Latest update: December 11th, 2012
Dear Readers: The long, lazy days of summer are upon us and it’s time to sit back with a cold drink and good book. The following is a reprint of a fictional story I wrote a long time ago. Though it is made up, there are parts that are all too real. Long lost objects have miraculously turned up under the most unlikely circumstances. This story is in memory of a second cousin, David, who was blown up in his tank during the Yom Kippur War. His wife had their first child, a girl, eight months later.
* * * * *
It was the Thursday before her daughter’s wedding and Chana Bendiner had so much to do, so many minute details to attend to. Yet here she was in her attic, blowing the dust off a photo album that had remained buried, but not forgotten, for over 20 years. She stared at the leather-bound cover, gently caressing the embossed gold lettering, unable to open it, yet unable to put it down.
For Chana Bendiner knew that the photos that lay within, unseen for two decades, would unleash a torrent of bittersweet memories, releasing intense emotions from the deeply buried vault in her heart in which she had locked them – an soul-numbing process that had taken years of effort and a deluge of tears.
Inhaling deeply, prepared to have her breath taken away by a tsunami of memories that would flood her inner core, she opened the album book.
Looking up at her with a smile as radiant as snow bathed in sunlight was her 22-year-old self, her blue eyes as bright as the skies over the Kinneret; her hair a honey-blond cascade of curls spilling out from her bridal veil. Chana wryly touched her light brown sheitel, grateful that it covered the grey strands that had stealthily infiltrated her hair.
Her smile trembled and her face contorted as she looked at the young man at her side, her chatan, her golden-voiced Dov, Berel to the older generation. His puppy-brown eyes glowed with life, framed by thick auburn eyelashes that matched his thatch of auburn hair. A subtle brown sheen barely saved him from being labeled a gingi – a redhead.
Both native New Yorkers, Chana Rotgerber and Dov Walbrom had met at a kumsitz melavah malka at the home of a mutual friend in Jerusalem. Chana had been enchanted by his mellow tenor voice as he sat on the floor, strumming his guitar and singing Israeli folk-songs. He in turn could not take his eyes off her. He would later describe her as human sunshine. To their mutual relief and delight, they discovered that both had made aliyah, determined to give of their talents and skills to enhance their ancestral homeland.
The two and a half years of their marriage were of fairy-tale caliber: both delighted in the existence of the other. The “icing on their cake” had been the birth of their redheaded, milk chocolate-eyed baby girl.
“Go figure,” Chana had exclaimed to her ecstatic, peacock-proud husband as she scrutinized her newborn daughter. “For nine months I grow this human being inside me, my waist explodes and may ankles swell – and she’s the spitting image of you! It’s like I had no part in all this!”
“Well at least we know she’ll be good-looking,” Dov teased as he dodged the pillow Chana had thrown at him.
They had named their child Matana. Chana had had her heart set on naming her baby after her mother’s sister, who had perished in the Holocaust. She knew however that the name “Matel” was not quite appropriate for a sabra, and she was delighted when Dov, a bio-engineer with a creative bend, had come up with the name Matana, which was Hebrew for gift. It was perfect, sounding enough like Matel to satisfy the thrilled grandparents, yet preventing the teasing that would have been the inevitable fate of an Israeli child called Matel. Almost immediately after her naming, Matana was nicknamed Mati, and that was what she was called from that moment on.
For 10 months after Mati’s birth, her father would croon her to sleep, composing different tunes and changing the words to suit the baby’s mood. Often her doting daddy would spend hours playing his guitar, tape-recording the music that flowed from his hands. When Chana had asked him what he was so busy with, he told her he was working on Mati’s wedding march. It would be played as they walked her to her chuppah and her waiting chatan.
“Aren’t you a bit premature?” Chana wryly commented.
“I might be too busy when she’s older – with her future siblings, all 12 of them,” he said gleefully, laughing at the shocked look on his wife’s face.
Six weeks later, Dov burst into their home, his face ashen and distressed. It was Yom Kippur, and Israel was being attacked – again.
Chana watched with heart-hammering dread as Dov hurriedly collected his gear and prepared to join his troop. Wordlessly, her eyes pleaded, begged and entreated him to come back to her whole and intact – both in body and mind, so that they could continue the “happily ever after” they had been blessed with.
“I promise you, Chana, I will sing at Matana’s wedding!”
Chana Bendiner shut the album, her throat constricting as she again swallowed a bitter brew of grief. Her Dovi had returned in a body bag, a hero blown up by a mine as he and another medic had left the safety of their foxhole, crawling on their bellies to rescue a wounded comrade. Dov had taken the brunt of the blast – and was killed instantly. The other medic had been critically injured, but alive. Chana, too numb and mentally anesthetized to function, had allowed her distraught parents to take care of all the details as they helped Dov’s devastated family bury half her soul. Her family then moved her and the baby to New York, where they could watch over them and hopefully help their shattered daughter rebuild her life.
Three years later, Chana married a young attorney whose wife had tragically succumbed to leukemia. Like Chana, he was blue-eyed and fair-haired. They made a striking couple. He was also studious, serious and dependable and he adored little Mati. When she turned five and the first of her siblings arrived, Mati was formally adopted by her stepfather so that her last name would match her parents and siblings, ending the intrusive questions that had followed her whenever her mother had registered her for pre- school/camp.
Thus Mati Walbrom became Mati Bendiner.
Now 21, Mati, a high spirited seminary graduate and a junior in college – was getting married. In two days, her chatan, Avi, a med student, was having his aufruf. Her parents would finally meet Avi’’s extended family and were especially looking forward to meeting his Israeli uncle, a decorated war hero and world-renowned trauma surgeon, and his wife, an ICU nurse. While Avi was learning in yeshiva in Israel, he had been inspired by his brilliant uncle to become a doctor.
While Mati did not attend the aufruf, she met her future aunt and cousins at her Shabbat kallah party. Later that evening, while shmoozing, Avi’s uncle suddenly asked his nephew if Mati had been adopted. Before a startled Avi could attempt an answer, his uncle pointed out that anyone who took high school biology would know that it was genetically impossible for a blue-eyed couple like the Bendiners to produce brown-eyed offspring. Avi explained that Mati’s biological father had died in the Yom Kippur War when she was a baby. Avi’s uncle listened intently as he heard the circumstances of Mati’s father’s death, but became highly agitated when his nephew mentioned that Mati’s birth name was Walbrom, and that Mati’s aunts, her father’s two sisters, were attending her wedding. Sadly, her paternal grandparents were no longer alive. The death of their only son had in turn it seemed, shortened their lives.
Was his first name Dov, his uncle whispered urgently? Puzzled by his uncle’s behavior, Avi affirmed that it was. The doctor sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb the miracle he was experiencing, one that meant a 20-year quest, whose elusive resolution had tormented him, would finally, blessedly, come to an end.
During the Yom Kippur War, he had shared a tent with a fellow medic from another brigade, an American gingi who had feverishly written words and musical notes in a pad and had sung into a tape recorder he lugged with him. “It’s for my daughter’s wedding,” he explained. Confused because his tent-mate did not look a day over 25, he asked how old she was. Under a year, was the answer, but I promised her mother I would sing at her wedding, he answered, with a sad but determined look in his eyes. “One way or another, I will sing my song to her…”
By dawn, the song was finally finished – by dusk its composer was dead, and Avi’s uncle was in a coma, fighting for his life. Months later, after a miraculous, but very slow and gradual recovery, he returned home and married the intensive care nurse who had stayed by his bed, long after her shifts had ended, determined that he survive. She had been the one to store the gear the army had brought to the hospital from his tent, and it was she who had asked him why he had a tape recorder in his bag. He had told her that it belonged to Dov Walbrom, and that he must return it to his wife. But Chana Walbrom was nowhere to be found, her dira occupied by another family. Numerous ads placed in newspapers were to no avail.
The tape recorder containing the last song Dov Walbrom ever sang sat in a safe-deposit box, buried but not forgotten by the man who placed it there. From time to time the doctor would make inquiries, especially when he came across American patients, or when lecturing at medical conferences in the United States, but to no avail.
Two days later, the day before the wedding, a package was delivered by express mail, the result of several phone calls to Israel by Avi’s uncle. After it’s arrival, he asked Chana Bendiner to meet with him, saying he needed to speak to her before the wedding. Baffled curiosity tinged with puzzled apprehension in view of the timing of his request – he must have known how busy she was – caused her to agree right away.
The uncle of her future son-in-law – and the last person to see her late husband – gently and with a warm simplicity that bespoke a compassionate but truthful bedside manner, told her how he had been looking for her for a very, very good time. It was hashgacha pratis, Divine intervention that had finally enabled him to complete the seemingly hopeless mission he had set for himself a lifetime ago.
He had bunked with a young medic with deep brown eyes and reddish hair – like the kallah‘s. A medic who had been up all night putting the finishing touches on a song he was planning to sing at his daughter’s wedding. He had cleverly titled it, Matana Sheli - as it dually meant My Matana, as well as My Gift.
As he spoke, Chana Bendiner trembled, feeling light-headed but holding onto each and every word, reluctantly letting them go, knowing that soon the doctor would end his tale, and there would be no more left, and the verbal door that had briefly opened the past and allowed her a glimpse of her Dovi would shut. As soon as he had mentioned the Yom Kippur War, Chana had grasped immediately that the doctor was somehow linked to her other life, but did not anticipate, and was therefore stunned and overwhelmed, when he handed her the object whose rightful owner he had, up to that week, been fruitlessly looking for.
Avi’s uncle had enlisted the services of a grateful former patient who owned a recording studio. His request was simple. Transfer the contents of the tape onto the latest state of the art disc, enhancing as much as the music that may have been damaged by the passage of time. Not tomorrow, not next week but immediately and send it to America.
A day later, a radiant Mati, her burnished hair covered by a snow white veil that brought out fiery, reddish hues, escorted by her mother and Avi’s, walked slowly but confidently to her chuppah, as a golden voice from the past cut through the years to the present, and accompanied his baby girl to her future.
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