Southeast Portland, Oregon.
One newly graduated no-longer-college-student, living alone in her first real apartment.
I had a bedroom, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen in a funky 1920s brick building. All mine. No housemates, no studios. A real apartment, all for me. I had a car, an elderly sky-blue Toyota that I'd learned to drive in. Mine. It was my parents old car, that they gave me when I graduated from college, and I loved that car. I had a job, a cool neighborhood, and a boyfriend.
Wow. Glorious me!
I stepped outside one sunny Saturday to go somewhere, maybe my boyfriend's house.
Where's my car? I looked up and down the street.
I staggered back inside. That horrid feeling of something missing--something big. Worse than missing keys, missing purse, missing library books. My car! I called my boyfriend. I called the police. And I couldn't get my head around that huge missing thing.
My boyfriend came. The police took a report on the phone and didn't even bother to send an officer. What were they going to do, look at an empty street? Anger washed over me, and loss. That sky-blue Toyota was mine. How could they?
My neighbor brought coffee and sympathy. I called my friends. I called my parents. I called my insurance company. I cried. I made a parade of phone calls with sympathetic, understanding people telling me how horrible it was. How sorry they were. Was there anything they could do to help?
Later that afternoon, I went on a long bike ride with my friend E. We'd planned it all week. Up the bike path along I-205, over the bridge to her parents house in Vancouver. But now, whenever a break in traffic allowed, we talked about my car. She led me through quiet, tree-lined streets to the house she'd grown up in, where her mother had invited us to a dinner party.
E's mother was tall and thin with dark graying hair, thick glasses, and a warm smile. I guessed she was in her 70s. Both of E's parents spoke with European accents I couldn't quite identify.
"Come in! Come in! It's so hot today! You must sit down. You must have something to drink." E's mother ushered us past the dining table set for half the neighborhood into the back yard, gave us seats in the shade, and disappeared into the house for iced tea.
In the back yard, various collected friends, E's boyfriend, her parents' neighbors milled about under the trees. And E told the story of my car, and they all asked about it, and were so sorry, and listened while I told my tale again.
E's mother brought a tray with glasses of iced tea, and held it out for us to take one. She smiled.
And there, on the inside of her arm, was a small row of neat blue numbers.
E's mother was a camp survivor.
In that instant, every bit of angst over my car evaporated and blew away in a puff of summer wind.
In that instant, though I'd given up my belief in God, I heard the knocking coming from somewhere outside myself. Wake up! Look beyond your own petty concerns! You have it pretty damn good!
I was alive! My family was alive! Every single person I loved was alive! All of them!
The car? Just a hunk of metal. Just a car.
I was alive.
That camp tattoo on E's mother's arm is still seared into my brain. It reminds me every time I obsess over trivia, what a gift I have. I am blessed. I am rich beyond measure. People have endured unspeakable horrors, and I have not. Whatever it is, is insignificant. Take a breath.
I am alive.
About a year later, E's mother came to speak to a group from my work. She's made it her life's work to speak to anyone and everyone she can. Schools, churches, temples, synagogues, anyone. Everyone. She spoke eloquently to a silent, horrified audience, in her Greek/Italian accent. She came from the island of Rhodes, then part of Italy, now part of Greece. The Nazis didn't come to Rhodes until later in the war, and she was only in the camps for a year or two. The stories she told, trying to keep her sister and mother alive, being made to fight for food with the other people. I'll never forget them.
I wrote her a letter after she spoke. And I told her about my car. About meeting her the year before, the day it was stolen, and about the amazing realization I had. That most of my concerns were just trivia. I have an amazing, fantastic life. Everyone I love is alive. I have gifts beyond measure.
I got a new job. E and I lost touch.
About ten years after, E invited me to a party, and I saw her mother there. She was quite elderly, with thick glasses and wispy white hair, but bright eyes, interested in everything around her. I introduced myself, and told her I had written her a letter once after she spoke.
She started to cry.
And took my letter out of her purse.
For ten years, she carried my letter in her purse.
She told me through her tears, "This is why I speak to everyone."