With a bit of time on my hands as I waited for someone in the Legacy Midpark lobby — not wanting to second-guess that unknown-how-much-time for a trip up to my apartment to pick up the book I was in the middle of reading — I chose another at random from a small pile easily available as I sat there, and (as so often happens) that triggered enough for me to want to tell you about it…
Reading about early Jews coming to Texas very long ago, I was surprised to find that one of them was a then-noted-in-Europe singer, Isabella Offenbach Mass, sister of composer Jacques Offenbach, who was, and is probably still, best-known today for his very familiar and much performed “Tales of Hoffman.” Little detail was provided about Isabella in what I read, but that little was enough to get me thinking: She arrived in Galveston from Germany in 1891 and died later in the same year of exposure to the elements while delivering some food to the needy during the winter holidays. Was she celebrating/honoring Christmas? Hanukkah? Both? I could find no further detail, just this very brief bit of biography. However: that was plenty enough to get me thinking…
In Louisa May Alcott’s live-forever novel “Little Women,” the very first page begins with Beth, the fictional March family’s third of four daughters — the one with the most concern for the suffering of others and the most desire to help them — announcing she was going out into the cold and snow to give up her own Christmas dinner (thus prodding her sisters into contributing at least some of their own) to a needy family she knew about and was determined to help. And she then returned after her mission was accomplished. But Beth’s own health was fragile to begin with, and this snow-filled, cold-weather “outing” resulted in her coming down with the illness that ultimately — not too much later — was responsible for her very premature death.
I couldn’t help wondering if the deaths of the very real Isabella and the very fictional Beth might have been calendar-connected in years as well as circumstances. It turns out that there could hardly have been any real connection except by coincidence because of the time gap between the two: Beth’s story was written in 1861, while Isabella passed away much later, in 1891. But even though the book, with its opening story of holiday generosity and its sad outcome, predated a nonfictional event, there’s always the question of the possibility that “life is imitating art,” just as we have always accepted as fact that much of art is directly imitating life.
I don’t believe, won’t even imply, that there might have been some actual connection between these two such very similar events. And yet, I do confess to believing that life sometimes provides us with what look like mystical connections, and that these deserve to be questioned, perhaps even thoroughly studied. And here, I ran into this possibility by accident. Was I “fated” to be waiting with just enough time to pick up a book and start reading? Was it just coincidence that I chose a book about Texas Jewish history, and opened it to a page about Isabella Offenbach? Why did my newly awakened memory of “Little Women” send me directly from my downstairs seat to my upstairs computer to find the dates of two similar events in the lives, and ultimate deaths, of two very un-similar women, separated in both literature and reality by 30 very real specific years? What do you think? “’Tis a puzzlement…”
Harriet Gross can be reached at