Mourning, Consolation and Joy

The night before I left for my family vacation, I paid a shiva call to a friend who had just lost her sister.  In the middle of my visit, a rabbi friend-of-the-family led those present through the first night’s shiva minyan.  Before we began the Mourner’s Kaddish, the rabbi explained that this night was a very special Shabbat.  It was Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation.  After the somber observance of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu begins seven weeks of consolation, of shifting from mourning to comfort as we clear our minds and prepare for the New Year.  It was a beautiful frame to put around this heartbreaking time, and gave those of us present a sense of purpose in being with my friend’s family in that moment.  It also fortified me as I prepared for my annual trip to the Maine lakes, a trip that my Mom organized for 29 years, including 2012, the year she, like my friend’s sister, lost her life to cancer.

When I arrived at the lake, I sensed so many things that were missing, so many things to mourn.  The plastic bins she packed neatly with games and crafts were missing, replaced by a mish-mash of last-minute items I had thrown into canvas bags.  There was an empty seat around the campfire, and no easel set up on the dock, waiting for a sunset to paint.  When I think of my mom in Maine, I see her smiling in the oversized neon green and blue plaid shirt she inherited from an old high school friend of mine, and her laughter echoes off of the lake.  There are so many ways in which she is not there, and I mourn them all each year that I go up without her.

Sisters discovering a new farm for picking blueberries together. Credit: Eliza Berman

But this year I carried the rabbi’s words about Shabbat Nachamu with me, and tried not to look back quite so much.  There were consolations and small comforts all around me if I opened my eyes to the present.  The beauty and tranquility of the lake are gifts that live on.  My Dad, siblings, and our kids and partners are still a family: a family that treks hours through weekend summer traffic to be together, to cook hot dogs on an open flame and then to find a new stone to overturn – a new farm to visit, or a new craft project to undertake.  I can see a paintable sunset and relish it, even if I can’t paint it like my mom could.  My nephew, whose entire life began after my Mom died, is making his way fiercely in the world and reminding me of how much of life remains for all of us to discover.

And then I found another new joy that surprised me. My girls are becoming friends.  Not in the way it’s been, where I can get Ruthie to distract Chaya with a book while I change my shirt, or where the girls sit beside each other at the table but interact on separate mental planes. A real friendship is blossoming between them, one which is uniquely theirs, and in which I am only a supporting character.  While we were on vacation, they created their own games together, skipping rocks in the pond side-by-side and enlisting my sister and me for hours of “beauty salon” activities.  They sought each other out to try new jokes and held hands in the backseat of the car.  And there was nothing as consoling as this friendship, which has to be one of parenthood’s greatest gifts.

One of my favorite Jewish notions is that of sacred continuity – that we must remember our past in order to best be in the present and plan for a better future.  Shabbat Nachamu is a bridge from a recollection of loss to an appreciation of what is around us. During my week on the lake, I made a small pilgrimage over that bridge. And with the New Year approaching, I will carry the clarity I found in Maine and continue to seek out consolation and joy.

Remembering Mom (and Grandma) on her Birthday

This week we marked my mom’s birthday.  She would have been 65, and had she not died last year, we would have had a wonderful celebration.  Instead, we moved through the traditions we are trying to create in her memory: a lobster dinner (very un-kosher, but something she loved), a trip to the cemetery, a visit to one of her favorite places, lots of hugs, and a little time for introspection.

Family photo

Grandpa, my girls and me at Halibut Point, one of mom's favorite places

One of the things I have always believed Judaism “does best” is mourning.  The prescriptive rituals provide a structured way to traverse one of life’s most painfully unbounded times.  When I was first mourning my mother, these rules gave me things to do even though I felt completely rudderless.  When I observed her first yahrtzeit this May, I found comfort, and a connection to her, as I performed the same rituals I had watched her do for her father throughout my childhood – lighting the candle, standing for her in the synagogue, visiting her grave.

I have thought a lot about these rituals, and as I learn to anticipate the ebbs and flows of grief, they markedly fall short when it comes to her birthday.  The yahrtzeit date represents the death itself.  It is a day that had no meaning before she died, and now represents the beginning of loss.

Mom’s birthday is a whole other ball of wax.  As far as I know, Judiaism doesn’t put much weight on a birthday.  But my mom loved celebrations, and relished any chance she got to celebrate anything.  Birthdays are very special in our family because of her.  Two of her birthdays have passed since she died, and I am surprised by the things that get to me.  I am especially caught off guard by how much I grieve the things I don’t do, like not buying her a present, or not having to decide what kind of cake to get.  And on this day more than most, I miss her beaming smile when that cake would come out, and the joke she would surely make about getting older, or getting cake stains on her shirt, or something else silly from the year that just passed.

I recently discovered Renee Septimus’ blog about the job of a grandparent on the Jewish parenting website Kveller.  It seemed fortuitous to discover her posts the week of Mom’s birthday, as it felt like something Mom could have written herself.  It reminded me of the loss for Ruthie and me as a mother-daughter unit without a Jewish Grandma.  I hope to return to Renee’s blog to glean a few more echoes of what my mom might have said to me.  And in honor of her birthday, I want to share a piece of what I read at Mom’s funeral, to give you a glimpse of the kind of grandmother she was for us:

I have counted my blessings every day for the last three-and-a-half years to have experienced life with my mom as a Grandma.  In so many ways this felt like the role she had been most meant to play her whole life.  Mom was herself as a grandmother – fun, creative, full of life, honest, and real.  She was exceptionally devoted to Ruthie, and from the day she was born Mom re-arranged her crafting efforts, her shopping expenses, her plans, and really her whole life around the smallest member of our clan.  The dividends were huge – I think of Mom as Ruthie’s favorite friend, the person who knew the most about her and with whom she shared the greatest delight.

But even more than what Mom gave to Ruthie, Mom was an incredible grandmother to Eric and me.  Mom recognized a huge part of her role as a grandmother as a shift in how she should mother me.  She was gentle and kind and most of all reassuring.  She supported every choice we made (or didn’t make).  She made it clear that the most important thing we had to do was to love our daughter unconditionally…and that the rest would follow.  She never made me feel pressured or even capable of making a mistake (with the exception, perhaps, of my letting Ruthie choose non-matching outfits), and always reminded me that motherhood is hard work, and that taking care of myself was not just a nicety but a necessity.  I have endless gratitude for the ways in which she made it possible for me to be a mother, and feel that without question the greatest unfairness of Mom’s premature passing was all of the grandparenting she is not going get to do, both for the grandchildren to come in the future and for my brother and sisters.

Photo of my grandmother

One of many beautiful pictures of my mom

While Judaism may not mark the birthdays of those that have passed, I was raised to believe that one of the ways you live on after death is in the memories of those left behind.  So there may be no rituals prescribed for these days, but the memories arise in full swing, perhaps allowing Mom to live just a little bit more.