Holding On, Letting Go

April 6, 2010
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Richard Hirsh

One of the more poignant, sometimes perplexing and often provocative moments in the lifecycle is when adult children have to close a home after the death of a parent. To such an emotionally laden event, we bring the entire psychological, emotional, and relational histories we shared with our parent(s). Somewhere along the continuum between blessing and burden, we locate ourselves in order to do one more act of chesed shel emet, an act of caring kindness that cannot be reciprocated.

As we move through a home filled with powerful but invisible presences, we ask ourselves each time we lift, touch, or look at an object: Do we keep or discard? The subjectivity of such decisions is inevitable and the rationale for retention is often serendipitous. The meaning of an otherwise mundane object may well be at odds with any aesthetic appeal.

In The Art of Public Worship: Not for Clergy Only, Lawrence Hoffman articulates a distinction between “symbol” and “sign.” A “sign” is the interpretation or explanation of what a “symbol” means — as seen in the word “significance”; a “symbol” evokes an immediate emotional response. When walking through the home of a deceased parent, we are as likely to be in the realm of what Hoffman calls “incidental symbols”— otherwise meaningless objects that gain meaning because they were present when something of significance transpired.

Meaningful objects that touch us emotionally will usually be obvious “saves.” We want them to stay in the family, and we want members of each generation to be able to place their hands on the same object and know the intangible and overwhelming sense of continuity and context. But what about things that were meaningful to our parent(s) but that hold no meaning for us? How much do we respect what might have been an “incidental symbol” to them?

We don’t expect or intend to rebuild our parent(s)’ home in our own space. But we know that the things we keep and bring home will inevitably transform that space and each time we see what we’ve kept, we recall the presence of someone who may have long been absent even when alive.

The artifacts of our parent(s)’ home may be a blessing or a burden to us. What memories are evoked by the objects we hold onto? The temptation to destroy or dispose of something special — something that was dafka treasured by a parent — as an act of defiance, punishment, or revenge may be irresistible. To do so may be momentarily satisfying, but eventually emerges as saddening. Unlike Avram, who smashed the idols in his father’s shop, we sometimes feel a need to destroy not because the symbol is false but because the symbol is tragically true — what it evokes are real memories, actual anger, and serious sadness.

A month after her death, when I closed the home of my mother, my then 16-year-old daughter, Shira, volunteered to come along. It turned out to be the only time we ever spent discussing my mother/her grandmother, with whom I had a difficult relationship. The conversation that my daughter and I had as we handled each object reminded me that my mother’s life existed outside of her relationship with me.

My mother had the peculiar habit of thinking that if you disposed of things that were distressing (such as papers and photographs of my long-deceased father) then the distress would also go away. Her other peculiar habit, about which I learned only a few years before she died, was that whenever she was angry at me she would throw away one more thing as a form of punishment. It might be the jewelry tray I made in junior high metal shop, or my collection of camp awards from the summer of 1963, or, as it turned out, the few things she still had that belonged to my father. By the time Shira and I got to the apartment, what was left was mostly the mundane: innocuous pieces of cheap Florida furniture, a closet full of nondescript clothing, and a kitchen and a bath full of the usual apurtances of no special meaning.

As we were taking our last walk-through to be sure we had not missed anything, we discovered a small storage closet on the balcony. We could easily have missed it altogether. Inside was my father’s tan leather briefcase, last used by him on January 24, 1964, and inside were several small books of financial records (in his impeccably clean and incredibly tiny handwriting). These, and my father’s WW II diary that I managed to hold onto from childhood, are the only documents I have that describe any part of my father’s life. They truly are symbols, objects whose meaning goes beyond their content.

I would like to think my mother saved these books because after having thrown away everything else, she finally hit the brakes and realized what she had been doing. But more likely, they were kept as a reflex of her paranoia that 37 years later, someone was going to show up with a financial claim on her savings.

I began that day with a dread of having to slog through things. By the middle of the day, when I realized that anything meaningful to me (like a jewelry tray or a photo album) would not turn up, dread turned to anger. It was only when we accidentally stumbled on that old briefcase that the first stirrings of what would eventually emerge as forgiveness and compassion — that were difficult to summon while my mother was alive — arose quite naturally and even peacefully.

Only two things of symbolic value made the trip home. One was a relatively decent if not inspiring copy of a painting of the seashore, and one was a cheap, battery-operated travel alarm clock. The clock signified time; death reminds us of transience. The waves returning to the sea similarly remind us that what appears separate is, in fact, connected.

Minimally, the myth of Avram smashing the idols suggests that the bond between parent and child inevitably must be sundered. In our understandable attempt to maintain memories, it is perhaps only following a death that what we once thought to be an “idol” turns out to be a “symbol.” The sad wisdom that accompanies such discoveries is that we learn that what we thought we had to shatter in order to break free we now realize we might have kept whole and still emerged into independence.

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Rabbi Richard Hirsh, a Sh’ma Advisory Committee member, is the executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

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