It was the twenty-fourth of December and it was snowing. Really, it had started to snow as Sean Casey and his family started driving to Mary Casey’s grandmother’s house in Wintertown, NH, in the northern part of the state very near the Canadian border. The children, Darren, nine years old, and Samantha, eight, were in the back seat of the car playing checkers on a magnetic board. They had left their house in Milford, NH in the southern part of the state at about nine o’clock in the morning, expecting at worst a four-hour ride.
It was now 5:00 PM and it was full dark. They had left the highway some while ago and now they were on an unmarked country road. The road had been plowed much earlier in the day, but it continued to snow and it was very deep. Sean thought that the snow might be almost up to the front bumper of his car. Visibility was almost zero and the snow was beginning to pick up in intensity. Only because of the snow banks on the side of the road, Sean was able to keep the car on the road. The car was now moving at walking speed. I can’t stop, Sean thought. I’ve got to keep moving. We could be stranded here in a snow storm. People die in these situations. Don’t think about it. We are not going to die.
“There seems to be a light up ahead,” Sean said. “Maybe we can find out where we are, at last. But I don’t think we can go much further.” The car finally came to a stop at the edge of a brightly lighted yard which was being cleared by someone on a very old farm tractor with a front-end scoop.
Sean got out of his car and was about to go to the tractor driver when he heard a loud voice order: “Stay in your car. I’ll pull you off the road in just a minute.” It was useless to argue, his car was going nowhere, so Sean got back in his car.
In less than a minute the tractor backed up to the front of Sean’s car, and the tractor driver hooked up a chain and gently pulled the Caseys’ car into the cleared driveway.
Sean got back out of his car, but the voice called back, “Send your wife and children into the house where it is warm. You can help me get your car under cover yonder.” The tractor driver pointed to a covered shed.
Mary heard the driver and said, “Come on, Darren and Samantha, I don’t know what we are getting into here but we can’t stay in the car.” All got out of the car, ran for the house, and went inside.
Mary looked around her from just inside the door. “Hello,” she called out, but no one answered. Slowly she started to look around. The place was a cabin. It had two rooms on the ground floor. At the end of the main room was a black cast iron stove, and the heat from it came in abundance. Mary only knew about these kinds of stoves from stories and antique pictures. There was a ladder in the corner by the stove that led to the loft.
Aware now of the stove, she began to realize that the room was lit by oil lamps: old oil lamps placed in sconces around the room and two on the table in the middle of the room. Though it was a cabin, it seemed cozy without drafts. There were four small windows in the room, two in the front wall and two on the back wall. There were nice curtains on each window which did not flutter from any breeze that might come through those windows, even though Mary could hear the wind howling outside. It was a comfortable dwelling, but who lived here in the middle of nowhere? Whoever the person is, thank God they are here to help us in this storm.
Just then the door opened and Sean and a burly old man came into the house, stamping the snow off themselves. “Mary,” said Sean, “we are the guests of Mr. Isaac Mendoza.”
“I am happy to meet you,” said Mary, “and these are my children, Darren and Samantha.”
“And I am very happy to meet all of you,” said Mr. Mendoza, “especially on such a stormy night. Please be seated around the table. Dinner will be ready in just a little while.”
With that, Isaac made himself busy at his icebox. He took some bowls from the icebox, poured the contents of one bowl into a large stew pot, then put the stew pot on the stove to heat up. He put a covered roasting pan from the icebox into the oven. He then put a large skillet on the stove and a large quantity of shortening in the skillet. When the grease had melted, he began to spoon the contents of another bowl into the skillet, and all in the room heard the sizzle as each spoonful of batter dropped onto the hot oil. A pleasant aroma began to fill the room. After a short while, the frying was done and the kettle was boiling.
Mary watched as Isaac moved around the room. No movement was out of place or done as an afterthought. Every act was deliberate, graceful and done in perfect time. It was like watching a ballet but without music. “Isn’t there something I can do to help?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Isaac. “You may ladle the soup into bowls. Everyone gets two kreplach.” Isaac handed her the bowls that he had taken from the cupboard.
Mary was about to ask what kreplach were, but looked into the pot to see ravioli-type pieces in the pot. As she ladled out the soup, she put two of the pasta envelopes into each bowl. There was just enough to fill the five bowls.
“There is nothing better,” said Isaac, “than chicken soup with kreplach on a cold winter night.”
Isaac came to the table carrying a covered dish which he set in the center of the table, as well as three goblets and a bottle of wine. “Blessings before we eat,” he said as he sat down.
Isaac opened the wine and poured three glasses, handing one to Mary and one to Sean. Isaac intoned the traditional kiddush, then said, “This is a prayer my ancestors have recited through the millennia, thanking God for the fruit of the vine.” And all three sipped the wine.
Next, Isaac removed a braided loaf from under the cover on the plate in the center of the table. He sang the blessing over the bread, broke it into two halves, and passed the two halves to his guests, though first he sampled some of one half before passing it.
Not knowing what to do next, Sean and Mary waited for clues. “Ess, ess, mayne kinder,” said Isaac as he began to eat his soup.
The children were not so timid and they ate heartily. “This is the best soup I’ve ever tasted!” Darren exclaimed.
“It is very good,” Samantha said, “but I like the . . .”
“Kreplach?” questioned Isaac.
“Yes,” said Samantha. “Kreplach. These are wonderful.”
“Perhaps the soup was seasoned with a little bit of hunger,” Isaac commented.
Sean tasted his soup tentatively, then smiled broadly. “It is quite good. But I thought that kreplach was a Chinese dish.”
Isaac laughed, “What is good, people borrow and call their own. It’s all right and it’s something nice to share.”
Mary didn’t say anything, but she did enjoy the soup. I’ll have to look for the proper cookbook and try these, she thought.
Isaac collected the empty soup bowls and put them in the sink. At this point, Mary noticed that the sink, which was also black cast iron, was set in a wooden cabinet. She also noticed for the first time the pump right beside the sink. How primitive, she thought, but everything is so neat and clean.
From the oven, Isaac removed the roasting pan that had been heating. “A feine gebrotne gandz,” said Isaac.
“A what?” exclaimed Darren
“Oh,” said Isaac, “I’m sorry, I forgot to explain—a gebrotne gandz is a roast goose, and a fine bird she was. Something to celebrate with.” He removed the bird from the pan, placed it on a serving platter, and set it on the table near his place. Next he ladled out the carrots and other vegetables that had been cooked with the goose, and placed them on the table as well.
“Now,” he said, “latkes for the holiday.” Proudly he placed a tray of small pancakes that he had cooked earlier on the table along with a jar of homemade applesauce. Expertly he carved the bird, and after putting slices on a plate, handed them around the table until everyone had a plate with goose on it.
“There are vegetables in the bowl,” said Isaac. “The latkes are traditional for the holiday and are particularly tasty with applesauce. Ess, ess mayne kinder.”
“These taste like potatoes,” said Samantha. “They are better than McDonald’s. I could make a meal out of these alone.”
“So could I,” laughed Isaac, “when I was your age. But my mother wouldn’t allow it.”
“You prepared all of this by yourself?” asked Mary tentatively. “Were you expecting other guests?”
“Yes,” said Isaac,“my mother taught me to cook. She had no daughters. Being the youngest of my family, I learned the domestic arts. And no, I wasn’t expecting guests, but I am very grateful to have them. No one should celebrate a holiday alone. Holidays and festivals must be shared joyously.”
When the dinner was done and everyone was satisfied, Isaac cleared the table and put the dishes in the sink.
“May I help with the dishes?” asked Mary.
”Please,” said Isaac, “allow me to enjoy my guests. The dishes I can do any time when I’m alone again. Please sit and we can begin our holiday celebration.”
From the cupboard he removed an ornate silver candelabra. It had nine branches and he set it on the table. Next he put candles in each branch, saying, “This is the eighth day, so we light eight candles.”
“But there are nine candles,” said Darren.
“Quite right,” said Isaac. “The ninth candle is a shamash, a helper. We light this one first and use it to light the others.” He lit the shamash and then intoned the Hebrew blessing for the candles. “Normally the other blessing is recited only on the first night, but it is most appropriate for us tonight.” He began to sing, “Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who created us, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this season. Amen.”
“Amen,” said Mary, as she thought of their rescue. We are safe from spending the night in our car and not freezing to death. I can’t help thinking that something is . . . I don’t know.
Amen, to reach this season and more into the future, thank God, thought Sean.
“What holiday is this?” asked Darren.
“It is called Chanukah,” said Isaac, “the Festival of Lights. It is the only holiday that celebrates a victory in war. It is not an important holiday, in fact it is quite minor. It is significant only because it brightens a dreary or dark time of the year with festive lights.”
“The candelabra is beautiful,” said Mary.“It looks quite old.”
“My family brought it with them when they moved onto the land in 1720. In 1492, when my people were expelled from Spain, my family crossed the mountains and settled in France. When France began to explore the New World and travelers came back with stories of furs and land just for the taking, my family decided to come here. In France, we had been farmers and so we came here to farm. And, like the Pilgrims, we came here to be free to worship as we had done for several millennia.”
“Didn’t you have trouble with the Indians?” asked Sean.
“No,” replied Isaac. “My people understood that they were strangers in a strange land, and we had to live by their laws and leaders. The Indians were wise and righteous people and easy to live with. Most of the French came here came for furs, we came for land.”
“You have lived here for two hundred and seventy-seven years?” Samantha asked incredulously.
“No, sheyne kinder,” laughed Isaac, “I am old, but not so old. My family has lived on this land for eight or nine generations. I don’t recall any more. Anyway, enough of this, there is a game to play.”
“A game!” Darren exclaimed. “What kind of game?”
“It is called dreydl,” said Isaac, and with that he went back to the cupboard and removed a candy dish as well as something small that couldn’t be seen by anyone at the table. He sat back down at the table and from the candy dish took several pieces that at first looked like gold coins. They turned out to be foil-wrapped chocolate candy shaped like coins. To each person Isaac gave several coins, then from his pocket he took out a small spinning top with four sides. Each side was marked with a character.
“This,” Isaac announced, “is a dreydl, and each side of the dreydl has a Hebrew letter on it. The letter that looks like a W is called a shin. This is a hey, this is a gimel, and this a nun. The letters represent a sentence that means: ‘a great miracle happened there.’ Now everyone put a coin into the center of the table.” Isaac spun the dreydl and in a minute it fell, revealing a nun. “I got a nun, that means I got nothing. Darren, you go next.”
Darren spun the top and when it stopped, it revealed a hey.. “What does that mean?” he asked.
You got a hey,” said Isaac. “That means you get half of what is in the center here.” And Isaac gave him three of the coins from the table. “Now,” Isaac continued, “everyone put another coin into the center of the table.”
Sean was next, and when he spun the top he got a gimel. “Ah,” laughed Isaac, “you got a gimel so you have to put another coin in the pot here.” Sean did as he was directed.
Samantha got a shin and laughed with delight to win all that was in the pot. They went around, laughing with each turn of the dreydl, happy in each other’s company. As they were playing, Mary asked, “Where does the Chanukah holiday come from?” She had trouble with the pronunciation of Chanukah.
As they continued to play, Isaac told the story of the Maccabees and the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem. There was more laughter when Sean got another gimel. Isaac told of the struggle to chase the enemy from the land. With only a handful of fighters, how could they defeat the entire Syrian army? Mary got a shin and smiled gloatishly at her husband when she took all the candy in the pot.
“It seems that the Maccabees traded one invading army for another,” Isaac continued. “They invited a young, warlike nation to help them drive out the Syrians. The Romans came and they taught Judah the Maccabee and his family the tactics they needed to win. With the Romans’ advice, as well as a little help, they won.”
“I got a gimel,” said Darren. “Just a little more spin and I would have had a shin.”
“What did the Maccabees get for their victory?” asked Sean, as he gathered all the coins, having spun the shin that his son wanted.
“They got two things,” said Isaac. “They got to clean out the sacred Temple and to rededicate it.” Isaac related the tale of the miracle of the one day’s supply of sanctified oil lasting eight days, and it being the reason for the candles at this time of the year.
“You said they got two things,” said Mary, as she spun a nun. “What was the other?”
“They got the Romans,” said Isaac. “That was the second thing given them: the second invading army.”
“I wish,” said Samantha, “I’d get another shin.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Isaac gravely.
“Why do you say that?” Mary asked.
“Everything has two costs. An extrinsic cost, such as money, which may or may not be easy to pay, according to one’s resources. There is also an intrinsic cost, such as your own well-being or someone else’s, which cannot be calculated. That choice could cost someone other than yourself enormous long-lasting pain. One has to consider carefully before making a wish. Will I justify my own need or will I do harm to others by satisfying my need?”
The rest of the evening passed more lightheartedly. When the two children began to yawn, Isaac said, “There are two freshly made beds in the loft. There is a doll on one of them. Samantha, that is your bed, and also the doll. Darren, it isn’t much, but you may have the dreydl. Mary, there is a freshly made double bed in the other room for you and Sean.”
“But we are taking your bed,” protested Mary. “Where will you sleep? And what about the dishes?”
“Mary,” Isaac said gently, “would you deny me the joy of reliving this evening as I do the dishes? I don’t often have guests, let alone children. Please, I have a place to rest, so please, you have had a long, hard day and you will need your rest for tomorrow. All will be better tomorrow.”
There was no arguing with this lovely little man with the sad eyes. Mary had only just noticed his eyes were sad, and wondered why.
The children climbed to the loft and Samantha found the doll. It immediately recalled memories of some books she had been reading. Laura Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books and the dollshe’d once loved. The bed was very thick and was made up like a sleeping bag. She was no sooner comfortable when she was asleep and dreaming of the Little House on the Prairie.
Darren put the dreydl in his pocket, then got ready and into his bed. That night he was a Maccabee freedom fighter. In his dream he saw the miracle of the oil and was glad.
Sean and Mary went to bed with the feeling of being held safe and secure. Before getting into bed, Mary knelt by the bed and offered thanks for this island of safety in this bitter storm. As she was about to get up, she remembered who lived in this sanctuary and felt a pang of remorse. How had Isaac said it? Oh yes, she thought, and added her own words to the blessing. “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, bless and protect this gentle man who lives in the way of Abraham, the patriarch.” She did not know where the rest of this prayer had come from, but it sounded right for the situation. She blessed herself and got into bed. Sean was already asleep. Poor dear, she thought, it has been a long hard drive for him. It can’t be too much further to Grandmother’s house now. As she lay there a little while, she heard Isaac washing the dishes and singing a version of Rock of Ages. It was a sweet sound in her ears s she drifted off to sleep, dreaming of her mother. It was also a sweet dream of her late mother. She heard her mother singing the same Rock of Ages. It was nice to remember her and their good times together.
The morning sun was shining through the little windows in the bedroom. “Get up, Sean, it’s late,” Mary scolded, as she rose quickly and got dressed. The two of them left the bedroom to find the children coming down the ladder.
Isaac came in from outside. “The snow plow came by early this morning and I just cleared the end of the driveway. So please, there is hot cereal and coffee. And fresh milk for you two.” He smiled at the two children.
“You have done so much for us already,” Sean said. “How can I repay you for all your kindness?”
“Do likewise for someone else,” Isaac replied. “Come sit down and eat.”
When all were seated, he offered morning blessings and blessings over the food.
“I never tasted oatmeal like this before.” said Darren.
“Me, neither,” said Samantha.
“I have,” said Mary. “My mother made it like this when I was little.” In response to her children’s request,. she agreed to make oatmeal the same way when they got home to Milford..
The parting after breakfast was a hard one. Mary hugged Isaac and, with tears in her eyes, said, “You are a blessing, thank you for it, and for touching my children with the sweetness of that blessing.” She got into the car now warming up in the driveway.
“Thank you Mr. Mendoza,” said the two children, as they hugged him around the waist.
Samantha thanked Isaac for the doll, Darren thanked him for the dreydl. They got in the car and tearfully looked out the rear window at Isaac. Sean could not speak. He just shook Isaac’s hand, then got in the car and drove out of the driveway.
No one spoke, nor could anyone speak, as they drove. It was only three miles into Winterton and the streets were plowed. People were walking to church on this glorious winter day. “It’s two miles down that road,” said Mary, pointing to a road going off to the left. Less than ten minutes later they were pulling into Grandmother’s yard.
Grandmother’s big black Lab announced their arrival. A tall, matronly lady wearing a shawl stepped out onto the porch. “Shep! Stop that racket,” she commanded.
It was a joyous meeting. Mary ran into her grandmother’s arms followed by Darren and Samantha. Sean got out of the trunk of the car the presents that they had brought, and carried them into the house. It was a little noisy between Mary, the children and their great-grandmother, so Sean placed the gifts under the brightly decorated tree, before joining the rest of the family. As he had met Mary’s grandmother only a few times before, he still felt a little unsure of himself.
Sean and Mary’s grandmother embraced warmly. “Be careful, Mary,” said her grandmother, “may want to take this handsome fellow away from you.”
“Mrs. Campbell,” smiled Sean, “you grow more lovely every time I see you.”
“How about some breakfast?” asked Mrs. Campbell.
“We already had breakfast,” said Darren. “Can we open our presents now? Please?”
“I already got a present,” said Samantha and she handed the doll to her great-grandmother.
Mrs. Campbell took one look at the doll and fell into a chair. Her hands went to her mouth, her expression one of shock.
“Grams!” cried Mary, “are you all right?”
Ignoring Mary, Mrs. Campbell, a little more calm now, said, “It’s all right, children. You can go and open your gifts. Samantha, may I hold your doll while you open your other presents?”
Samantha gave her the doll, then raced Darren to the living room.
Composing herself, Mrs. Campbell said to Mary and Sean, “We’ll talk later. Right now, it is the children’s time and we should be with them.” With that, she got up, still holding the doll, and walked to the living room.
“What’s all this about?” whispered Sean.
“I wish I knew,” Mary whispered back. “We’ll find out later, I hope.” Apprehensively, they followed Mrs. Campbell to the living room, where the children had found packages with their names on them.
Darren tore the paper from one package and squealed “Look, everyone, an electric train! Wow, I’ve wanted one for ever so long.”
“When we get home,” said Sean, “I’ll get a big piece of plywood to set it on.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Darren was so excited he could hardly contain himself.
Samantha was overjoyed to get her very own stereo radio and CD player that she could have for her room. “I love it!” she exclaimed as she hugged her mother. The tag may have said from Santa, but Samantha knew better. She had been looking at the advertisements for stereos all year. It was hard not to know what she wanted.
The excitement of opening packages went on for a while longer, and both children were happy with new navy pea-coats, hats, and mittens.
Mrs. Campbell had knitted the hats and mittens and was pleased that both children liked them. “You will find a couple of sleds in the shed in the back of the house,” she said. “I am told by the children in the neighborhood that the hill, also in the back of the house is great for sledding. Why not try it for a while before lunch?”
It took only a few seconds for the childrento get into their coats and other outdoor things. “I’ll race you to the shed,” shouted Darren as he ran for the door.
“No fair,” called Samantha, “you had a head start.” She just walked to the door to show she didn’t care for her brother’s behavior.
Mrs. Campbell watched the children through the windows. “Wait until the children are busy,” she said. “Then tell me where the child got this doll.”
Mary was a little distressed, first at the sight of her grandmother’s reaction to the doll and now at this question. “Our car stopped in front of a small cabin just three miles out of town last night. We couldn’t go any further, and this lovely gentleman took us in, fed us, and put us up for the night.”
“What was his name?” Mrs. Campbell asked, dreading the answer.
“He told me,” said Sean, “his name is Isaac Mendoza.”
With that, the old woman burst into tears. “His name was Isaac Mendoza. He died seventy years ago.”
“That is not possible!” said Sean. “He fed us and housed us last night.”
“I can’t explain it,” said a tearful Mrs. Campbell. “He died some seventy years ago, the last of his family. They were here before there was even a town here.”
“1720,” said Mary.
“What?” asked Mrs. Campbell.
“He told us that his family came here in 1720,” said Mary. “He was the eighth or ninth generation to live there. He couldn’t remember.”
“I am very upset about this,” said Mrs. Campbell. “It is a long story and long overdue in its telling. Please, children, be seated. I’m all right, but I have to collect my thoughts.” After a short pause she began again. “Seventy years ago and a little more, there was a lot of hate in this world. As in the past, the easy scapegoats were the Jews. Around here, they started on Isaac Mendoza. One night, some men went to his cabin and burnt it down… with him inside it.”
“How horrible!” Mary blurted out. “And I’ll bet no one knew who did it.”
“That’s right,” said the old lady. “It was ruled an accident and forgotten, but in the meantime, Isaac was dead. Strange to tell, but after that, baskets of vegetables that until then had been left at the church for the poor, stopped arriving. I’m not saying Isaac did those acts of charity, but he was capable of it. I would like to believe that someone else had been doing it, someone who was as revolted by that murder as I was, and stopped the gifts.”
“Why would you want to think that?” asked Sean.
“The priest at the time was one of those hatemongers,” said Mrs. Campbell matter-of-factly. “No, he didn’t participate in the killing. He did something worse!”
“What?” asked Mary.
“That is an easy question,” said Sean. “He gave the perpetrators absolution."
“Yes,” said Mrs. Campbell, “and my father among them.”
“I don’t believe it!” said Mary.
“I suspected it all my life,” said Mrs. Campbell, “but today I know for certain he was one of them.”
“What made you certain today?” asked Mary.
“The doll,” said Sean.
“Very good, young man,” said Mrs. Campbell. “This doll was in my father’s wagon the night before the fire. I know because I put it there. It wasn’t there the morning after the fire.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” asked Sean.
“That doll was mine,” said Mrs. Campbell. “If you look under its dress, you will find my initials stitched into one of its legs. What upsets me most is the fact that my father went to his grave absolved of the crime. He hated all Jews — even your mother, child.”
“What are you saying?” asked Mary in shock and disbelief. “She went to church more often than my father and received the sacrament.”
“Understand something, child,” said her grandmother, “I loved your mother more than that idiot, your father, my son, who didn’t know how to cherish the magnificent gift God had given him. Your mother was a Holocaust survivor. Early in the Holocaust, when she was only a baby, her parents were sent to a concentration camp. Before they were deported, they managed to bribe some people and the baby was spirited out and raised as a Christian. After the war, she went to Canada, and it was there, in church, that she met your father.”
“But how do you know all this about her background?” asked Mary.
“The parish priest who baptized her and gave her her first communion wrote to her after her adoptive parents died. He sent her a letter with the story, and your father found it. The priest told her to do with the information what she wished, but he was certain her birth parents had never made it out of the camps. He also told her that he believed they had died in September just before their Holy Days, and every year at that time he celebrates a Mass in their memory.”
“I don’t know what to say, or do,” said Mary.
“As the priest said,” remarked Sean, “do with that information what you will. It doesn’t matter. The information doesn’t detract from your love of your mother, does it? But I think this is the intrinsic cost Isaac was talking about last night. Your great-grandfather satisfied his own need and hatred and caused his daughter, your grandmother, pain for over seventy years.”
“It has caused great pain for me, too,” said Mrs. Campbell. “All these years I blamed myself for the murder of Isaac Mendoza, and this morning he told me I was free of any guilt, and that when my time comes, I can go to my rest innocent of his death.”
“I don’t understand,” said Mary.
“You all could have died in that storm last night,” said Mrs. Campbell. “Yet Isaac came back to care for you and to save you from death. And he returned my doll. How else can I look at this?”
“Hey!” called Darren, bounding through the door. “What’s to eat? Samantha and me are hungry as bears.”