THE ERI-KING

My mother 80 years ago

Pouring rain in Jerusalem. a different cold from New England, not clear and dry but a dampness that creeps into your bones regardless of how well you heat the apartment.

Three days after Bernie’s 49th day I finally left my home in the early hours of Christmas morning and flew to Jerusalem to visit my mother, now 6 months after celebrating her 90th birthday. Promptly, I caught a cold and stayed home all day today.

Not my mother, who walked in the bone-chilling cold to my brother’s home for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Back home she sits in the same chair at the table, hair dyed dark brown after years of masquerading as a blonde, shoulders hunched up. Once, long ago, we were so physically alike that people mistook us for sisters.

This evening, at my brother’s home, she broke into a recitation in German, which I render in English translation:

Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“’My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?’
‘Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?’
‘My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.’”

It’s Goethe’s Eri-King, which symbolizes death, and the father is racing for refuge, holding his sick son in his arms, but the son already sees his doom in the features of the rider chasing them.

She learned the poem in the original German when she was 14 in Czechoslovakia, “before they closed down all the Jewish schools and we lost our chance for an education.” She hasn’t forgotten the words. She obtained a bachelor’s college degree and a teaching certificate, but that sense of inferiority coming out never finishing high school in the normal way has never left her. Over the years various of my actions wounded my mother, but few as much as when I took time off from school in the middle of my college years. She took it personally, as though I was making light of her misfortune.

I would have liked to take a photo of her, my brother, and me at the table, but she would have been shocked that I wished to do that in the Sabbath.

“That’s life,” she told me after Bernie died. “That’s life,” she told me over the phone after his stroke. “I trust you to work with as much intelligence as you can,” she added, leaving me somewhat mystified.

“When she sees you she gets so much life,” my brother told me after walking her home after dinner (I stayed home on account of my cold). “Her eyes look different, she’s more alive than ever. Did you see how much she ate?”

And the Eri-King, I wanted to ask him. Did he ride hard behind you, slowly catching up as she paused many times in that short walk to catch her breath?

I want the days to clear, see some early pink crocuses and cyclamen, feel some warm Middle Eastern sun. The weather report is not optimistic, but I have hope.