The Color Purple
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The Color Purple

Elisa Cohen
Elisa Cohen

Sometimes a small act of kindness can make a big difference in someone’s life.

Last summer, while in Israel, my family had a chance encounter with a woman who has left an indelible mark on my soul. This trip was very special for us; it was our first family trip to Israel — and my first ever.

We headed out from our rental apartment in Jerusalem toward Aldo’s, our favorite “ice cream” shop (it was actually gelato, but the kids didn’t seem to mind) on Emek Refaim to meet a couple who had recently moved to Israel from West Orange, N.J. We arrived early and had time to spare before meeting our friends, so we stopped at what looked like an abandoned playground with rusty and dated metal equipment.

As we entered, my daughter and I noticed a woman with purple hair, a small dog sniffing the grass beside her, who was frowning as she furiously tapped the keys on her smartphone. Just when it seemed she might throw down the phone in frustration, she looked up and saw us, my daughter and I both trying hard not to stare at the unusual color of her hair. She smiled and asked us if we could help her.

Preoccupied with the fact that this woman, who looked to be in her 60s, had purple hair, it suddenly occurred to me that she was speaking English without an accent. It turned out she was an American who had made aliyah from the Northeast several years ago.

The exasperation that threatened to overwhelm her in that moment, she told us, was a result of her trying — and failing — to send a picture of herself with her purple hair to her granddaughter in the U.S. I told her we would try, and as she handed me the phone, the words came tumbling out of her mouth. She had breast cancer and her hair had grown back in white, which scared her young granddaughter. To ease the girl’s fear, the woman dyed it purple, only her granddaughter didn’t believe it — which is why she was trying to send a picture.

As I showed the woman how to send the photo, my daughter bent down to pet the cute little dog — and to make sure it didn’t run off. The woman thanked me profusely, telling me how happy her granddaughter would be to see that her grandmother was now healthy.

I told her I understood completely. The woman smiled and kept looking at her phone, anxiously awaiting her granddaughter’s reaction. The sound of squeaking metal and groans of protest from my sons who had been rocking and spinning on the playground equipment signaled it was time to meet our friends, so I wished her many years of continued good health

As we made our way over to the rest of our family, my daughter asked me, “Why didn’t you tell her that you had breast cancer, too?”

I answered, “Today is about the woman with the purple hair and her granddaughter,” and left it at that.

Like the woman in the playground, after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer six years earlier, I knew all too well about the importance of making sure my loved ones knew that I was OK. And I knew all too well about putting on a brave face for young children. I remember wearing brightly colored hats and bandannas to cover up my bald head to alleviate the fear my daughter, only 7 at the time, had of “Mommy being bald.” 

On our first day in Israel, I placed my hands on the Western Wall and prayed, tears streaming down my face, giving thanks for the life that was given back to me. Six years before, there were many days when it was about me. But this day in the playground wouldn’t be one of them. It was about the woman with the beautiful purple hair. We were meant to cross paths.

And now, almost a year later, I still think about her and often wonder how she is doing and what she looks like now. I have no picture of her, only the image from my memory. I imagine that she is smiling, full of life, her hair shiny and lustrous, and, hopefully, still purple. 

Elisa Cohen lives in West Orange, N.J.

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