On the second night of Rosh Hashona, I was talking to Lily.
Lily is ninety-six. She's the mother of the hostess who invited me for the second night. For we are now in Jewish time, when, for those of us who are observant, the secular calendar with its secular obsessions almost slips away, and the Jewish calendar, with its days that begin with feasts in the evenings takes over. The space between the days of this run of our greatest festivals is taken up with anticipating and preparing for the next ones.
One of the most beautiful things about these festivals is that they combine family and friends meeting and feasting together, with sharing their presence in the synagogue. It's a time too, when we should make sure that no-one is left alone, and the more people we can invite, the better.
Last year, the first year my daughter was away from home for the festivals, for the start of her first year in Jerusalem, I realised I had acquired something of the status of an official Poor Thing. Good-hearted people showered me with invitations so I should not eat alone, and many expressed their concern about how I would manage the pain of her absence. Actually, I managed very well, for I knew how happy she was, and surrounded by people who love her and care for her, plus family who invited her and asked her to regard them as her family in Israel. But I loved and appreciated the invitations and the meals out.
This year, too, I found that I was invited out for every one of the festival meals, each time by people I very much enjoy visiting and being with.
I got to the home of my second night hosts earlier than the other guests. Lily was sitting on a sofa in the study reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I love this book, with its quirky story told by an autistic boy with a passion for esoteric mathematical puzzles, but I wouldn't have predicted that it would appeal to Lily. We talked about why we liked it, but before long, our hostess suggested we move into the living room in time for the other guests.
Lily is very frail, and usually walks with a wheeled frame, or uses a wheelchair. But I linked her arm through mine, and we slowly walked to her special armchair in the living room. Opposite her was the little table covered with framed photographs of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I asked her to tell me about when she'd last seen some of them, and she glowed with pleasure as she talked of them.
There is a framed photo on another side table in that room which is her on her wedding day, a wartime wedding, with her husband in uniform. She is still beautiful now, and in the photo, she looks just like a 1940s film star, with a small trilby hat, trimmed with a little netting, worn at a rakish angle. I complimented her on how good she was looking. She's always immaculately turned out, and that evening had a beautiful understated gold necklace and a dark dress which brought out the darkness of her eyes. Her hands are twisted with arthritis, but they are still immaculately manicured with bright red varnish. She laughed as she told me that when she was working in a shop as a young woman, people would come up and ask her what hair dye she used, as her hair was so jet black. But it wasn't dyed at all.
So she began to ask about my daughter, who she's very fond of; most years, we join the family for one of their Pesach seders. I explained about her choice to do a second year studying in Jerusalem, and she said, so are you trying to find for a young man for her? No, I said, she has a very nice boyfriend, and they've been going out for nearly three years. They found each other.
And I thought I would ask Lily about something I've been thinking about a lot over the last months: the maternal instinct. Once you've experienced it, does it stay with you for life, and does it stay as powerful? And what drives it anyway? Is it just chemicals, that once released, go on for ever?
Part of the reason I've been wondering about that is how it is that parents like me can feel quite happy about their children being on the other side of the world for months on end, after having shared every day with them for maybe eighteen years previously. We don't feel the need to check out where they are every day. Yet knowledge of any sudden threat, danger, or worse seems to invoke the same intense, atavistic responses that kick in in the first days after birth. Sadly, this was brought home to me over the last few months by stories of the responses of people I knew of whose adult children had died or committed suicide.
Lily was a little hunched in her armchair as I asked her, do you still feel the same level of maternal instinct for your daughter [who is herself a grandmother] as you felt when she was a baby and a little girl?
It was as if a set of stage floodlights had been switched on. Lily suddenly sat bolt upright in her chair. Her face was transfigured with intensity and animation. She flung out her arms. Oh, yes! she exclaimed, it's everything! It's your whole life!