Reprinted with the permission of Ami Magazine
As a child growing up, I never would have imagined myself to be bereft of both of my parents at a young age (according to my calculations). But I was wrong. My father passed away five months after the birth of my first child, and my mother passed away one year after that same child’s bar mitzvah. Although my father did get to meet my son and enjoy the tender pleasure that only a newborn can provide, I cried many tears over the fact that my father didn’t merit to see him grow and develop in a way that would have made him so proud. I had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that both my father and my son (and future children) would miss out on the opportunity to share an irreplaceable bond from which they would have grown so much. My mother did get to see more than my father did, but it wasn’t enough by my standards. When my mother passed away, I grieved for her individually and for the loss of my parents as a unit. The link to my past was broken. My parents would not attend my daughter’s siddur party. They would no longer beam with pride as my boys would make siyumim, nor would they ever again be present at any of our future s’machos. This hurt. It hurt…a lot.
During the shiv’ah for my father, well-meaning comforters assured me that my father would live on through me. I politely nodded and thanked these people without letting on that, deep down, I believed that they had no idea what they were talking about. They were making it up just to make me feel good. It made no sense. My father was dead. Forever. My children would never know him. They would never realize what an amazing person their grandfather was. Once again, I was wrong. But I wouldn’t find that out until years later.
My mother’s final gift was that she lived with us for the last month of her life and passed away in our home, surrounded by her loving family. We have many things in our home that she gave us over the years that help keep her memory alive and envelop us with her love. But these are just objects, tangible reminders of her. But what about the intangible things?
While it’s nice to have physical mementos, I crave my parents’ influence in the loftier realms of religion, spirituality, and morality. I want my children to know what values were important to them. Even though my children will never see with their own eyes how my father would stand up suddenly when he was learning late at night so that he wouldn’t fall asleep, I still want them to absorb his love of learning. Even though they will never experience my mother’s active pursuit and encouragement of strong family relations before anything else, I want my children to learn from her the primary importance of family.
This left me with a dilemma. How could my husband and I transmit these ideals if my parents were not here to model them? The answer to this question slowly came to me over time and solidified after I did some research into my father’s family.
I grew up knowing three out of four of my grandparents, so I sensed their influence in my life directly. However, this was not the case with my father’s father. I never met my paternal grandfather, and my knowledge of him was quite limited. He’d passed away suddenly at the age of 42, leaving behind a stunned wife and four children too traumatized to ever say much about him. Through my research, I found out how strikingly similar my father and grandfather had been. They’d both lost their fathers at a very young age and both showed a maturity beyond their years, possibly due to their losses. They were learned, deeply religious men, dedicated fathers, leaders in their communities, and passionate about their beliefs. It was fitting that my father had married my mother, who shared similar values and ideals. She encouraged my father, and together they labored to fulfill their mutual dreams.
As I began to get a clearer picture of who my grandfather had been, I understood for the first time that my father had become the man he was by absorbing his father’s qualities when he was alive; the rest, my grandfather passed on through his genes. He had sprinkled the seeds of the next generation with his wisdom and devotion, and those seeds were able to take root and grow, even after he left this world. My father, in turn, used the wisdom he absorbed from his father when he planted seeds in his own family.
The more I unearthed about my grandfather, the more I realized how profoundly he impacted my life without my even realizing it. It brought home the message that my parents would influence my children’s lives even though they were no longer with us physically.
There are times I have the feeling that my parents are extremely near. The most palpable example, other than at simchahs, occurred when I returned to my parents’ home with my family almost a year after my mother passed away.
A little background: My parents were very sentimental people who liked to hold on to many of their “things.” After my mother passed away, my brother and I were left with the daunting task of emptying their house and then selling it. This was not a small job by any stretch of the imagination. My parents had lived in New York, and my brother and I live in Israel. We made multiple trips to accomplish our goal.
Going through their possessions was therapeutic but time-consuming. There was no way we could possibly go through everything. We invited family and friends to take what they wanted, set aside some items to take back with us to Israel, donated a few things to organizations, and had the rest emptied out by a professional cleaning crew. This process took months.
The following summer, my family took a trip to the States. The house had finally been emptied a short time before we arrived. Since we had not yet sold it, we decided we would stay there for part of our trip. The last issue to resolve was the air conditioning. It would be impossible to stay in the house in August without air conditioning since there was no way to open the windows. My parents’ next-door neighbor was familiar with the house, as he’d often looked after it when my parents were away, so he went next door to check and reported back that the air conditioners were working. All systems were go.
We went to my parents’ house straight from the airport. When my husband opened the door, I was stunned. The contrast from the last time I’d been there was stark. The house had been filled to the top with mementos that bore testimony to the life my parents had shared, but it was now empty. With the exception of a few pieces of furniture and a bit of mail, there was nothing there. All physical vestiges of my parents’ lives in their home were gone. It was a shock.
While I recovered, my husband went to the air conditioner, flipped the switch, and…nothing. He checked the fuse and played around with the Shabbos clock, to no avail. Silence. Since our neighbor wouldn’t be home until later, we decided to go out and get some food. When we returned and consulted with him, he was at a loss. He had let the unit run for four hours straight to be certain it was really working, and he had no explanation for why it was now dead.
It was after my neighbor left that I noticed the paper on the table. Apparently, we’d accidentally left the door unlocked when we went out, and our friend had come by to see us. She’d found a piece of paper somewhere in the house and left us a note to tell us she’d been by. When I turned it over, I found the solution to the air conditioner problem.
Approximately 20 years earlier, my parents had gone on sabbatical in Israel for a year. I was still living at home, so before they left, my father showed me around the house and carefully explained the workings of the boiler, thermostat, Shabbos clocks, fuse boxes, and air conditioning. Technically challenged as I was, I’d written down all the information to make sure I could manage in my parents’ absence. It was on the back of this piece of paper that our friend had scribbled her note.
It stated explicitly that if the air conditioner didn’t turn on, there was a circuit breaker in the basement behind the freezer. All one had to do was to flip the switch and the air conditioner would turn on. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened! None of us could believe it. Even my neighbor, who knew the house better than I did at that point, had no idea that there was a circuit breaker behind the freezer.
When it happened, I couldn’t help but feel that my parents were looking out for us. My father had planted the information I would one day need. That paper had lain in the house for over 20 years, and it had survived our endless sorting, packing, and trashing during the clean-up. Hashem orchestrated these events in a way that I would feel my parents’ presence, even after they were gone.
It made me realize that they are still having an impact on us in so many ways. They continue to nurture us spiritually and emotionally, somehow even tending to our physical needs. They planted the seeds during their lives, and we are reaping the fruits after their deaths. My family’s relationship with my parents may not be physical, but it is no less real.
I guess the well-meaning comforters really did know what they were talking about after all.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.