Carole and I only met twice. I never suspected how our lives would intersect
The slim, dark-haired woman sitting at the table in the Westchester brasserie was reading “Pride and Prejudice.” That was a predictor of a potential friendship, but our lives would eventually intersect in ways we could never have dreamed.
But this was how it began.
“You’re reading one of my favorite books,” I said, introducing myself. “You must be Carole.”
A mutual friend had set us up. “There’s a new family in town,” she told me, “and the wife really misses the city. Invite her to lunch. She’s a writer. You’ll have a lot in common.”
Really? I was a homemaker, wife of a professor, mother of two young boys. I freelanced some, and lived a comfortable, rather solitary life in a stone house on a rolling piece of land with a vegetable garden and a pond. I cooked and arranged flowers, carpooled and prepared dinner parties. I had longed to live in the city but never had the opportunity.
As we nibbled leafy things, Carole and I sized each other up. She wrote short stories for Redbook. She was interested in quantum physics and psychology. Was I? Not exactly. But Pilobolus? Rauschenberg? Mahler? Yes. The chance to stretch my cultural self was stimulating, beyond my usual suburban discussions of Boy Scouts and septic tanks.
Our conversation flowed into the early afternoon, long past the hour I had planned. Besides loving Jane Austen we shared skepticism about religion, and a cannoli.
What we couldn’t possibly realize that day back in the 1970s was that we would also share something else, something much more, something completely unexpected: the same husband. A man neither of us was married to at the time, and who was that day very much married to someone else.
“I’d like to meet some interesting people,” she said after we split the check. I suggested that, despite her expressed lack of interest in organized religion, the temple up the road in Chappaqua was a good place to start.
I wrote down the names of our rabbi and a few other interesting people. “Check these out.”
A couple of weeks later Carole and I met again, in the same restaurant. ”So, what’s new,” I asked.
“Well, I went to the temple. But I wasn’t impressed.”
I figured she’d find friends another way, since religion clearly wasn’t her thing. Maybe she’d join a local writer’s group or a quantum physics/psychology discussion.
After lunch Carole invited me to see her newly purchased two-story farmhouse: small rooms and saggy stairwells on six acres, off a gentrified dirt road. A wooded hill was framed in the paned parlor windows, giving the impression that you were deep in the country, not five minutes from the Harlem train line to Manhattan. The property included a weathered red barn right off the road, a rock garden stretching across the grounds, a cozy kitchen with a painted ceramic stove, and a smudgy glass observatory. I loved it.
Carole brought me upstairs to see the wood-trimmed bedroom with its stone fireplace and adjoining office up a couple more stairs, the place where she wrote her stories.
The visit was pleasant, and I called later and left a message suggesting that we get together sometime soon, together with our husbands. But I never heard from her again, and we fell out of touch.
I tended my gardens, my sons grew up and away, and I separated from my husband and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for and live with an Internet entrepreneur. One day I heard that Chaim Stern, my former rabbi in Chappaqua, had divorced his wife and had married a congregant.
That congregant was Carole.
I suppose she had joined the temple after all. I found out later that her marriage had been in trouble and that she had gone to see the rabbi for pastoral counseling. She had fallen in love with him and then he had fallen in love with her, and after much soul-searching he eventually left his wife of many years and disappointed his grown sons and married Carole and moved to her house.
And I could imagine them sitting in the parlor and looking up from their books and out at that wooded hill. Both of them slim and brilliant, talking of quantum physics and the meaning of life.
More years passed, I got divorced and I broke up with the man from Washington and moved back to Westchester County. With my children now grown I traveled the world, writing about my journeys and finding ways to keep my big house and overgrown garden.
I had single friends now in the city. I had long since quit going to temple and rarely spent time with couples from my earlier life. I was thrilled that I’d started dating a nice guy, a former sports commissioner who had just brought me to his weekend house on Cape Cod. We ate a delicious meal. We talked about traveling together. Life was good.
And then on a rainy Monday I had lunch with a Chappaqua friend. “Did you hear about the rabbi’s wife, Carole?” she asked.
“No,” I said, about to explain about my two brief encounters with her those many years before.
“Well, she died.”
I felt jolted. But more than that, I rediscovered a strange, long-lost connect I’d felt to this woman I’d hardly known. And so I wrote the rabbi a condolence note, figuring that, in his mourning, my little story of how I suggested that Carole might go to the temple to meet people, and him, and her ironic response might make him smile.
And I went back to my life and my budding relationship without further thought.
Until one day the phone rang.
“This is Chaim.”
“… Chaim. I just wanted to tell you that your condolence was the one I can’t forget. It made me laugh out loud. So she wasn’t impressed with me, huh?”
That made me laugh too, nervously, and we talked quite a while and laughed quite a bit more. And we reminisced about my sons, and the 25 years since I had first joined the temple and how I was embarrassed that I was no longer a member. And, surprisingly, he didn’t seem to care, and before long he asked me out to go out for a meal with him.
And I told my friends, “Rabbi Stern asked me to dinner. I feel funny.”
And they said, “He just needs company. Go and make him feel good.”
And I said, “But I have to learn to call him Chaim.”
So we went for dinner at the restaurant where Carole and I had eaten lunch. He seemed the same as I remembered. Big grin. Big intellect. Big heart. And at the end of the meal he said, “Will you see me again?” And I thought about my new relationship and looked at Chaim’s smile, and was surprised to hear myself say, “Of course.”
Eventually I revisited the house Carole had shown me after our second lunch, the house where Chaim now lived. It looked much as it did then, a rambling old farmhouse shielded from the suburban sprawl. And as the weeks passed I cooked on the ceramic stove and as the months passed I sat in the parlor with the fireplace and the view of the hill. And I slept in the bed that I had sat on after lunch with Carole, long before even Chaim ever had.
Six months after I wrote the condolence note, Chaim Stern and I were married in front of our children, in the temple where he inspired so many through the years.
“It’s been fast,” he said in a toast right after. “But I love you. You love me. That’s all that counts.” And he was right, and we were happy, and I went to temple Friday nights from then on.
Three years and two months later Chaim was dead. And eerily, like Carole, he died too soon from cancer, on a ventilator, in an ICU.
The house with the barn and the ceramic stove was sold and razed, replaced by a grotesque McMansion. And when I drive by that new structure, I feel the end of a remarkable connection. For I had introduced Carole to Chaim that day in the restaurant when I wrote down his name. And her death, leading to my writing his name once again on the sympathy note, reintroduced him to me, in the very same restaurant.
In almost perfect synchronicity, Carole and I, non-observant Jews who hardly knew each other, were destined to become rebbitizens of the same temple: the second and third wives of the same man. And although I met her only twice, Carole and I shared much more than a love of Jane Austen and cannolis.
We shared Chaim.
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