We Are Our Stories
“Oh the hands of my mother watch and keep over me
And the hands of my grandmother are the hands you see on me
From the house of great grandfather rivers run down to the sea
And my sister’s mother’s husband’s father’s grandchild is me
Don’t you see?”
Sung by Mark Bailey to my children long ago in California
It’s snowing. It hardly ever snows here. And I’m sick. I’m rarely sick.
I’m peaceful in that snowing and not feeling well kind of way and staring out the kitchen window. Leaning on the sill I stare into the frozen garden. Twin two foot tall bare twiggy trees are nestled between shrubs. I’m harvesting seedlings from the front yard of my husband’s next door neighbor from his childhood home.
We had gone back to hold a memorial service for my mother-in-law in the place she and my husband, Rob ,had lived most of her life. Tom’s house and Kitty’s house sat closely together on a dead end street in a seaside village of Long Island. Tom was as close in age to Rob as he was to Kitty and was as close as family got. That’s why I took the seedlings from Tom’s tree that he offered me as I marveled over it’s unusual beauty. Here take some, he said as he plucked handfuls from the ground. He filled a small plastic sandwich bag with seedlings and dirt and I hopefully carried them back to Nashville in my suitcase.
Three years later Tom is dead. And Rob tells me that not a day goes by that he doesn’t miss his mother. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see “home” again because no one he knows is there anymore.
Two trees made it from those many seedlings. Two trees like my two boys will grow up at this house.
I’ve protected the trees fiercely for Rob. Those trees will be a part of our lives and our children’s lives and the seedlings from them will be planted wherever we go next if we should leave. It’s all he’s got, all we’ve got of his past in that more than a family heirloom or photo album way.
What is it that makes us so nostalgic? Why is the link to the past so important? It would be so easy to just live in the moment. It would be easy to be so less “human”. Is there not some bittersweet pain that comes from holding the energy from a time gone by or a life gone by or even a life and time gone by that you never knew?
I have my great grandfather’s sewing machine here. My mother had stored it for 30 years or more since his passing. There was nowhere for it in her house and she had it restored like new for me. My great grandfather spoke broken English with a German accent. He lived upstairs at my grandparents house where he had a room that used to belong to one of my aunts. He kept a bag of Hershey’s Kisses in the top drawer of his dresser. Whenever my brothers and I came to visit he took me up the stairs to his room, shuffled in his shrunken, stooped way to the dresser, his back to me, reached into the drawer and turned to press a small handful of candy into my palm. He would wrap my small fingers around the treasure and close my palm as it was our secret that I shared with no one. Not even my brothers though I believe he did the same with them.
One day not long after I received that sewing machine, complete with the original thread and material he had left in the drawers, I noticed the smell of Hershey’s Kisses as I walked by. It was him, I know it and you could not convince me otherwise, ever.
I have a friend who keeps Kosher, which isn’t easy. She says she does it because her mother and her mother’s mother did it and she breaks with some of the rules because that is how her mother did it. Now she, with the light of awareness that her mother didn’t have, wants to trade a certain kind of death for a certain kind of life and buy “organic” meat instead of Kosher. And though this is what her conscience tells her is right, it took some time and rabbinical guidance to let her make this break from family, not Jewish, tradition.
I live in another part of the country from my expansive family and I have tried and failed to give my kids memories like the ones I grew up with. For me religion was the memory of music (and of course the food) but in the Jewish tradition we keep changing the melodies. There are a few holidays and rituals that my little family here does as my larger family back “home” does. On those days we are joined and that means something to me. As a teen I prepared for a trip to Europe alone and my mother said to me, “If you get in trouble find a Jewish person. They will help you. They are family.”
Here I am, a yoga teacher, much more educated in the complex tradition of yoga than I ever understood in my own tradition. I throw out what I want to. Hindu tales leave me feeling like I have attention deficit disorder and I have no patience for them but again, I love and hold the music. I am much more educated as a yogi than a Jew despite 10 years of religious education and I want to believe that we are all one family and it doesn’t matter that I don’t do the rituals of my immediate family as much as the rituals of my yoga family. I live in the buckle of the bible belt and want to pretend I’m not lonely for the Northeast. But somehow I must admit to feeling rather inauthentic. Like a man without a country I no longer belong anywhere.
My friend Cynthia recently lost her mother. Weeks later a box of her mother’s possessions arrived at her door. She said, “You know it’s so weird. All that’s left of this person is a handful of things that won’t mean anything in time as finally there’s no one left on earth who knew her.”
So connected. We’re so connected to and on this plane: And to our micro planes on this plane. What a painful and beautiful balance to hold. This is so hard to understand in a way that no one can inform us. Is it love or insecurity? Is it worthy of examination or better just accepted? As I ask this I am already examining and also accepting both my love and my insecurity and at this late hour who can say if it’s worth losing sleep over anyway.
Written in 2008 as Maple Trees and Tradition