My parents’ sukkah is built by the time my children and I arrive in Memphis for the holiday; four wooden doors hung from a frame my father built. The doors have been painted by my mother, with pictures of King David holding a harp, Moshe carrying the Ten Commandments, Miriam with a tambourine. The container of decorations from years past has been brought out, and as we do every year, the children and I unpack the plastic bananas and clusters of rubbery purple grapes, the felt fruit mobile I sewed as a child, the ushpizzin charts laminated to last from year to year.
Only here, in the house where I grew up and that more than anywhere else feels like home, does the world remain in order. This is the first Sukkot after my divorce; this is a year in which every holiday will be marked as a first, separated from all its predecessors by an impossible chasm. Here, in the closet in my childhood bedroom, are the neatly, happily stacked relics of my past; here, my daughter rummages through these pieces of my childhood in search of treasures. All three of my children seem fully at home here, playing with the toys my mother has laid out — toys that were once mine. I wonder whether, instead of returning to the new house we recently rented and to a life that feels paved with unfamiliarity, we should seek asylum here. Time will turn mercifully backward: I will become the teenager who once lived here, as though the rest of my life had not yet happened, the children present by some magical doing not my own.
Outside, it is raining, precluding the possibility of hanging the decorations. I reminisce about how I used to climb a ladder that my father held steady, as we assisted in laying out the bamboo for the sukkah’s roof.
“Can we go on the roof?” my kids ask upon hearing this story.
I want to say yes, let them go on the roof and scale the walls — I want to make them happy. I watch them carefully — outwardly they seem fine, though I’m waiting in fear of an outbreak of some dreaded fever. I try to read on their faces whether the divorce fills their minds as constantly as it does mine. But I can’t ask them; I don’t want to call attention to how different this holiday is this year, to what makes even a simple weekday feel strange, unformed.
It rains all afternoon. That night, as the holiday begins, we wait until the rain lets up in order to make kiddush in the sukkah. It’s cool out, especially for Memphis, and the kids are bundled up next to me. The fleece I’m wearing belongs to my father, and it is large enough for my daughter to pull it over herself, too. At night, she’s started sleeping in my bed as she did when she was a baby, and because it’s rare for me to sleep for more than a few hours at a time, I lie awake watching her. Sensing my wakefulness, she stirs, rotates, murmurs, “Hug me,” and I do. It’s as hard for me to separate from her as it is for her to separate from me. Yet now, there is an imposed separation. A few nights a week, my children
inhabit bedrooms I have not seen. They belong, in part, to an extended family with whom I do not speak. Parts of their lives feel sealed off from me. Now, more than ever, I have the urge to cling to them as they do to me. I know I must remind them that even though their parents don’t love each other as they once did, they will always love their children; this love never fades, never becomes so heavy with disappointment that it breaks. They need to know, as do I, that some parts of life are fixed, unchangeable.
The rain stops, and we are able to eat in the sukkah after all. Chairs are dried off and a new tablecloth is laid out. We sit in this temporary booth, willingly leaving our houses and acting out our vulnerability as we have done for decades. My children occupy the seats my siblings and I once sat in. We step into the elements, pretending we are not merely in our backyard, but in a desert between places — not a few steps from home, but wandering, at the mercy of the unknown. This year, I need no such reminders. I know what it means to feel impermanence, to discover that a life seemingly fixed can always rupture.