Guest post by my sister-in-law Ria Saunders, 78 today: “Angels in Israel”

Featured art: Angel, stitched and burned on the synthetic fabric Tyvek by Gordana Brelih.

Out of my 7 sisters-in-law (including exes and Esta who has died), Ria Saunders was my first—she and I married the Saunders brothers: she the oldest, Cliff, and I the younger, Peter. Our beloved Cliff died in June last year, 2019, 4 months before his 80th birthday.

Ria and Cliff in March 2017, about 2 years before Cliff’s death. Cliff is wearing one of the African shirts he loved, this one from the Ivory Coast. After his death, Ria sent the shirt to Peter.

On the evening when Cliff died after a prolonged sick-time caused by heart disease, Ria and her daughter Yolande (my and Peter’s god-daughter) were with him. Ria said his death was as he had always wanted it: at home and in his bed. All three of them were so prepared for his death and peaceful that their little dog, Dukie, “was not even upset,” but just kept lying quietly by them on the bed when his” breath became air.” After holding Cliff for a while, Ria and Yolande washed him and dressed him in his favorite black pants and shirt. Yolande went to sleep in her room, and Ria lay next to Cliff on the bed and slept by his side until morning. She only let people know of his death in the morning. When we spoke to her that day, she was very sad, but completely at peace—her Christian faith also carried her in this way through his funeral and the months of adjustment that followed and is—of course—still ongoing. They had been together since they met as neighbors when she was ten and he fourteen, and had started going steady once she got to high school.

Cliffs hands after his death, after Ria and Yolande washed and dressed him.

As Ria was starting to anticipate Cliff’s 80th birthday in November and her first Christmas without him, an invitation came from a friend in England, who invited her to come and visit—and offered to sponsor her travel and living costs for a prolonged stay. The fact that her friend Hilda was an atheist (like the Salt Lake City Saunderses) attests to Ria’s ability to spread her Christian love to many different people, no matter their beliefs.

Left: Peter’s and my goddaughter Yolande on her 50th birthday, with her mom Ria. Middle: Ria’s backyard garden at her and Cliff’s flat in Johannesburg. Right: Ria and Cliff lost their son Dudley when his was in his early 40s. By the lemon tree at the bottom of the garden, Ria erected a cross for Cliff after his death, next to one they had installed for their beloved son years ago. Ria raised 5 children: Dudley, who had a son Lee and a daughter Isabella with his wife Marlet; Lee is now an adult and Isabella (11) is being raised by her mother, Marlet; at the time of his death, Dudley was living on a smallholding where he and the love of his life, Bernadette Maguire, kept horses. Isabella lived with them and became an excellent young horsewoman. She still rides today—except for now with the coronavirus lockdown in South Africa… Yolande lives with Ria; Cliff Jr is married to Carina, with whom he has a son Daegan (12); Ria and Cliff also raised her sister’s two children, Albert and Ilette van Wyk, who joined the Saunders family when their parents both died in a car accident on the same day when the children were a teen and pre-teen. Albert and his wife Karen have two children, Anton and Klara; and Ilette has a son Reyno.

In addition to day trips in England, Hilda and Ria also traveled to Istanbul.

Hilda’s flat and garden in London. Ria and Hilda in Istanbul.

After staying for almost 3 months with Hilda, Ria traveled to Israel on her own for the last week or so of her time abroad. When we spoke to Ria yesterday for her birthday, she remarked with a laugh about her trip that she “had been mostly with atheists for three months and had learned a lot!”

Ria giving herself a face mask at the Dead Sea in Israel. The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, the site where many Christians believe Jesus was buried.

I continue to learn about love and forgiveness and acceptance from my beloved Christian sister-in-law Ria. Here is her story of an experience she had in Israel, which reminded me of something my mother, who had dementia, wrote in her journal when her clarity about the world was dim but her knowledge of things spiritual strong: “Angels and people sing songs of praise,” Susanna Steenekamp wrote in her legal pad. “Who are angels and who are people? Hosanna, Hosanna! After that comes the open end. An open end, because history continues after we arrive at an anticipated end point” (my translation from Afrikaans).

The Wounded Angel, Hugo Simberg, 1903

Ria trusted me to translate her story from Afrikaans to English to share with her church circle and other friends in South Africa. Now she is letting me post it here too!

 

RIA SAUNDERS: “ANGELS IN ISRAEL”

The mini cab in London picks me up at 04h00 for my flight to Israel. I must be at Heathrow by 05h00. My driver is a congenial older Indian man. We speak companionably and I confide my fears about going alone to Jerusalem for eight days. When we say goodbye, he says, “You are not alone in Jerusalem, God is with you.” And so it would be.

 

Angel 2, Gordana Brelih, 2011.

At the airport I was bereft when I almost miss my flight to Israel because I did not realize that Istanbul was ahead of London by three hours! Several times during the flight, I visualized my last red candle flickering in the Catholic Church in London that was so dark and lonely.

The Spirit of God, Marianne Gonzales.

We land at Ben Gurion at 18h00. My mini backpack, borrowed from my friend Adri, is missing from my checked luggage. I wait and wait at the carousel, but the bag does not show up. It’s one of Adri’s beloved possessions—she had walked the Camino with it! Besides, I had tucked into it the directions to the Jerusalem Hostel I had booked. Eventually I drag my heavy suitcase to Lost and Found, where a young woman listens to my lament. I try to be brave, but I don’t even know which bus or tram to take to the train. Miserable and afraid I push my baggage cart to the station. Everything is so unfamiliar and difficult. Such a different experience from thirty-seven years ago when I visited Israel with my husband Cliff, who died in May 2019, less than a year before my solo trip. Then, we camped for an unforgettable three weeks, traveling to various kibbutzim. Now, I am seventy-seven and alone.

“I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ,” by Marianne Gonzales, 2017. (The title is a quote from Ephesians 3:1.)

I buy a train ticket with my credit card. (Fortunately I had  earlier exchanged £25 for shekels.) I go down the escalator, lugging my heavy suitcase, bulky coat over one arm, to Platform 1. I wait for the Jerusalem train in the cold air, chilled by rainy weather. I almost board the wrong train, the one heading for Tel Aviv. I make enquiries, get on the actual Jerusalem train: a swanky red double decker. A man helps me get my heavy case on board. To my left, an impossible staircase rises to the top deck. To my right, a vacant seat. I sink down in it. It is 19h30 or later by now. I am seated across from a man and woman with several pieces of luggage. They are talking. My hearing is bad—I wear hearing aids—and I strain to find out what language they are using. It is English! I am so concerned about finding the tram I have to take when I get off the train, that I start speaking with my fellow travelers. I tell them that I am from South Africa and traveling alone; and divulge my dilemma about the lost backpack and directions. They introduce themselves: Simon and Anne Holland from England; they live in Jerusalem and work at the Garden Tomb, Jesus’ tomb! British Christians working at Jesus’ grave!

Angel, Gordana Brelih, 2014. Note that the angel is unrolling the door from Jesus’ tomb.

God had guided me to board the train at the exact spot where I would find a seat directly across two of His children! As if this was not enough, angels Simon and Anne give me a Rav Kav card for the tram, help me load 50 shekel onto the card, and shepherded me from the confusing central bus station to the tram for Heil’Avir. They get onto the tram with me, travel with me to the fourth stop, Jaffa Centre, where they get off with me and walk me to my destination, Jerusalem Hostel, where I had booked a bed in a dormitory for six women. Simon and Anne accompany me into the lobby of the hostel, where I get another amazing surprise—since the hostel is having electricity problems, I have been switched to a single room for the same price as I would have paid for the bed in the dormitory! In addition, 35A is right next to the bathroom. To top this latest blessing, Simon hauls my suitcase upstairs to my own little haven.

Full image of Gordana Brelih’s Angel, of which the featured picture at the start of the post is a detail.

Lord, my God, You are miraculous/Wonderful! How good You are to me! The Lord God was with me and made everything happen in just this way. Simon and Anne Holland were God’s “angels,” appearing at the right place at the right time! I praise Your Name O God! And also for the mini backpack that was delivered the next day at the hostel…

Heavenly Host, mosaic on the domed ceiling of St. Paul’s Within the Walls Church, Rome, by Edward Burne-Jones ca. 1890.