by Rose Levinson
Photo by Julia Yee
From William Carlos Williams
“I will teach you my townspeople
How to perform a funeral.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
From us, we who have nothing to lose? "
Grieving is a lifelong process. The early death of my first husband, half a lifetime ago, is always with me. Steve’s loss is a quiet absence, one I come upon as to an old friend. Although in truth, sometimes it’s the events surrounding his illness and death I remember, rather than the person. Steve died at thirty and I was twenty-nine. I don’t have enough memories stored. But I do the best I can to keep him alive.
On the other hand, it was a surprise to find myself mourning my father. This parent has been a continuous absence, starting when I was young. His serious depression carried him far away. I’m not certain what led to writing about him on my visit to Ireland’s Inis Mor. Perhaps it’s sadness about how the world feels right now. I return to that original sorrow, the early loss of my male parent.
Here are two reflections on my own grieving. And because I was mourning my father, this issue of Emerging Voices is late. I needed time to go further inward.
Are we ready, we dwellers on this suffering planet, to mourn what we’ve lost? Can we prepare for deaths to come, acknowledge deaths we’ve caused? Shall we begin a search for rituals to honor the world we’ve desecrated?
I ask these questions on a remote Irish island, Inis Mor. Odd that the urbanite I am should find myself in such a place, soothing in its calm and empty space. This morning, I walked beside the Atlantic, that sea which flung millions to the far corners of the earth. I embraced a sacred Celtic standing stone and tied a ribbon of desire to a hawthorn tree. I stood beside a well where countless islanders have placed stones of longing. I added my pebbles to theirs, watched them sink into the water. I asked our guide to bless me, and was comforted by his Celtic bestowal.
This time of year is auspicious for me personally and for my ethnic group. I’m a Jew, one moved by the rituals developed by my tribe over centuries. The Celts were in Ireland from around 500 BCE. Historically, the Hebrew year count starts in 3761 BCE. This is 5782 in the Hebrew calendar. Both communal identities predate the Christian era. Celtic rituals are alive in a place like Inis Mor. They speak in this place and beyond. They spoke to me. Embracing the stone, tying the ribbon, placing my pebbles, I murmured Hebrew words, I recited ancient Jewish prayers, I fused my intimate rituals with those of an unknown culture, enmeshed and comforted by both of them.
The power of ritual to shape experience, to order and contain it, is profound. Over the centuries, we humans have devised countless ways of marking our short journey from birth to death. Ritual is the heart of all religious practices. Of the twelve prevailing world religions, the Abrahamic trio of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are prominent, along with Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Alongside these, Baha’i, Confucianism, Jainism, Shinto, Taoism and Zoroastrianism add their unique responses to human finitude, along with nativist religions. All have devised actions, objects, calendars, movements, music to ritualize what is called belief.
As important are the uncountable rituals we individual humans make up, uttering our own unique pleas in the middle of innumerable troubled nights. Rituals help us express mourning. Without lamentation, there is no consolation. Ritual can make grief manageable.
On September 8, more than half a lifetime ago, my first husband died. The date is seared into my being. I’m remembering Steve now, and the final time I saw him, in his hospital bed in Dayton, Ohio. He was comfortable when last I was with him. And then, at around 6 a.m., I got the call that he was dead. They didn’t allow me to spend time with his uninhabited body, hustling me out of the room where he lay. I regret this, still sorry I didn’t challenge the medical staff who rushed me away. They did not permit me to sit with Steve and take in the awesome fact he was dead. They did not grant me time to invoke a ritual, to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
The absence of sitting in mourning has marked me forever, an opportunity lost. Buried sorrow sometimes comes to me in the form of unbearable anxiety. I didn’t know enough then about the need for ritual, the need to enact a way to face that which is ultimately triumphant: death. I know now there are ways we can grieve, both individually and communally. We must find them or we must create them. It’s what we humans can do in the face of an overwhelmingly confused world and the ongoing loss around us.
For those who lost loved ones to Covid, unable to be present at their dying time, the anguish is magnified. The loss of intimacy and parting ritual is another devastation of this plague. A daughter, Maria, who lost her mother to the virus, sobbed as she described lighting two candles every night, saying her mother’s name in front of the small flames. ‘It brings me some relief, even though I know it’s just candles in my living room.’
Which brings me to the overall theme of this Emerging Voices: Lamentations, cries of anguish for that which is lost and will never be again. Lamentation is a cry of anguish, savage in its purity. Grief inhabits a space of purity unmoored from constraints of reason or restraint. To lament is to let the profundities of loss penetrate the soul. Ritual is often the surest anchor to re-bind us to life.
For My Father
Max. Often called Mac. My father and the parent of my sister. Husband to my mother, Florence. Son of my Polish grandfather, Sam, a mean old man. He’d broken his back when a building block fell on him. Sam walked with a stick, but that didn’t stop him being overbearing and dismissive. When I visited him, at my Aunt Ro’s house where he lived, he’d be at a card table, playing pinochle with a bunch of men and sipping schav, a sorrel leaf and sour cream soup. When his grandchildren walked in, a nod, in his shrunken Polish Jewish world, was a huge greeting. My grandfather did not go in for nurturing. And he was hard on my father, who was not the kind of son someone like him should have had.
Max was the middle child. His sister Edith was the eldest, and Rose, called Ro, the youngest. Both of these women were stronger than my father. Edith was generous, loud, mother of four from three different fathers. First born Harry’s father was unknown, Edith not having bothered with a convention like marriage when she had him at nineteen. Her husband was Uncle Mel, who paid the bills by filing civil suits whenever the occasion arose and slipping on people’s front porches so he could sue for damages. Of their four children, Bea was the only girl. She and I became friends when she lived in Los Angeles, and I was a comforter as she lay dying. Having married two African-American men, and fathered a child with one of them, Bea had been excised from the family. It always surprised me that Edith, who was open in so many ways, should prove to be poisoned when it came to race.
Aunt Ro and Uncle Harvey were the glamorous couple. I remember them leaving their house to go to dances sponsored by the American Legion. Ro’s clothing and make-up made her look like the movie stars I saw in the glossy magazines she bought, her perfume trailing behind as she walked to the door. Uncle Harvey’s suit and tie were stylish, his hair slicked back and shiny with pomade. But Uncle Harvey was a gambler. He ended up driving a taxi, losing his house and wife, hanging out with shady characters in downtown Miami, and dying in a seedy hotel. Aunt Ro remarried, having a good life and ending up, as did so many northeastern Jews, living under the palms of Los Angeles.
And then there was their brother, my father, Max, the male child. He was unassuming, gentle, barely articulate. He was not masculine, if masculinity is defined as strong and decisive and able to cope with the world. Max never finished high school, his formal schooling ending at the end of year eight. When I was in my thirties, I learned he’d been married once before. So far as I’m aware, I was the first child born to him, but who knows.
Max was working as a waiter in the Poconos in upstate New York. In the nineteen forties, this was the resort of choice for Jews from New York and surrounding areas. The Poconos was where the working class went to eat lox and cream cheese, drink coffee and munch on rugalah, play bad tennis and lie around in the sun. A photo of my father shows a nice looking man, short but attractive, with a sweet small mustache. On his arm was a folded towel, the kind you use to clean a table.
In the Poconos, on vacation, my father’s parents met my mother’s parents. My father was twenty-four and my mother twenty-eight. Time for marriage. In Max’s case, a second one, in Florence’s case, a first. It was an arranged marriage of sorts, the parents pushing these two weak-willed people into a liaison. Their wedding picture is full of hope; later pictures show two people whose union did not bring happiness. Whatever joy there might have been was snuffed out by inadequate money, an overbearing mother-in-law living in the back of the house, a subservient daughter--my mother--who took out her rage at my father and her daughters through a continual stream of churlishness. And there was my father’s mental illness.
Looking at my mother now that I have lived beyond the age at which she died, I feel mainly understanding and sorrow. She must have felt trapped with two daughters to rear, a husband who earned little to no money, a mother who never let her feel adequate. Her parents lived with us until they died, and my grandmother ruled the house with constant instructions about how things were to be done. She sat sometimes on the front porch with our neighbour from across the street, Mrs. Bolt. I overheard her speaking contemptuously of my father, of how he wasn’t a good provider. It broke my heart, and I covered my ears to block out her invective.
Max worked as a labourer. Sometimes he was behind the deli counter at the supermarket, chopping cabbage to make coleslaw. Other times he unloaded goods for the Seven-Eleven grocery chain. Occasionally, he helped out when a caterer was preparing a meal. He worked silently, he spoke little, he suffered much.
At intervals, my father was put into the psychiatric ward of the nearby state hospital. The hospital was not a snake pit. It was a pleasant enough environment. When I visited my father, his white coated attendant was kind, and I often saw my dad outside in the exercise area. He was incarcerated to deal with depression, overwhelming seizures of sorrow which set him weeping and pacing. He was never violent or abusive, nor could he say what tormented him. The treatment of choice was electric shock therapy, administered to bring him out of whatever depths he was inhabiting. As my father was inarticulate, the ECT only increased his inability to put into words what was going on. Returning from a hospital session, he went back to whatever menial work was to be had. My mother, herself working as a bookkeeper, had some relief for a time, but the cycle repeated.
My father died at sixty-two. He was in the hospital at the time of his death, in restraints. It’s an image I can hardly bear to recall, his ending so constricted and so subdued. It wasn’t suicide, but surely he had decided deep inside it was all too much and time to go.
My father occupies a blank space in my interior self. I seldom think of him, and when I do, it’s with anxiety along with sadness. When I feel overwhelmed and sad, I worry I’ll go under as did he, unable to cope and crushed by the genes he passed on. I hardly know this man, though I lived with him until I went off to university at nineteen. When I was with him, he said little to me. I think having a daughter, let alone two, was too much for him. Not interfering with our lives was all he could manage. At least, he never abused us, and he worked hard at low level jobs to keep us fed and clothed. After his death, meeting with his psychiatrist and begging him to explain what was wrong with my late father, all he could say was, ‘We were never sure. But working was very important to him.’ Desperate to understand, this was all I was given.
It’s difficult to honor my father, to wish for any of his qualities. His truncated development made him almost non-human. When I try to figure out why he was so malformed, I can only guess it’s partly biological and possibly the result of a father who no doubt made him feel not only inadequate but totally defective as a man. But that’s my need to make sense of it, to have a coherent story. No doubt there are other contributing factors hidden away in his troubled journey.
Though I have no biological children (doing my mothering in a different way), my one sibling has two children. Throughout their youth, she worried they would show signs of mental instability. Widowed young, I missed the motherhood window. It is, thankfully, something for which I have no regrets. I would not have done well, continually on guard for signs of my father’s damaged self.
These few words are the closest I’ve come to focusing intently on my dad, on Max Levine, trying to honor the human who brought me into the world and enabled me to get to this time, to this place. He had a short, unhappy life. I wish it had been otherwise, both for him and therefore, for me. As we Jews say to honour our dead: may his memory be for a blessing.