AUNT HELEN'S WAILING WALL
“When she came home from her dream trip, to Jerusalem, and showed me the wooden Wailing Wall, she told me proudly, ‘There’s only seven of these in the whole world!’”
Aunt Helen wasn’t a relative by blood or by marriage, but I felt closer to her than I did to my own family. She and her husband had rented my parents their first apartment, in West Philly, and they went on to kind of adopt the lot of us, in the way that couples who have no children sometimes do. After she was widowed, she became closer to us still. Even my cousins called her Aunt Helen.
She was the secretary to the chair of the economics department at the University of Pennsylvania. She always invited my siblings and me to stay with her on weekends, but I was the only one who ever did. Her apartment overlooked the Philadelphia Museum of Art and what used to be called West and East River Drives. It was such a relief to be in her quiet home with no TV blasting, no one fighting. She took me to the museum and the ballet, the Academy of Music, the Horn & Hardart automat, the Wanamaker’s Christmas show. She was interested in the arts and in the world, and she instilled in me a love of both.
Aunt Helen was Jewish and we weren’t, so she taught me about High Holy Days, Shabbat and good deli. She made me noodle kugel when I visited, and after it was done baking she’d leave the oven door open, letting the delicious aroma fill every room. When it came time for college, I went to Penn, and almost every Friday night I’d bike to her apartment to have Shabbat with her. She’d get a spread from the deli in her building and when we’d lit her Shabbat candles and said, “Shabbat shalom,” she’d always say, “Let’s have some nosherai, shall we?”
After her husband died, she took the trips she hadn’t been able to take while she was caring for him. I loved hearing about her travels—to England, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, the Netherlands, Norway—and seeing the treasures she brought back. In the same way that she’d helped me believe in myself—that I was smart, that I would do well, that I belonged—she helped me envision a day when I too would be able to travel to faraway places.
When she came home from her dream trip, to Jerusalem, and showed me the wooden Wailing Wall she’d bought from an artist, she told me proudly, “There’s only seven of these in the whole world!” I loved her Wailing Wall, loved its mysteriously detachable praying man, loved the beautiful craftsmanship of the wood. When she died, I was stunned that she left it to me. It meant so much to her, and it means so much to me that she wanted me to have it.
I don’t think I could have such an abiding relationship with my wife, Libby, if not for the love I got from Aunt Helen. I was searching for Libby before I knew her, searching for the peace and respect Aunt Helen always gave me. Right after I found Libby, Aunt Helen died, but even though she didn’t know Libby, I’ve always felt that on some level she knew that I had found her and knew that she could let go and I would be okay. When Libby and I were finally able to legally marry, we had a rabbi officiate the ceremony—an homage to Aunt Helen, whose presence was all around us that day and has been with us ever since.
Aunt Helen’s wooden Wailing Wall has come with Libby and me as we’ve moved all over the U.S. and the world for Libby’s job—from New York to Boston to Ann Arbor to Connecticut, then Shanghai, Hong Kong, Italy, Sweden and Singapore. It’s the first thing I hung when we moved into each apartment and would be the first thing I’d grab if we had a fire. Now, in Santa Fe, where we’ve retired, it sits on top of my bookshelf in my study. Every Friday night I put Aunt Helen’s Shabbat candle holders next to it, light candles and say, “Shabbat shalom.” I wish Aunt Helen were alive today. I know she would wish for peace.
Nancy Conyers is a writer and retired teacher who lives in Santa Fe.
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