When people set a goal which they fail to achieve, they sometimes experience a sense of failure – unless, of course, they can see the silver lining. Perhaps it is the silver lining that was supposed to be the goal in the first place, but due to our limited understanding, we don’t realize it. About seven years ago, my husband and I put tremendous effort, energy, and resources into a community project that didn’t turn out the way we had envisioned. However, we realized there was a silver lining. Her name was Anne.
Some of you might recall Anne. She was an older woman with shockingly white, shoulder-length hair. As she carried her belongings with her, she could be found waiting at bus stops, walking on Park Heights, or in the shuls. Anne generally kept to herself, rarely speaking to others unless they spoke to her first.
Anne first came to us on Rosh Hashanah. From the beginning, we realized our relationship with her would be a little different than with other guests. Our first clue was that, when asked her name, she didn’t actually want to tell us. She simply said, “You can call me Anne.” So, Anne it was.
As a rule, we tend not to ask guests questions about themselves lest we cause them discomfort. (Until now, we hadn’t realized that a person’s name fell into that category.) Needless to say, based on our unexpected faux-pas and our unwritten rule about questions, the meal was a rather quiet one, at least until it was over. At that point, Anne said thank you. It was quite an extraordinary thank you. Anne not only thanked us for having her, she praised the different foods, complimented us on the way the table was set, commended us on the behavior of our children (I guess it was a good night for us), and left us with a sense of how much she really appreciated everything. Foolishly, we accepted her thanks with a touch of ego. Fortunately, we were able to learn over the course of many more Shabbosim and Yamim Tovim how much she did for us. Our parting words that night were, “Please come back on Friday night, we’d love to have you.” These would be our parting words for the next seven years.
By most people’s standards, Anne would have very little, if anything, to offer in the way of life lessons. First of all, she was homeless. Second of all, she wasn’t able to properly take care of her hygiene, often wearing the same clothes for weeks on end, and finally, she liked to fight. Really, she did. The amazing thing was that she did not allow any of these outer trappings to define her.
One of the many things we learned from Anne was the true meaning of hakaras hatov. Based on the “Anne model,” hakaras hatov didn’t just involve giving sincere and eloquent verbal thank-yous. It also included not complaining, as well as tangible expressions of gratitude. These often included a note in her beautiful penmanship, signed, “From a Friend” (still avoiding the name thing).
You see, Anne never complained about what others would perceive as a severe lack of basic necessities. Instead, she simply found ways to acquire the help she needed and then proceeded to show her gratitude. There were people in the community who would take her to a free medical clinic and others who would take her to buy new shoes when hers were worn down. One wonderful woman would buy her a monthly bus ticket and have her over for an entire Shabbos each month. She also tried very hard to find housing for Anne (despite Anne’s tremendous lack of cooperation).
Anne’s day was often spent in the mall, where her morning started with a free coffee from Starbucks. (The sales person understood her situation.) She would then settle herself at a table, where she read the newspapers that others had left behind. The rest of her day was spent going from one store to the next, admiring the various items and sometimes even finding a way to procure merchandise for free. Here are some of the items she received for free: a colander, a meat loaf pan, books, perfume samples, little toys for children (some of them had the occasional Easter bunny on them), and a wok.
At this point you should be wondering three things: First, how do I know this; second, why would a person who is homeless need a wok (or a colander or meat loaf pan); and third, how did she get them? So, here is the answer to how I know this and also the why she “needed” these items. These were the things Anne brought to us as gifts in order to thank us. (I’m sure there were other items given to other individuals who helped her.) Now, you and I both know that you won’t find people standing on the street corners giving out woks, so we still have to answer the question of how this came about.
It turns out that Boscov’s[E1] [E2] has special offers where, if you attend a certain number of presentations, you get a free gift. Well, Anne didn’t just attend the presentations religiously, she also marched up to the gift-wrapping counter and convinced the sales lady to wrap it for her. The argument presented by the sales lady that Anne didn’t actually buy the item was not a deterrent for her. Anne simply argued that she had earned it according to the rules set forth by Boscov’s and therefore she was entitled to their free gift-wrapping service. She knew her rights. After all, she had a master’s degree in legal studies.
Another characteristic that Anne exemplified was dignity. Anne did not have closets full of skirts or drawers full of shirts and sweaters. In fact, she didn’t even have closets or drawers. Despite this, she would never have deigned to utter the proverbial, “I have nothing to wear,” which, for her would not have been a cliché. Clearly, her focus was not on what she lacked but, rather, on what she had. She carried a comb with her at all times and would often, when she entered our house, head straight for the bathroom to get ready for Shabbos. She always wore lipstick as well as perfume, which she got from the samples at the cosmetic counters in the mall. Anne was also very careful that no one should know her age. She did drop hints that she was in her early sixties but would never say more than that. In retrospect, we see that this was all a ruse (which we totally fell for), because after her passing we found out that she was, in fact, eighty-three. Suffice it to say, all of us were in shock, except one of my children who piped up with, “Really, I thought she was 100.”
More important than the way she carried herself was the way she felt about herself. She believed in herself, she valued herself, and she stood up for herself. She voiced her opinions at the Shabbos table, often debating with my husband on a variety of issues. (She would sometimes also fight with a guest over a piece of chicken, but the other guest was usually kind enough to overlook that.) She often had to fight for her seat in the senior section of the bus, and she stood up for herself when told she wasn’t allowed into certain establishments. You see, at the core of Anne’s dignity was something we all strive for: a solid, sincere, and vibrant Jewish identity. In fact, Anne probably had more “Baltimore yichus” than most of us. Her family was the original owner of Cohen’s Fish Coddies, which was established in the early 1920s. Anyone who is a native Jewish Baltimorean has to agree, you really can’t get much better than that.
Anne expressed a strong belief in Hashem. However, as she did in many cases, Anne exhibited her emuna and bitachon in a unique manner. While most people worry about their finances, despite espousing the belief that Hashem takes care of them, Anne chose a different path. She simply didn’t use money. Ever. If that isn’t the most mind-boggling concept ever, then I don’t know what is. In fact, if it’s possible to be speechless when writing, then I am – at least until the next paragraph.
Anne did not just relate to Hashem through her beliefs, she also desired knowledge. Her thirst for knowledge was demonstrated by the fact that she read just about every Jewish handout that she could find. Not only did she read them, but she assigned them as required reading to us. Every Friday night, the second thing she would do (getting herself ready for Shabbos was the first) was to open her bag and take out multiple copies of the different publications that the shuls print. You see, having one family copy was out of the question. She felt the divrei Torah in the pamphlets were so important that she insisted that each of us had a copy. She would write each person’s name on his or her copy and keep a vigilant watch to make sure that we didn’t accidentally use the copy that belonged to another family member. After getting in trouble a few times, I made sure to only read my copy.
Anne’s thirst for knowledge was not limited to Yiddishkeit. Over the years, we learned that she had taken it upon herself to teach herself French using a Berlitz course. She had been an instructor for the Arthur Murray Dance Studios (“cha, cha, cha”) and despite being extremely intimidated by technology (she didn’t own a phone and had trouble using ours), she spent many years trying to teach herself to use a computer. I’d have to say the computer won that round. But that didn’t stop her. As long as there was something to learn, Anne was up for the challenge. Her tenacity was unsurpassed.
Until her untimely death a few months ago, Anne had been a fixture at our Friday night Shabbos table. Now she is simply a fixture in our hearts.