My great-aunt, Esther, visiting the world’s first settlement house in Whitechapel, briefly left the tour group to walk through a doorway and out onto a balcony from where she looked down and saw people in historical dress performing, as she thought, some kind of play. Turning to call her husband to come out to see, she found herself in front of a wall where there was no doorway, though the guide later confirmed that there had been one there a century or so before.
My grandmother thought this story was typical of Esther, who, as far as my grandmother was concerned, made too much of her quite commonplace faculties. Esther played the piano and wrote her own songs. The first time Esther met her future daughter-in-law the dark-haired young woman wore a wedding dress and veil of effulgent white that disappeared with a blink to be replaced by her actual clothes. My grandmother was a more down-to-earth person. She could not sing or play an instrument. When she was a child in the East End of London, she saw people in drab and dirty old-fashioned clothes among the crowds. These people looked unwell or hungry and they seemed to be trying to get the attention of the passers-by, pulling at their sleeves, running after them in the crowd, beseeching postures of begging and so forth. One of them caught my grandmother’s eye, stood still, looked directly back, and vanished.
My elder sister, aged about three, ran in from the garden to tell my mother that Uncle Harry was out there, sitting in one of the chairs, smiling at her. (I’ve always had a very clear mental image of this encounter, though obviously I didn’t see it myself: Harry’s white shirt with a vest visible beneath, and braces, and the sun shining mildly on his brown, bald head, his kind, heavy-featured face communicating friendliness and peace.) My mother began to explain that he wasn’t out there and at that moment the phone rang in the hallway with the news of Harry’s death.
A few weeks after my grandfather’s death, my father was in synagogue opening the ark that contains the Torah scrolls when he felt my grandfather grab his arm. My grandfather went to synagogue all his life.
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