Courage with a light touch

MADAME ROSA was her name. It said so in a flowery red script on a sign that hung above her booth of blue-and-white striped awnings at the carnival, where she sold trinkets. Necklaces, brooches, bangles, rings, each in their own little cardboard box that had been decorated, glamorized, with tiny red, blue, and green paper stars. I spied on her one whole afternoon when I was 10. Hiding behind a tree near her booth, I watched her sitting there with her arms folded across her chest. Occasionally someone would stop and finger through the trinkets in her boxes, ask a price, buy something, or go away with an affronted frown. It didn't seem to matter to Madame Rosa whether people bought or didn't buy. She wore an expression of affable detachment. Had I been older, known more of life, I would have seen that it was the dignified, slightly ironic expression of someone on whom life had imposed a livelihood unequal to the bigness of her heart, a present existence accepted, but with a sigh, by her past.

Near evening, when she was closing her booth for dinner, I thought it best to be tiptoeing home. I got only a few steps from the tree when I suddenly heard her call in a thick Russian accent, ``You, little boy, come here at once!''

As I approached, she came out from the booth and stood in the open, her hands on her hips. For the first time, I saw what a big woman she was. Bowing my head in awed silence, I halted before her.

``Look up at me, little boy,'' she commanded. Slowly my eyes rose the six feet or so from the hem of her purple, angle-length skirt, past the metal rings on her fingers, the sheen of her white blouse, her dark, angular face, and glass earrings, all the way up to the real-looking tiara glittering in her gray hair, like the crown of a queen still splendid in exile.

``Do I fascinate you, little boy?'' she asked, her black eyes piercing into my innermost self. ``For many hours you have been watching me.'' I nodded.

``Has the cat got your tongue?''

Frightened, I blurted out, ``Forgive me for spying on you, Madame Rosa!''

This apology softened her.

``I like you, little boy,'' she said, giving me a gentle pat on my cheek. ``And you, what do you think of Madame Rosa?''

``I think you are a woman of mystery,'' I said, truthfully.

Smiling, she made a sweeping gesture with her hand toward her boxes of trinkets. ``I am what you see there,'' she said, ``and'' - pointing a finger toward her heart - ``what only God sees here.'' I started to go, but she held me by the hands. ``You have fine hands,'' she said. ``Very sensitive.''

``Thank you, Madame Rosa.''

``Do you play an instrument perhaps?''

``The violin. I am studying the violin.''

``Ah well, that is the next best thing. There is an old saying in my family: `If a piano could fly, it would be a violin.'''

She released one of my hands but still held the other, by my little finger. In her reluctance to let go I sensed she had something unique to tell me, something with roots in her own life and not easily shared in the - despite its colorfulness - impersonal world of the carnival; something that the simple sense of a child, itself a kind of wisdom, might understand.

``Every finger is important,'' she said. ``Every single one. But this one, the little finger, is the most important of all. Shall I tell you why?''

``Please, Madame Rosa.''

``See how small it is, how delicate. It doesn't have the strength of the thumb. It doesn't have the quickness of the forefinger. It doesn't have the grace of the middle finger. It doesn't have the endurance of the fourth finger. Yet, without it, the hand would not be complete. Because as much as the hand needs strength and quickness and grace and endurance, it needs courage. And that is what the little finger has, courage.''

I wanted her to tell me more, but perhaps she was afraid of revealing too much all at once, of bedazzling me; of making me think that truth was an easy thing to come by, not a thing of long accomplishment. Releasing my finger, she smiled goodbye. ``I wish you, little boy,'' she said, ``a long and good life.''

All my life, all my way into Madame Rosa's kind wish for me, I have remembered the virtue she assigned to each finger. But it wasn't until a few nights ago that the abstract beauty of her truth became for me a human one.

I was reading a book about Jewish life in Poland between the two world wars. I learned what long, hard days a water carrier had in the little towns and villages. He had to wait in line at the well many times every day to fill his buckets. He had to carry them to his customers over cobbled streets that wore down the toughest shoes. Often he had to carry them up steep flights of stairs, and if he spilled too many drops on the way, the customer would not pay him even the little money he could ask. And every day he had to take his failures and cherish his successes.

Suddenly I came on a photograph of such a water carrier. He had a bucket of water in each hand, and at the same time he was somehow holding the hand of a child, a boy on one side and a girl on the other. It was dusk. Perhaps his wife had sent the children to fetch him, to bring him home before dark, and he was taking them with him on his last delivery. When I looked closely, I saw it was by the little finger of each of his hands that he was holding a child's hand.

I didn't have to imagine what Madame Rosa would have said, had she been there looking over my shoulder. I could hear her: ``You see? To strength, quickness, grace, and endurance he entrusts water, he entrusts livelihood. But to courage, children!''

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