Friday, April 7, 2017
The Momma d’Elisson of blessèd memory, in her college yearbook photo.
We Red Sea Pedestrians are a strange lot.
Birthdays don’t matter all that much to us. Sure, we celebrate ’em... but that’s a secular activity that is driven mainly by our participation in the American popular culture. There’s no religious observance that attaches to birthdays, save for the recognition of a child as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the age of thirteen (for boys, and as early as twelve for girls).
We pay more attention to the date on which a person moves on to Olam ha-Ba, the World to Come.
The anniversary of a person’s death - the Yahrzeit - is observed by the people who mourned that person in life, a permanent ritual of remembrance. Traditionally, one lights a candle that burns for a full twenty-four hours. It is also customary to attend services so that one may, in the presence of the required quorum of ten worshipers, recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer which, despite its name, is not an expression of grief but rather a call-and-response expression of praise.
It was explained to me once that birthdays are less meaningful than Yahrzeits because a person is, at birth, a mass of unrealized potential. Upon his or her passing, however, that person has (it is to be hoped) affected other lives and brought some measurable change to the world. He or she is, at least to the extent possible, has become a sort of Known Quantity. You can take that explanation or leave it, but it does - at least, to me - make some sense.
If you translated Yahrzeit literally, you’d get “year-time” - anniversary. But the term has a further implication, that of “season,” rendered Jahreszeit in German. It’s not just that a year has passed; it’s that a particular time of year connects us to our long-gone loved ones in a unique, powerful way.
With my mother, that season is the springtime, the days leading up to the Passover holiday. It’s a time when the days get longer and warmer, when trees are in bloom, when the yellow blossoms of forsythia (one of her favorites) paint the neighborhood. (Yes, I know we throw a memorial dinner for her every year on the first night of Chanukah, but there’s another story behind that peculiar observance.)
I suspect that this time of year, she would have mostly been thinking, “Golf Season is here!” She was, after all, an inveterate golfer, playing two or more times a week at a time when most of the neighborhood’s housewives were deciding whether to fix a meatloaf or hot dogs for the family supper, or what kind of pie to bring to the school’s bake sale. Always athletic, she also played tennis and bowled, covering both the white-collar and blue-collar sides of the sports spectrum.
We can only speculate upon what she would have been like in her Golden Years, had she lived to enjoy them. Would she have slowly grown cranky and obstreperous like her own mother had done, or would she have continued to be the fun-loving Doting Grandma to her beloved granddaughters? We can only wonder... but I like to think that she would have avoided the trap of Excessive Cantakerousness.
Tomorrow is Mom’s twenty-ninth Yahrzeit. For almost three decades now, she has been playing her heavenly Golf Game from the side of the fairway where the pointy part of the tee goes, and we who have been left behind to mourn her have had to do without her warmth, humor, and common sense.
This evening I’ll light that candle, and I’ll be at shul tomorrow to say Kaddish. Perhaps I will toast her memory with a perfect Rob Roy - her favorite cocktail - and ponder the bittersweet realization that I have even now walked the Earth over four years longer than she had the opportunity to do. Alas.
[Adapted from my original post dated March 22, 2013.]