Like everything else during the last year, I lost track of the number of months of aveilut after my mother’s passing. I labeled my last post MONTH 4. But I realized that it was wishful thinking, and I was a month ahead of myself. This is the real MONTH 4.
Last week, my wife and I had the privilege (?) of babysitting for our grandchildren. First, we welcomed the youngest daughter of my oldest daughter (her two older siblings are enjoying a month in sleepaway camp) while her parents spent a long weekend in Charleston. Our pool and 16 Handles helped to punctuate the boredom of a Shabbat with two aging adults. Then we watched the two pre-school age children of my youngest daughter, while she and her husband spent a few mid-week days in New Hampshire. They were easier to please, but my wife and I were in a state of low-grade anxiety — what if the son refuses to go to camp or his sister starts crying inconsolably in the middle of the night? My wife and I survived intact, though I am not sure if my house feels the same way. My advice to those drafted for similar service is to make sure the adult:child ratio is greater than one. Over Shabbat the ratio was 2 and we sailed through. My middle daughter spent the week with us while her younger sister and husband were away, increasing the ratio to 3:2. That shifted the balance in favor the adults and everyone lived happily ever after.
But having a week of full exposure to my grandchildren prompted three thoughts. First, things got a little sticky on day 3. My youngest daughter’s son was exhausted by the heat after a day in camp and looked as if he was suddenly aware of his situation and was worried that he might be stuck with us forever. When he started to cry — that shaking, stiff body, loud existential shriek — what did he say? I want to go home, I want my Mommy. Being an aveil is like a year away from home. It is disorienting and makes you wonder, will I ever get back to my normal life? You can look homeward, but it will never be the same. No matter how old your parents are when they die, you will call out to them and expect them to be there for you. The challenge is how to find someone else to call for, to fill the space.
That got me to thinking how important grandchildren are. It is said the grandchildren are the reward for not strangling your children. My mother loved children. She was a nursery teacher par excellence. She was always gathering up small, discarded items that she could use for art projects with the children in her classes. She relished the funny things they would say about their family and the world. She was able to sit on the floor and play with her grandchildren almost until the time she died. They fill the void created by her loss and keep the house familiar and full.
Finally, with nearly eight more months of on-time davening in front of me, I am more appreciative of the rabbinic view that that the one who does a good deed because he is commanded is greater the one who does it on their own initiative. It flies in the face of our notions of autonomy and individual fulfillment. There are very few people who get to shul on time. Trust me — I know. We are all commanded to pray every day and most people do. We are supposed to get to shul on time but the year of aveilut makes a stronger demand on us. It is the layering of details on the commandments that on the one hand makes them more difficult to follow properly. But it is also the glue that holds them together and ensures that they will be done with purpose. It is reminiscent of the layering of the generations one on top of the other that gives us consolation and the hope to look forward.