation, he waxed lyrical. And then he had mentioned that he had made a special effort to be there for our first class, despite the fact that his wife had given birth that morning. A son.

Something slithered in my stomach then, scratched my throat with resentment. A family man. An idealistic family man. And just a few months before, my parents had finally given up on the lifelong struggle that was their marriage. My father had left; taken a three-month furlough in Eretz Yisrael. I had spoken to him once since mid-June, yelling over the phone because of a combination of bad phone plan and worse reception.

I looked at Mr. Feldman’s neat beard, slightly pink eyes, and the happy grin on his face as he accepted the class’s mazel tov wishes. And he became my enemy.

Mrs. Feldman looked at my sketches for a long time. “It’s… infantile. And everyone knows that Dovid Hamelech didn’t play the harp, but the violin.”

Had loneliness made her bitter?

Did she recognize me? Was this some subtle revenge?

As she picked apart my design, I held on to the image of her husband’s face.

“What do you suggest?” I asked smoothly.

It wasn’t much, in the end. It never is. The garland of flowers in each corner should be roses. The harps turned into silver violins. She could have asked me to revamp everything, but she didn’t.

When she left, I was grateful that I hadn’t ruined an expensive parchment by starting to work without her explicit approval.

Then it hit me: Was an inked-up soul any less precious than a parchment? I vacillated, then, between two mindsets — I was just a kid, all kids act up with their teachers, it’s almost a prerogative of being a student. And a messed-up student at that.

And: I was over bas mitzvah, teachers are still people, and I had demonized him, turned him into the enemy, found every way to contradict or undermine him.

As I began the work of illustrating the kesubah, I also collected details of Mr. Feldman’s illness and petirah. During the year of his illness, he had searched tirelessly for shidduchim for his two daughters. They were still young — 18 and 19 — but he wanted to leave the world knowing they were in good hands. When his deterioration grew more rapid, he sent his children to the mall and told them to buy all the clothing they would need for the year of aveilus. And on the morning of his petirah, he instructed his daughters to shower, so they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable during the shivah.

I learned all this and my shame grew. I called my sister, crying. “It’s no good, it doesn’t help. Who am I fooling to think that I can make amends somehow. What was done, was done. Ink on parchment. Unable to be erased.”

“But he wouldn’t have held a grudge. He was bigger than that,” she said softly.

I thought for a moment. She was right. Truly, he was bigger than that.

And then I found another memory. Years after I left his classroom, I was walking into a friend’s wedding; he was entering the hall at the same time. I nodded in greeting. He gave me a wide smile. Stopped. Asked me how I was doing. I wasn’t yet married, but had abandoned the slightly grungy look I’d sported in those days and now I looked the part of a Bais Yaakov girl. We talked for a few minutes, I told him I was taking some art courses, tutoring on the side. He nodded. “I knew you’d turn out well in the end,” he said. “I knew you’d make us proud.”

Was that forgiveness? 

I worked for hours on that kesubah. I added gold leaf to the tips of the doves’ wings, shading them until they looked as if they’d fly right off the parchment. Every petal, every rose, was exquisite. Each violin was shadowed in silver.

Strange, I reflected, that the newborn son who had triggered my animosity was now to be the recipient of my artwork, my heart work. Stranger still, that after all these years, I should be given this opportunity.

When I sent the kesubah to the sofer, I told him it was for a VIP client. When it was finally ready, I felt the soft, leathery parchment, turned the kesubah to the light so the gold glinted. It was magnificent.

I still don’t know if Mrs. Feldman knew any of this when I gave her the kesubah. Maybe she thought I was always emotional when saying goodbye to a piece of my art. How was she to know that between each careful stroke of my pen, I had visited places that had long been buried, yet weighed on me still?

But as I placed the kesubah in her hands and wished her mazel tov, I felt a lightening of spirit, as if those old burdens were carried away on the wings of a gold-inked dove and by the strings of a silver violin. 

 

 

 

Letting Go
As told to Miriam Klein Adelman

All these years later, I knew I had done the right thing. I had followed the guidance of my mentors. Still, sitting in a shiur, hearing Rabbi Mellin explain how we have an obligation to ask for forgiveness — even when we believe we’re in the right — gave me pause.

Twenty-five years had passed since I made that decision. And in twenty-five years, my mother and I had never once discussed it.

Twenty-five years since I had left home for the first time, stepped onto a plane for the first time, on my way to seminary. I was sure it would be one long year of camp. Best of all, I’d be on my own. Away from overbearing mom. The weeks before I left were filled with her stifling care. “I bought you ten rolls of film, that should be enough for the year.”

“I hear winters are cold in Jerusalem. I bought you a pair of hot-pink slippers.” “Don’t forget the lining to your raincoat.” “I’ve packed you 20 cans of tuna fish. They don’t have StarKist over there.” The night before my flight, Mom made me sit and check off the list. “Winter skirts?”

“Check.”

“Summer skirts?”

“Check.”

“Woolen blanket?” 
 
“Check.”  
“Down jacket?”  
“Check. No, wait — where’s my down jacket?”  
“You don’t have it? Why don’t you have it? I told you to put it in this morning!” 
 
Mom started pulling everything out of the suitcase. “It must be in here somewhere. You can’t go to Israel without your down jacket.” 
 
The jacket was still in my closet. I’d forgotten to put it in my suitcase. 
 
“What if you had gone to Israel without your coat? You would have frozen in the cold winter on those mountaintops. You would have gotten pneumonia and probably ended up in the hospital.” She was up to my deathbed when I put up my hand and said, “Mom, I’m not dying. I just forgot to pack my jacket.” 
When I touched down, 6,000 miles from home, I thought I would be free. My mother’s voice, though, followed me, worrying and criticizing. Did I put on enough sunscreen? I would obsess on a trip down south. Oh no, where is my sunhat? I would anxiously think. I had heard of someone who got sunstroke because she didn’t cover her head in the hot sun. And if I didn’t succumb to sunstroke, maybe I’d develop skin cancer. 
Still, I grew that year. By the time summer came around, I knew I wanted to stay for a second year. I wrote to my mother with my request. 
I don’t think it’s a good idea, Mom wrote back. It’s time to get on with your life. How do you plan on marrying a kollel boy if you don’t go to college, get your education, and get a good job? If you don’t come home now, all the good boys will be gone and maybe you won’t get married at all. Remember Myra? Well, her daughter stayed in Israel for four years after seminary. She’s 28 and still not married. You don’t want to be like her, do you?
“Mom, I’m only 18 and I can date from here and start going for a degree too.”

Mom wasn’t happy. Daddy and I want to meet the boys you date, checking them out is not enough, she wrote. And we need to be there to make sure you take your college classes seriously. Mom often used the plural when trying to emphasize a point but truthfully, my dad was the most passive guy you could meet; whatever Mom said was always fine with him. Ultimately, she relented and I got to stay my second year.

By the time the third year approached, I realized I wasn’t ready to return home. My mentors agreed that another year on my own would be healthy. But how to broach the topic with my mother? I took the coward’s path and sent a letter.

I received a sharp reply; Mom forbade me to stay. I would be wasting my life, she wrote. It was time to come home and attend university (like a normal person) and time to come home and date (like a normal person).

What should I do? To stay or to go? I agonized night and day. When I thought about returning home to live under my mother’s obsessive, possessive thumb I panicked. On the other hand, refusing to obey was bringing on anxiety attacks. I clarified my halachic obligation. My rabbi and mentors and therapist were clear: “It’s not time for you to go back. Remain respectful always, but let your mother know that you’re going to follow through on your determination to stay in Israel.”

After I told Mom my decision, she cut off all communication. She even forbade my brother, who was coming to Israel the following year, to have any contact with me. I continued to write, but the letters were returned, with a red stamp: Return to Sender. I worked two jobs to support myself, and gained tremendously, emotionally and spiritually. But still, the rift with my mother took a huge emotional toll and at the end of the year I decided to return home.

My mother was waiting for me at the airport. She held out her arms, hugged me tightly, not wanting to let go. Neither of us said a word about what had transpired the previous year. The silence about those long months in Israel lasted for 25 years.

My mother and I, if not deep and intimate, enjoyed a friendly and cordial relationship. She must have learned something during the years I was away, because she rarely interfered in my life once I was married and  raising my own children. That’s when I realized that, if you weren’t her youngest daughter, she was actually fun to talk to. She had interesting stories to relate and was a great listener.

Privately, I thought about the third-year episode off and on, especially as my children grew older. When my daughter informed me she wanted to remain for the second-year program in her seminary, sharp images of that painful time sprang to mind. I gave her my blessing and the space she needed.

Therefore, it was with mixed feelings and some trepidation that I walked into my mother’s kitchen to bring up this past history. “Mom,” I said, rushing into the subject before I lost courage. “What I want to talk about happened years ago, but I just finished a course on asking forgiveness even for long-past events. It occurred to me that although everything between us has been fine since, I never apologized for what happened the year I remained in Israel against your wishes.”

For a full minute, my mother stared at me. Then she began to cry. She cried for a long time. “Mom,” I muttered awkwardly. I reached out to pat her shoulder, “Mom, are you okay? Mom?” Finally, she composed herself, looked straight at me, and said quietly, “I was devastated. I thought once you stayed that third year, you would never come home. I thought I would never see you again.”

I stood, numb, shocked. Then I began to shake. I never had a clue of the depth of hurt and anger my mother harbored. I never dreamed that she hadn’t ever forgiven me.

“Mom,” I said, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea, I’m so, so sorry.” We hugged. I left a half hour later, my mother smiling as she waved goodbye from the porch. Inside, I was still shaken, but I was smiling, too, grateful that this ancient grudge had been released and forgiven. 

 

Shame on Me
by Miri Hecht

EEmbarrassment is what sits with you for 20 minutes. Or sometimes, even 20 days or 20 months. Once in a while, you think about it, remember it, feel embarrassed.

Shame is what sits with you for 20 years and it’s always there, sitting just beneath your skin, so every scratch or bruise or bump brings it back to the surface.

I hurt someone. Could never let it go because I wasn’t just embarrassed, I was full of shame. And it was there, there right below the surface, never leaving me, never giving me peace. Sure there were moments — days, maybe even weeks — when I wasn’t thinking about it. Births. Bar and bas mitzvahs. Weddings. Life’s most significant moments often intrude. But even so, shame was always building inside, threatening to rain down pain on me.

It was all mine, and only mine. Embarrassments are sometimes, even often, shared. Shame? Not so much. I didn’t share it. It was hard enough for me to live with the recollection. I couldn’t stand the thought of letting anyone else in.

And then, one day 20 years later, I talked. I shared it. Everything spilled out of that storm cloud, in great drops of pain and ice and cold. It didn’t solve anything, couldn’t solve anything, but what a relief. A long-evaded first step on a winding road, and that first step is always the scariest. But if I could do this, take the first step and tell one person, then maybe I could take the second step and tell two.

And then…

She calls.

Less than 24 hours after I share the shame for the first time, she calls me, although I haven’t heard from her in two decades.

She’s in town. She’s just saying hi.

I’m in absolute shock.

I can apologize.

If I have the guts.

I’m scared to death, but I have to do this. How could I possibly ignore the Divine setting of the stage, complete with props and cue cards? I can’t. I can’t. What, throw His gift — sent express — back in His face?

“Do you want to get together for a coffee?” I ask.

“Well, I’m leaving tomorrow, and I really want to go to the Kosel.”

Better and better.

Harder and harder.

I write out what I want to say. We meet at the Kosel, greet, chat, make small talk as we head down to daven.

I don’t know what she’s praying for, but I’m begging for His help to say what I need to say, in the way she needs to hear it. Not too much, not too little. Just to do my part to make it right. There’s no dress rehearsal. This is opening night and closing night in one, and then the curtain will come down.

I back up. Back. Back. Back. Out of the plaza. And I wait. She’s still davening. I reread my speech. I shake. Reread it again.

And then she’s there. “Ready to go?” 

“I need to say something first,” I say. 

I say it. It’s my rehearsed speech but full of fresh heart. I tell her about holding on to 20 years of shame. I tell her about finally sharing it, just yesterday. How less than 24 hours later, she called me. And how I’m sorry if I’m bringing up painful stuff, sorry if I’m getting this all wrong, but I can’t ignore Hashem giving me this one chance to tell her that I’m so, so sorry.

She looks at me for a long time. “Boy, you have guts,” she finally says.

“It wasn’t easy.” 

“No, I can see that.”

“I’m asking for mechilah.”

“I’m moichel.”

One chance. I took it. 

I opened myself up, took the first step, and look at the results. 

Deliverance from decades of shame. 

 

Finish Line
by Tehilla Shapiro

 

Teetering on the brink of insanity. That was me in the months after my traumatic divorce.

Crying on the bus, at the kitchen table, at work. Staying awake way into the night, unable to unwind. Trying to stay on top of all the myriad responsibilities that came along with running a home and taking care of small children on my own. Feeling lost, alone, devastated at the dashing of my dreams. If I made it through the week without falling apart, it was a miracle.

But before I could crash on my couch Friday night and be swallowed up by the oblivion of sleep, there was still one more hurdle to overcome: making it to candlelighting on time.

Er… well, not exactly on time, but at least before shkiah. That was the important thing, right? The siren could blare but I still had plenty of time to finish washing the floor, throw food into the oven, clear the muktzeh items off the table, shower and change, and find Shabbos clothing for my kids.

After all, here in Yerushalayim, that siren goes off way before anyone needs to light, I would assure myself, trying to ignore the guilt that engulfed me each week. In my rational mind, I would never light so close to shkiah, but as I tried desperately to beat the clock, the justifications came fast and furious. No matter how hard I tried, though, I never seemed to make it to candlelighting on time.

It’s not my fault, I told myself as I struck the match, breathless from the exertion. I used to have someone else to set up the candles and now it’s just one more thing to deal with before Shabbos. I used to have someone else around to keep the kids busy and help me clean up and…

All through that miserable spring and summer, I found more and more things to accomplish each week, more and more things to keep me from reaching the finish line. When my neighbor’s four-year-old knocked on the door one Friday afternoon and asked if he could play, I let him in, wondering, Who in the world sends their kid over to someone’s house on Erev Shabbos? Later, as I got to know his mother better, I realized that she assumed I’d say no if it wasn’t a good time. But back then, I was too overwhelmed for the option to even occur to me.

Another week, after lighting precariously close to shkiah, I noticed my bedroom light was still on. Oh no! I can’t spend a whole Shabbos with the light on…. And I need my sleep so badly. Quickly, I had my three-year-old turn it off, pretending not to notice what time it was.

And then came the week when I missed my deadline entirely. I don’t remember what made that week different than any other, but there I was, the minute hand on my watch at the exact point that the calendar said was the cutoff time.

I lit anyway, but the guilt and recriminations attacked me almost at once. How could you have done that? Why can’t you get your act together? What is the matter with you?

I tried, after that, to make it to the finish line a few minutes earlier. I never again lit that close to the red zone, but my Shabbos prep methods hadn’t changed.

Fast forward several months. Slowly I’d come to terms with my new status. I made a few new friends who were also divorced, and I no longer felt so alone. More importantly, I finally found a therapist who could help me sort out all the tangled and torturous emotions battling inside. A measure of calm returned to my life.

But I still hadn’t solved my Erev Shabbos dilemma. I seemed stuck in perpetual last-minute mode.

One day I picked up the phone to call a rav from my hometown. I’d never spoken to him before, but someone had suggested that he could help with a divorce-related crisis I was going through. When I explained the situation, he regretfully told me he couldn’t be of assistance, but asked if there was anything else I needed.

It was shortly before the Yamim Noraim, and the incident from the year before rose to my head. Before I could lose my courage, I blurted out my sin. “Last year I lit candles too close to shkiah. Maybe it was even after shkiah, I’m not sure. What should I do?”

Without even missing a beat, he responded, “That’s what teshuvah is all about.”

There was no shock that I, a Bais Yaakov girl from a good, frum home, could have fallen so far. No reproof, no guilt-inducing recriminations. That’s it? I thought, wondering if I’d heard him correctly.

“So… so what do I do?”

“Don’t people in Yerushalayim light candles 40 minutes before shkiah?” he continued gently. “Why don’t you aim for that time from now on, so you don’t have this problem again?”

“Okay,” I stuttered, and hung up the phone, an indescribable feeling of relief flooding through me. There was a solution to my problem. And it was called teshuvah. I could say I was sorry to Hashem, and He would forgive me. I didn’t have to carry this burden with me for the rest of my life.

That week, I carefully calculated how long it would take me to wash the floor, finish my food prep, and put the house together, and then got started with plenty of time to spare. When I lit candles within a minute or two of the siren, no one applauded (my kids didn’t really know the difference), but I could picture the Heavenly badge of honor being handed down.

And when I recited Vidui in shul that year, I asked Hashem to forgive me for my, gulp, probable chillul Shabbos, and promised to be more careful. No more cheating for me. I was aiming for the siren now, and that was that.

Many years have passed since that heartfelt teshuvah and commitment to start over. I can’t say I always reach the finish line, that is, the candles lit exactly at the 40-minute siren each week, though I certainly try. Some weeks I’m five to ten minutes late; if I’m really behind schedule, it could even be up to 20. But I find that the last-minute things don’t take forever if you know what you’re really aiming for.

I’ve never gotten that close to shkiah again, and b’ezras Hashem I never will. 

 

Circles of Love
by Shifra Leah Kahn

 

How do you apologize to someone who cuts off all contact, someone who is consumed with anger at your actions and feels betrayed, someone you love and will always love?

As a child, I did the only thing possible. Each day, after school, I would stand outside her house and wait, hoping that I would be allowed back in to make my peace. I would walk the crazy paving that had been laid when I was a child. Then, it had been a game to avoid the cracks; now I was trying to repair the cracks in our love.

Day after day, week after week, I would stand outside her house, watch and wait for a sign to show I was forgiven. Autumn leaves collected in corners. Scooping up a handful, I allowed them to waft through my fingers, a cloud of pleading. Winter was bitter. I left footprints of love that were ignored.

It took me a long time to choose just the right card for her birthday. All that day, I kept patting my pocket, reassuring myself it was still there. As I stood there, the warmth of the sun on my back, I visualized the door opening. I would be ushered inside and… I pushed the card through, listened to the sound as it hit the wooden floor — heard no response, not even the tread of footsteps. She knew I was there, but no one dared invite me inside. No one dared go against her word.

I was a child who never fit into a society where the normal family was one father, one mother, two children. We were one father, one grandmother, four siblings and an assortment of aunts who we called “the aunts.” My mother had succumbed to polio after five days’ illness, leaving four children — I, at seven, the oldest — my devastated father, and her grieving mother, my grandmother.

In those days, death meant all vestige of previous life was hidden away deep within drawers or sealed cardboard boxes pushed to the back of wardrobes to gather dust. I was never told my mother had died — and I never asked where she had gone. With the hindsight of time, it was, I realize now, the way they coped with tragedy. I never even questioned when we moved in with my grandmother to her new house.

My grandmother did a brave and selfless thing. She did it for my mother, her precious firstborn. For my mother who, after her father had died, learned to drive so she could help in the family business. For my mother, who had given her the grandchildren that softened her mourning for her beloved husband. For my mother who, in the eyes of my grandmother, would still be alive had my grandmother not refused, against the advice of her doctor, to vaccinate her against polio.

Ignoring the fact that she was in the early stages of multiple sclerosis, she gave our devastated family a home. She took us in, knowing she was destined to become more and more disabled. And as difficult and headstrong as she was, she loved us. I know, without a doubt, she never hesitated to take us in, not for a moment.

Situations evolve, and what was never meant to be, happened without anyone realizing. As my grandmother became more and more disabled, the world of this proud, capable, and elegant woman shrank to one room and the corridor that led to the bathroom. She began to rely on me, trusting me with tasks no child should be expected to do.

She was tall, a head taller than me; when helping her on and off the commode I was frightened she would fall, I grabbed at her clothes like a lifebelt. As time went on, she eschewed any help but mine. I was the only one who saw her frailties, her struggles, and her vulnerabilities.

Even as she struggled, I knew she loved me. I remember laughing together, sitting on her bed and sharing confidences. One day, tired after an interrupted night, I fell asleep on her bed. She struggled, step by torturous step, to reach me and cover me with her quilt. Then she bent over and kissed my forehead.

The burden continued. There was no malice or forethought; I was there, I was a girl, I helped — and helped and helped. Through nights when time after time I rolled out of bed to reposition her legs to alleviate the cramps that must have been excruciating, only to crawl back to snatch a modicum of sleep. Through days punctuated by shrill bells that summoned me to help. My childhood vanished, my schooldays disappeared.

One day I took my life back. I decided to ignore my grandmother’s assertion that “Girls just get married. You can be a secretary!” and fulfil my ambition to become a teacher. To follow my dream I needed to take public exams — study uninterrupted, know that my nights were my own, go to school without feeling guilty that I was abandoning my responsibilities. I cornered my father, saying, “Either we all leave — or I’ll go on my own! It’s your choice.”

And leave we did — to a dark, gloomy cottage with coal fires and damp, a far cry from the home we had abandoned. But to me it was a palace, freedom. I cooked in the miniscule kitchen, laid fires before I went to bed, got up before dawn to coax heat from truculent coals, took clothes to the launderette, ironed shirt after shirt — and it was still freedom.

I must have been the first person to rebel against my grandmother and she was angry, very angry. Even confined to one room, she ruled with an iron hand and I was banned, forever. She would have nothing to do with me. Phone calls were rejected. The door remained firmly closed. But she was still my grandmother. She had given us a home. I loved her — in spite of everything.

From autumn through winter to the promise of spring I stood outside that house, gazing at her window. I could close my eyes and imagine what she was doing, almost hearing her voice as she ordered her world. Once or twice I even thought I saw the curtain twitch and someone look out. But the door stayed closed and I would return home to prepare supper and tackle my homework.

Then one day, with the garden alive with a rainbow of roses, there were vans outside the house. Out of sight I watched, catching a glimpse of my aunt directing the men. They struggled with the heavy old furniture; the dining-room table and chairs, the hall table on which she would place a tiny screw of paper containing two chocolates to sweeten our day, the mirror from the corridor. The house was too big for one frail old lady, and my grandmother moved to an apartment beneath her daughter, my aunt. “Come and see!” said my aunt. And a couple of weeks later, I did. Once again, I stood outside a door, taking a deep breath. I knocked. The door opened.

It was a new start for us both. I was welcomed back without a word. It was a silence that allowed her to forgive while her dignity remained intact. Several times a week I would visit, and we would talk. She never asked for my help — and I never gave it; we became grandmother and granddaughter.

I left for my chuppah from her apartment and even though I wanted her with me, at the last minute she refused to leave the safety of her four walls. I understood, of course I did. Pictures of her with her children show a tall, beautiful woman standing proud. Now she was confined to a wheelchair.

Once I had children, I would pack up a car full of children and paraphernalia, and every Wednesday we would spend the afternoon together. The children would chatter, include her in their games and she would laugh, really laugh. My children brought her the joy she had missed from us, her own grandchildren.

Near the end of her life, I crept into her room. In bed, alone most of the time, she rarely opened her eyes. I took her hand. “Grandma,” I whispered. Her head turned toward me, her eyes gazed into mine. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said. “It was wrong. I’m the one who is sorry.”

I want to tell her that it made me the person I am, gave me the strength to weather life’s problems, that I loved her. But she closed her eyes and drifted away.

I didn’t need to hear her words to know what she felt — how the circle was closed, how we were tied together not in hate, but in love. And in forgiveness. 

 

(Originally featured in Family First Issue 512)

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