The importance of swans

RABBI Noah, my inveterate do-gooder uncle, how life did vex him sometimes! And never more so than the day, many years ago, he'd planned to drive four elderly ladies to the airport to catch a plane for a visit to Israel. Thinking it would edify his teen-age nephew to see how well he had organized things, he let me ride with him in his station wagon when he went to pick them up.

The arrangement was that the ladies would be ready when we arrived - suitcases packed and cheerfulness prevailing. But no fewer than three ladies in a row were still packing, and already homesickness lurked in the corners of their eyes. They had nice apartments, full of beloved paraphernalia, and leaving them, even for a visit to the Holy Land, was hard.

The fourth lady wasn't even at her apartment. The manager said he'd seen her leave about 10 minutes before we arrived, but he didn't know where she'd gone. Speechless, the rabbi drove around block after block, looking for her.

At last, with time running short, his patience exhausted, the rabbi decided to proceed without her. ``One person cannot be allowed to gum up God's work,'' he said pithily. Disregarding the narrowness of the street, he attempted a U-turn, ran up over the curb, and crashed into a tree. Nobody was hurt, but the motor killed.

``Oy,'' groaned a lady, ``is this a trip to the airport or to the great beyond?''

The motor wouldn't start. It made a grinding, groaning, gurgling noise, as if it had been split into solids and liquids. His mountain-goat face drenched in a purple sweat, the rabbi called for help to a service station down the street.

``And what about us?'' cried the ladies.

``Don't panic,'' the rabbi said, helping them out of the car and looking wildly about him.

``Maybe we should go home,'' one lady said.

Spotting a telephone booth, the rabbi pointed at it and said, ``We'll call a taxi.'' He and I took the ladies' suitcases out of the car, and we all headed for the phone booth. As we left, a tow truck from the service station pulled up.

``God provides,'' the rabbi said.

After he called a taxi, he gave each of the ladies a hurried but fond embrace, saying, ``When you get to Israel, kiss the ground for me.''

The ladies' last-minute reluctance, the inexplicable defection of lady No. 4, and now this specter of imminent disaster, these things had shaken him considerably, I saw. He had the half-stubborn, half-contrite look of a man who had begun to question his actions. It had been, after all, his idea that the ladies visit Israel. ``Go say shalom to our homeland in your golden years,'' he'd urged them. Maybe they wanted to do other things with their lives right now.

``I'm with you all the way, Uncle Noah,'' I said, trying to hearten him.

The mechanics asked us to leave the garage, and we went outside. The rabbi stared at his shoes, big, reproachful-looking, scuffed omelets of yellow shoestrings and puffy leather.

Suddenly I had an idea where the missing lady might be.

``What, at the zoo?'' the rabbi said.

``The old people sit on benches there and talk, Uncle Noah. I've seen them.''

He sighed and nodded.

The zoo was practically deserted under a cold, dark sky. Only one person stood at the fence around the rare-bird pond, a frail lady tossing bits of something white to swans.

The rabbi smiled sadly. Going up to her, he said, more in resignation than reproach, ``I've been looking all over for you.''

LADY No. 4 turned toward him a face like a heart-shaped snowflake. She blinked in recognition, then looked back at the swans. ``I come every morning and bring day-old bread,'' she said. ``On holidays I bring fresh. They look forward.'' She sighed deeply. ``I didn't know till today that I couldn't go to Israel now. I couldn't leave my swans; they need me. I should have stayed home to tell you, Rabbi, I'm sorry. Forgive me.''

The rabbi gave a shrug of forgiveness.

``I was born many years before Israel,'' the lady said. ``I waited for Israel most of my life. Now Israel will have to wait for me, a little.''

It began to rain. The rabbi tilted his head toward the sky, a searching look on his face. Then, nodding as if he'd finally gotten some heavenly hint, he smiled with wry acceptance.

``Don't worry, my dear,'' he said escorting the swan-lady to some shelter. ``God has a sense of humor. This rain is his way of reminding us of the Flood he once sent the world, and from which he saved us, the swans, and the others. It's his way of telling us that, this time, he's not saving his creatures from the Flood - but from Noah. He, not I, knows what is best for them.'' With these bittersweet words the rabbi turned and headed out of the zoo.

``Do you think the other ladies took the taxi to the airport, Uncle Noah?'' I asked, catching up with him.

``No. To their homes. They believe an omen has saved their lives.''

``What will you do now?''

``Go back and wait for my Ark to be fixed. Then go home, too. Start again tomorrow. I never lose hope.''

``Never, Uncle Noah?''

He smiled. ``Well, sometimes almost. But I don't. A rabbi without hope would be like ... a world without rabbis. Unthinkable!''

Day of new testaments, momentous day.

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