One day a telegram came. I signed for it, since my parents were out, opened it, and read that my father’s mother in Israel had died. “Gathered,” said the message, “unto her people at age 102.”
She had given birth to my father at a very late age, in the tradition of our matriarchs -- and what was she -- if not a matriarch? My father had spoken of her as of a saint.
I thought the news would be unbearable for my father, so I decided not to show him the telegram. I thought it best that he never know about his mother’s death. What good would it do him to know?
I hesitate to call her my grandmother because I never met her and, as far as I knew, she never knew I existed. We were not a close family. My father seldom wrote to her, if ever.
But she was a legend, in the vein of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel.
She had been a woman of Biblical beauty and virtue. There was a picture of her, seated on a bench, next to her husband, somewhere in the depths of Poland. He, long gray beard and lively eyes, had the appearance of a prophet, and she, yes, she was the image of a Jewish saint. She was truly a woman of another world, a world that existed no more.
I thought by withholding word of her death I would be preserving that world for my father. Enough of his past had collapsed. Why pain him even further?
So I kept it a secret for days and weeks and thought to go on like this forever. He’d never know, I thought. I was doing a great mitzvah, so nobly keeping the grief to myself.
Then, somewhere in my clothes, my mother found the telegram.
She asked, “What is this?”
She could not read English, so I told her. I told her everything, and as I explained my reasoning it occurred to me that I had done something terrible. I had performed no mitzvah. I had committed a sin.
I was overtaken by guilt and fear. This thing that I had done could not be undone. Upon such news, shiva had to be sat, kaddish had to be said, all at prescribed times. That time was lost.
For an instant I thought to enlist my mother in my conspiracy. But I dropped that scheme when I beheld her astonishment. I awaited the scolding, but nothing came.
That night I went out to visit a friend. On my way home the heavens opened, as though a celestial zipper had rent the sky. From utter darkness came incredible radiance. When I realized what was happening, it was over.
Wait, I thought. Wait. Wait. I want to see more. I want to see what’s inside.
Somebody, it seemed, was showing me something, but I lacked the eyes to see. Was it a sign? This much I knew: It was not lightning. No, much too deliberate. What’s more, this was not a flash, but rather a brilliance -- showing, or wanting to show, the answer to every secret.
My father had once said that when the world was created it was 56,000 times brighter than today. God had dimmed the world after the sin of Eve, our first matriarch, and would rekindle the original light when the earth, or perhaps an individual, was deserving.
When I got home my father was in his socks, in belated mourning for his mother. He had been weeping for her, but as for me and my sin, he was sympathetic. He said, “You silly child. You should have told me. But you meant well and what’s done is done.”
I told my father how the heavens had parted. That it had happened on the day he was praying for his mother’s soul -- I said that must be coincidence.
He said there was no such thing.
Copyright Jack Engelhard, Escape From Mount Moriah.