This coming Shabbat is my father’s Yahrtzeit. For the 37th time, I will say Kaddish for a man who died much too young. This one, however, will be different. For the first time, I will recite both for my father and my mother.
Arlene Markind was 85-years-old when she died on Shabbat morning, October 6. She died in her sleep at a nursing home.
The last few years of my mother’s life were difficult. It often was painful to watch as the spark that had burned within her slowly faded out. This had been happening for the 10 years, but the forgetfulness, mood swings and dementia accelerated toward the end. I told my wife many times, “You know Arlene, but you’ll never meet Mom.”
The funeral and shiva proved that. Many people from different eras sang my mother’s praises. My wife and children wondered if everyone was discussing somebody else.
After a parent dies, it’s a child’s obligation to go through her belongings. This is a very uncomfortable feeling. Even though she’s dead, you feel as if you’re invading her privacy.
Mostly, you just want to throw things out. In one bin, however, I stumbled across an envelope the size of a Thank You card. I did a double-take when I noticed it was addressed not to my mother, but to her parents.
I opened the envelope. In her own handwriting, written before I was born, my mother came back to me. The envelope contained a letter she had written to her parents on her wedding day, thanking them for her childhood.
“Dear Mother and Dad,” my mom wrote, “I use this vehicle to tell you all you’ve done for me does not go unappreciated. I am too humble to speak before all the sacrifices you’ve made for me, but I note them as well.” Mom continued on. For three sides of a card, in an eloquence I never imagined, my mother poured out her heart to her parents.
I had seen this letter once before. Ironically it was when Mom sat shiva for her mother in 1983. Seated at the kitchen table going through her own mother’s possessions in much the same way I would do 35 years later, Mom found this letter she had written 27 years earlier. I still remember her face as I read it then. Just 50 years old, widowed for 16 months and orphaned for one week, I saw the blank, scared expression on my mother’s face as she watched me read it. I could tell she was coming to grips with the prospect of being alone for so many years to come.
Mom was the more nurturing of my two parents, yet I had never known her to express how she felt about anything or anybody in such a straightforward honest way. It was a side of her I never knew, and always appreciated seeing – if only for a brief moment.
In the years since, I’d thought often about that letter. Slowly over time, Mom’s ability to convey honest emotion drained away. As she became more opaque, I yearned for her to recapture, even for an instant, the ability to convey the direct expressions of love that she articulated so beautifully on her wedding day. Unfortunately she never did, not even with her grandchildren.
With tears in my eyes, I started to put the letter back into the envelope. Then I noticed the date – October 7, 1956. It’s a good thing I was sitting down when I saw that.
My parents got married on a Sunday afternoon. At almost the exact hour where 68 years earlier my mother had joined my father in life, we lowered her casket next to his in death. When I heard the thud as the casket hit the bottom of the grave, I only could blurt out: “Goodbye Mommy.”
Faith comes in many forms. Sometimes, it simply provides us a method to express existential connections we perceive about people who already have passed. There is no science to describe the emotion.
Mom left us for good that day. But thanks to a letter she wrote exactly 68 years before, I forever will have a piece of her to hold onto.