We drew up in the cab, my eyes were closed, superstitiously. I had merely told the driver the number of the house in Broom Lane, Manchester, where we wanted him to stop at, but had not described the identifying feature imprinted on my mind, the phrase I had heard hundreds of times so long ago.
I could not remember a cab ride with my mother when, after telling the driver the number, she had not added, “Please stop at the house with the white brick round the gatepost”. The rhythm of the sentence pleased me, even before I knew what all the words meant. When I was little, I used to look for a round, white brick, hearing all the words clearly but putting them out of order. I remained puzzled for years, until the words suddenly dropped into place, and I saw a flat white brick set among the red bricks of a pillar on one side of the gate.
We got out of the cab and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking at the house before walking up the drive. It had been many years since I had been there. The chestnut tree now towered over the privet hedge dividing our garden from that of 36, our partnered semi-detached house. I saw that the facade of number 38 had been modernized. Instead of the dark grey pebble-dash frontage, it was now a smooth off-white. The open front porch had been enclosed, and the leaded windows had all been replaced with smooth glass. I wondered what changes there had been inside my old house.
I hadn’t imagined being able to go inside the house, but when the owner of Fulda’s Hotel (where we were staying) heard I used to live at 38 Broom Lane, she said, excitedly, “It must be bashert! My niece is living there now, ring the bell, tell her I sent you, she’ll be delighted to show you round.”
We rang the bell; no one came to the door. We waited a minute or two and rang again. There was no sound from the house. Everyone was out, it seemed. “Oh, well, we tried,” I said to my husband, as we walked slowly down the drive. I turned around, to take another look at the house. “But, as we’re here, there’s something I’d love to do. Let’s see if there’s anyone in at number 40, our other neighbor.“
”Do you know who lives there now?” asked my husband.
“Well, yes, I do. A daughter of the late Manchester Rosh Yeshiva. When her mother, the Rebbetzin, zichrona livracha, died, she and her family moved there to look after her father. I would so much like to see her, and tell her something that I’ve thought about a lot.” My husband looked at me quizzically.
“I can’t imagine what that is, you’ve never mentioned it.”
“It’s been in my mind for years, but now I might have the opportunity to tell her face to face.”
We walked up the narrow path, arrived at the front door. We rang the doorbell, and almost immediately heard someone inside walking to open it. I explained who we were, as she couldn’t possibly have been able to recognize me, she nodded thoughtfully, and beckoned to us to come into the entrance hall – a large room, lined with bookcases crammed with seforim. We exchanged brief details about our families, where they lived – she was interested to learn that I had been living in Jerusalem for many years, she also had close family living in Israel. We paused. I was thinking about family members no longer with us, my parents, her parents, too. I wondered if this was the moment to tell her. I might not have another chance.
“I don’t really know how to say this.”I began hesitantly. I stopped, suddenly unsure of myself. I could feel her eyes upon me, waiting for me to continue. The words then rushed out of my mouth. “I want you to know that a huge regret in my life was that, when we lived next door to your family, I didn’t know that your father was such a great man, that people came from all over the world to get a bracha from him…And there was I, living where I did, and not knowing. It wasn’t in my consciousness at that time. Yes, we lived next to the Rosh Yeshivah’s family, and my mother thought the world of your mother, and arranged for me to learn with your sister, after I left the Jewish Day School.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but living next door to your family turned out to be immensely significant to me. It took me years to get some insight as to what it meant. I’m sure you remember that Broom Lane then was home to all kinds of Jews. What today we’d call haredi, also middle-of-the-road, even Reform, too. It was my mazal that my family – one of the very ordinary middle-of-the-road Jewish families – lived next door to yours. I know that it wasn’t just chance that we were neighbors. It may sound far-fetched, but I grew up to lead a different life from the one I might have been expected to lead, and I feel that your family had a lot to do with that.”
She gave me a warm, empathic glance. “I’ve wondered from time to time what happened to you after you moved away. Thank you for coming this morning, you’ve closed the circle.” We wished each other well, and my husband and I went back to our hotel.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to see inside your old house,” said my husband.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter a bit. Mrs. S. at Fulda’s said it was bashert that we’d be going to 38 Broom Lane – what a coincidence! – but for me it was bashert that her niece wasn’t at home, otherwise we might just have gone in there, and been too rushed to meet up with the late Rosh Yeshivah’s daughter. It worked out marvelously for me. Seeing my former neighbor was very meaningful. You can’t imagine how thrilled I am that I was able to tell her what I did – and to close the circle after all this time.”