Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Umbrella: A tale of Atonement

While this is not a conventional story of a journey and writing, it does involve journeys of various types. And it seems appropriate to write this now because the Jewish High Holidays are approaching and it is, of course the time to atone. God forgives us automatically on this day, but it is for us to forgive and seek forgiveness from others. We must make our own amends. Yet each year as Yom Kippur approaches, I am reminded of what happened to my umbrella. And, the truth is, I cannot approach my synagogue or say my prayers without recalling its fate. And so I cannot ever entirely forgive.

It was a pale blue umbrella I had purchased with my daughter a number of years ago in Prague and it contained scenes of the Castle, Old Towne Square, Charles Bridge. It cost, as my daughter recently reminded me, about forty dollars, not the usual three or five dollars of a street umbrella in New York (the kind that lasts through about one storm and whose remains are strewn across city streets). But I never really thought much about the cost of the umbrella. It reminded me of Prague - a place I love. And I loved walking beneath its sky blue cover on rainy days.

One Yom Kippur eve, as I was about to head up to Temple, I saw that it was pouring. I could have easily taken any old black umbrella in our umbrella stand, but I grabbed my Prague umbrella instead. My reasoning being that in a sea of black umbrellas it would be easy to locate mine as the service came to a close (which on Yom Kippur it really doesn't; it just resumes in the morning). As the service concluded, we filed out. The sanctuary was, of course, packed, and it was raining so it took people time to gather up their umbrellas and make their way back out into the world to begin their fasts and ask God’s forgiveness.

But when at last I approached the sea of umbrella all the greeted me was darkness. Black umbrellas everywhere. And a blue one not in sight. How is this possible? I asked myself. Someone must have made a mistake. But how do you mistake your black New York city umbrella with a bright blue one from Prague. Or perhaps they forgot their umbrella. Somehow they would return it to me. But, as I walked home with rain splattering me on the head, I came to the only conclusion. Someone, on the holiest night of all for the Jews, the night when we ask God to forgive us for our sins, had stolen my umbrella.

It became a minor obsession of mine. Wandering the neighborhood on rainy days in search of the blue skies of Prague. But after a while I realized that my thief wouldn’t walk around the neighborhood with it. She (because I came to think of my thief as a she) would take it with her in a car service to the opera. But she couldn’t chance a trip to the corner store.

I have tried to be philosophical about my umbrella. I recall for me the most moving moment in Les Miserables. When Jean Valjean has stolen the priest's silver candlesticks and is captured by the police who bring him to the priest's door. And in a moment of grace that changes Jean Valjean forever the priest tells the officer that he had given Jean Valjean the candlesticks. They were a gift. I wonder if I'd be so magnanimous.

I try to imagine what went through my thief's mind as he or she picked up my blue umbrella from a sea of black ones. I do think of the thief as a woman because the umbrella was rather girlie, but it could have been a man. At any rate I wonder. What did she think as she reached for it? Did the question of sin and atonement cross her mind? The breaking of one of God's commandments. Was it an impulse or something she's done before? And did it occur to her that I might be only a few steps behind as she dashed out into the windy, sodden night. Anyway she must have figured she had another year to atone for this theft, maybe even find a way of returning it. No questions asked.

I am reminded of an incident that happened to my husband once on an airplane. He was boarding and, as he put his suitcase overhead, he put the newspapers he'd just purchased down on the seat behind him. When he turned, he found a couple, sitting in those seats and they were reading his papers. "Excuse," my husband said, "I'm sorry, but I just put those down." They looked at him oddly and told him that they had purchased them and they owned them. Of course my husband knew they were lying. He argued, but they wouldn't budge and, rather than slow down the entire plane, he gave up on his newspapers. But he told me that what riled him the most was seeing the two of them, giggling among themselves at the fast one they'd just pulled off.

Because the truth is when something like this happens the universe feels a little less safe. Our ability to deny just how dangerous and indifferent the world can be, Our world view is slightly shaky, a tiny bit off our axis, really never to return. I still wonder at the impulse to steal a pretty blue umbrella even as you are trying to atone for your sins. Now I know why at Christmas the baby Jesus is chained down in the Nativity scene near my house. But I wish I didn’t.

I have at long last forgiven my thief. Perhaps it was an honest mistake, which seems doubtful, or a desperate act. Like the priest with Jean Valjean if my thief were captured I'd give it to her now. I hope it has given her pleasure. I hope it has kept her dry.


  1. I love this story, Mary! It seems inconceivable to me that someone would steal an umbrella in a house of worship. Jean Valjean stole the candle sticks to feed his family; what would an umbrella buy in New York? I once lost a shirt, either at the cleaners, or I left it somewhere else --perhaps at Bread Loaf-- I know it wasn't stolen, but the exact shirt was irreplaceable and I still see it in my mind's I, now, over thirty years later. Tija

  2. thank you. It was a weird episode. I know there are worse things in this world but somehow this one stands out...for all its symbolic reasons. Glad you appreciated it.

  3. after reading your insights on the story, I looked for it on the Internet to read it too and I loved the development of the plot and the story as a whole, I recommend it!