This week begins the month of Ellul, the month of remembering, which comes before the festivals of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succos. It is a month of self-scrutiny, but also a month of visiting the graves of loved ones, and of cherishing their memories, before, next month on Yom Kippur, we say the memorial prayers for them.
And now, this year, I shall be saying those prayers for for my mother, who completed her life and passed to her eternity on the 8th January this year, 23rd Teveth, Shabbos Shemos, the anniversary of my daughter's basmtizvah, and just two days after my daughter's and my son in law's birthdays.
This mourning year for my mother is very different from the one I lived through for my father, whose life was completed in 1983. It seems much less intense and overwhelming, though for most of my life and certainly through my childhood and teenage years, I was much closer to my mother than my father. I'm not sure why that should be; it might have to do with the fact that my mother lived through eleven years of increasingly severe dementia, and so the anticipation that her life could end at any moment was one I lived with for a very long time, whereas my father died after a short but very serious illness. Or maybe it had to do with the different sorts of complicated my relationship was with each of them. Or maybe it is, as I suspect from hearing others' experiences, that the first loss of a parent is very much more intense than the second. Or maybe it's something of all of those.
I expected I would write a lot about my mother in the weeks after her death, when I was closest to the intensity of the bereavement. I did that about my father. But I found myself marking my mother's passing in very different and quite idiosyncratic ways, and particularly by doing many things that marked the void of her absence from my life, after so many years when I was responsible for caring for her. I stopped wearing makeup (which I did for special occasions) but still had my nails done. I stopped buying Vogue. I have covered the television with a sort of improvised installation of a white sheet across which are pinned photos and images which summarize vivid moments of her life from 2 years old--when she and my daughter looked exactly alike-- to my daughter's wedding day in July 2007, when she was 91.
The image that now means most to me is the one here. It was a mere passport photo, taken in 1964, when she was 48 and I was 20; it was taken by the renowned Boris, who had moved his studio from Whitechapel, where he was the central visual biographer of almost every Jewish wedding in the East End, to the West End, where nobody remembered he was still around.
Today, I have been moved to write this post, after all these months, by reading Talia's post on her feelings about holding the last concrete link with her own mother, who also died recently, and far too young, at the age of 56, after a particularly horrifying cancer. Talia's record of living through the period of her mother's illness and death and what came after it, which is on her Daughter of Cancer blog, has astonished and touched me intensely.
Here's what I wrote as a comment on her post. May her mother's memory, and that of my mother, and all of our dear ones, be remembered with love and may we and all who mourn be comforted.
I so much feel for you, not just because I have been moved and enriched by reading your posts about your mother and the time before and since her death, but because I grew up without grandparents, three of whose lives were ended brutally and prematurely by the Nazis, as well as those of a beloved uncle and endless numbers of great aunts and uncles and cousins.
I particularly felt and still feel great regret that I never got a chance to meet them, most of all my mum’s parents and my dad’s mum, after whom I named my daughter.
But the lives and personalities of my mother’s parents were almost as real to me as if they had been alive, thanks to the stories my mother constantly told me of them, and of course through the wonderful food we had all through my childhood, all of which was from my grandmother’s methods and recipes which my mother learnt and served up, always perfectly, without a single written recipe.
So successful was my mother in evoking their presence and their loving care in me, that I seriously thought as a kid that their souls were living in our cat, who watched over me so benignly and so unjudgementally, and was always my loving friend and companion when I had none.
When I was 18, I met my surviving great uncle, my grandfather’s brother when I spent six months in Israel, and it was a great joy to meet him and see in person what a wonderful couple he and his wife were throughout the six months, and even experience their Seder.
That gave me a taste of what that generation of my mother’s family was like–a fantastic experience which I treasure to this day and made me feel as near as I could have been to being in the company of my grandparents. I gave my daughter my late great aunt’s name as an additional name in loving memory of her.
And also at that time I met various refugee and Holocaust survivor relatives who told me stories of these wonderful meals they’d had at my grandmother’s table, over sixty years previously when they were passing through Berlin on their way to the USA or on aliyah.
So I think, Talia, that if you are blessed with children, and I hope you will be, your mother and her life and gifts will be as vivid to them as my grandparents are to me through your own wonderful gift of making her live for all of us through the stories you’ve told and tell in your blog. But you will have many thousands more of much smaller and apparently trivial and not-for-sharing outside family stories that they will also hear and love, and ask for time and time again.
That will be one of the many great gifts you will be able to offer them, that will be worth much more to them through life then gold and rubies.