Born in a DP camp in Germany at the close of 1948, my parents, who were married in 1945, named me after my paternal grandmother Malka and my maternal great-grandmother Toba/Tova – both of whom perished in the Auschwitz death camp. As a term of endearment, my parents called me Malka-tobaleh during my infancy and toddler years. (As many Yiddish-speaking persons know, a “tobaleh” can also be translated as a “little pigeon.”)
“Malka-tobaleh, mein tayare Malka-tobaleh” – my dear Malka-tobaleh. My mother repeated my name like a mantra, as she lay in the hospice bed with eyes closed. I wished, among other things, that we could go back to her days in the nursing home when we sat in the park across the street, talk and feed the pigeons. Both my blessed parents had a special fondness for pigeons, citing their lifetime fidelity. In our youth, a picnic basket was not complete unless we also brought breadcrumbs to feed the pigeons.
The hospice staff strongly encouraged me to take my cell phone to shul on Rosh Hashanah 2012, but begging Hashem not to make my mom’s yahrzeit on the New Year, I didn’t take my phone. But I did lose my blessed mother – my best friend – at 9pm on Wednesday, September 19, 2012, 4 Tishrei.
The funeral was held the next morning. Shiva was a blur, abbreviated due to Yom Kippur. I could barely see the words of Kol Nidre in the machzor that evening, or the tefillos the following day. The same feeling swept over me for many days to come, as tears filled my eyes repeatedly.
Shiva and the shloshim period ended, and the year progressed. A stone was selected and meaningful words were inscribed on it, including “ateres isha” – the crown of her husband. My father always called my mother “Elkaleh, mein croyn” – Elkaleh, my crown.”
The year was filled with the wonderful memories of my years growing up: the gentle spirit of my father, with his generous heart; the love, friendship, and respect my parents had for one another, as well as for my brother and me; and my mother’s love of life and laughter, her readily giving nature, and her ability to move forward after any adversity.
I remembered sitting alongside my mother’s bed in hospice, apologizing for putting a feeding tube in her. I expressed remorse for the tragedy-filled life she lived: the loss of her entire family in Auschwitz, the loss in 1946 of her first child to sepsis, the need to rebuild from scratch in a new country, and the loss of my father at age 63. As I listed the litany of tragedies, as I perceived them, my mother responded by saying: “Who’s had a terrible life? I’ve had a wonderful life. I had your father for 40 years until he was taken from us. I had you and your brother. I lived to see grandchildren.”
Fast forward to Shabbos morning of Yom Kippur 2013, one year later. I was heading to shul and noticed that a portion of the iron gate surrounding my building’s trees and grass had fallen. I glanced over to the grass where it lay and noticed two blindingly white pigeons on the grass just beyond the fallen gate. One was sitting placidly, and the other alongside him was hopping from foot to foot. I went onto the grass, bent over the pigeons, and spoke with them as a multitude of thoughts crowded my mind. They were dressed for Yom Kippur without a blemish on their white feathers, I thought. It occurred to me that they mirrored my parents’ demeanor and that they were sending me a message from the celestial heavens, letting me know that my parents were reunited, pure, and visiting and comforting me. They were reassuring me that all is well.
I proceeded to shul with thoughts of Yizkor, but with my heart made somewhat lighter by the visit of the two strikingly white pigeons. I felt privileged that I had been given a wonderful gift – a special, meaningful and timely gift in the form of a personal message on this special day.
The visit by the pigeons continues to console me to this day.