Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fire and Ice

When I was around ten, I somehow got it into my head that one didn't really count as a grown-up until both your parents had died. Under this "logic," I proudly informed my parents that Mama Yid was an adult and Abbot Yid wasn't, which of course was a bit surprising to my father. This may have been shortly after I referred to my mother as an "orphan" and got a very stern talking-to.

Yesterday Bubbe Yid died. Now both my parents are orphans.

One thing I'm noticing is a very strong disconnect between how I imagine might be the "correct" way to feel in this situation, and how I actually feel. In a way I feel nothing. But it might be more accurate to say that a lot of my emotions are fairly distant, subtle. I think a lot of this has to do with timing. With Zayde, terminal illness came on relatively sudden, and so even though he spent several months in the hospital, my memory is of the whole process being rather chaotic, at least emotionally. When he died I think much of what I felt was shock as much as it was grief. But some of that grief, too, was I think grief that the person I had idolized and built up so high, the person I had hoped to get to know better, was gone, and that all I was left with were a few meetings and letters. I've spent over a decade trying to get to know who my real Zayde was, and am pretty sure that had I known him more, I certainly would have idolized him less. Not that he was a bad person per se, though he did do bad things and make some terrible mistakes, but that by having real contact with someone, they become demystified.

In so many ways, Bubbe Yid was the opposite of Zayde. The metaphor of fire and ice seems appropriate. He was loud, she was quiet. He would demand to get his way, whereas she would plan. He was raised culturally Jewish by socialists and became attracted to the certainty of Hasidic life and the nostalgic aesthetic of klezmer and Fiddler on the Roof. She was raised modern Orthodox by American-born parents and didn't see religion as something that one had to make a huge stink over. Even their cultural geography seems to bear this out: Zayde's mother was from the park of Ukraine where Hasidic ecstasy had flourished, and he experienced all of life's pleasures and pain at an extremely deep emotional level. Bubbe's grandparents were Litvaks, and she kept her emotions extremely close.

I never really got to know my grandfather. But the sad thing is that if I'm honest with myself now, I don't think I ever really knew my grandmother either. There was so much of her personality and her life that she didn't want to share that as I got older, there was less and less of her available for me to interact with. If anything, her protracted illness only magnified this emotional distance. There's almost zero shock that she's died, because I've had almost an entire year to process that she was going to die. I'm actually more relieved than anything because she was so unhappy and impaired and the stress was creating so much bad feelings between her children. The real tragedy for me in all of this is that this woman who was so fiercely independent wound up losing everything that was important to her in her life and was trapped in an existence she no longer wanted. By nearly every metric, it is far better for her to not be here anymore, and whereas before I would have felt guilty saying that, I know that she herself had been saying the same thing back when she could still talk.

The other tragedy in this situation is that rather than her illness becoming a moment of unity or closeness for her children, it just underscored all the divisions between them. There has been so much hurt and resentment over the past ten months, and without anywhere productive to go it has been bouncing around in the family echo chamber. At this point most of the siblings are guessing that after the funeral most of them won't talk to each other again. Now obviously, my father and his siblings are grown adults, and they're responsible for their choices. But I also can't help put place a little responsibility for this mess at the feet of my grandparents-- my grandfather for his mental illness and bad decisions, and my grandmother for enabling him and not protecting her kids more. The end result is that none of the siblings seem to really be able to tolerate each other, and I have to assume that at least part of this is because the only things they have in common any more are their childhoods, which are extremely painful for them to think about. They don't know how to interact with each other, which makes sense when they've spent decades avoiding each other.

I feel like this trickled down to her grandchildren, too. Deacon Yid and I aren't close to our cousins-- they're basically strangers or acquaintances we happen to be related to. (As a genealogist, this is rather depressing!) And the whole time Bubbe was in the nursing home, I kept thinking I should go, I should go... but by the time I had decided to go, she was past the point where she could recognize anyone or communicate. I missed that chance, and I wonder if our relationship had been different, had I felt more, if that might have happened the same way.

Mama Yid asked me if I'm sad. The short answer is no. The long answer is that I'm sad about her life, and the way that she died, but not that she is dead.

I wish she had had a more chayim shlema, especially in her last days. I am glad she got the sof shlema she needed. And, as skeptical as I am, my greatest hope is that in letting her go, her children may finally get the refuah shlema they've needed for so long.


Antigonos said...

I never knew either of my maternal grandparents; both died before I was born [I'm named for my grandmother]. On my WASP father's side, I have some vague memories of my grandmother but the last time I saw her I was 4 [my mother didn't like her], and I wasn't allowed to see my grandfather.

The family I did know was the "New York family": my mother's two older sisters, and much less, her older brother [he married a woman no one could stand so he kept to himself a great deal]. My father once said that the bonds between the three sisters were so strong because basically they hated each other, and I'm not sure he was kidding. Both my aunts married very young and had their kids when young, my mother was 40 when she had me [only child], so my cousins in my generation were more than 30 years older than myself, while my cousins' children were about 10 years younger. This younger generation is now all over the place and until I set up a family website, I didn't even know who was where -- or who was living, or who was dead. It seems a common fate of the families who left Eastern Europe in the first years of the 20th century. Most of the current younger adult generation is only "culturally" Jewish: no one even keeps kosher, and most have no real synagogue affiliation, let alone such "Orthodox" practices as being Shomer Shabbat or laying tefillin. I'm the only one in Israel; most have never even visited. Oddly, there has not yet been hardly any marrying out, but I don't think that will continue for another generation. I find it very sad. We don't have a lot to say to each other beyond birthday greetings. I just realized the other day that I'm the only living child of the original family that left Russia in 1905, and I'm the only one who heard the stories of both the Old Country and the early struggles in the US -- none of the younger two generations is in the least interested in them.

BTW, it's "chayim shelaymim", and "sof shalem" [big smile] Yasher koach!

Friar Yid said...

Hi Antigonos,

I continue to wonder how much family dysfunction can be traced to what was going on in Europe, or how potentially traumatic the immigration or Americanization process might have been for our families. On the one hand it seems like a bit of a cop-out given that plenty of other people seem to be able to immigrate from one country to another, even during times of upheaval, and come out "normal" or even close. At the same time, I can easily imagine some scenarios where, depending on the circumstances during, prior, or after immigration, everything was turned so upside-down that family ties became too difficult, or even too painful, to maintain. It's just very hard to figure out without more details.

Thanks for the Hebrew help! We spent last night deciphering my grandparents' ketubah so that we could have my grandmother's Hebrew name for the funeral... amazingly, no one knew it. Mrs Yid and I couldn't agree on what a certain letter was-- my cursive Hebrew is quite lacking-- so we sent it off to a friend to take a look. Imagine my pleasant surprise when Mrs Yid's guess turned out to be right. Step by step...

SJ said...