Jewish World Review May 25, 2012/ 4 Sivan, 5772
The old lady in black
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | The most vivid memories aren't those carved in stone but the ones etched in the mind. Memory deepens with the years, the way a river carves through rock, slowly creating canyons, revealing old layers, unveiling pain you'd kept decently covered before, bringing it all back.
Sometimes the river cannot be contained and will overflow its banks. You feel the emotions swelling. Maybe on an anniversary, or when you hear a certain song, or for no discernible reason at all. And it all comes back, the joy and anguish of the past cresting in your mind.
The thriving black downtown was a couple of long blocks away, complete with its own stores, restaurants and cafes, newspaper office, movie theater and night life. A different, off-limits world that smelled different, sounded different, looked different, not in any way you could put your finger on, but that was palpable. For white folks, there might as well have been a sign up where that stretch of the avenue began: Not For You.
In short, ours was a typical, all-American neighborhood.
We kids spent a lot of time underfoot in other families' kitchens. Long before I learned it was called baklava when bought at a bakery, I watched Aunt Lillie up the street roll out and stretch the philo dough again and again for baklewi, she called it in Arabic, till it covered the whole kitchen table and drooped over the edge -- to be filled with nuts and fruit before being baked to a flaky brown. The first taste was served fresh out of the oven, dripping honeyed goodness.
There is nothing like food as a preservative of memory.
Years later, I would learn that
I scarcely remember when the war came. In my child's mind, it had always been there. Complete with bond drives and powerful, graphic posters that said
The war suffused all of life on
And few storefronts up, in the back of a dry goods store, there was the old lady in black.
As a child I seldom saw her, but knew what had happened. Her boy Bill had been killed in the war, one of the early American casualties -- of so, so many -- in the Pacific.
No one mentioned his name except maybe the grown-ups in hushed tones. I always stepped toward the outside of the sidewalk when passing her store. To a little boy there was something ominous in her silent vigil. Mourning is foreign to a child. Threatening.
Years later, I would bring my own kids back to visit the old neighborhood -- just to show them where this store or that one had been, and where this family or that one had lived, and where we'd gone to get RC Colas, or how you could hide in the alleys to ambush the other kids when you played cowboys-and-Indians....
And there she was, still in black. Only she was sitting at the front of her store today, and motioned me to bring in the kids. She wanted to know their names and how old they were, and insisted on getting them Cokes. She spoke of people who used to live in the neighborhood. The living and dead and just moved away. It was only then that I realized she could smile.
The river of time had ebbed, revealing a new layer under its dark waters. She still wore black, but I no longer saw her through a glass darkly. The grief still hung on in her visage and bearing, as grief must, but the veil had been lifted. She seemed recalled to life. Maybe it was the presence of the children that did it.
One more memory of mine had deepened and broadened, one more connection was made and renewed. One more soul had reached out -- hers? mine? the children's? Bill's, maybe? The forever young, cut down in their youth, never age. They reappear in our thoughts just as they were, unchanged. Even as those who treasure their memory grow older, then elderly, and then they, too, are gone.
The quick and the dead, the young and old, we all seemed of a piece that brief hour, sitting there in her same old store among what seemed the same old stacks of clothes for sale, talking quietly between long pauses, sipping our Cokes, having our own
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