I opened the door to find Susannah standing there: “I have cancer,” she told me.
One day a few months’ ago, there was a buzz at the door. I opened it up to find a scrawny old woman dressed in the lightest of summer dresses standing on my stoop. She wore a pair of oversized, fake black Crocs on her feet, and she was pushing a black trolley on wheels, that was full of an odd assortment of food.
I looked at her, she looked at me. She blinked, cleared her throat, then told me:
“I have cancer. Do you have some money you can give me?”
I looked at her, she looked at me. I went to look in my purse and as usual, there were only a few shekels hiding out in its creases. When there are teenagers in the house, it’s rare for a 100 shekel note to last more than 10 minutes after they’ve woken up. I handed the small change over with an apology.
“That’s ok, darling.”
She reassured me.
Then she cleared her throat for another request:
“Maybe, you have some food you can give me?”
I’m not a balabusta who has my cupboards stocked for all occasions and contingencies. Now my girls are much older, and now that I live in Jerusalem, I tend to shop on the go, and to really just buy what I need for that day. So I blinked nervously, and started scrounging round the back of the fridge, and the back of the cupboard, to see what I could turn up.
“Tuna in water?” I offered her, over my shoulder. I’d bought them for Pesach, and we still have four cans left because no-one really likes it. Susannah’s eyes lit up.
“Perfect! I can’t have oil because of the cancer, you know.”
It was a win-win. I loaded her up with unwanted tuna, a big box of cornflakes and a bottle of water. I’d done a mitzvah, I felt good.
The next week, Susannah came back.
I opened the door, and eyed her a little more suspiciously. Was this going to turn into one of those ‘charidee nightmares’, where I’d get to the stage of being scared to open my own front door? I looked at her, and she looked at me. I think she forgot that she’d already told me her shpiel, because she started again:
“My name is Susannah. I have cancer. Do you have some money for me? My medications are very expensive, and I need some money.”
She spoke English with an Eastern European accent that added a strange sense of poetry to her words. I fumbled in the purse – nothing, nada, totally cleaned out by the teenage hordes. I shrugged my shoulders, sorry. She hesitated, then again cleared her throat.
“Maybe you have some food for me? I have nothing in my house to eat.”
I knew she wasn’t lying.
I could see it in her face. So once again, I rummaged around the fridge, and loaded her up with some bananas and pears, and a tin of lychees I’d just bought that morning in anticipation for a snack attack. She was very grateful, and I closed the door with half a quizzical smile on my face.
The next week, she was back. And I decided I had to put a ‘boundary’ down, a marker to show – to myself! – that whatever I gave in future was coming from a place of free choice, and not from a place of unhealthy manipulation. That time, I told her I had no money, and no food. Sorry. Not unpolitely, not harshly, still respecting the soul of this person who stood on my doorstep. But showing both of us that my giving wasn’t automatic, and that I could say ‘no’ sometimes.
She responded in such a gracious, gentle and dignified manner, that I realized it was safe to carry on giving to Susannah in future.
The next week when she came back, I greeted her with more friendliness, and she relaxed enough to ask me if I could make her a cup of coffee. Of course!
“Do you have any food you can give me to eat now?” She asked. Big blue eyes bulging out of her too-red face. “I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
It was already 3pm.
Again, I’m not a balabusta, but God helped and I offered her some cornflakes. “Yes!” she said excitedly. I brought her the box, but before I could bring her a bowl and some milk, she’d stuck both hands in the foil lining and was stuffing the cornflakes into her mouth. I was shocked. Susannah was poor, but she was also genteel. She really was starving.
That time, I gave her more money and more canned goods, and she spent an hour in my kitchen just recovering from who knows what she’d just been through, the last couple of days.
The next week, she came later, when my kids and husband were home. I let her in, and one of my kids started stage whispering:
What do you know about her, Ima?! How do you know she’s not going to rob us?!
That kid has a lot of fear about ‘stranger danger’. I don’t know who got to her in junior school, but they did a great job of making her a paranoid lunatic, when it comes to interacting with strangers.
First, we have nothing to steal. And second, she’s been here a few times already, and I trust her.
The kid didn’t so believe me, but her phone started beeping and she got distracted.
That time, I gave Susannah coffee and supper, and a tiny bit more cash – literally, 10 shekels or something – and just let her sit in my kitchen, trying to arrange some of her affairs on her phone.
There but for the grace of God go I.
That’s really all I could think. God forbid, I should end up poor, destitute and sick in my old age, and no-one would even give me a hot cup of coffee or a place to sit quietly for an hour. Just as Susannah was leaving, the kid on the phone burst out in very loud gales of laughter. I didn’t pay any attention to it – it’s the usual teenager thing that goes on all the time – but apparently, Susanna did.
Two days later, the door buzzed in ‘her’ way, and to be honest, my heart sank a bit. I could do once a week happily, but if it got more than that, I’d have to put my foot down. Susannah stood there looking even more gaunt and vulnerable than usual.
Rivka, I have to ask you something.
Here it comes, I thought to myself.
Here comes a request for $300, a plea to come and cater for 30 house guests, or something else OTT and totally unreasonable. I was completely unprepared for what she said next.
“Rivka….were you laughing at me?
I looked at her in disbelief, and she stared back, tears pricking up around the bulging blue eyes.
“Rivka, I have my problems and I’m poor and I’m sick. But….were you laughing at me?”
Susannah, where is this coming from? Why on earth would you think I would be laughing at you?!
I was so shocked she thought that, I was so upset that’s what she believed.
I looked at her, she looked at me, and then she smiled a relieved smile.
“I had to check, Rivka, that’s all. Don’t mind that I asked you.”
That time, she didn’t ask for anything. No food, no money, no toilet paper. She came all the way to my flat just to check I really was who and what I was holding myself out to be.
Later that night, when I told the story over to my husband, he told me that he’d noticed she’d had a funny look on her face as she’d left, because the kid on the phone had started laughing just then.
“I thought then it could look a bit bad, like we were mocking her,” he told me.
I had no idea.
For two days, I tried to make some teshuva about this. It’s so easy, to cause hurt to other people. It’s so easy, to ride rough shod over another person’s feelings.
God, I don’t find Susannah’s visits so easy or comfortable, but I will do my best to be friendly and welcoming to her once a week, whenever she comes, and to treat her with proper respect!
This week, she came back. I opened the door and looked at her, and she looked at me.
What can I do for you this week, Susannah, what do you want?
She cleared her throat.
“Rivka, can I have some coffee? And do you have some food you can give me now?”
Her timing was perfect. For once, I’d gone off to the supermarket mid-day, and I had a juicy watermelon waiting to be cut up and was in the middle of making some supper.
I gave her a plate of watermelon chunks, made the black coffee with two sugars, and disappeared back to my writing, while the potatoes for supper continued to boil.
Everything OK? I asked, when I came back in to check on them.
“Rivka, it’s heaven!” she told me. “The melon is so good!”
Ten minutes later, she’d conked out on the kitchen table, and slept the sleep of the exhausted for a little while, until I’d finished making the fish cakes. I gave her some mashed potato, the ubiquitous canned goods, and two rolls of toilet paper.
She’ll be back.
And each time she comes, I’m strangely grateful. Susannah is not a pious woman, not at all. But this last time – on a Wednesday – she wished me Shabbat Shalom.
And I know I’m buying my way into Gan Eden for the price of a tin of beans, and a box of cornflakes.
You might also like these articles: