My wedding took place almost fifty years ago. I thought I would remember every second of that special day but it seems that my memories coincide exactly (and only) with the photos in the album and with the told and re-told anecdotes of funny or sentimental things that happened that day, like spending three hours at the beautician and coming out looking exactly as I did when I went in. I know that much more transpired over the twenty-four hours of my wedding day, but I can’t recall much besides those Kodak moments.
It seems the same phenomenon has happened with shivah. My mother in law recently passed away. She suffered excruciating pain for two years from stenosis and colon cancer. Every time she went to the oncologist, she would ask him for The Pill. “Which pill, Mrs. Kessel?” “You know – the Kevorkian pill.” Then she would chuckle at his discomfort. We told that story many times during shivah, recalling that she had had a full life and was ready for it to end.
Shiva is a week of story-telling. To my mind, it is hard work. You’re “on” from morning to night, entertaining the visitors, filling in the silences. At some point, the stories take on an archetypal dimension. With every retelling, they are refined, polished, imbued with Meaning. If the visitors stay for a protracted time, there is the risk of telling the same stories toward the end of the visit that were recounted at the beginning. And any jokes or exaggerations become set in stone, part of the permanent record. The anecdotes become set pieces.
An example: My mother in law was a Holocaust survivor. She and one of her four brothers were on the run through Poland during the Shoah. They hid in farms and fields, eventually walking over snowy mountains to make their escape. She had many close calls including bullets, typhus and curfew violations. At the unveiling of my father in law’s double gravestone, she stopped to read the inscription on his stone, the left side of which was left blank for when her time was to come. She noticed underneath the text, in the center of the stone, a circle drawn with barbed wire line within which were the words, “Holocaust Survivor.”
“What’s this?” she asked. “It signified that the Tatte was a survivor,” her son answered. “Survivor? He wasn’t a survivor,” she said. “He escaped to the East. He spent the War in Siberia and Tashkent selling cigarettes on the black market.” “Okay, but it was not a walk in the park. It was a very dangerous existence, starving on the streets, always one step ahead of the anti-Semitic mobs.” “Oh, excuse me, it was chilly? He was cold? That's not a survivor. I’m a survivor. And even I had it better in labor camp than the others in concentration camp.” “So you want us to remove it?” “No, you’ll need it for when I’m there.” “When it’s your time, we’ll just add an “s” to the symbol.” “You will not. There will be only one survivor in that grave and that will be me.”
We told that story maybe every half hour, every time we talked to a fresh audience about how committed she was to the truth and nothing but. There was no nuance or gray area when it came to adhering to the emes. And then we would trot out that story as evidence that she was uncompromising in her integrity.
My father had a similar protracted, painful demise. He died in stages, ravaged by diabetes. He just about broke my heart in his last year when, as my kids were playing in the other room, he said, “We have to make the seating charts.” “Which charts, Daddy?” “For your wedding. We really can’t wait any more. It takes longer than you think to figure out who sits at which table.” My brilliant, math whiz father was stuck in some long-ago place.
After he died, I was worried that I would remember him only as a cranky invalid, but as the years passed, my prankster, sports-obsessed, comedian of a father slowly overtook that other, morbid spectre. I remembered the father who had a killer gift for mimicry. He used to get up at 5:30 am and, in a perfect Polish accent, would call his best friend, Arnie, and say, “Mr. Wertheimer, this is the rabbi. We need a tenth for minyan, right away!” And Arnie would get to shul to find it locked and dark. This worked a few times until Rabbi Bogner really did call one morning, and Arnie told him where to go, and it wasn’t to Heaven, thinking it was my Dad and he finally would not be fooled.
I know that other people – many other people, I should say – have a better memory than do I. But I still get the sense that after a time, our lives get compressed into a collection of scattered, isolated moments. What is the lesson for me in all of this? For one, there is the challenge to be mindfully present as much as possible so as to notice, capture and retain what is going on around me. Also, to try to create enough meaningful, memorable instances which will add up to a more robust legacy than just, “Hey, remember the time….?” I would like visitors to be able to answer, “Yes, I do remember. I remember that and so much more.”