This summer, Mom died and I was left to care for the contents of her home. During the time I was sorting out her life, a few teachings kept coming to mind and helped make some sense out of the whole thing. First, the Hasidic notion that all of life is a berur — life is a sorting, taking the good from the bad, a process of refining choices. If this teaching is true, then my experience was certainly the pinnacle of berur. The second recurring thought I had was a subtle teaching I love about Rosh Hashanah, which describes the previous year in relationship to the incoming new year, as belonging to the primordial worlds destroyed prior to the Creation.
I am the last in the line and my mother saved everything. In the face of unearthing belongings and effects of my immediate family — my deceased brother, my uncle who died tragically, my father, my stepfather who raised me, and of course now my mother, I was faced with the question and responsibility of memory and remembrance. This was not abstract; I had a lot of work to do and a lot of decisions to make.
On Rosh Hashanah, we meet God as the all-encompassing memory bank in whose face we encounter the stark reality of our lives. On Rosh Hashanah, there are no selihot [ritual prayers of forgiveness said on Yom Kippur]. It is not a time of forgiveness. It is a time to take stock. A time to remember, to reflect, regret, reconsider, discard, dispose, destroy, integrate, rebuild.
This year, my Rosh Hashanah came early.
We are told by our sages that on Rosh Hashanah, God remembered Sarah.
Sarah suffered the anguish of barrenness.
Having no children, she faced the terror of no continuation, of nothingness, the anxiety of not being.
My brother, my uncle and my stepfather — all had no children.
“And God remembered Sarah.”
Our sages also hold that Rosh Hashanah was the day God conceived the world.
Since the world has already been conceived, how can it be recreated every Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner of Radzyn in his work, “Sod Yesharim,” teaches that every year the world is created anew: “…each year [at this time] there is an awakening of the original Divine utterance ‘Let there be light,’ and each year the world becomes more firmly established so that the reality of God will be made known clearly according to that specific time. And the previous year as opposed to the coming year, is likened to the worlds destroyed prior to Creation.”
And so we find in the midrash, “Void and emptiness was the world until the birth of the Patriarchs,” [the Patriarchs symbolize those who repair God’s world].
The Sod Yesharim teaches that human history prior to the era of the Patriarchs is analogous to the destroyed worlds prior to Creation.
“But each year anew God’s first utterance ‘Let there be light’ stirs, and, with it, Creation becomes more stabilized and the Will of the Holy One shows itself.”
There were many awakenings this summer.
On the 12th of July, Shabbat morning somewhere between 8:15 and 10:00, my mother slipped out of this world. She took me by surprise. Just nine days earlier, she had moved into an assisted living community, leaving her home of 46 years untouched. The sorting I had to do was not abstract; it was in time and place. I gave myself a little more than three weeks to go through my mother’s home. Most of my mother’s friends had moved to assisted living facilities or downsized to a home near one of their children. My mother did neither. She held on to two homes: the one I grew up in from age 10 in Upstate New York and a winter place in Florida.
When we broached the topic of downsizing, she often mused, “What will I do with my Steinway piano?” — a gifted musician from childhood, her father had purchased that piano in 1942 — and “What will I do with all of the photographs?” These items ostensibly bound her to her home. After spending endless hours and days sorting through the layers of her life, I now greatly resist the urge to make a narrative out of my experience, to presume to know what she did not say. Yet, it seems to me that Mom could not downsize, not only because by all objective standards, it was a daunting project — there was just so much stuff — but because, in the basement of her mind, she knew what her home contained, and it was too painful to awaken the memories of the past.
Mom often said it was too sad to look at pictures of her family who are no longer alive, and maybe that was the simple truth. But now it is my task to figure out whom to remember, whom to forget, what to throw out, and most of all, how to sort and what to keep. My silent mantra: Stay balanced. Photographs, documents, classical music for every instrument, scraps of handwriting, address books, souvenirs, antiques, mementos, coin collections, jewelry, cut glass, scrapbooks, pocketbooks, perfume, makeup, the fragrance on linens and towels, even Mom’s shoes and clothing — though they feel like her and look like her, they are not my mom.
And so I embarked on berur, my sorting of the overwhelming amounts of possessions in my mother’s home, remnants of her life, pieces of my life and our family history. I had been preparing for this, but had not quite believed it would ever really come. I have spent most of my life teaching adults the Hasidic notion of “berur,” that all of life is a “berur,” every situation, and every moment, is about making choices. It now became clear to me that the decades I have spent studying and teaching about berur, “spiritual labor,” were in preparation for this moment.
To do this right required that I be fully present, but not consumed; decisive, but not hasty. This sorting called upon all of my resources: my physical, administrative, psychological, and spiritual capacities — and it demanded all at them all at once.
It was sort of like giving birth for the first time. I had no experience to draw upon. There’s a great secret out there: no one really talks about how difficult and painful it is, nor how healing.
I write this to encourage others overwhelmed by the daunting task of sorting out their parents’ homes. Know that crying and wading through the sadness and the endless decisions of what to do and how to honor, whether to keep, to sell, to donate or even sadly, dispose of the material of their lives, all of it is profoundly therapeutic and necessary.
In the midst of this endless sorting, in a journal entry, I wrote:
You have left me quite a job. I sit now in the “orange room,” the middle bedroom which was your office. Following days and nights of endless sorting of scraps of papers with your handwriting, notices of your appointments, calendars with notes, decades of financial documents, and the photographs; pictures from your entire personal life, your musical career and the lives of your younger brother Arthur who passed away, your son, my brother Glenn who died in 1994, even of my father Dave [my mother’s first husband] and Will [my step-father, Mom’s second husband], I’m taking a moment just to be. I found treasures: Grandpa’s wallet, Glenn’s wallet – all just as they left them, completely intact from the day they died. In my hands now are photographs from the 1920s to today; light green Irish linen still in the original box, an anniversary gift from my great Uncle Bernie to Grandpa in 1932; Mother’s Day cards that your mother gave to your grandmother; cards that you and Arthur gave to your mother. There is also a picture of your parents proudly holding you, baby Cynthia, photos of Grandpa as a child, your grandmother Ruth Smith’s Last Will and Testimony, your mother’s autograph book from public high school in Manhattan 1917, and your own school autograph book from 1947.
Uncle Arthur came alive again. Saved in an old cardboard box were newspaper clippings and awards that he won in every possible subject from the sciences to the humanities, German language and English. Also found were his law degree and gold Phi Beta Kappa charm from Columbia University, his masters in law from NYU, along with his letters to the editor of the New York Times. Saved were photos from 1948 when you were a music student at Boston University, photos of your grandmother as a young woman in her 40s, photos of your courtship with Dave in 1949, photos of family members that I don’t know, and now there is no one to ask.
A historical highlight – original vaccination documents of your father’s family when on the ship, “Philadephia,” which sailed from Hamburg to Ellis Island, dated May 18th, 1913. I discovered that our family name was not Smith, but Shumilinski, and that Grandpa’s Russian name was Alec, not Alfred. While we’re on names, your English name, Cynthia Doris, was derived from your Yiddish name Shaynah Devorah (I found your ketuba), though you used the Hebrew translation, Yaffa, and my father’s last name was Milowitz not Miller. Spinning forward 50 years, there are photos of your travelling American Wind Concert Band in Europe in the 1980s, copies of every program you played in and conducted from 1948 – 1978, a picture of the Albany Symphony Orchestra in which you played flute. At least 10 8-millimeter family films from the 1950s, along with the projector discovered around 2 a.m., which I dared to plug in — it lit up and I didn’t blow up the house! I am finally sitting quietly after 30 days of being completely absorbed in honoring your life in the most physical sense.
Running on a few hours of sleep a night, I nevertheless found comfort in attending a daily minyan, a 30-minute drive from your home at 6:40 a.m. to say Kaddish – the mourner’s prayer. I lined up good people to help me sell your home, and to sell and donate your many belongings. As an aside, I even managed to invite a few of your remaining friends over to the house for brunch on the occasion of your shloshim.
Now I must decide what I will ship and bring into my home.
Your Steinway, Mom – is hardest for me.
I hope you would have agreed with my decisions.
I will set aside the money from the piano and buy the instruments that my children are currently playing. I will invest your love of music into their musical life.
That seems best.
I still feel taken care of just by being in your home… It is hard for me to leave your home… It is another separation.
I have walked through your life; I have many questions that will remain unanswered.
Just when I thought I was done, the next day, I found more boxes under the ping pong table packed with detailed archives of the lives buried in the basement. My brother Glenn came to life. I found his conversion document; he was born to a devout Christian woman who had no resources for another child and you adopted him when he was an infant. There were photos of my father’s loving parents exuberant as they held baby Glenn. I found Glenn’s handwritten letters written when he served on a ship in the US Navy. For the first time in so many years, I heard his voice. What am I supposed to do with all of this?
And there was more, so much more… albums of nameless relatives from the 1930s and ’40s. I had to be brutal; I selected a few shots for safekeeping, called over a family member to honor their lives, and then threw out the rest in the huge heap of items in the garage to be taken to the dump.
Am I responsible to hold all of these memories?
It’s all I can do to sort, save and record my own family’s life events.
But had I not gone through all of this I would have missed some blessed moments.
Holding letters from Uncle Arthur and my brothers’ life brought a sort of awakening. “Let there be light.” I could hear laughter, arguments, sarcasm, jokes, stories, eating, playing. One night, I found myself wandering about the house. It was an eerie but not at all unpleasant experience. At 3 a.m,, their voices were audible, I moved through Mom’s empty house in their company, sort of comforted by the familiar presence of their ghosts, their souls stirred to life, released through my fingering their wallet, awards, photographs, rings, letters and coins. By morning, they had all returned to rest. How do I ensure that the light of their tzelem Elokim — their divine spark — will make an imprint and not be forgotten?
The only continuation of their lives is what I chose to bring back home with me. There is no one else to remember them, no one to know that they lived except me.
And God remembered Sarah.
What do we do with fragments of these lives?
God builds worlds and destroys them, builds and destroys.
One’s life is built upon previously destroyed worlds. Those worlds become integrated into who we are and then become the ground upon which we stand. I believe the solidity of the ground depends on our courage to know our past, to look at the pain and love, the hopes and dreams, the failures and fantasies, the successes of family members and the unfulfilled dreams of lives tragically cut short. Most importantly, the entire process awakens the divine spark that each of them contained, which promises to become part of who we are, if we can honor them.
People asked me, “What did you do with all of that stuff?” I sorted and distilled thousands of photos and documents into 25 manila envelopes, one box. I let go of the rest.
Mom, you were feisty to the end, 12 days short of 90 years. It is so hard for me to write about you, Mom, because you are so present for me, and, as I said, I don’t want to make a narrative and historicize your life.
So Mom, I think this is why you couldn’t downsize. It was not only the pain of leaving your home and the life you so wanted to hold on to that made it so hard, as if that weren’t hard enough. I think it was the remnants of the lives of our family that you held on to, or rather could not bear to let go of, or to sort.
I held you, Mom; I sorted it all for you.
So what do I learn from all of this?
Life is a berur.
Do not be afraid to sort, to save. And don’t be afraid to throw out.
There are many gifts in all of those memories. Had I not sorted it, my mother’s past, along with the lives of my brother, uncle, and others, would be void and empty; their memories would belong to the pre-destroyed worlds that have no tikkun, no repair.
I embraced this necessary journey and am grateful that I did. I have made discoveries about them and about myself. Potent memories of souls from the past, awakened my heart and seemed to call out, “Let there be light,” allowing me to stand firmly on the ground of my past.