A String of Seders

by Patricia Goldblatt April 3, 2017


iStock-539279543 [Converted]There are many milestones in a Jewish life. Seders at Passover, for me, have always been the most significant.

As a child, I could not wait to gather with my cousins for spring and Passover at my grandparent’s house. After the never-ending recitations in the Haggadah, the many courses of food and the dun-coloured raisin wine, we were finally excused to rumble in the rec room downstairs away from the adults wearing dark fedoras and lacy shawls. My cousin Allan, the oldest, was the leader. He would fearlessly jump up on the bar and announce the teams and skirmishes we would lead against the rubber military men that emerged from concealed places in the room. His brother, Robin, would mount an attack of teddy bears against the rebels, soundly vanquishing them.

We felt like one connected ball with numerous limbs, convulsed in silly giggles and innocent childhood fun. Allan intervened to smooth out any fracases and bring order to the group when the voices from the floor above pierced our noisy commotion, demanding respect for the religious evening. Serious adults and prayers were not our concern.

So many years later.

It is April 15, 2014 and it is snowing. The bunny who frequents our yard in the spring must be confused. I see it cowering beneath some overhung branches that are quickly slicked down by snow. It is Passover again but instead of the childhood anticipation I once welcomed, I am uneasy. This will be the first without our mothers: my mother-in-law’s increasing dementia has her confined at Shalom Village where a Seder of sorts will be enacted for the residents; and for me, my mom has passed away on Rosh Hashanah.

The mood is somber even as childhood memories of boiled meatballs and potatoes pass between the members of my husband’s family who are gathered around our table. They all agree those meals were terrible, reliving the desire to retch, while their mother insisted she maintain her own childhood tradition for her family.

I do not scoff. I deeply comprehend that need to bring something personally meaningful from one’s past into our children’s lives. Perhaps to demonstrate that we, as parents, once owned a previous existence, and that we, ourselves, possessed unique and special experiences, some even worthy of passing down as traditions from our quasi-religious experiences. Congruently, these practices remind us of the emotions we shared with the people who were once responsible for our care.

There is an emptiness at the table without my mother-in-law Bessie, who did eventually leave the boiled meatballs and potatoes behind in favor of exquisite gefilte fish, soup and flourless chocolate cake.

I wonder if a place should be set for my mother, usually at the head of the table in the corner. My eldest daughter would sit beside her, chat and interact. My mother thoroughly enjoyed the full attention of her eldest grandchild, Ariel, kind and solicitous, making her laugh occasionally, a spark rekindled.

I hear that my son Jordan has told JJ, his 5-year-old, that Baba has died. The child wants to visit the grave marker.

I recall my mother’s 90th birthday, two years prior to our first Seder without her. Then 3-year-old JJ stood on a chair, surveyed the boisterous tangle of friends and family, found the party too loud and confidently intoned “Everybody, settle down.” To which a startled group responded with silence.

My mother, captivated, would always chortle as she shared that vignette.

It was a better memory than of JJ’s brother who, upon visiting my mother, would turn away and scream at the top of his lungs.

The first Passover without my father was 19 years ago. My mother was strangely subdued. We all experienced the ghostly absence of the man who had been the hallmark of our lives. Jordan, a mere boy, muttered, “I miss him so much,” his eyes stanching tears. An emotional supper: the focus not on the coming of freedom from slavery, but the bondage to emotion that comes when a heart is entangled with the pain of loss.

This 2014 Passover, a similar quiet haunts us even though the grandkids continue to be wild and unruly. JJ, quite interested in traditions, is anxious to try the bitter herbs, the charoset, and to contribute his part in The Four Questions.

He asks for the translation of the list of wine droplets we dribble on our plates: locusts, darkness, vermin…and with a dark look of horror after considering the list, bursts out, “Those are not GOOD drops.”

I hope he does not store these afflictions in his mind and later ponder them. He is already a sleepless fellow, his imagination overwrought with terrifying images. His mother tries to rationalize, “We don’t have to worry about them now.” But how can the thoughts of devouring locusts, bloodied doorposts not persist in one’s thoughts once they have been reiterated over and over in the Haggadah?

Chaos at the table continues: numerous kugels, turkey, brisket, salads and desserts. The actual reading, responsive in both Hebrew and English has whizzed by for me. The youngest grandchild, referred to as A.B. by his mom, is cradling an iPhone watching an Arcade Fire concert where the audience jumps around wearing masks. To a 2-year-old, the flash and glitter, even with the sound off, is mesmerizing. I notice he punctuates his screening with an animation clip that involves Santa Claus.

I know my father would not have allowed such malfeasance. He never even let my son include some English into the Hebrew-only Seder.

Also absent from this table is my second daughter, who has been retained in Philadelphia because a tree has fallen and blocked her driveway. But we expect to see them next year, in Canada.

On the way home this wintery spring night, darkness falls and feelings of sadness, confusion prevail. I am streched across dimensions, at once a little girl playing in the basement with her cousins, a grandma missing her mother, an adolescent speaking Hebrew with her father, a wife feeling connected to her husband’s family history, and a mother wishing she could hug her daughter who is stuck behind a felled tree so many miles away.

Pesach will always make me yearn for my mother’s arms around me, to hold my own children and grandchildren in the warmth of the home that my husband and I have built for them, with them. In this year of missing pieces, I don’t know how to gather everything up and make it whole. With every year that passes, though, we continue trying to hold onto the strings that connect us to our past and our future, no matter how loose or tangled they may seem.


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