Your grandson found photos of you on eBay this morning. They're archival newspaper photos -- from the San Antonio Express-News, or maybe from the San Antonio Light which hasn't existed in decades. It's disconcerting to think of a stranger buying these black-and-white 8 x 10s. Because they have a yen for pictures that give off that 1980 vibe? Because they like the jut of your nose, the spark in your eye? They're "vintage originals." No one knows they're part of my family history. Someone could pick these up for their visual appeal, the way I used to browse for hand-tinted postcards of the Mohawk Trail. When we were cleaning out your house, we recycled all of the yellowed newspaper clippings -- none of us wanted more clutter. You might say, "Who cares, they're just old photos!" But I can't resist these old photographs of you, cropping up in my browser this morning like you're waving hello from olam ha-ba.
On your third yahrzeit
I said kaddish
riding on a speckled roan
surrounded by live oak
and prickly pear.
My horse was first in line.
I wanted to watch my son ride
but maybe this was right --
aren't I still
Dad asked where you are
Each time I answered
I watched him lose you again.
Magnified and sanctified,
I whispered in Aramaic.
My horse's ears twitched.
The mourning doves
On my mother's third death-anniversary (on the Jewish calendar) I was in Texas with my son, visiting my father who is receiving hospice care. I wanted my son to have some sweet memories of this trip alongside the hard ones, so I looked for a place where we could go on a trail ride, somewhere not too far from town. I commend West Creek Trail Rides to you; all of their horses are rescues, and they're lovely.
While the mishna teaches that one should dismount from a donkey before praying, the sages of the Talmud do permit praying while riding so long as one can pray with kavanah, intention and attention. (Brakhot 30a.) They were talking about the Amidah, but I think the teaching applies. And I know my mother would have been tickled by my unusual location for saying kaddish and remembering her.
If this poem speaks to you, you might find meaning in Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia -- poems chronicling my mother's death and my first eleven months of mourning.
This time in the black Suburban
leading the hearse
and the parade of blinking cars
I remember the drive
to the cemetery in San Antonio
the day we buried Mom.
I don't think I'd ever been
on those roads before, or
if I had, they were different
from this new vantage.
So many switchbacks and turns
past small houses, yards dotted
with pecan and crepe myrtle trees
though nothing was blooming.
After today's burial
my friend the undertaker
It's a contemplative practice,
I explain. It's not a maze
where it's easy to get lost.
There's only one path.
Take your time, notice
where your footsteps land.
We don't know how or when,
but we all know the destination.
If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom.
I should also mention Walking the Labyrinth by my friend and colleague R. Pamela Wax, a new collection of beautiful poems of grief and transformation.
I talk to you all the time --
there's a portal in my bedroom,
that glassy silvered frame:
us on a boat in the harbor
on the Fourth of July. Plus
another one upstairs (you
and dad beside an autumnal tree)
and the one from your eightieth,
where you're wearing off-white
and we're all arrayed around you
like lilies in a bouquet.
But walking into a cemetery
feels like plugging in, the
internet of souls humming
all around me. And this
exposed rectangle of earth
is just like the one where
two thousand miles away we buried
you. While I sang El Maleh today
one of my hands was twined
in this scarf you gave me,
its silky burgundy tassels
tucked tastefully into the neck
of my sober black suit. I hear
your voice every morning
when I enter my son's room.
As I murmur to him and flip on
the light, you're belting
"Good Morning To You" with
young Debbie Reynolds flair.
Today in this gold autumn sun
you're almost here, singing to me.
If this poem speaks to you, you might enjoy Crossing the Sea, published by Phoenicia. It's my collection that moves through the first year of mourning my mom.
You never removed leaven.
(Salt, sugar, and oil: sure,
but that was different.)
This year the work of
finding every last crumb
is daunting. I take respite
in the seder prep I know
you used to do, polishing
the silver until it gleamed.
Okay, let's be real, you
assigned it to the housekeeper,
but your table shone.
Humming seder psalms,
I rub silver polish into
the pitcher we used for
pouring water on our hands
when we returned from
your funeral. I'll fill it
with ice water, and
your small silver creamer
with our salt water tears.
Removed leaven. Many Jews remove all leaven (or leaven-able material) from our homes during the seven days of Pesach.
Pouring water on our hands. There's a tradition of placing a pitcher outside a shiva home so that when mourners return from the burial, so that we can ritually wash our hands before entering.
Salt water tears. One of the ritual items on the seder table is salt water, representing the tears of our ancestors during slavery.
This poem is (yet) another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold.
Mom, I'm using the cocktail napkins
you gave me when I moved out
on my own, simple and grey
with my single name in red, an
echo of the ones you ordered
when I married.
They've been on a shelf
this long pandemic year, but
it's another COVID birthday: time
to celebrate I made it through,
at least so far -- even vaccinated
the virus could strike. This year
I learned the word anosmia.
I breathe deep beside the coffee pot:
I can't take scent for granted.
I still wish I could text you
the seder menu I'm planning,
a photo of the spring flowers
a friend brought me
so my table would shine.
This poem is another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold.
Dear Mom: I wear you draped around my shoulders almost every day now. The first thing I claimed from your closet was a cashmere shawl. It is a light color, somewhere between brown and grey, like a northern squirrel in wintertime. It is soft as baby hair. Your clothes were so spectacular, and your shoes, but none of them would fit me. But this wrap is one-size-fits-all.
It's been a strange autumn, but November's cold and damp have finally settled in. Your shawl lives folded on the back of my chair, and every morning I wrap it around myself like a tallit. Its wings warm me and protect me. Sometimes when I put it on I say "hi, Mom." Sometimes when I walk past the photograph of us in my bedroom, I greet you there too.
Soon I will hold Crossing the Sea in my hands. What would you make of it? I hope it would make you glad. To know that I am still thinking of you (will always be thinking of you). I imagine sending you a copy, there on the other side. Maybe the reference to mango mousse would make you smile, or the cheery tulips on Park Avenue, or the pale green purse (once yours) that I carry now every spring.
I carry you now. You've become so light on my shoulders I scarcely feel you there. Maybe that's because your soul has ascended. Maybe that's because my grief has ascended, transmuted, turned mostly into memory. But I feel the warmth of the shawl I took from your closet. I wear it every day. And if I listen closely enough, I can still hear the piano notes reverberating from the last time I heard you play.
My mother and I had a complicated relationship. Over the first 43 years of my life we adored each other; we argued with each other; we delighted each other; we disappointed each other. Just now I had to look at a calendar to remind myself how old I was when Mom died: sometimes it feels like she's been gone for a long time, and sometimes it feels like she's still here.
If you've been reading this blog for any length of time at all, you know that I'm an external processor. I "write my way through the hurricane." (Thanks, Lin-Manuel.) In rabbinical school I wrote Torah poems week after week. When I miscarried, I wrote poems as I sought healing. During my son's first year of life I wrote weekly poems chronicling his changes... and mine.
How else could I possibly respond to my mother's death? I keened and grieved and wept -- and wrote. When I was in my MFA program in my early 20s, she didn't like some of my poems; they felt too revelatory. Would she find these poems too intimate to be shared? I shared early drafts here anyway, because I needed to send the words out: into the world, if not to her.
Many of you wrote to me saying that the poems spoke to you and mirrored your experiences of loss. Over the course of the eleven months between her death and her unveiling, I wrote my way through how grief was changing me, and changing in me, until I reached the far shore of that particular sea. I will never cross it in that same way again, because one's mother only dies once.
And then, after the year was over, I sat down with a trusted friend and editor and asked: are these poems worth publishing in a less ephemeral form? Beth helped me see how the poems could be improved, and what was missing from the collection, and how to make the book more than the sum of its parts. This book is far better for her editorial hand, and I am grateful.
I am fiercely proud of this book of poems. It is a tribute to Mom, and a testament to how much she shaped me (and continues to shape me). It's a reminder that relationships can continue after death, and that time's alchemy brings subtle shifts. It's personal, because our relationship was only ours... and I think it's universal, too, because we all have mothers, and we all know loss.
If you knew Liana Barenblat, I hope you'll find her here. And if you didn't know my mom, I hope you'll find in these poems echoes of your own relationships, and maybe a roadmap for the mourner's path, that complex journey of grief and love, loss and healing. I'm so thankful to Beth Adams at Phoenicia for bringing this book to press, and for her cover art, which I love.
Crossing the Sea - Phoenicia Publishing 2020
Special pre-order price $14.50 (US)
Regular price after Nov 30, $15.95
Heart-full, love-rich, rapt with intricate attention and memory, but never shirking the hard parts, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat shares a sequence of stunning poems for her late mother. Her voice is honest as a tree. This is an extremely moving book for anyone who has known grief, and feels captivated by how the conversation goes on.
–Naomi Shihab Nye, author of The Tiny Journalist and Transfer, among others
I knew Rachel’s mother. We came from the same small Texas town, ate the same mango mousse served in a fluted ring mold. Rachel captures the complexity of their relationship through similar telling descriptions and snippets of dialogue, then a miracle happens. My mother is there, too. Crossing the Sea moves past the personal as women readers identify and remember, laying these pebble poems on their own mothers’ stones.— Nan Cuba, author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction
Rachel Barenblat’s poems open us to the heart of mourning: grappling with the loss of a parent, with whom our relationship was so close yet so complicated. She captures the tension between love and discord, the thrust and tug of distancing and reconciliation. She takes us with her on a winding path of grieving over the seasons of a year. Through that prism she refracts two lifetimes and three generations, rendering them with emotional honesty and insight. I was moved, I was brought back to my own loss, and I was brought a little closer to healing.— Mark Nazimova, Jewish liturgist, New York City
At the start of the dream
I float down the Guadalupe
but the current goes backwards.
I emerge into a house
from 1985, and inside
there you are: hair pulled back
into a casual ponytail,
white terrycloth coverup
as though you've just come
from a tennis game or a swim.
You've made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don't mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?
I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn't forever, that
the world was created for me.
A story tells of Rabbi Simcha Bunim who held two slips of paper in his pockets at all time, to remind him to balance two fundamental truths. In one pocket the paper said "I am dust and ashes," and in the other pocket the paper said "the world was created for me."
On the last day of Pesach we recite Yizkor / memorial prayers. Last year's Pesach Yizkor was the first time I said those prayers since Mom died. She had been gone for only a couple of months and the loss was raw. This year I am grateful for how the passage of time has smoothed over those rough places.
May comfort come to all who mourn.
My mother died during a leap year. I don't mean a Gregorian leap year, where we get one extra day in February. Jewishly speaking, a leap year happens seven years out of every nineteen. When it's a Jewish leap year, we get an extra month. The month of Adar happens twice.
Because Mom died during a leap year, the disjoint between her secular death-anniversary and her Jewish death-anniversary this year is profound. Maybe the disjoint is always profound, but this first anniversary feels especially so. I live by two calendars. I have two death-anniversaries to feel.
I knew that on February 26, Facebook would remind me of the photo montage I posted last year when she died. (I had been selecting favorite photos during the days of her dying, reliving memories of when she was vibrant and alive.) I've been bracing myself for that cheery FB reminder.
Honestly, even if FB didn't remind me, I would remember anyway. Significant dates stay in my memory -- a first kiss, a last Shabbat together -- and when they roll around again, I feel their echoes. Their imprints. They are stones cast into the heart's pond, and these are their slow ripples.
As Mom's yahrzeit begins on 21st Adar / March 16 I'll light a 24-hour candle. I'll say kaddish in community. I will learn and teach and dedicate my study that day to her soul's ascent. But what might I do to mark February 26, the secular anniversary of her departure from this life?
I put the question to Twitter, and was moved by the responses I received. Some mark a secular death-anniversary with a visit to running water -- or go out for a special meal -- or give tzedakah in their names -- or do something creative -- or keep the day open so there is space to feel...
Before today arrived, I thought about how I might mark the day. I wondered whether I would be brave enough to watch a clip of her playing the piano, or listen to a recording of her voice. I hadn't tried either since she died, knowing that hearing her voice or her music would sharpen the ache of missing her.
I also know that it is an ache I am fortunate to feel. Because it means she is a person worth mourning, and this is a relationship worth mourning. There is a bittersweetness there. And the ache has shifted over this first year. It has a different quality now than it did when her death was new.
The days leading up to the anniversary felt poignant too. During last year's February break from school, my son and I went to Texas to tell Mom goodbye. (She died three days after we returned home.) This year at that time I spent a few days in New York with a friend and our sons.
I brought one of my mother's jackets to the city with me. It is plush, deep red, and adorned with lines and colorful squares. Mom loved Manhattan. I remember her wearing that jacket in the city when I was a kid. So I wore it there in her memory. A way of bringing her with me.
I remember her especially on this day that marks one year since she died. But there is an intimacy now that wasn't present when she lived. I carry her with me wherever I go, in a way I didn't need to do (and maybe couldn't do) while she lived. That's what I hope she knows, wherever she is.
There was a photo on your desk. A group of your friends, maybe twenty or more, all wearing pink and red: dresses and suits, tailored and chic, high heels and handbags to match. You were right there in the front row, with your platinum hair and bright lipstick, beaming. Someone in your circle used to hold a Valentine's Day ladies' luncheon, and that's how everyone dressed for it. I think I remember that the party favors one year were iced cookies with a photograph of the last year's group printed onto the icing. Or am I mixing up the Valentine's Day luncheon with some other festivity? You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick's Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony's birthday... Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I'm sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you're gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It's life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth. I don't own a red Chanel suit, and I'm not attending a ladies' lunch on February 14. But I'm wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy -- a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.
Mom, you're on my mind as the the shortest day approaches. A few years ago you commented to me that it was almost the solstice and that you couldn't wait for the day when the balance would shift and we'd be moving into longer days. I was surprised and moved to hear you say that. It's something I never realized we had in common: a visceral dread of the darkest days of each year, a feeling of inchoate relief when we could tell ourselves that the sun is slowly returning. Probably we both carry some version of seasonal affective disorder in our bones, though you would never have claimed that label. You never wanted to call yourself sad in any way. You didn't even want to call yourself sick, even when the disease that claimed you had fully settled in.
Mom, you're on my mind as Chanukah approaches. A kaleidoscope of memories: the giant plexiglass dreidel you one year asked me to decorate, and the cornucopia of gifts that spilled forth from it. The year I wanted to light the Chanukah candles myself for the first time but got scared by the match, and dropped it, and left a burnt spot on the dining room carpet. Singing Maoz Tzur beside the flickering candles. Fast-forward: the year your father died during Chanukah, while I was in college. I had an a cappella concert that night, and the harmonies of "In Dulci Jubilo" brought me to tears. Fast-forward: the year my son was three and we first lit Chanukah candles together over Skype. Your visible sense of wonder at sharing that with him from afar.
It's so strange to me now: for all those years when I could have spoken to you any time I wanted, I so often didn't feel the need. And now that you're gone, the fact of your absence is a constant presence in my life. The fact that I can't tell you things -- or I can, but you can't answer. Maybe I'll be blessed with a dream. But it's not the same as the immediacy of being able to pick up a phone and tell you a story and hear your response. Every day when I go to send a photo of my son to his grandparents, my fingers want to type your email address first, even though you've been dead for nine months. We hadn't celebrated Chanukah together in ages. But the fact that you're not in this world anymore makes the approach of Chanukah feel different, this year.
What would you say if you could hear me? You'd tell me not to be maudlin. You'd point out that you're not suffering anymore. You'd remind me to enjoy what I have. You'd urge me to make hay while the sun shines, and to light candles against the season's darkness. To pour a glass of something tasty, and toast whatever sources of joy I can find. To set a pretty table at Chanukah, and gather friends for celebration. To enjoy my child's glee at opening gifts, winning at dreidel, unwrapping (and eating) chocolate gelt coin by coin. Mom, in your honor and in your memory I'm going to bring out the giant wooden chanukiyah that my brother made years ago. Its big bold tapers will blaze, just like they did in your house, and every night we will welcome more light.