Chronicles of an Elder: Teach Us to Number Our Days
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
If I live to my next birthday, I’ll be the age my mother died, forty minutes short of hers. My mother’s memory looms over me, as it has all my life, along with the fear of dying at the age she did. This is a good time to reflect on my life as I’m not sure how much more I’ll have. I’d like to insert something cheerful here, but it would be a diversion from this elemental obsession. Writing about these matters gives me a sense of mastery over what’s inevitable. That’s a fundamental reason to write, the delusion that getting the words right means you’ll be immortal. Scrawling on cave walls came from the same impulse. I’ll leave my mark, and you won’t forget me. Although sometimes the marks I scratch on my computer are scary, and I have to remind myself that thoughts are not realities.
Not being forgotten is another obsession. I think about Hamlet’s father’s ghost, exhorting his son as he goes back into the shadows, ‘Hamlet, remember me’ and Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio, ‘draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.’ To be mourned, to be unforgotten throughout the eternity of death, is a strong urge. I argue with my needing self, trying to cheer myself up by recounting the good deeds I’ve done, the people whose lives I’ve influenced. Surely they’ll remember me, I say to myself; surely there’ll be some trace of the fact I was on earth. Yes, but: after two generations those traces will be gone. Yes, and: traces are all I can offer. Remember, my Jewish loved ones, to say Kaddish for me; remember me, my non-Jewish loved ones, in the ways you commemorate loss.
I’ve lived my life in many settings within diverse formations of people, each with their own customs around honouring the dead. In my family of origin, it was photographs. Notable is the picture of my great-aunt, Rose Lila Sasloe. I was anointed with her first and second name. She was the family heroine, world traveller and author of a book for young students. Beautiful, regal, unhappy; she died young after a short, unhappy marriage. I have a stack of letters she wrote in the early part of the twentieth century. I tried reading them, and gave up. They were boring, full of details like ‘please send me a button for the coat I bought in Newark,’ and ‘will you see that my small red valise arrives safely from London.’ In vain, I struggled to find flashes of brilliance from the family icon, but to no avail. Sometimes even the anointed avatar doesn’t come through. But her memory remains, seared into my brain. I was expected to honour her gift of writing with my own. Another way of not forgetting: follow the trade of the ancestor.
For twenty years, I was part of the Jewish community in Berkeley, California. Oddly enough, a place as out of the mainstream as Berkeley has a thriving traditional Jewish presence. Within this culture, I found grounding. California’s boundless sense of possibilities overwhelmed me, and the communal affiliation was a stable marker. Jews do transitions brilliantly, evolving rituals which uncannily mirror psychological realities. When my mother died, I sat on a low stool, wearing a blouse with a large rip in it. All the mirrors were covered with soap, so as not to distract from the task of mourning. People brought me food, and when visitors came, I was enjoined not to act as hostess but to allow them to comfort me. For one week, my sole job was to remember my mother and to absorb the fact that she was dead. After a week, released from the intensity of death’s initial shock, I got up from the stool and slowly began moving back into everyday life. The week of mourning acknowledged the profound absence death brings, helping in the chore of absorbing a forever blank space.
When I contemplate my demise, I’m not sure exactly what I want of my current family. My partner, David, and my stepdaughter, her husband and my two grandchildren are not Jews. They do not mourn in ways I understand. As they are not religious, there is no inherent conflict with the customs with which I’m most familiar. It’s customs, not beliefs, which concern me. I am a Jew by birth and custom, not belief. The absence of a coded response, which is what ritual is, leaves me wondering how I will be mourned and remembered. I play and instruct and adore the children, hoping they’ll find a way to keep me alive, that my desperate attempt to leave my mark will not go unheeded.