Every Thursday night, my parents would entertain their more or less adult grandchildren for dinner. The menu was always the same. Fried sole and chips. Salad and sushi. And when the grandchildren left, as they moved towards the door, they would always take with them some form of chocolate that their own budget would not allow them to purchase. In this way, the sweetness of the evening would linger well into the next week. When they gather would again.
Through the years, as the grandchildren matured, the group expanded with the introduction of the spouses and then great-grandchildren. No parents were invited and Thursday nights remained a grandchildren event only.
Life demanded that it was not possible for them all to be there each week, but Thursday nights were a constant for year and years and years.
To some extent, Thursday nights in some way mirrored our family’s Rosh Hashanah ritual. Each year, like most Jewish families, we would gather and celebrate. First night was always at my parents. The menu was always the same. The décor never differed. And year on year, the conversation never changed.
There was stability in the predictability and nurturing in the consistency.
There was nothing that distinguished last year from the year before or the year before that. We had no sense that the year that followed would bring such change.
Last year, Rosh Hashanah my mom was healthy.
And then few days before Purim, we learned of her illness. Pesach, we gathered as a family, knowing it would be our last; we reminisced and we took stock and cherished what we had.
Shavuot came, and she was no longer with us.
Someone had hit the pause button. Life was suspended. Thursday nights were lost in the blur of chemotherapy and treatments. Hospital visits replaced dinners. Saying goodbye no longer involved the sweetness of imported chocolates.
Eight weeks following diagnosis, my mother had passed on.
She left with the clear instruction: Thursday nights were to continue at her home with my father as the host.
He followed her wishes and implemented his own flavor to the evening. Each grandchild now would get the opportunity to share something interesting about the week.
A few weeks ago, one of the granddaughters who works at a financial institution began by saying, “I had such a hard week.” and hoped to move on to the next person. “We all have hard weeks” was my father’s response. “Everyone has a hard week. That much we know. What is important is what makes it interesting, what we can learn from it, and how we can make that hard week into something positive.” Tentatively, she began to tell of the issue she had had and by the end of it, not only felt unburdened, but also guided and blessed to have had the challenge she did.
My son of 19 came home and recounted the events. He was so moved by this. He hadn’t thought of adulthood in this way, and the conversation completely shifted his perspective.
Sometimes there are days when being an adult is just not fun. When the pain of loss is overwhelming and when the struggle to comprehend how life can change with a single phone call.
It’s how we deal with the “hard weeks” that defines who we are.
Thursday nights cannot be easy for my father. It would no doubt have been a lot simpler to suspend the gatherings and to rather remember them nostalgically.
He didn’t choose the simple option. And so slowly and nervously following the mourning period, the grandchildren began once again to gather on a Thursday night. The void was unmistakable, but with good humor and with resilience and with the comfort of the knowledge that this was what she wanted, they shared sole and chips and salad and sushi. And as they left, they took with them the imported chocolates that made their made their week a little sweeter and lot richer.
Rosh Hashanah is a time to reflect. It is a time to gather, to take stock and to look ahead at the year that will be. There is little way of knowing how this year will differ from the next and what changes might occur. We can’t predict whose chair will be empty. What we can do is celebrate what we have, be grateful for the now and make sure that the taste of chocolates lingers as long as possible.