From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Of Angels and Poinsettias

My father did not believe in angels. He could not be bothered with spiritual notions or metaphysical concepts. But when he died, and I stood beside his sheet-covered body in the mortuary’s refrigerated room, I was overwhelmed by the sense that legions of angels were surrounding my father and escorting his soul to the next world. And I, his ardently spiritual daughter, stood there envying his place in the world to come.

According to Judaism, angels can be created by human beings. Every good thought, word and deed gives birth to a positive force in the universe, which is called an angel. These angels are eternal. They hover around us throughout our life and accompany us to our reward after our death. Conversely, every evil thought, word and deed creates a bad angel or demon. They also hover over us until, in the heavenly court, they become our accusers.

I could recognize the faces of many of the angels that filled that cold, white-tiled room in Bershler’s Funeral Parlor. One whole contingent was born on those rainy mornings when my father, driving to work, would pull over to the bus stops along the way and offer a ride to anyone going to Camden.

And over there was the coal angel, born at the end of a cold winter day, when I was catching a ride home with my father from his drugstore. My father daily delivered prescriptions to the homes of people who were too sick to come in for them. I was in a hurry to get home that day, but my father assured me he had only one delivery to make. He drove up to a dilapidated house in the ghetto, which Camden, New Jersey, had become, and disappeared into the house. By the time he emerged fifteen minutes later, I was rabid.

“What took you so long?” I scolded him.

My father, who never explained himself, but who did not want to listen to my harangue, answered simply, “The house was ice cold. No wonder the woman is sick. So I tried to call the coal company to order her a load of coal, but their line was busy until a minute ago.”

Hovering close to my father’s body were the poinsettia angels. Christmas was a rare day off for my father, but instead of relaxing that day, my father would fill up the back of his station wagon with gift poinsettias. Most of these poinsettias he delivered to the poor black and Puerto Rican women who lived in the neighborhood of his store.

When my brother Joe was a teenager, he usually did the footwork of taking the poinsettias into the houses. Many of the women, without husbands and with a brood of children to tend to, told Joe that this poinsettia was the only thing of beauty they received all year long.

Among the regular poinsettia recipients was a woman suffering from MS (multiple sclerosis) who lived in a nursing home. Every year Joe would bring the poinsettia into her room, place it on the table and mumble, “Merry Christmas,” while the paralyzed woman would follow him with her eyes, unable even to nod a thank-you. Finally one Christmas, Joe asked the nurses at the nursing station who this woman was. They told him that she had been a wealthy daughter of a fine family, engaged to be married, when she contracted MS. Her fiancé broke the engagement, her money was used up in doctor and care bills, and eventually even her family dropped all contact with her. In the course of a year, the nurses told Joe, the only card, letter or gift this woman received was this poinsettia from my father.

After Joe went away to college, my father did all the poinsettia deliveries by himself. Overweight, with varicose veins from standing in the drugstore since 1925, stricken with the arthritis that made it increasingly painful for him to move his legs, my father delivered these poinsettias until he retired from the drugstore at the age of seventy-five.

One corner of the mortuary room was filled with library angels. After my father retired, he volunteered for the local library to deliver books to shut-ins. Leaning on his cane and limping from his arthritis, he often had to climb flights of stairs to reach the desolate apartments of people, usually younger and sometimes less incapacitated than he, who had run out of reasons to get out of bed.

My father lived in a world without strangers. He could not stand in a supermarket line or sit at a restaurant table without striking up a conversation with the person next to him. I was always terribly embarrassed by his utter disregard for personal space. Didn’t my father know that in the latter half of the twentieth century, alienation was the pervasive mind-set of society?

At college, I belonged to the radical leftist Students for a Democratic Society. I had taken my stand with minorities and oppressed Third World peasants against the bourgeoisie conservative establishment of America. Thus, I was mystified, on one of the occasional times I entered my father’s drugstore during my college years, to see a black teenage girl whispering to my father that she wanted to see him privately.

When I later asked him what she had wanted, he answered that she thought she had a venereal disease and was asking him what to do. Why should a black teenager, in the age of the Black Panthers, be confiding in this middle-class, white, Republican, Jewish pharmacist? If I perceived him as the enemy, why didn’t she?

Another time, I came into the store with him one summer morning. Five or six matronly black women, who were sitting at the soda fountain, greeted my father with catcalls and complaints: “We ain’t talkin’ to you no more, Mista Levinsky.”

“You’s in trouble in our book, Doc.”

I wondered how my father’s characteristic gruffness or fiery temper had hurt or insulted these women. He ignored them and went directly back to the prescription counter. I, however, was concerned with their plight. I approached and asked them what my father had done to them.

One of them replied, “Yesterday afternoon he done told de ice-cream man to give popsicles to all de kids on our block ’n he would pay for ’em. Us mamas had to spend all afternoon pickin’ up popsicle wrappers. No, we ain’t talkin’ to him no more.” And they all roared with laughter.

My father was not a rich man, but he gave and lent money as if he had it. During the Six-Day War, when the American Jewish community rallied to Israel’s emergency need, my father, with two children in expensive private colleges, found he had no money to give to Israel. He went to the bank and borrowed four thousand dollars, which he donated to the Israel Emergency Fund. Later, when the local Jewish community was collecting money for a geriatric home, my father took out a second mortgage on his house in order to have a proper sum to contribute.

My father paid for his mother’s two-bedroom apartment, plus full-time help. When he finished his ten- or twelve-hour workdays in the drugstore, almost daily he went to check on my grandmother to make sure she had everything she needed.

My father regularly lent money to any of the drugstore customers who asked him. Most of these loans were never repaid. When we were sitting shiva for my father, Carl, the Italian pharmacist who had bought the drugstore from him, told us how, when my father was transferring the store over to him, they came upon a one-inch-thick notebook filled with entries. Carl asked what it was. My father replied that this was his record of outstanding loans. Carl asked how much it was worth. Tossing the book into the wastebasket, my father shrugged, “It’s priceless.”

When Carl bought the drugstore, his lawyer and my father’s lawyer drew up a purchase agreement. After it was signed, as Carl and his lawyer walked to his car, the lawyer said to Carl, “You just wasted your money.”

Carl gulped. The lawyer continued, “With that man, a handshake would have been sufficient.”

My father did not believe in life after death, nor in the world to come. He expected no rewards for giving people rides in the rain or for finding jobs for the sons of his ghetto clientele. How amazed, then, he must have been to find himself ascending to the next world, escorted by legions of familiar angels. Standing meditating over his body in that chilly mortuary room, I found myself saying, “Surprise, Dad!”

But there was also a revelation for me in that angel-thronged room. I saw that deeds are all that count—not good intentions, not beliefs, not convictions, not even spiritual consciousness, but deeds. Although I knew that Judaism is a religion less of faith than of action, I preferred to live in the ethereal realm of the mind and the spirit. Standing beside my father’s body, gazing at his luminous face, I was shocked to realize who he had become by virtue of his deeds alone.

My father’s road to heaven was paved with poinsettias and popsicle wrappers. And if there was a gap created by the faith he did not hold, I saw that it was spanned like an immense bridge by that book of loans he had tossed away.

I, who had spent my forty-two years wrestling with profound concepts and lofty aspirations, had nothing in my entourage as significant as my father’s coal order for the sick lady. So, I could feel my father winking at me, his religious daughter, from his honored place in the next world, saying, “Surprise!”

Sara Levinsky Rigler

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