Grieving my Naomi

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said,
Don’t calm your friend in the time of his anger and grief.
And don’t comfort him when (his loved one’s) corpse is placed before him.
Pirke Avot: 4:18

My mother-in-law, Evelyn, was a Protestant.

She was born in the Ore Mountains of Germany, a region known for the production of colorful nutcrackers and Christmas carousels powered by the heat of slim white candles. Typically, the carousels carry the lightest of singing angels, and, of course, a nativity scene. When Evelyn gave us such a gift, she carefully and delicately chose only the tiny deer, trees with balsam wood curlicued into branches, and folk figures for us to place on its discs. Evelyn knew tact.

The Ore Mountains are known for other handicrafts, including feather-light bobbin lace made with dozens to hundreds of individual threads. Evelyn taught herself the craft after her family escaped the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.

One of her most exquisite works was an altar cloth for her church. I saw the piece when she was visiting and we went shopping for linen to match the snow white border.

The lace was patterned with hearts. Inside each heart was a cross.

Evelyn died last summer after what was supposed to be a routine operation to lance a cyst that had grown near her heart.

For many years, and as often as we could manage, I sent my husband, Ralf and our son, Erik to Germany to visit Evelyn. We didn’t have the resources to go as a family. The spring before she died, I had started squirreling away money in secret. I wanted to surprise my family – and Evelyn – with plans to visit the following year.  I’d even started checking potential dates of departure to see how air fares compared.

There were years when I had lived just two hours or so from Evelyn. Then, we saw each other often. In those days I would bound up the stairs to her second-floor apartment, beating her own son to claim a first hug.

I loved Evelyn as, I think, Ruth loved Naomi.

We were two utterly different natures. I have never known how to sit still unless I am reading. I want a lot from the world, though what I want mostly concerns understanding and human decency.

Evelyn was calm, quiet, and expected little.

“You are always dreaming, Barbara,” she once said. “Why dream about things that might not come true?”
“Why not dream?” I asked.
“I never do that,” she said.

Perhaps Evelyn couldn’t dream because she had been born into Hitler’s Germany, a land that had made nightmares real.

Evelyn loved our Jewish family with grace and understanding. She came to love our congregation, too, and never failed to ask me about the members she had met when visiting America.

“How are the Kingbergs?” she would ask, and I would tell her that 86-year-oldArthurwas still getting up at the crack of dawn to garden while 86-year-old Ruth Kingberg continued to begin each day by lifting small (but significant) weights.

“Greet them for me,” she would ask, and I would. “Tell them I hope they are well.”

Evelyn had a voice like a girl’s. Some of my sweetest memories are the stuff of clichés: Evelyn, singing as she scrubbed the pots in her cramped kitchen; Evelyn singing old folks songs about chimney sweepers and winter snows and high mountains.

Once, for fun, we sat together and sang “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shalom Aleychem.” It was just weeks before Erik’s bar mitzvah, where she sang right along with the rest of us. She learned new songs and prayers quickly, no matter the language and regardless of faith.

In recent years, she began making me lace Stars of David. I sewed them onto kippot and gave them to my closest friends.

I have two such stars left. I do not think I will be able to give them away.

Jews have many exquisite and life-affirming rituals around mourning. We don’t demand that mourners “move on.” Instead, Judaism creates avenues for making memories, for holding our loved ones to us after they are gone. During the first, wrenching week of shiva (seven), we sit with mourners. The rabbis remind us not to try to comfort the bereaved but simply, kindly, to listen. The mourners will naturally, inevitably tell stories about their beloved one, and in the telling, make a blessing of the loved one’s name.

At the end of the week, the mourners are taken outside to walk around the block, to find their feet and the earth beneath them, to try to rejoin the world of the living. Their steps may be reluctant ones.

During shloshim (thirty), the month following the burial, the community acknowledges that mourners are still relearning the way of the world. Jews say Mourner’s Kaddish for eleven months for parents, children, even, nowadays, those whom they simply loved beyond measure. At the close of the first year of mourning, we hold the first of many annual yahrzeit services, where we pray in honor and memory of the one we have lost. We light a candle that burns for a night and a day, tell stories, join with others for comfort and remembrance. At annual festivals we recite memorial prayers in honor of our loved ones.

For Evelyn’s yahrzeit we will, among other things, go to the American mountains she loved. There, in the Blue Ridge Mountains we will lay out things of hers. We will remember her and be blessed by our memories. We will recite Mourner’s Kaddish and El Melay Rachamim.

Before me will be the lace Stars of David, their blue and white threads woven by my patient mother-in-law. In my mind’s eye I will also see the altar cloth of hearts and crosses. Her hands made symbols of both our religions.

Grief, like love, transcends all boundaries. Both exist in respect of persons; neither is limited by differences.

To my Lutheran Naomi: My grief is my love.

 

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7 thoughts on “Grieving my Naomi

  1. Barbara, this is quite lovely. My brother died just over a year ago, so the memories of him still linger fresh in my mind. Your traditions seem both meaningful and simply lovely. I especially like the piece that says, “Don’t calm your friend in the time of his anger and grief.
    And don’t comfort him when (his loved one’s) corpse is placed before him.” We sometimes try too often to “make things better.” Sometimes, we just need to be.

    • Some years back, someone called me after reading a column I’d written about my sister’s death. She had lost her daughter to breast cancer. Because she was obviously in pain (and this was not very long after her daughter died, as I recall) some friends at her church told her that she needed to stop being angry at God. She was told to accept that God had a plan, a reasong for her daughter’s early death.

      So often, grief gets dismissed because it appears to challenge faith.

      I like the way the rabbis ask us to do exactly the opposite: Honor grief. Visitors are asked to enter a home of mourning without cheerful greetings, but simply, and quietly. The mourner’s needs, we are told, outweigh all others.

      Visitors are asked to avoid small talk, which might be painful or seem to discount the mourner’s grief. The visitor’s purpose is simply to relieve the loneliness and sorrow by his or her presence. For these and other reasons visitors are advised NOT to make statements about the inevitability of death, NOT to assure mourners that others have experienced the same kind of loss, and NOT to suggest that “life must go on.” Mourners should not ever feel as though their visitors are trying to distract them.

      I remember you showing me a picture of you and your brother. If you have a story or two to to tell about him, I am hear (pun intended) to listen.

      May his memory be for a blessing.

      Best wishes,

      Barbara

  2. This is probably the most beautiful way I have heard of remembering someone you have lost. I especially like your laying down the last two stars of David that Evelyn made for you in remembrance of her. That is quite a tribute to someone you cherished so dearly. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this sweet note, Rabbi Rachel. Can we catch up sometime soon? Maybe on Skype?

      With love and blessings for a sweet Shabbos,

      Barbara

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