It had been a long day of shopping. My children needed sweaters and socks, linens and winter blankets, hats and gloves, pants and shirts. I stepped into the last store on my run, my bags bulging, my fingers red and raw from holding them. I had done all my winter shopping.
“Can I leave these bags behind the desk while I look around?” I asked the owner of the small store.
Looking at my exhausted posture, she smiled and readily agreed.
I still needed a corduroy skirt to match my daughter’s uniform. I found a perfect one in the back of the store, navy and thick. It was so perfect I grabbed two of them. I came back to the cashier in front of the store to pay.
“I can’t believe how much money I spent today,” I told her.
“It goes like water,” she said as she punched the numbers on the register. “That will be $40.”
I handed her my credit card and she swiped. I listened to the tick-tick of the machine as I reached behind the desk to retrieve my bags.
They weren’t there.
A flutter of panic beat against my ribcage.
“My bags?” I asked.
She looked down, alarmed. “They were here!” she said. “I….”
She came out from behind her desk. She bent down, peering underneath. She moved aside piles of winter coats ready for sale.
I ran through the store, peeking under long racks of velvet robes and displays thick with girl’s tights.
I ran back to the front, breathless.
“I can’t find them,” I said. “I can’t tell you how much money I spent today!”
She bit her lip. “I feel terrible.”
We both kept looking. Then she looked at her watch. It was closing time.
“Let me take your number,” she said. “We reopen again later in the evening. I’ll certainly call you if anything turns up.”
What choice did I have? I scribbled all my phone numbers on to the paper. Then I headed home, empty handed save for a small bag with two perfect skirts.
I was devastated.
Each time the phone rang, I jumped. But it was just someone offering to sell me a water filtering system, or my neighbor asking to borrow an egg.
As dusk faded into evening, my hope waned right along with it.
The phone rang again. I picked it up. It was My Aunt Nomi from America.
“Nomi!” I said. It was so nice to hear her voice, despite the melancholy that hovered over my day. My Aunt Nomi, an ovarian cancer survivor, is one of the most positive people I know.
“What’s wrong?” she asked me. “Is everything okay?”
“I’ve had a lousy day,” I said. “I bought everything for the kids today. I mean everything. I don’t want to tell you how much money I spent. And it all disappeared!” I detailed what had happened that morning.
“Oh, oh!” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Yael, can I tell you a true story?”
“Do you remember last summer when my house in the city was burglarized?”
Of course I remembered. Aunt Nomi had been up in the country and her daughter Talya had gone back to the city for a wedding. She’d gone to borrow some jewelry from her mother’s safe and when she got there, she discovered that the entire safe was gone.
“Talya called me that afternoon,” Nomi said. “And I could barely hear her she was crying so hard. I asked her ‘what happened?’ over and over again until finally she told me. ‘It’s all gone Mommy. All your jewelry. Everything.’”
“You poor thing,” I said.
Aunt Nomi laughed. “Do you know what I did when she told me that?”
I shook my head even though Aunt Nomi couldn’t see me.
“I laughed. I laughed so hard. And I want to tell you why.”
I sat down on the couch. I knew this would be good.
“When I was scheduled for the first surgery after my cancer diagnosis, they told me that I might never wake up. I was so busy with everything that I completely forgot about my jewelry. I’d amassed quite an expensive and sentimental collection over the course of my 57 years. Before I left my house, I quickly took a photo of each and every piece of jewelry and then we went to the hospital. Someone had the photos developed and they brought them to the hospital. And do you know what I was doing as they wheeled me down the hallway for the surgery from which I might never wake up?”
“I was labeling the backs of those photos with the names of my children. So that they could have my jewels in case I didn’t wake up.”
I tried absorbing the gravity of those few moments as Aunt Nomi was wheeled towards the operating room and an uncertain fate.
”My children would never have my jewelry. But they still had me. I couldn’t be anything other than grateful.”
“I handed those photos to the kids. I figured they’d need it soon enough. Even if I survived the surgery my chances weren’t good. That day, when Talya called me and told me that my jewels were gone, was seven years after that surgery. And I laughed. Because even though all my jewels were gone, I was still here. My children would never have my jewelry. But they still had me. I couldn’t be anything other than grateful.”
I was crying softly by now, grateful that I still had my Aunt Nomi too. And I understood what she was telling me. That blankets and pillows and sweaters and gloves and pants and shirts could all be replaced. It was only money. I felt it in my core. I was comforted.
Five minutes after I hung up the phone the phone rang again. I didn’t jump this time. I picked it up.
“Hello Mrs. Mermelstein! This is the owner of the store….someone came in carrying all of your bags. He said his wife had asked him to pick up bags from behind the register at a store and he thought it was our store but it was actually a different store entirely. We have all of your things!”
And I couldn’t help it. I laughed.