There are moments when I am overwhelmed by the people with whom Wendy and I share this beloved community. If it were nothing beyond the conversations at our lunch tables, the enrichment would be overwhelming. While we never know who will be our luncheon partners, every meal is an adventure.
There is John, one of the world’s most insightful theologians. Rosemary is our era’s most significant scholar focusing on women’s issues, and with her husband, Herc, is a fountain of wisdom and heartaches concerning the plight of the Palestinians. Joe was president of the nation’s premier theological seminary and one of my soul mates. Chris rallied the religious community in support of Cesar Chavez and America’s farm workers. If I go on I run the risk of leaving out heroes who ought to be included — our community is full of them. But this column is not about the public giants, but about two very different women whose names and biographies you may never have come across.
Until she recently moved to our skilled nursing center, we saw Eva each week when Wendy and I had lunch at our assisted living facility. Eva would sit silently before food she may touch. She might eventually eat a bite or two, but could no longer share in the table conversation. Eva probably heard and digested every word spoken, and may have even smiled. I often wondered where her thoughts were now in the twilight of a very rich, exciting and painful life.
Eva was born into a family forced by Hitler’s savagery to leave their home in Vienna. Her father and his family were Jewish, and her aunt, Marianna, was among the thousands murdered in Auschwitz. Eva’s mother and her family were Catholics. Given this rich heritage, Eva was deeply committed to the religious values of both traditions. Her lifelong work sought to provide bridges of action and understanding. She was a valued member of scholarly and ecclesial commissions seeking a Jewish-Christian rapprochement. The Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust, was never far from the center of her emotional world as well as her scholarly pursuits. Throughout her career, she sought to interpret to the Christian world the meaning and the impact of the Shoah. Eva’s Ph.D. and academic credentials were in Christian theology, and her scholarly world centered on her profound understanding of the Psalms.
And now at lunch when I would watch this aging face, as beautiful now as it was when she was a young student at Radcliffe College, I wonder what of her extraordinary life is passing through her memory. I can only imagine the depth of the passion, the wisdom and the pain borne by this remarkable woman.
From time to time on my way to our weekly lunch in our assisted living lodge, I stop and visit Audrey, now confined to a single room. As limiting as her world may now seem, it is all there flowing from stacks of mail, and her latest journal in which she records what is happening in her life as well as in clippings concerning events in the wider world. These scrapbooks reflect a life that is as wide as all of history. If you ask, she might give you one of her remarkable journals — that’s why she creates them.
She greets me as if I were the only visitor she has ever had, or at least the only male visitor. Perhaps I am. Soon there comes her take on what is happening in the nation, which includes a colorful description of how she feels about the President. I quietly listen to what she has to say about a variety of issues, and how it all relates to the history of the universe, which she has charted!
Eventually, she will inquire about my family and she we will ask me to review again where I stand in the birth order that encompasses several generations. I never know what will come up next, but I know it will be exciting. Fantasy, humor, a love of mystery and a profound commitment to spirituality are all woven into the colorful tapestry that is her life.
Any effort on my part to hear about her physical complaints is quickly dismissed as unimportant. But neither does she want to hear about my latest aches and pains. There is just too much that is more important. I never know where these conversations are headed, but I hold on and enjoy the trip.
As it is time for lunch in the dining room — Audrey’s will eventually come on a tray — I take my leave, but not before I am prompted to locate the candy bars in a box by the door. No matter the length or content of the conversation, I always leave invigorated, and in a couple of minutes when I see Wendy, I will tell her how good I feel just having spent time with Audrey, the beautiful whirlwind from whom for whatever reason, I have just been gifted with an energy that has nothing to do with the candy bar.