I went to visit mom in the cemetery Sunday. After driving there, my wife and I sat with her at her bronze grave marker for about a hour talking to her and then talking about her. Most of our talk centered around about how unfair it was for her to die, how unjust God is for taking her away from us. We talked about many other things as well. About an hour later, the cool but sunny day became cloudy and colder, and we decided to leave. Before I left I knew I would have some writing to do again.
Here I am in the days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with Yom Kippur looming ahead. Like last year, I dread it because of Yizkor. For those unfamiliar with the traditions and the liturgy of Yom Kippur, a holiday whose whole point is getting in our last shot at repentance before our fate is sealed for another year. Yizkor is the memorial service, a time in the middle of all this to remember loved ones who have died. The juxtaposition of these two has bothered me for the last year and a half. On one hand we have the Netana Tokef declaring our doom and how it is decided by God. Leonard Cohen’s adaptation, Who by Fire gives some of the spirit of the Netana Tokef and a lot of Yom Kippur, a solemn, hard core fast holiday. While we are trying to keep ourselves alive for another year, we are remembering and honoring the dead.
I remember Yom Kippur of my youth, when Yizkor was a welcome break in the service. There is a tradition to not tempt fate by those whose loved ones are still alive. They leave the sanctuary so not to hear or say words about the dead. Like most young families, our family would leave for the time of the Yizkor part of the liturgy. As we grew older first my dad, then my mom stayed to remember their parents. Last year, and now this year I stay for my mom.
Both the English and the Hebrew of Yizkor has a core word: memory. We remember someone we lost. While I said it was a welcome break, over a decade ago I began to stay for Yizkor, not for my parents but for those who had no one to say Yizkor for them. I wonder now if I did tempt God to take away my mom because of that. Yet I think what I did was a righteous act. How horrible would it be to not be remembered but to be completely erased. Whether they died in the Holocaust or were abandoned somehow by their families, the dead needed to be remembered. They could not be completely erased, So I stayed.
It’s different now of course, there is someone who I am remembering.
In 5772, I watch her memory erased. In places and spaces where she spent a lot of time, she was erased. Visual cues to her existence were in these places. The space contained her spirit, memories of her were sparked by these objects around these spaces. As they were erased and replaced, I find those places that were once warm, cold and ugly. There are others besides me who bear the pain of her loss. It is not for me to decide how they bear it, or if by erasing her space and spirit it is so much easier to deal with the pain, not seeing reminders of her make it easier not to miss her as much. It might be an easy way to stop the pain, though far from a cheap solution, for erasers also lose something when they erase.
It has me thinking of memory, how we have it and how we use it. I’m glad I took so many pictures on the trips I took with my mom. The ones of her are reminders to me and I can be transported back to times where we adventured together in Israel and Jordan, the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, and Africa. They are so precious they are stored not in one place but several, so I never lose them and no one can take them from me.
Memory can be hard because we remember what we have lost. For two reasons I have not been writing this blog for the last year. One is I’ve been mad at God for taking her from us. It’s been a matter of spite and a lack of spirit to write. There is a second reason: my biggest fan, the one who wrote me almost every week to say she’s proud of me and that she learned something new in what I wrote is gone. Remembering that and seeing the e-mail or comment absent from her is a horrible feeling. I too temporarily erased a memory that was too painful to bear — erasing memory is also my sin, and a very selfish one at that.
Yet it is one that I can change, I will have to listen to the silence, the lack of a comment or e-mail from my mom. That will always hurt. I will miss one of the two people who tell me regularly they are proud of me. I still will hear from my wife the thoughts on what I wrote, either over dinner or in a comment somewhere. That is a big comfort and a bigger blessing.
During these Days of Awe a few things happened that I realized writing is a part of me — it is part of the work I have to do. It is part of developing who I am and it is something that inspires others, as it did my mom. There are other comments on my blog besides my mom, and I have to remember that too.
Elsewhere we are told to blot out the Memory of Amalek, it is indeed a mtizvah. During Yom Kippur to blot out the memory of a loved one seems to be a sin. If so, the placement of Yizkor is not counter to the point of Yom Kippur — it is the point. To erase memory is a sin, and it hurts the eraser as much as the erased. We inherit who we are from our parents and loved ones, not just genetically but emotionally and spiritually. If our parents hurt us, we can take that and rise above it. If our parents taught us good like my mom, who was compassion and caring personified, we need to take that inheritance and spread it through the world.
I never heard my mom’s will — for whatever reason I was excluded from the reading, never told when it was. I have my inheritance anyway. The rabbis said that prophecy and wisdom can be transmitted like a candle. It lights another light, but does not diminish the first – so unlike an eraser. So too with the good in a soul, and that is what I got as an inheritance. It is a huge burden, one I’m not sure I’m capable of holding up, for to be my mother’s son is to risk being erased myself. But I will try.
Because I will remember.