It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.
How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.
I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.
I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.
I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.
So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.
There is something starkly beautiful about a New England winter. For some reason I find myself here almost every year at this time or at least in some wintery place. But the gray landscape lends itself to introspection. At least here on this mountaintop, I am isolated with just two of my immediate family, my mother and brother. And so, often, I am alone with my thoughts. Since I don’t ski, or snowshoe, it is just me and the fire and watching the snow melt on this strange day.
I will hardly be the first person to say that your family is who they are and sometimes you love them in spite of yourself and in spite of themselves. I was told recently to remember that there is family you choose and family you don’t choose. And you love them differently. And sometimes, there is the family that chooses you.
Over time, people have come into my life that I love very much. I did not know that I could love as much as I do. I did not know how much I would value the love and friendship of the women in my life. And I did not know how much I would value and be touched by the people I have known the longest and who I see the least .
When I was young, all I understood of love was sex and marriage. As an aside, marriage has not worked out well for me. But marriage gave me my son, from whom I have learned a very different kind of love; The kind for which you would throw yourself in front of a moving train.
It is always interesting to me the extent to which nature, the weather, the scenery affects my mood and feelings. Sometimes it affects my optimism. Sometimes it is all about memory. When I come to this place it is full of memories of people, events and love past. And it is full of the present – thoughtful, joyful, difficult.
It has taken these years of living to begin to understand the nature of love for me. And it is all of the above, thoughtful, joyful, difficult, memorable. How happy I am that I have begun to understand the difference between need, want and love.
I sat in my humid garage opening boxes packed years ago. A collection of mugs primarily assembled by my ex husband. 27 years of marriage, 30 years of history. I unwrapped each cup, acquired either at an event or gifted to him from a friend’s attendance at an event, wiped it clean, tossed the aging, crinkled newspaper and wrote it’s provenance on a fresh box.
They are being donated to an organization that can auction them to good use. As I read them off, I was flooded with memory like the scent in Proust’s famous passage, the feel of each cup and the inscription of where it came from brought me to many moments in my life. The mug from the event in Stamford, Connecticut where my then 11 month old came down with pneumonia and we had to stay over in a hospital with no PICU, shuttling in shifts to sleep with him in the hospital room. The mug from the event in Martha’s Vineyard where a late spring ensured that we would sleep with our coats on and meet the wonderful Dj who later played music for our wedding. The mug from the event at which I was stalked by my not yet husband. The event at which everyone wanted to hold our brand new adopted baby son. The first event with some special women still, or again, in my life.
Mother’s day weekend, and I spent it on a garden stool in my steamy garage re wrapping my history in clean packing paper. And I spent most of the weekend crying, descending back into regret. The way in which my marriage ended broke something in me, and although I have come a long way, I am not entirely mended yet. Being willing to let go of these material things that evoke so much memory and regret is a big step in mending the cracks; in me – the broken cups went to the trash.
And to end on a happy note, my son made Mother’s Day special and brilliant and full of the present.
Whipping up recipes long held in your family can whip up fond memories as well.
Cook your family recipes; some things should be kept alive. In ethnic families there are rituals, usually tied to the religious, that are important and become part of the legacy and memories. In most families, eating together is a ritual that preserves legacy and memory. Even more, there are foods, cooked and eaten at particular times or times of year, prepared in a particular way, by particular people that especially preserve legacy and memory.
There are things you need to know. How to make the letter cookies your great grandmother, and then I, made when each of us in succeeding generations were small. How to make the cherry filled cookies that your great grandmother made for your grandfather and which are his very favorite. How to make your grandfather’s chopped liver (yes, the secret is in the schmaltz) and your grandma Joan’s lemon meringue pie which is too good to put in a pie, just make a double filling and eat it. I don’t know how you came to dislike brisket but you should still know how to make the best brisket on the planet, and the best potato latkes (you will always have friends at chanukah, guaranteed).
Whether you choose to be an observant or participating Jew, you should know how to make a seder. It is important to pass our story on to our children, year after year. The food is part of it, it is the glue that helps to bind our memories together, it keeps them real. The food is the taste and smell of the past and a path to the future. You know, being who I am, that I will have collected the recipes for you, and bound them in some kind of book for you to keep. But a book on a shelf isn’t enough. A few times a year, you need to take it down, make something yummy, and think of me, of your dad, of your grandparents, and the times we cooked and ate those foods together. And when your children are little, cook with them, and tell them the stories of the food and the memories… and they will live on.
So my dad feels strongly about keeping control of his money. I can understand that. I feel strongly about keeping control of my money too. Balancing his checkbook takes a really long time; I mean a really really long time. The last go round took him all day and he was lying in wait for me when I got home to try to find the several (very several) hundred dollar error. When I got it down to slightly less than two hundred, we just took the bank balance and called it a day. I couldn’t find the error. Even going through his fifteen year old pad on which he has written every check he ever wrote – except the ones he forgot to write down.
The check balancing thing doesn’t seem a matter of bad memory or incompetence, it seems a matter of alienation. He looks at the thing and it seems foreign to him, and familiar all at the same time. Then there are all the people out to get him, notably doctors. All the doctors really don’t know what they are doing. They are in cahoots with me to prevent him from driving, controlling his money, or ever getting better. His feeling is that without their interference he would be flying a plane, working, winning tennis tournaments and driving across the country. Age has nothing to do with it. And all those pills intended to “help” him just cause diarrhea.
This has been quite the discussion. We took him off all meds and then talked about what was critical to take and they added those in one at a time. So far so good. And he ended up so healthy that they permanently stopped several of his meds. He was down to 3 kind of critical ones for his memory and his prostate. No diarrhea. For months, and months. He took them in the hospital, he took them in rehab, he took them when he came home… for a while. Now he doesn’t take them, and the caregivers are afraid of him so they don’t insist; not that it would do any good. He is competent enough to know he doesn’t want to take his meds, even if he cna’t remember what they are supposed to be good for.
Diarrhea is back, couldn’t be the flu, has to be the meds so it is the last excuse to completely quit taking them (he was still good for a few times a week). He has a diagnosis of Alzheimers, early stage; and his memory is not so great (short term especially), but when is a person incompetent? How do you know when the alienation becomes so great that the familiarity is overwhelmed?
I see it happening more and more. His computer is a foreign country despite the millions of times he has clicked the same clicks. The remote control is becoming more difficult. Where “things” are is a constant battle of repetition. But he gets up in the morning, feeds himself, dresses himself and pays his bills (often several times).