Fall Harvest Moon
In just two days it will be the 53rd anniversary, yahrzeit, of my mother’s death on October 20th, 1964.
One of the practices of Jewish culture that I find soothing is the acknowledgment, annually, of the death of a family member, a friend, someone close in to your life. In each shabbat service, near the end, those who have experienced a death in the last week or so and those who have a yahrzeit stand and the congregation recites the kaddish, a unison prayer.
The other practices around death, chevra kadisha, or care for the corpse, and sitting shiva, a traditional mourning period of seven days following the funeral, make death an ongoing part of living in community. This is far away from the culture of death denial prevalent in significant parts of American culture.
My family suffered from that denial. Mom’s death happened suddenly, over the period of a week or so, following a stroke. She was 47. In a town of 5,000 many folks knew her, knew Dad, knew each of us, Mary, Mark and me. The immediate time following her death is a psychic black hole for me, the funeral, the days, the shiva (seven in Hebrew) days passing without memory for me.
Our family never recovered from the shock of her unexpected death. The next fall I went off to college and returned home only occasionally until, in my junior year, Dad and I had a falling out that persisted until his death in 2003. My first nights away from home, sleeping in a common, cold dorm, with about 40 other guys, I had nightmares. That was a very tough year for me, going from valedictorian of my small high school class, to classes full of people smarter than I was. Making that adjustment without Mom was very, very difficult. Two habits acquired in the Wabash year, smoking and drinking, would take a decade or so to eliminate.
I absented myself from the family, anger at my father’s rigid rejection of me fueling an estrangement that did not really ever end, though we did see each other occasionally after Joseph’s adoption in 1981. Mom’s death created a vacuum in our lives and took, at least for me, years to integrate. Each fall, around this time, I would slip into melancholy, going inside, wandering the halls of my soul and losing touch with the day to day. That melancholy seems to have lifted for me, but only recently, perhaps in the last five years.
A part of this dislocation in my soul, perhaps a major part, came because death was a dirty secret in the late fifties and early sixties. It happened, yes, but in hospitals far away from home. A funeral happened, then life went on, death having had its day. Even the deaths I had encountered prior to Mom’s, her parents, happened physically, but more importantly psychically, far away. Death was unexpected because it came and was gone, mostly hidden from daily life.
Mom was a sweet person, compassionate and loving. Remembering her on the anniversary of her death feels normal, healthy. She cared for me during my long bout with polio, helping me regain my ability to walk, a gift of love that allowed me to live a normal life. I could have been in braces or a wheelchair. She maintained close contact with her sisters and brother, her father and mother. We visited them often, encouraging a sense of extended family that persists to this day.
She only learned to drive late in her life, but when she did, she used her driving to go back to college for her Bachelor’s degree. She already had a two-year teaching degree, but requirements for teaching had increased. Her teaching would pay for our college. That was the plan.
A WAC during World War II Mom had traveled, unlike most of her generation and all of her family. She was in Italy and Algiers in the Signal Corps, military intelligence. We grew up, unusually for our small Indiana town, with mementos from Capris, photographs and stories of mom in the Casbah. Overseas adventures uncommon in the forties.
It would have been better for our family if we said kaddish yearly for her, and for my father, too. If we had sat shiva, mourning for seven days after their death, supported by friends and members of a community. If death had not come as a sudden, terrible tragedy, but as a known visitor to all families. If. Well, always if.
What can I do going forward now, at seventy? I can remember mom and dad on their yahrzeit. Write about them, include them, it just occurred to me, in my life. I can encourage Joseph and Jon in the same practice, encourage them to include a sensible attitude toward death in their lives and in their families. Jews don’t have a monopoly on a sensible, healthy attitude toward death, but theirs is one. And it’s one I plan to follow.