My dining-room table is adorned with exquisite chocolate arrangements, bouquets of flowers and luscious fruit platters. Attached to each gift is a pastel-colored envelope, pale pink, mint green, powder blue . . . I carefully remove the envelopes and place them on the marble-topped coffee table along with a steaming mug of freshly brewed raspberry tea. I sink into the burgundy sofa, reach for the first note and begin to read. “Dear Rachel, perhaps you came to us so that one day you might save our father.” I pause, as my mind wanders back to that day 18 years ago when I was a homeless teenager standing at their doorstep with a single suitcase.

My mind wanders way back to that day 18 years ago when I was a homeless teenager standing at their doorstepI was 13 years old when my life with the Tanners began. It was a cold day in January in the year 1985 when I stood clutching my meager belongings on the concrete stoop of the Tanner family’s residence. As a mixed-up adolescent, I remember feeling terribly shy and embarrassed. At the same time, I was fervently praying that this would be the end of my exile. After being transferred from one foster home to another, my self-esteem was near zero. I felt vulnerable and insecure.

Mrs. Tanner opened the front door with a welcoming smile. I stood there frozen and did not respond. I murmured something about needing a few more minutes. I remember walking around the block about three times and trying to calm myself down. I told myself that this time it would work out all right . . . I stood at the door and timidly rang the bell once more. Mrs. Tanner, with the same warm smile, opened the door, stepped aside and beckoned me in. The living room was light and airy, with comfortable-looking sofas and armchairs. The smell of cinnamon buns wafted in from the kitchen. I was shown my room, which was small but cozy, and looking around, I had the sense that I was finally home.

For the next seven years I lived with the Tanners. During the weeks that followed my arrival, I met all eight of their children, who were married and lived in the neighborhood. When I met “Mr. Right,” they all were my extended family, providing emotional and financial support. When my children were born, the Tanner family celebrated as if it were their own grandchildren. Eventually, my husband and I relocated, but the bond we had forged with my erstwhile family remained strong.

I will never forget the day when the phone call came. It was perfect spring weather, and I and my children, now numbering five, were on the porch enjoying sliced watermelon. I responded reluctantly to the ringing and was surprised to hear the voice of Mr. Tanner’s oldest son. He had always been less sociable than his younger siblings, and I hadn’t spoken to him in quite a while. As I listened, my stomach flipped a somersault and my throat constricted.

He told me that his father was facing a court case that could carry a 10-year sentenceHe told me that his father was facing a court case that could carry a 10-year sentence. Although he did not go into detail, I gathered from his account that Mr. Tanner’s business partner had committed a work-related felony and then disappeared, leaving Mr. Tanner to carry the burden of blame. I was asked to please come forward as a character witness. I was utterly shocked since I had visited the elderly couple the week before and was completely oblivious to the turmoil that engulfed this noble family. Now they were asking me to come forward, speak up on his behalf and beg for mercy.

I felt torn. The last thing I wanted to do was stand up in a roomful of people and reveal the details of my horrific childhood. My face flamed red just thinking about it. Yet I knew that in order to move the judge, I would have to open the door to the painful memories buried deep within me. I also knew this was a matter of life and death, for Mr. Tanner, who had been in poor health for the past few years, would not be able to survive even a short prison term. “Yes,” I whispered, “I’ll be there.”

I had written down all the details, date, time and address, with a shaking hand. I knew that showing up was not sufficient. I focused on my task of writing my personal autobiography and demonstrating through the narrative how this man had rescued me in my darkest hour. I prepared myself for the Day of Judgment.

It was a chilly gray morning when I got into my car and made the three-hour drive north to the Connecticut courthouse. In spite of taking deep breaths, my chest was tight. I felt the weight of my responsibility and depth of my helplessness. I began reciting Psalms. “Even when I walk in the valley of death, I will not fear, for G‑d is with me.” I begged G‑d for help with my speech and for a successful outcome. I prayed that I be given the merit to be the right emissary for Mr. Tanner.

The court case began promptly. The judge read the charges, and both the prosecutor and the defense presented their opening arguments. There were a number of other character witnesses, but I was saved for last because, as Mr. Tanner’s lawyer had put it, “We’re counting on you.” Suddenly, I heard the polished voice over the loudspeaker. “Rachel Gold, will you please step forward.” I gingerly made my way up to the witness stand.

I looked at the judge and our eyes met. He was focused intently on me with a compassionate, interested gazeI began with what was supposed to be a cordial “Your Honor,” but the words came out choked. At that moment, all the exhaustion and stress of the past week hit me, and I just felt like crying. I stood there silently with the words stuck in my throat. I looked at the judge and our eyes met. He was focused intently on me with a compassionate, interested gaze. He was leaning forward, and his chin was resting in the palm of his hand. Although he did not speak, I felt his encouragement and was infused with the strength to continue.

I described my early childhood with a father who was a violent alcoholic and a mother who, living in her own world of pain, was unable to protect us. I spoke about the well-meaning neighbor, the ACS worker and the endless transfers from foster family to foster family. I spoke about the devastating impact it had on my emotional well-being. And then I painted a picture of happiness, detailing my experiences with the Tanners.

At one point, I asked the judge for permission to approach the bench and show him a photo of my children. He said: “Certainly!” I walked over and showed him two pictures of five beautiful, smiling children. “If not for Mr. Tanner,” I said, “these glowing smiles would not be here today brightening up the world.” The judge was visibly moved. “Thank you, Rachel, they are beautiful,” he gently said.

I concluded my speech, asked him to forgive this man and thanked him for listening. We all went out and waited, with growing suspense, in the lobby for the verdict. The moment finally arrived when we were ushered back in to the solemn courtroom. The judge banged his gavel and all grew silent, a silence so thick it was tangible.

The judge began by stating the severity of the crime and the dangers it involved. He then said that he would take into consideration the fact that Mr. Tanner was only 4 years old when World War II broke out, and he spent six gruesome years locked in a dingy attic, with scarcely enough food, in order to escape Nazi persecutions. He noted that Mr. Tanner had had a clean record prior to these charges. He concluded by saying that due to the kindness the various witnesses had described, especially the fact that he had opened his heart and home to a child in need, his verdict would be a hefty fine with no prison time.

The judge began by stating the severity of the crime and the dangers it involvedI cannot describe the sighs of relief that rippled through the courtroom. Mrs. Tanner embraced me and simply said: “Rachel, you were awesome.” The lawyer came over to me and personally thanked me. And so did each of his eight children and many others who attended this trial. As we exited the glass revolving doors, the bright light of the sun’s rays enveloped me, and I felt warm and at peace with the world.

I am back in my dining room. I glance at my watch, which reads 1 a.m. I place the stack of “thank-you” letters in a drawer as I reflect on the events of the past week. The phone call. The court case. The acquittal. The relief. The expression of thanks. And of more thanks. Although I wished that Mr. Tanner would never have gone through the trauma he did, I was happy that I was able to give something back to the man who had given me so much.