For Rachel On Valentine's Day
As Valentine's Day approaches, store windows fill with hearts, bows and other ephemera, all in shades of red and pink. This holiday is celebrated only in the U.S.A. and is virtually unknown in Europe, where I grew up. It is a day for celebrating love, especially romantic love.
Recently I was speaking with a few of my contemporaries -- a group of women who would like to be called "middle-aged" -- and we broached the subject of love. The usual comments were made, and we all agreed wholeheartedly: love is no longer what it used to be. (To be fair, we tend to express similar opinions on many other topics.)
Later, while reminiscing on my own, a particular love story came to mind. I was in my early twenties, living in Tel Aviv having just completed my service in the Israeli army. I was studying at the university at night and was fortunate enough to find employment at a local bank. I was trained on the job by an elderly employee named Rachel who was about to retire. Although Rachel was older than my mother, she was very young in spirit. We took to each other right away. Soon we were eating lunch together and walking home together. She invited me to concerts and other cultural events. I felt like I had befriended a contemporary.
Despite her frailty, Rachel walked like a young girl. She had long black hair flecked with silver, which she tied in a knot at the nape of her neck. With her long face and beautiful features, she could have easily been a model for Modigliani.
One day, on our way home from a concert, we stopped at a small café. Perhaps it was the physical beauty of the evening combined with the romanticism of the music we had heard earlier that made Rachel more expansive than usual. She began to tell me her life story.
Rachel was the youngest daughter of a rich Russian financier who had come to Palestine at the turn of the century. Beginning as a child she had shown great enthusiasm and considerable talent for music, especially singing. Her loving and cultured parents encouraged her interests by providing her with opera lessons. Rachel's musical education proceeded, and after several years her teachers proclaimed her ready to perform as an opera singer.
Yet there was no opera to be performed in Palestine at the time. This was also a time in which a young woman simply did not travel abroad alone. Instead, Rachel was expected to marry, as had her sisters before her. After all, her father was a well-known man in Tel Aviv who had managed to bring money from Russia and had founded a large bank.
At a concert Rachel met a handsome young man who had been educated at Oxford. Their friendship progressed and Rachel and the man soon fell in love. He was from one of the wealthiest and most prominent Arab families. They both knew from the start that their love was doomed, as their respective families would never approve. Still they met secretly for many years.
One day the man came to Rachel with exciting news. He had been offered a job in England, as a result of his school connections. He proposed marriage. This was an opportunity to escape the influence of their families. But Rachel was reluctant to inflict the pain, disgrace and shame that would befall her family. To them, a marriage to her beloved would have meant a marriage to the enemy.
The young man left for England alone. At their parting they swore that their love was eternal and that neither would love any other forevermore. They both kept their word. Rachel was introduced to many suitable bachelors, but firmly rejected all advances. Finally her parents gave up. Her father employed her at his bank. She would stay at this job for thirty years. All that time she remained in touch with her beloved. He was working for one of the biggest export companies in England. He traveled a great deal and sent her gifts from all over the world.
He continued to regard her as the pretty young girl of their courtship, sending gifts that befit his memory of her. So even as a mature woman in her sixties, she would receive golden dancing slippers from China, daring black underwear from Paris, and bold jewelry from Venice. She never thought that any of the gifts were ridiculous. She kept them all in a hope chest. One day she invited me to see its contents. I did not know how to respond to seeing such extravagant, sexy clothing, shoes and jewelry. It was sad and funny at the same time.
Rachel continued to receive these gifts. On her birthday huge flower arrangements would be delivered. Spiteful people claimed that she sent them to herself. She never tried to set anyone straight.
Once, on our way home, we noticed a young man walking ahead of us. Suddenly Rachel stopped. She took my hand and whispered, "That is exactly the way he used to walk." After more than thirty years, his manner of walking was still imprinted in her mind.
After three months time my training was completed. I assumed Rachel's position in the bank, but not her role in real life. I fell in and out of love many times over. Each time it felt like heaven and then hell, but I always managed to continue on. Rachel and I remained in touch. Even after I left the bank, Rachel would write me and describe the latest additions to her hope chest. When I myself married, Rachel was genuinely happy for me. She sent me lovely gifts when my children were born. We kept writing until one day my letter was returned and I knew that Rachel was no longer alive. I hoped that she and her most patient suitor had long last been reunited in their eternal love.