Decades ago, I met my ex-mother-in-law, Claire. She is, to this day, one of the toughest, most resilient people I have ever encountered.
Claire, born in 1939 in Haifa in what was then British controlled Palestine, was not happy about me marrying her son. It was clear she hoped for a better match than this chatty free-wheeling unedited American girl. In other words, her worst nightmare.
To say that Claire was intimidating doesn’t cover it. She was a force of nature. And she spoke several languages, which included English. But, there was a time when she refused to speak to me. Claire is a big reason I studied Arabic so hard.
There were good reasons she was so tough. It tends to happen to you when you are born in a country occupied by an outsider – the British. Claire was Catholic, a minority in her country even without an occupier. Religion is how political parties in the Middle East are organized. When the British created countries, then gave away the land of the people as they departed their colonies, Claire’s family fled to Lebanon as refugees. And that is where she went to HS. Where she married and had her sons. And where war would find her, yet again, hiding with her two boys under the kitchen table as the bombs blew up her neighbors. So, even in my 20’s I never begrudged her her tough exterior. She developed it to survive.
At first, the only time she would have anything to do with me was in the kitchen. If her precious son was going to be married to this silly girl, Claire would ensure the girl knew how to cook properly to feed him decent food. And by decent I mean Lebanese food. Somehow, even at that young age I knew this was my key to cracking her armor. So I cooked, and I cooked. And I learned a lot from Claire. Not just how to make amazing food that I still crave today. But other things. Soft skills. How to operate culturally in the Middle East. How far I could go without offending. And, she helped me learn Arabic – with some swearing thrown in. Claire smoked, so I smoked with her over pots of Turkish coffee as we waited for something to come out of the oven.
A year went by, then one day something happened. Someone said something about me to her. Something derogatory. A person visiting for coffee. Claire tore that woman apart and pretty much ended the conversation. I was shocked. Afterwards, we were standing in the kitchen and I asked her about it. Her response surprised me.
‘You are my family. She thought she could disrespect you because you are not like us. She learned she was wrong.’
I teared up, but she reached up and patted my face. ‘You have a white heart, Kelli. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.’
No one has ever used that term to describe me, before or since. Until the other day.
I was helping Pilgrims one afternoon. It was a very hot day. A priest in full cassock came through the gate. He was from Poland, carrying a back pack and sporting sandals. He had walked a very long way. And he needed water.
I grabbed a couple of cold waters and refused his offer of payment. He smiled and reached into an inner pocket from where he produced a card with a photograph and a small piece of fabric in it.
‘You have a white heart.’
I took the card and instantly thought of Claire. But I had no idea what I was looking at. It was in Polish. When I looked up, the priest was gone. I put the card with the other things Pilgrims have given me. But, over the past few days I have returned to it between customers, over and over. I am not sure why. Then, today, I had two American couples. They swung by for a couple of drinks.
They were really fun, and before they left they gave me a shell so I could put it up in the food truck to remember them. I promised I would, then showed them some of the things other pilgrims have left for me. The man picked up the card the priest had given me.
‘Where did you get this?’ He asked, amazed.
I told him the story of the Polish priest.
‘Do you know who this is?’
‘No.’ I told him. ‘It’s an old photo and looks like a piece of fabric is imbedded in the card.’
He called to his friends. ‘This is a relic of Father Kolbe. A piece of his robe. He was the priest who stood up to the Nazis when they invaded Poland. He saved 2,000 Jews in Poland from the Nazis. Then, he sacrificed himself by taking the place of a Jew in line to the gas chamber at Auschwitz. Are you sure you have never heard of him?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m not Catholic. I’m not really religious .’
‘He’s Catholic.’ Said the woman next to him poking his arm. ‘He’s a deacon in the church.’
The man nodded. ‘Don’t ever lose that.’ He told me. Then, they left.
I am not sure why that card has moved me as it has, even before I knew the story of the selfless priest. And I don’t know why Claire’s was the face that flashed into my head when he gave it to me. But I do know that white hearts come in many shapes and sizes, even filled with imperfections, from near and far. And I know this because I meet them every single day.