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The Lady in White

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Tateh took his time walking home that evening, deep in thought about his conversation with the lady in white. They had talked that afternoon about their children, who were playing together on the beach. Tow-headed Edgar provided such a contrast for his dark-eyed girl, but they were not so very different when it came to what mattered. They were children. The lady had smiled in her usual composed manner as her eyes followed their play, but Tateh could see that her heart was filled with the same love that he felt when he looked at his own daughter.

The little girl didn’t mind his slow pace as they walked home; she darted away from him to look into shop windows, then stopped suddenly to study a bird she had discovered standing on the sidewalk, and then rushed back to tell him all about it. Tateh was glad to see his daughter thriving here. She smiled and chattered and sang and danced and played, just as every child should. Those cold days of poverty were at last behind them, and it did his heart good to see her so well, so full of energy. Even when she got into mischief, Tateh could not be very angry with her, for his mind would often take him back to those dark times in the tenements of the Lower East Side, when she had so often been ill. It was not so very long ago that he had feared he might lose her, as he had her mother.

He was not sure what had compelled him to tell the lady in white who he really was, that he was not a Baron at all, just a poor immigrant who had been lucky enough to find a way of making money through his art. Perhaps it was because there was something so very kind about her, in every move she made and every word she spoke, that made him feel at ease enough to speak of it. Perhaps he felt the need to confide in someone, anyone. Or perhaps he simply kept talking because he didn’t want the conversation to end. Tateh was comforted by her kindness and felt kinship with her as a fellow parent, but he also thought her quite lovely. There was something distinguished in her bearing that might have been intimidating if it were not for the dimple and the dancing eyes that she showed when she laughed, or when she tried not to laugh. And she had the most marvelous voice, low and musical. It was a pleasure to sit with her or walk beside her as their children played together on the sand.

Tateh often wondered why she tried so hard to always be serious, but had not come to any conclusion. He knew something about her situation, of the little black child who was left in her care after the mother was killed and the father went on a rampage. Everyone in Atlantic City knew about it, and many were perplexed, scandalized, or even angry that she seemed to love the poor little one as though he were her own child. She bore a difficult burden, but in the face of adversity not only was she strong-willed but she always carried a spark of quiet joy within herself. Perhaps it was her husband who brought her such comfort. Tateh had never met him, but was inclined to think well of him. Many husbands would have forced their wives to hand the undesirable child over to the authorities rather than shelter that poor innocent, and yet this husband did not do so, though certainly the situation must cause him a great deal of trouble as well.

Tateh walked on, hardly noticing his surroundings, and the memory of his first meeting with the lady sprang to his mind. She was dressed in white on that day as well. It was not even a year ago, but it almost felt like a different lifetime. He and his daughter had exited a train in New Rochelle and the lady was at the station with her son. They fell into conversation briefly, as the ever-talkative Edgar quizzed his little girl, and after the horrifying experiences of the previous month, Tateh had been surprised to find the stranger so respectful. She clearly belonged to that class of Americans who normally would not give him a second glance, much less speak to him politely. And yet she had called him “sir” and talked of the fine weather so very naturally, as he stood in there in his one suit of shabby clothing with his daughter tied to him by a length of old rope. They had spoken of their children that day, too. And then, minutes later, the encounter was just a memory.

The first time Tateh saw the lady in Atlantic City, he recognized her immediately as the gracious woman from New Rochelle. She looked just the same as she had before, and he was glad to see a friendly face. She was no longer the only friendly face in his life, but he was pleased to see her all the same. Something about those two minutes in New Rochelle had been special, not because of any foolish romantic flight of fancy, but because Tateh had so desperately needed to be reminded what kindness was like. It had been some time since he had seen it, and after leaving New Rochelle he and the little girl again faced nothing but hard and uncaring faces for months. America was not the land of opportunity he had expected, and Tateh and the little girl would still have much to suffer before he found success, but that two-minute interlude of warm sunshine and goodwill had kept him going.

Perhaps one day he would tell her, thank her for the aid she had unknowingly lent him that day. She might not remember that brief conversation, and he was certain she had not recognized Baron Ashkenazy as the poor immigrant she had once conversed with for two minutes. But then again perhaps he might better thank her by showing her gentleness and understanding as she traveled through her own dark times.

“Thank you for your confidence,” she had said this afternoon, and then pressed her hand to her heart. “I shall keep it here.” Tateh knew that meant something, and would treasure her words.