Holding August

Many associate August with the fading days of summer,  final trips to the beach, last gasp efforts to take it all in so that some of that warmth can stay in our bones as we turn towards the fall.

Not me.  For me, it is a far more complicated month than that.  I was born in August, I got married in August and my dad passed away in August (these three moments in time did not happen in the same year if you were wondering).

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When you’re a child, summer birthdays are like always drawing the short straw.  Your school friends are away, so there’s no big birthday party.  I was always at camp, so I got to raise the flag, people sang to you at lunch and I was able to receive a call from my parents.  The good news was that the call usually came during swimming, so I managed to avoid the changing room.  But the whole allure of theme parties, giggles, gifts and giddiness are just not part of the summer birthday equation.  Over time, it all evens out – and one comes to appreciate that the celebration is not in the number of people surrounding you in the moment, but the number of people surrounding you always.  The reminder that to many you are special and loved, and to some you are just an afterthought.  I don’t say that with ill will – it is what it is.  I’m beyond rich in the love department – and I don’t need a day to remind me of that.

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Andy and I got married in August.  We get a little giddier this time of year – although it’s been more than twenty years since I broke out in hives under the chuppah and Andy and the rabbi walked me gently through my vows as my little one twisted his fingers in my dress asking for cake.  There were toasts – my dad insisted on reading his despite his failing voice and already-compromised health.  I don’t remember it all, but it began “Once upon a time there was a princess who met her prince..”.  His voice was hard to hear – even with the microphone – but the magic was clear.  The kids got their cake, my nieces jumped up and down with preschool exuberance, taking credit for this union (and were it not for their friendship their respective aunt and uncle would never have met).   We began our life with the knowledge that we weren’t lucky – we were blessed.  When we’re smart enough to remember this, we still are.

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And then at month’s end, I continue to say kaddish for my dad.  It is difficult to write about this without being maudlin, so I’ll aim for brevity.  He loved me in a way that worked for me.  I in turn drove him crazy.  When he left, he took all my secrets – every single one.  I censored little, though I’m sure he would have preferred if I had censored more; but I gave him all I had and I don’t think he ever doubted that.  And I ache when I think of him, I miss him with a longing that I can’t define.  Years ago I downloaded a voicemail he left me on my birthday – singing Happy Birthday and ending with “I love you sweetheart”.  I have to turn that cassette into a cd, just to hear him one more time.

Time – August plays a game with  my head when it comes to time.  I move from moment to moment without volition, allowing events and memories to wash over me as water from a cascading stream.  It has to flow in this way, and I have to follow its lead.  It isn’t easy, I slip, lose my footing, but ultimately remain standing.  Sometimes life compresses, other times it expands.  August is.

“No matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away.” — Haruki Murakami

 

Never Forget

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This is one of the few pictures we have of my mom and her family before the war.  She was an adorable little girl who grew into a beautiful and haunted woman.  I think some of the relentless, unforgiving thoughts that defined so much of her persona were driven by memories such images evoked, further fueled by the unanswerable question, “what if?”.  “What if” there had been no Holocaust?  “What if” they could have remained in Vienna along with their sizeable extended family?  “What if” she had been able to grow up with frivolity?  “What if” her back story was so benign, so unremarkable that it didn’t inform her entire life?

Holocaust Remembrance Day – I wrote of it last year.  I honor it again.  Elie Wiesel once said, “To forget the Holocaust is to kill twice”.  With a bowed back, I realize that he is right – for this is a lesson the world has yet to embrace.  The irony of unanimous agreement that humanity is precious and the disparity that clearly exists in its definition.  And we bear witness over and over again – the self-righteous rationalization about the expendability of some people over others.  We’re not talking about Darwin.  After Kristalnacht, my grandfather went to schul with the conviction that the answer to this horror would be found in more devout prayer.  This is not about evolutionary theory.  This is a human tale.

My mother’s story lives now in my sister and I.  It has been with us since we were born, whispered to us as we were carried by our grandfather,  packed in our lunch boxes, tucked into our clothes.  We honored it because it was so big and inconceivable and intangible, yet as real and palpable as mom herself.  It was every nightmare that would wake us when she screamed.  It weighted every argument in mom’s favor when I fought my way through adolescence.  It remains as a part of every prayer I mouth to the sky in the morning – sending love to my parents, appreciation for  this life, my family and friends, and imploring that we all continue to be blessed with health and love.  It lives in me.  Perhaps it will remain in her grandchildren, and so on.  Time has a way of diluting even the starkest memories.  The ones you swear you’ll always remember.  Maybe the details will get lost, and what will survive within them is a more sophisticated palate – able to taste  the exquisite, indescribable sweetness to life.  The passionate advocacy for the value of humankind.

When mom passed away in 2005, her obituary ran in the New York Times.  It read in part, “Dee was born and spent her early childhood in Vienna, making her one of that shrinking cohort who experienced and survived the monstrous storm of Nazi violence.  Her father and mother…took the family out of Austria shortly after the Anschluss, making their way first to Belgium and then through occupied France.  The family made its way to Portugal, where on August 16, 1941, they found passage among 765 other refugees on the Spanish freighter Navemar – one of the last voyages of escapees from Europe.  Dee’s children and grandchildren bear in their hearts eternal, existential gratitude for her family’s valor and persistence.  Her intelligence, humor and immense energy were a gift to us all.  Our family’s particularly gladdened that Dee lived long enough to know of the safe return..of her eldest grandson, Matthew, from Iraq, where for the past year he has served in harm’s way the country that gave his grandmother safe haven.”

In acknowledging this day of Remembrance, I honor my family.  I honor the memories that once glared in every corner, and now have softened to shadows.  I will do my part to make sure that though they may dim and blur, they should never be forgotten.

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Coming Full Circle, Sort Of..

My sister and brother-in-law are in the midst of moving into their recently renovated house.  It’s been the longest labor and delivery – literally and figuratively.  And now that they have their little parcel of joy (so to speak), I hope they love and enjoy it and make it their own.  Needless to say I can’t wait to see the new addition to the family (I know that was a groaner, but I couldn’t resist).

There is a gentle irony in her move to this house.  Although we didn’t grow up there, it’s proximate to where my parents lived (they bought their house when my sister and I were already in college.  I used to say that had we moved to the suburbs before I finished high school, my graduation gift would have been way better than a Panasonic stereo).  It is where I remember them at their happiest.  And it became home – because it was where they were,  where my children crawled and toddled and ran – where so many memories were made.    My sons always reference this house when remembering their grandparents – the backyard with apple trees as bases and dad throwing pitch after pitch after pitch, looking for shells down at the dock, creating innumerable ways to take indoor soccer to new levels of hilarity.  It’s where Andy and I got married.

I can’t wait to visit my sister and yet, when I think about driving up 95 and getting on the Hutch, my eyes cloud with tears and there are no words.  No words.  Perhaps because my heart is too full.  There are some things that time doesn’t temper.  There are some moments that may  change in hue or shading, but remain the same in form and substance.

This sentimentality is heightened by another serendipitous experience.  My parents had a circle of friends (all European but for our dad)  that was arguably too close, too intimate, too ‘Mad Men’.  They were known as “The Group” – they had their children within months of each other,  summered together in the Catskills, wintered together at each other’s houses.  As their offspring, we identified with each other in so many unspoken ways.  All first generation Americans (again, dad being the exception), all growing up with a European perspective of child-rearing, all connected by an emotional cord tied by our parents.  Until it unraveled when we were young adults.

You know where this is going – Deb and three of these women have picked up that cord once more.  They had dinner together recently, and she described it as warm and loving.  They will see each other again; I’m hoping to join them.  And slowly I feel the ground shift, the angles inherent to any journey smoothing and perhaps unresolved elements coming full circle.  I find myself gravitating to these memories and holding myself back, venturing forward with some reluctance.  I need to protect the little girl who is in my care; she still has hurt along with the delight.  She’s never been very good at self-protection.

So I sit here in the silence that arrives with snowfall, recognizing the wonder in the nexus of these moments, their undeniable connection to the past and their inextricable relevance to the present.  As to the future?  It’s not mine to predict – I just know that it makes me smile, albeit with one tear.

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