It will be two years this February that my mother died. My mother was an integral part of my life, not just as a child but even more as an adult. My mother visited every place I worked at least once and spent the day. She volunteered at my children’s schools. Whenever I moved my mother packed and unpacked with me. She made centerpieces for my children’s B’nai Mitzvah. We spoke every day about every thing.
I have a father. He and my mother were married for fifty years. I have to say I never really knew my father until my mother died. He let her do most of the talking. Prior to my mother’s death the thing I head most often from my father was, “Roberta…pick up the phone…it’s one of the kids.” That’s what he’d say when I called and he accidently answered.
I’ve had my difficult moments since my mother left us. It took a while for my father and I to establish a rhythm to our relationship. Now he has a room at my house. He visits often. I’ve done a good job avoiding visiting my father at his home. Before Yom Kippur I think I was there three times in the past three years and honestly, I never ventured beyond the kitchen. I didn’t want to experience that house without my mother in it.
I’m not sure how it happened this year but the stars aligned differently and all of my children had their own plans for Yom Kippur. Although at first I felt a bit sad about this, once I reflected on it I felt proud that the kids had taken ownership of their Judaism and made plans that felt right for them. That left us on our own for Yom Kippur so it seemed like the right time to head to the Berkshires to spend the holiday with my father at his shul. I guess I didn’t really think through that this would necessitate spending the night at my parent’s home. If you know me you would know that this detail didn’t slip my mind but rather I worked pretty hard to avoid thinking about it.
So I packed up the car on Tuesday afternoon. I brought all of my dad’s favorite items…the chicken pot pie from the gluten free place, the muffins and éclairs from his favorite bakery, the turkey sandwich that he loves from our local farm. I felt lucky that my kitchen is still mid construction so I could avoid cooking the recipes that would have reminded me of my mother and necessitate sitting at their table for dinner. It was all good- a quick dinner at the counter in the kitchen. I could avoid venturing further into the house for a while longer. I did a great job convincing myself that I shouldn’t bring Yartzheit candles. The house is rustic and everything is wood. Definitely too dangerous to leave those candles burning. I decided the safest thing to do was skip it.
Dinner was fine. Services were magical. The Rabbi was incredible. She drew us into a spiritual space that was safe and comfortable and challenging all at the same time. My dad shed a few tears but I tried to keep my eyes on the book. Barbara, the Rabbi, was a one woman show so I busied myself staying alert in case she lost her place or forgot some nusach. I was ready to jump in and help. That was great. I had a task. I felt useful. It worked for me.
When we headed back to the house on Tuesday night unless I was planning to sleep in the kitchen it was pretty clear I was going to have to venture into the house. I had decided I would spend Tuesday night reading the Sukkot Torah readings in preparation for the holiday. I figured that would be a good distraction from the surroundings. It took me a long time to get from the front door to the room upstairs. The house isn’t that big but every nook and cranny is filled with books and pictures, art projects the kids gifted to my parents, sculptures and paintings my parents collected and family memorabilia. Although my dad hasn’t brought anything new into the house and hasn’t really moved a single thing, everything looked new to me. I spent hours touching each item, reliving memories and fighting the urge to burst out in tears.
When I finally made it to the room with the fold out bed where we’d be spending the night I started to read. A theme emerged quickly, “And on the second day twelve young bulls, two rams, and fourteen lambs in the first year, [all] unblemished, And on the third day, eleven bulls, two rams, and fourteen lambs in the first year, [all] unblemished, And on the fourth day, ten bulls, two rams, and fourteen lambs in the first year, [all] unblemished.” The Chol HaMoed Torah reading went on describing each day’s sacrifices. The reading didn’t seem to draw me in, I decided to try the Shabbat Chol HaMoed Torah reading for some inspiration. After some back and forth between God and Moses concerning God’s revealing God’s self to Moses and the people, again the parasha turned to time. “The Festival of Unleavened Cakes you shall keep; seven days” and “Six days you may work, and on the seventh day you shall rest;” and “You shall make for yourself a Festival of Weeks, the first of the wheat harvest, and the festival of the ingathering, at the turn of the year. Three times during the year shall all your male[s] appear directly before the Master, the Lord, the God of Israel.”
Still, no inspiration and the beautiful boxes filled with memories and the closets filled with clothes that still smell like my mother and the piles of photographs seemed to be calling me. I stayed the course and turned to the Torah reading for the first day of Sukkot. Again, I was struck by pervasive theme of time, the specifics of the calendar, of festivals occurring on assigned days and being observed in a prescribed manner. Late in the night it occurred to me, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
The time had come. With the gates of repentance open, with the channels between those living on this plane merging with those living on an alternate plane, the time had come to truly venture beyond my mother’s kitchen and to reconnect with the memories as well as the sadness that I had buried away over these past years. It was a long night and certainly very different than any other Yom Kippur night I have ever experienced. The themes of Yom Kippur and the upcoming themes of Sukkot merged in a beautiful and meaningful way that allowed me to enter into the New Year with a new openness to the beauty of time, the challenges of the past and the possibilities of the future. May we all find the power, the strength and the inner desire to embrace the holiness of time that God has gifted to us.