Thelma Zirkelbach began her writing career as a romance novelist writing under the pseudonym Lorna Michaels. Recently her focus has shifted to non-fiction. She has published articles in numerous anthologies and has just released an anthology titled On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties, which she co-edited with Silver Boomer publishers. She lives in Houston and enjoys traveling, reading, cooking and spending time with her granddaughter, who also likes to write.
An Apple for Life
Judaism and food are inextricably linked; some say, synonymous. From the Sabbath with its challah and wine to the unleavened bread and bitter herbs of Passover and the hamentashen of Purim, each holy day has its traditional food, rich with meaning. Partaking of these foods reminds us deep in our guts of the significance of the holiday. An essayist in Food and Judaism remarks that all Jewish holidays can be reduced to three sentences, “They tried to get us. God rescued us. Let’s eat.”
Blintzes, kugel, chicken soup—for me, all evoke memories of home and family. The smell of roasting chicken reminds me of my mother at the kitchen stove, incongruously dressed in an apron-covered housedress and elegant high heeled shoes.
My grandmother, who lived with us for a while, made kasha, and on Passover she baked sponge cakes, which we topped with jam.
But the food closest to my heart is the apple. On Rosh Hashanah it represents the unending cycle of the year. Sprinkled with honey, it gives us hope of a sweet year to come.
My apple was different. No honey, not even any peel, just a simple, everyday fruit cut into pieces and served to me on a paper plate in a hospital room.
I was nineteen the year I ate the apple, a junior at the University of Texas, living in the sorority house on campus even though I was a local. On March 29, 1965 my life changed.
The morning was warm, and my roommate opened the window to let in the sweet, spring-scented breeze. This was the kind of day when walking the few blocks to campus was a joy. I wore one of my favorite dresses, a black pin-striped cotton with long sleeves and a wide patent leather belt. Under it I wore a crinoline petticoat–the rage that year–which made the skirt stand out like the dresses of pre-Civil War southern belles.
Round-up Weekend, one of the major celebrations at the University of Texas, was coming up in a few days, and the campus was abuzz with anticipation. The excitement carried over to evening. A short time before dinner another girl and I stood in my room, discussing what we would wear that weekend. The window was still open, but a cold front had blown in, and someone had lit the space heater. I stood with my back to it.
Suddenly my friend cried out, “Thelma, your dress is on fire!”
Flames shot up from my skirt, gobbled the flammable crinoline beneath it.
I knew not to run. That’s the first thing you learn during Fire Prevention week in elementary school. I ran.
Screaming, I lunged across the room. My legs were on fire, and I thought in surprise that it didn’t hurt as much as I would have expected.
I was only nineteen, too young to die. I ran into the next room, yelling for my friend . I felt my bladder empty. I heard shouts. Someone threw me down. The housemother rushed in and rolled me in a towel.
As two firemen carried me downstairs to an ambulance, I thought the worst was over. It was just beginning.
Although I was from Austin, the ambulance took me to the Student Health Center, where my parents met us. My mother was pale with shock; my father trembled. Within a few minutes our family doctor arrived. He decided I should remain at the Health Center rather than risk another ambulance ride. So there I stayed for the next ten days until I was transferred to the burn ward at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston.
In those early days, whenever my bed sheets were changed, the slightest touch of the material on my body, or any movement I was forced to make, were excruciating. More than the pain, I remember the smell of my own charred flesh. A tiny spot under my left arm was burned and turning my head to that side nauseated me.
My father stayed with me at night, sleeping on a cot. Oh, how he snored. And how it embarrassed me. Periodically I woke him and begged him to quiet down. As if anyone in the health center cared.
At synagogues in Austin, in El Paso where my aunt and uncle lived, and in Nashville where a sorority sister who was a close friend lived, congregations read verses from the book of Tihillim (Psalms) to pray for my recovery.
On the third day I noticed my hands swelling. My neck seemed to balloon out. “What’s happening to me?” I asked my mother.
“The drip from the IV spilled over. It will go away,” she lied. In truth, my kidneys had failed and fluid had begun building up in my body. My condition was critical.
The next day, when I woke from a narcotic-induced sleep, Mother asked, “Do you want anything?” I’d already asked for my face cream and with nineteen-year-old vanity had insisted on applying it every night. “How about something to eat?”
“I want an apple.” What brought an apple to mind, I don’t know. It wasn’t among my favorite fruits except in apple pie. Minutes before, I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but suddenly I craved an apple, and I wanted it as soon as possible.
Mother sent one of my many friends who had camped outside my room to a nearby grocery store. She filched a knife from the kitchen, peeled the apple, and cut it into chunks. I devoured part of it greedily, then murmured, “That’s enough,” and fell back to sleep.
I dreamed of a mountain, devoid of vegetation, its steep slopes covered with yellowish slush, like rancid snow. Inch by inch, I struggled up the sides, pulling myself higher and higher until I reached the summit. There I got to my feet and gazed into the distance with a sudden feeling of well-being. When I woke, I told my mother, “I’m all right now.”
Within a few hours my kidney function returned and the swelling disappeared. I had passed the crisis. I knew, somehow, the apple had brought me to the mountain peak and given me life.
Months later, after twelve weeks in the burn ward, fifteen surgical debridements, three skin grafts, weeks of torture on a striker frame, sessions in a water-filled tank to loosen dead skin, hours of physical therapy to learn to walk and bend my knees again, and nights of sleeplessness from itching as the burns healed, my mother told me the story of the refuah, or healing, sent by God to her brother Sam.
While the family still lived in a tiny Ukranian shtetl, during a particularly brutal winter, her older brother took sick. From what they expected to be his death bed, he told his father, “A peasant in the marketplace is selling grapes. Go and buy me some.”
Grapes? In the middle of winter? But my grandfather wanted to please his son, so he put on his heavy jacket and boots and trudged to the marketplace. Perhaps he would buy Sam some trinket to cheer him.
To his amazement, a peasant sat in a booth, selling grapes. My grandfather bought a bunch and hurried home. Sam ate a few and put the rest under his pillow. By the time the grapes shriveled, the boy had recovered. My grandfather, a pious and learned Jew, insisted the grapes were a gift from God, a refuah. Mother said my apple was, too.
For years I have wondered if such a belief exists among Jews of the Diaspora or if the refuah was a unique family legend. I have found no evidence, no tales of healing foods, although I have read folklore books, searched the Internet, even written to a rabbi in London. To my knowledge, there is no record of a food that saves one from the brink of death.
I am not a strong believer; I think of myself as a secular Jew. How can I credit an apple with giving me back my life? Logically, the story makes no sense. It was a mere coincidence that I ate a few bites of fruit shortly before my kidney function was restored.
Or perhaps the ways of God are mysterious, His reasons unknown to us. Does my life have a purpose that I unconsciously fulfill? As a speech-language pathologist, I have taught many children to talk. Did God save me for this reason? I remind myself that there are many speech pathologists. Does God need me for some special child who will one day grow up to accomplish great things? Or is it that my story will take its place among the folktales of my family and live long after I’m gone?
But I want, like my mother, to believe. I do believe.