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Some people believe that when a child is born the angel of death and the angel of mercy stand in the room side by side. During the delivery of my baby I watched the monitor as her heart rate dropped and lifted with every contraction. “The cord is wrapped around her neck,” the doctor said, “don’t worry this is very common.”
In Hebrew the Malach Hamavet, the angel of death, is a warning. He is sent by God to show how precious life is. He is the angel who made himself known to David, Samuel and Moses and he was in my delivery room making everybody nervous.
My partner, Adrian, who is originally from Mexico is not afraid of the angel of death. The Catholics in Mexico have a Saint that signifies death; they call her “La Muerte” and she is a good luck charm. Day of the Dead in Mexico celebrates death. People bring food to the graves of the ones who had passed. They actually cook the favorite meals of the deceased and bring them to the cemeteries as a celebration.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry…” Adrian said even though with all his faith in God and the Virgin and even La Muerte I could see fear in his eyes.
How could I not worry? This was my first child. I had carried her for nine months. I had taken all of my vitamins, exercised, eaten right and slept well. I wanted her journey into this world to be safe and harmless. That would be too easy though. Even when my doctor asked me three months before delivery if I had a birth plan, I said “No” and she said, “That doesn’t matter. Anything you plan never goes as planned anyway.”
I did what any Jewish girl from Brooklyn trapped in a room with the Angel of Death would do: I called on the ghosts of my Grandmothers.
Grandma Helen had been a social worker. She was a Barnard Graduate when women were not pushed to go to school. When her son, my uncle, had some trouble she sold her wedding ring to send him into therapy. Grandma Rosie raised four boys, two of her own and two of her sisters’. She read the stocks every day and always had Tanqueray gin and Canada Dry tonic water in her fridge until the day she passed away.
The greatest thing about being with Adrian is that his beliefs and my beliefs often merge and intertwine. He didn’t think it was at all strange that I had propped up photos of my two Grandmothers in the delivery room. He knew La Muerte was there and she was cunning. I felt the Malach Hamavet and he was filing his nails waiting for my next move.
When the ghosts of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie showed up, death packed up his things and left. I pictured my Grandmothers barging in with plaid suitcases and polka dot dresses pulling a cigarette out from Death’s lips and pointing to the door. My Grandmothers basically took over and stood behind the doctor as I pushed for forty minutes. On the last push as the baby came out I saw the cord around her neck. A nurse reached over to take the baby and the doctor smacked the nurse’s hand away and untied the cord from my daughter’s neck faster than I thought was possible. In my heart I knew it was my Grandmother untying that cord. No doctor in his or her right mind would smack a nurse’s hand away. Grandma Rosie would do that.
If my newborn had been born a boy we would have named him David, for my father and Zacharias for Adrian’s grandfather. Because the baby is a girl her name was easy for us to choose: Helen Rose. She took Adrian’s last name to symbolize both of our cultures. She took my two Grandmothers’ names to symbolize strength.
What’s unique about interfaith families is that there is always more than one way to do something. Two faiths offer more choices. Now on the Day of the Dead we won’t only bring traditional Mexican dishes to Adrian’s deceased family members, we will bring plates of food to my Grandmothers as well. On Day of the Dead we will cook for my father, for my grandfathers and for my Uncle Mark. The menu will be a mix of pastrami on rye, borscht, perogis and other favorite dishes of my family.
Baby Helen Rose will witness a coming together of cultures, a mixture of faiths and we will continue to highlight the importance of both as a presence in her life. She will learn the Hebrew prayer for mourning called “Kaddish” and we will light candles in memory of those who have passed on. When she is old enough I will show her photographs of Grandma Helen and Grandma Rosie and explain that these women live on in her. They come back to life once a year on the Day of the Dead. They put down their plaid suitcases and straighten their skirts and like most Jewish women in my family they ask the same question when their ghosts arrive each year: “What time do we eat?”
I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.
“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.