by Bethany Ball
Marco and Aliza descended on our house in Nyack New York with their irrepressible energy. Aliza, who is visiting from Israel, is the mother of our dear friend Sagi. And Marco is her boyfriend visiting from his home in Bordeaux, France. They were staying with Sagi in his tiny apartment in Williamsburg and had come over to cook a meal for Sagi and his friends. Marco immediately settled in, a spry, fit man in his early seventies, making the most of our ill-equipped kitchen (I asked myself: Where are my kitchen scissors? Why do I not have large cutting boards? Or serving dishes?). Marco speaks French, Portuguese and Hebrew. Everyone who came for dinner spoke a smattering of one or several of those languages. If we got stuck, Marco spoke to Aliza in French and she translated in Hebrew or English. There was moule (en francais), moulim (b’ivrit) or mussels with a butter sauce that we were instructed to drink. Our friend Anthony (a native New Yorker married to an Israeli) brought lamb kabob and sharpened knives. Kristen, a native Alabaman chopped parsley. Sagi worked the grill, along with my husband. Anthony’s Israeli wife Abi and I chased after our not-quite-two-year olds and filled in the gaps--like searching for kitchen appliances and washing dishes. Abi set the table and tore and folded paper towel for napkins (why do I never have napkins?). Kristen’s boyfriend Etay played DJ, chopped vegetables and teased Marco. “Marco! I put on French music! Just for you.”
“Bah!” he said, making a face, “It is Carla Bruni. She does not sing. She talks!”
“Give us some Yves Montand,” Aliza called out.
Marco served his grilled fish, branzini or Mediterranean Sea bass. He called it by its French name, Loup de Mer. “Et Madame?” he said to me, before setting it down on my plate. He deftly sliced it open and pulled the spine out. “Voila,” he said, while mixing sauce in one of our cereal bowls. “Have you a whisk? No?” he shrugged. “Okay, voila, sauce verte,” he said as he dribbled it over the fish. I filled up the rest of my plate with Israeli salad, tsistot, grilled vegetables, homemade tahina and kabobs. The fish had a soft buttery texture and was full of flavor and the sauce verte, made with shallot oil, chopped shallots, garlic and cilantro was delicious.
For a while we’d been hearing about Sagi’s mother’s boyfriend. She’d called Sagi a few weeks after her second husband had died, after a long illness.
This is how their story began. When Sagi’s mother Aliza was ten or so, she left the convent school for the L’Ecole Elateau in Fez where many Europeans sent their children to school. There, she met Marco. Marco was from a Portuguese family. His father was poor, but his mother had come from a wealthy, but fascist Portuguese family. They had tried to prevent the marriage, and so the couple had run away to Morocco to start again. Marco’s father became a sardine packager and they were poor.
Marco fell in love with Aliza but Aliza’s father strongly discouraged any relationship. After all, Marco was poor and more importantly, he wasn’t Jewish. In 1954, Elise moved with her family to Palestine, to a kibbutz in the North next to my husband’s kibbutz, Kfar Blum. Marco, heartbroken, moved to France where at seventeen he prepared himself to go to Israel and win his sweetheart back. First, he converted to Judaism. He went all the way, even getting circumcised and learning Hebrew. When he was ready, he moved to Israel. Right away he went to the kibbutz to marry Aliza, but again her father denied him. He wasn’t born Jewish and therefore he wasn’t Jewish enough. Still, for five years he stayed in Israel, even competing in the Maccabi games in gymnastics. Aliza married someone else, another Moroccan-born man also living in the kibbutz. The name she’d been born with, Elisa, was changed to the name she’s used since. And when that marriage was over, she moved to Tel Aviv, found a place on the sea and settled down with her second husband.
Marco finally left Israel. He moved to France where he owned a company that delivered wine. No matter what postal strikes were going on in the country, his company made sure that the wine being made in Bordeaux reached its final destination. He married and raised a family, but he never forgot about Elise in Israel.
Forty years passed and Marco’s wife died of cancer. His children were grown and gone from the house and he decided he would look for Elise again. He traveled to Israel, to the kibbutz where he last knew she’d gone. He asked about Elise from Fez but no one knew who she was. He showed pictures of her as a young teenager, but no one remembered her. “She must have gone to the sea,” he thought. She had always loved the sea. For two weeks he walked up and down beach in Tel Aviv. He carried a picture of her, talked to everyone he ran into and showed her forty-year-old picture to everyone he saw. Eventually, just before he was due to leave, he ran into an old gymnast friend. Miraculously, he knew whom Marco was talking about. She was married now, her name was Aliza, and she lived close by. He would try and find a phone number for Marco. They could, at least, catch up.
Meanwhile, Aliza’s second husband was wasting away rapidly. He had MDS, a blood disease that he had lived with for many years. But it had finally turned to leukemia. It was almost a relief when he died and three weeks after they’d buried him, Aliza received a call from Marco. She called her son, our friend Sagi in America. “He wants me to come to France, to meet him! He offered me a plane ticket. What do you think I should do?”
“Ima,” Sagi said. “You’re grieving still. Do you really think it’s a good idea? Besides. You’re not seventeen anymore. What if he sees you and he loses interest?”
But Aliza was intrigued. She’d already been grieving her husband’s illness for years. She took the plane ticket. So what if she didn’t like him? At least by visiting him, she wouldn’t have to worry about how to kick him out if he was visiting her. They’ve been together ever since.
After we’d devoured most of the feast, I made a fresh pot of coffee and put out the flat Spanish tortes. Marco took an empty wine bottle, placed it on its side the floor and balanced on it, demonstrating the French sobriety test. If you can balance on the wine bottle and light a cigarette, you are not too drunk. He, the trim ex-gymnast in his seventies, did it easily. A man on a mission, sober to the end.
Bethany Ball Landsman lives in Nyack, New York in her house between a mountain, a meadow and the Hudson River.
illustration via Flickr.com by qthomasbower