The small house at the end of the street teemed with people. Someone threw open the creaky old shutters to let light into the room, but even the sunlight did not manage to chase away the dark.
It was a darkness you could almost feel. The woman of the house, who had lived there for 60 years and more, had suddenly died two days before. The door’s hinges seemed to squeak, protesting: “Our mistress isn’t here anymore!”
Well-fed spiders bobbed playfully from their webs on the high ceilings, as though to say, “It’s been years since we became the masters here!”
It was five years since Mrs. Arzi stopped living in the house. Five years before, she had moved into an old-age home, and since then the house had remained dark and empty. At first her neighbors had gazed sadly at the closed shutters. They felt drawn to the house as though with invisible, enchanted ropes, just as in the good old days when Mrs. Arzi herself was there, smiling, good-natured and always ready to help. How hard it was to see the place closed up, when it had always been open to everyone, just like its owner’s heart—a big, warm heart open to young and old, the great and the downtrodden. She’d had a big container of candies that never ran out. A pretty glass bowl on the table, filled with candies, sat in wait for any child who might cross her threshold.
She welcomed them all. It didn’t matter if the child had come to borrow a cup of sugar, or wanted to return a book he’d borrowed the day before. Whatever it was, you couldn’t leave the Arzi house without making a blessing over some food. For the adults, Mrs. Arzi had a more sophisticated kind of treat, made up of heartfelt words that sweetened their lives far more than any candy ever could.
Now that the bad news had arrived, it was almost as though she were back. Once again the house hummed with life. You could imagine that it was she who was orchestrating it all, welcoming, listening, offering her good wishes, encouraging . . .
People came and went, as in the good old days when there had been someone to come see and someone to listen. But inside the house, they were sitting shivah.
Her sons and daughters looked around, trying to remember the sights of the old street and to attach names to the faces of those who had taken the trouble to come and offer comfort. But so many people came. It was hard to know each one.
Dina and Malka tried to follow in their good mother’s footsteps, and made an attempt not to leave out a single person. Dina turned to a woman in her fifties, sitting in a corner. She had no idea who the woman might be.
“Did you know Mother from the neighborhood?” Dina asked carefully.
“I . . .” the woman began. “I lived here as a child. Here, on this very street. Today I live far away, in another city . . .” All eyes turned to the woman.
“Have you had any contact with our family since those days?” Dina queried.
“No, no,” the woman answered. “We moved when I was 17. I’ve never seen your mother since then . . .”
A stunned silence filled the room. Everyone was thinking the same thing: This woman, as a child, had known Mrs. Arzi. They had never met in all the years since then, and yet she had traveled a long distance to come here today. What had brought her? What was the link that tied her to this house?
As though she’d been waiting for the question, the woman began to tell her story:
“We lived here,” she said, pointing through the open window at the house directly across the street. “Mrs. Arzi was so nice that all the neighborhood children loved to meet her in the street—not to mention visiting her at home . . . But it always seemed to me that she had a special relationship with the children of our family.”
“Everyone felt that way,” someone murmured.
“When I was about three years old, in 1948, the war broke out. I don’t remember much about the war itself, but the period after that is etched firmly in my memory. I was too young to know why things were so hard, but old enough to know that the house was empty and that every egg and every piece of fruit was a real treasure.
“Time passed, the hard years were over, but their impression lasted. No one wasted anything. Certainly not our family. There were twelve of us, and we were very hard-pressed financially.
“My mother used to buy fruit in limited amounts. Naturally, expensive fruit never appeared on our table, but even fruit in season was bought carefully and with a measured eye. Bananas, for example, were considered a luxury in any season. My mother would buy them only for the two youngest children in our family. They, and only they, got a banana. All the rest of us kids could only enjoy looking at the bananas and hoping that the seven-month-old baby or his two-year-old brother would leave a bit over. But that didn’t often happen . . .
“Your mother, Mrs. Arzi, had a special eye—an eye that saw everything that needed to be seen. She saw that we were a family of children who were always a little hungry for ‘luxuries’ like bananas . . . But she didn’t only see, she also acted. She didn’t have very much herself. She too had children at home, though only four of them. She was never considered a rich woman. Nevertheless, she did what she did.
“From the other end of the street I saw her carrying two big shopping baskets filled with all kinds of good things: potatoes, onions, beets, big round oranges, lovely clementines, grapefruits, red peppers . . . and on top, perched above all those goodies, was a bunch of big, beautiful bananas! Mrs. Arzi carried those heavy baskets down the block toward her house.
“Suddenly she caught sight of me. In her usual friendly way she greeted me: ‘Hello, Batya! How are you?’ She behaved as though I were a friend her own age . . . and I was still so small. Then, with a broad smile, she put down the basket and pulled out the best treat I could dream of: a banana. A beautiful, yellow banana. A whole banana! She placed it in my hesitant hand, saying, ‘Please, Batya, take it. It’s for you . . .’ With her fine intuition, she understood that there was no chance of my getting a banana at home.
“I was not too embarrassed to take it. She did it so naturally and simply, as though she were handing something to her own child.
“After that first occasion came a second one, and then a third and a fourth. Each time she saw me, she would put down her basket and pull out a banana for me.”
The woman paused. “How many bananas do I owe her? I don’t know. Twenty, perhaps, or thirty. Certainly no more than that. But over and above the bananas themselves, I owe her the important lesson she taught me: how to give. And even more, I learned from her that in order to be a generous person, you don’t have to be wealthy or live in prosperous times. Every time I remember that basket and the yellow presents she pulled out of it for me, I get the feeling that it’s the generosity itself that is the true wealth . . .”