He was an old man forever.
When I was three, four, five, he would psst me over to the wooden lattice division separating the women from the men in our synagogue and I left my mother’s side to tuck my fingers into the holes of the divider while he asked me questions in a heavy Eastern European accent that I had trouble understanding. His voice grated against my ears in a friendly way. He sounded the way my grandfather’s unshaven kisses felt and sometimes I thought that he was my grandfather, too, a third grandfather placed in Columbus, Ohio specifically for my convenience to compensate for the great physical distance of the other two.
“Give me a kiss,” he said, and I leaned dutifully over the barrier to touch the faded cheek with my lips and receive my due in return: a candy in inflexible plastic shoved roughly and lovingly into my open palm.
When I was six, seven, eight, he called me over in exactly the same way but now I had been conditioned to wait for the whisper. I expected it. And now I was old enough to know that he was a hero, because he had survived a dark place whose name I couldn’t pronounce but it sounded evil in my ears, the way my mother said it. On Yom Kippur eve she rushed us to the synagogue to catch him at just the right moment, after he had donned his kittel but before he entered the sanctuary on the men’s side, not that being on the men’s side ever stopped him from talking to us. And she would say, “Mr. Weinrib, will you give my girls a bracha?” He put his hands on our heads – somehow he had enough hands for all three of us – and he offered us scratchy-voiced blessings in Polish-accented English that all the helping verbs had dropped out of because he didn’t need any help. We felt strange standing there under his hands as if his wrinkled fingers could transmit the happiness and success that his words promised us into our bodies. When we asked our mother why we did it, she said that God listened to people like him. God couldn’t refuse him anything.
When I was nine, ten, eleven, I was embarrassed to go over to the barrier when he hissed at me out of the side of his mouth because I didn’t make forays into the men’s section anymore, not to relay messages to my father and not to ask the other old men with limitless stashes of sweets in their deep coat pockets for handouts. But I didn’t need my mother’s nudge to know that he was an exception, that I would still lean over the divide to tell him that I was studying hard, that I liked school, and I would still put out my hand when he said with a slight upturn in the corners of his mouth, “I have something for you.” As if it were a surprise. He grabbed my hand and there was the scratch of a plastic wrapper on my palm, always, so I curled my fingers around the gift and said, “Thank you,” and returned to my seat feeling awkward and pleased. Maybe it was a soft candy, one of the round jellies covered in sugar whose oversweet taste I had long ago outgrown, and maybe it was hard, an opaque butterscotch disc that I cracked between my teeth as I prayed.
When I was fourteen we switched synagogues. Now I only saw him once in a while. We would meet walking in opposite directions toward opposite centers of worship, and I would stop and lean down to give him a kiss but there was no more candy, now, only sometimes when he remembered. I turned eighteen and left Columbus. The few times I came back to visit I rarely saw him, but when I did he was in a wheelchair and he asked me about my travels in Norway even though I have never been to Norway. “That’s my older sister,” I said, but eventually I stopped contradicting him and nodded and smiled when he asked me questions. Yes, Norway was good. Before I left him I stooped down to kiss his cheek and the distance my face had to cover in order to reach his felt like a journey. I had always needed to lean down because the women’s section in my old synagogue was on a raised platform but this was different. I bent myself in half to put my cheek against his and he had trouble craning his neck to give me a kiss back. There were no candies anymore.
On Monday my mother called to tell me that he had passed away. I nodded and thanked her for calling and only an hour later did I realize that the gentleness of passing really meant the violence of being gone, and then I cried. The world was suddenly a little darker and the cold outside was a little sharper and another survivor has proven that even survivors don’t survive forever, but no matter what they write in the paper tomorrow, this is not just another survivor. This is the forever old man who watched me grow up and paid for kisses with sugar and growled, “I love you” over the mechitzah once a week even though I was too old in the end to tell him I loved him back. Or maybe too young. I woke up on Tuesday morning to pray extra hard because now God doesn’t have to listen to us anymore.
This is really beautiful. I love this line, “The world was suddenly a little darker and the cold outside was a little sharper and another survivor has proven that even survivors don’t survive forever.” Thank you for sharing.