The night air was warm and fresh with the tangy smell of cut grass – the scent of a December night in Johannesburg. We spent the evening munching on snacks, drinking hot punch, and opening the beautifully wrapped gifts displayed beneath the glittering tree. Even though I did not give or receive a gift, I joined the celebratory spirit of the evening and felt welcomed. By everyone except for Amanda's Gran.
She was an austere old Scotswoman, with stiffly coiffed grey hair and a ram-rod straight back, who had spent the evening avoiding my gaze. It was my first time meeting her and I was intimidated by her severe demeanor.
A vulnerable child who always aimed to please, I felt confused and a bit hurt by her aloofness, but the levity around us soon distracted me. I was 13 years old and Amanda was my best friend – Scottish, Catholic, and very smart. She had stayed over at my house many times, and I at hers, but this was my first Christmas. My parents didn't mind. I don't think they thought too deeply into it. They were warm, open-minded assimilated people who liked all my friends, Jewish or not.
And I was happy to be accepted as part of the crowd, enjoying this exotic new experience.
The cars were parked outside on the street. We left the house together singing carols that I'd heard on the radio many times. As we drove along, I stared into the invitingly lit windows sparkling with tiny lights. We were a convoy of three cars, crammed with Amanda, her parents, her younger brother Dave, an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins, and of course, Amanda's Gran.
I was so removed from my heritage that it didn't strike me as incongruous that I was sitting in a church on Christmas eve.
We arrived at an attractive stone edifice. It was their church, modern and understated. As we went through the carved double doors, our boisterous group quieted down. We spoke in hushed whispers out of respect for the sanctity of the place and the awe of the moment. There were rows of solemn, light oak wooden pews and gracefully arched windows that framed the night sky, which was sprinkled with a fine spray of barely discernable stars.
Elegant floral arrangements adorned the end of each pew, leaves cascading over the wood. I was entranced by the beauty surrounding me.
It did not strike me as incongruous that I, a Jewish girl, was sitting in a Catholic church on Christmas eve, so removed was I from my heritage and my people. The hymnaries were passed around, and as the voices soared, my mind drifted and relaxed. I did not try to follow the service, but was content just to observe.
Suddenly, without warning, the harmonious melody stopped, and the whole congregation began to go down on their knees, as if a wave was moving through the packed church.
No one had prepared me for this. It was a jolt; a moment of choice I had not anticipated intruding into my reverie. Something in me shifted. I clutched my prayer book, looking around as if for a lifeline at sea. What am I supposed to do now? I was filled with uncertainty; a disturbing sensation washed over me. Surely everyone was looking at me, the lone sheaf in a cropped field left standing amidst the bowed heads.
Should I kneel out of respect? What am I actually doing here? Glancing undecidedly from left to right, I caught sight of Amanda's Gran. That dour old lady in her pearls and sensible blue suit, with her powdered cheeks and her tight mouth. She had been with us all evening, reservedly enjoying the festivities with her family, but coldly ignoring my attempts to please and my desire to be accepted. I had sensed from the beginning that she felt I did not belong there.
Looking directly at me, she shook her forefinger from side to side, warning me not to join the throng at worship on their knees.
Now, looking directly at me for the first time, a heavy frown creasing her somber face, she shook her forefinger from side to side, disapproval radiating from her stiff posture, warning me not to join the throng at worship on their knees. I read rebuke in her gesture, and felt a moment of terrible shame, standing there amongst all those non-Jews, alone. Not shame for being different, but embarrassment for being there at all, in this alien place with these strange traditions.
I was a Jew. That much I did know. Granny knew I was a Jew too, and that put me on the other side. In my eyes the beautiful flowers suddenly dried up and withered, the tinsel looked cheap and tawdry, and I felt like Cinderella standing in her rags after the clock struck 12, with nothing left but an illusion.
Amanda was oblivious, but Amanda's Gran and I had shared a subtle moment of understanding – not as friends, nor as adversaries. Perhaps as Jew and Gentile. Was she angry that a Jew was intruding on their holiest night, or was it something else? Maybe she had a kernel of awareness that I was lost in foreign fields; that this was not a place I could call home. Perhaps she sensed that I, in my ignorance, should not be paying homage to their deity.
At that moment she was a beacon of truth in the fog of confusion enwrapping me. I didn't kneel and that was the last time I ever went to church.
Whatever her motivation, I have no doubt that Amanda's Gran will one day receive her reward for saving a Jew who strayed so far a field. I am grateful that I discovered my mistaken direction at such an early age, before I made irretractable life decisions. God is watching over each and every one of us, and He has many messengers.
One was called Amanda's Gran.