From a sky of surprise to a sky of contentment

MY mother taught me how to tie my shoelaces, tell time, speak Yiddish. She buttoned me up on cold days and tucked me in bed every night. My father taught me how to read Hebrew, behave in temple, say a prayer that would go ``from your mouth to God's ear.'' When they were away from me, on their grown-up duties, I felt a deep, hollow pang of aloneness. I was always afraid they wouldn't return. And when they did, my heart nearly burst with happiness. My greatest treat in these very early years of childhood was the journey I took with them, every spring, from the big city where we lived to the tiny town where my maternal grandparents lived, for a visit. The journey was by car, my parents' old Ford, and lasted from dawn to dusk, from a sky of surprise to a sky of contentment. My mother, short but sturdy, sat up front with my tall, always slightly distracted father, and they took turns driving. I had the whole bouncy back seat to myself. I don't remember that we ever had a flat tire or ran out of gas, though there were times when the gauge showed ``Empty,'' and we must surely have been running on the fumes.

Not that there were no calamities. My parents observed the heaven-respecting custom of keeping their heads covered, my mother with a kerchief, my father with a soft-brimmed felt hat.

Once, this hat of his blew off and went sailing out the window. He had to stop the car, and we all jumped out and gave chase. The wind picked the hat up and tossed it hither and yon, as if playing catch with itself. My father finally made a great leap into the air, snatched it, and even managed to put it back on before his feet hit the ground. I burst out laughing, because such a spontaneous demonstration of reverence and dexterity I had never seen before. But a look from both my parents told me that bareheadedness was no laughing matter.

Exhilaration always filled me the moment we broke free of the landscape of the city, leaving behind the color gray in all its crowded manifestations, and emerging into fresh, open, green spaces that looked as if in a million years they would never come to dingy grief. Meadows rolled along on both sides of the road, like enormous waves, and it was as if a sea of them had been parted for us, like the Red Sea of old, and we were making our exodus.

Later came forests, which were at first a little frightening, what with all that concentrated mightiness of trees. But if I imagined my parents leading me into them, I started to enjoy them. I saw us finding wild strawberries and eating them, and standing in a clearing and looking at trees whose tops were covered with low clouds, like misty hats or kerchiefs, as if even they, the trees, were observant. The forests seemed to have no end, none at all, only endless beginnings.

But they did end, and beyond them were farmlands, with their plowed fields like the furrowed brows of the sages of blessed memory, their tomato-red barns, all that peace, quiet, and good for which people worked so hard. Here were wonderful horses to see. A colt kicking up a sunlit dust storm in a corral. Old workhorses, grazing, lifting heavy heads to look at us, their faces without a bitter wrinkle in them, their eyes welcoming us to their world. And, standing at rest, or doing a lazy roll in the grass, horses for riding, too, for galloping. That night in my dreams I would nestle close to them, stroke their heads, put their feed bags on full of oats; I would admonish them not to eat too fast, to chew their food well, because I loved them and they were mine.

On one of these journeys, something unusual happened. We stopped for gas, and I got out to stretch my legs. I wandered into a field of tall grass behind the station. Though it was late in the day, the sun still burned hot, and I was full of a sweet tiredness. I lay down in the shade of a tree and closed my eyes.

The next thing I knew, my father and mother were kneeling beside me, gently shaking me awake. Tears shone in my mother's eyes, and my father lifted me and pressed me to his heart. They had been looking everywhere for me, calling my name; they were afraid I'd gotten lost.

It was one of those moments when a child moves away from the center of himself and sees things through others' eyes. I had always felt my need, my love, for my parents, how great it was, even when they chided me for laughing at the holy business of life. Now I felt, for the first time, the depth of their need and love for me. I was their work, their care, their promise.

When we came to the end of the journey, I was asleep again. My father lifted me out of the back seat and carried me in his arms. I awoke for a few moments, feeling as if I were in the bosom of Abraham, and just long enough to see the light in my grandparents' doorway, welcoming.

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