Memories of Israel and squirrels in the chimney

Byrna Porter Weir, Special to The County
6 years ago

Walking to downtown Tel Aviv from my studio apartment took almost an hour and I usually took the bus to my Hebrew class six days a week. One Sunday I walked down to the U.S. Embassy, but the building was closed. The U.S. Marine guard stationed outside noted my confusion and said, “The Embassy is closed because it’s Christmas.”

And so it was. Christmas. I was living as an Israeli, unaware of Christmas. This day I did need to remember, as a friend back home in Rochester was giving me a phone call, a true gift. I was to call her collect from the phone of an Israeli friend, as I had no phone. He lived a short walk from the Embassy. I called, managing to wake her up, as I had confused the time difference.

Another day I went back to the Embassy library, where I asked for information about Gabriel in the Bible because I had a friend by that name. Might the name have special significance?

The librarian, taken aback, said, “That’s in the New Testament and I’m not sure if we have a copy.”

She found one and looked up Gabriel, the angel who had told Mary that she was pregnant and would bear a son. Why had my friend’s Jewish mother named him Angel Gabriel Robert? The French often named babies for the saints associated with the day they were born. Apparently, every day had one. He went by Robert in France, pronounced Ro-bair, and in Israel he was Gabriel (Hebrew, Gavriel, broad “a”).

When I was first in Tel Aviv, the manager of my small hotel said that my name would be Berinika. I thought he was making it up, but he knew his Bible. Much later, back in Rochester, I picked up a book on display in a bookstore and there it was; she was a little known queen.

The friend in Rochester, a nurse teacher in an elementary school, liked to sleep in on no-school days. By confusing the time difference, I awakened her at 7 a.m. She died three years ago, but I’ve been awake at that time every Christmas Day since I called her.

When I was married, my husband and I had good friends, Lawrie and Lucia Root, an elementary school principal and a kindergarten teacher.

My first Christmas alone, I was in my workroom, down two steps from the kitchen, which led to the dining room, next to the living room. (Sounds like “the thigh bone connected to the hip bone,” etc.) I heard something: two squirrels in the fireplace.

I went back to my room and stood on a chair. Why? I guess because of the image of a woman and a mouse. Silly image. I got down to call the Roots. Lawrie and a neighbor, who had stopped in, would be over in 10 minutes.

They had thick work gloves and one headed for the crawl space, the other for the big duct from the furnace, with a flap built into it. The creatures were in there, eager to get out. I would soon have a new screen placed over the chimney. The old one had a big hole in it.

This would be a better story if Santa had been stuck in the chimney, but alas, that was not to be.

Byrna Porter Weir was born and grew up in Houlton, where her parents, Ina and Porter, were portrait photographers. She now lives in Rochester, N.Y.