These are my unedited remarks from the unveiling and memorial service held in NY for my late mother, Shulamit Michal (Englander) Kustanowitz yesterday, May 6, 2012. Thanks to all of you who have supported me this year and who will support me in the future. - Esther
This past year, when people would see me in a moment of sadness, they'd console me in a book full of ways. That book is already in process, but doesn't have a publisher yet (in case you know anyone). But one of the go-to ways for other people to console me was to say "Don't worry, your mother's proud of you." To which I often wanted to respond, "Duh."
My mother may have had her secrets and preference for privacy, but the one thing that was never a mystery was how she felt about her children. She treasured each of us as an individual, taking care to keep our report cards and SAT scores secret so that not a one of the three of us would feel competition when it came to grades. (Of course, there was no competition because Jack would have always won, and we knew that.) I think she really loved that we were all so thoughtful - a word that Simmy used to speak about her at the funeral last year - in our endeavors, whether it was writing or music or comedy. She may not have understood the need for a show like Silent Library - those of you who know this show know what I'm talking about - but she was proud that her child was making it work and getting work out of it.
She was proud of her grandchildren, and amazed that she'd lived to see them. She was proud that we had found communities that embraced and nourished us, that even though we were all freelancers, she supported us in our more creative, if less stable, career paths. She cherished laughter and as her condition became more serious, I took the responsibility of bringing her laughter very seriously - getting her to chuckle was hard, but when achieved, it made me feel for a few minutes like I'd made a difference for her. She was always the first person with whom I shared my published pieces - sometimes her response was brief, at other times, longer and opened a discussion, but always supportive.
But it's not always a given, in all families. I have become aware that not all parents give their children positive feedback.
Going to minyan did do some good for someone. For me, living across the country, without family, a chayelet bodedet (lone soldier) in a land of outstanding weather (everyone come visit...), minyan became a starting point, a responsibility that got me out of bed in the morning, not just eventually, but early. I went not because it was always meaningful but because it - and the context it provided - was always there. Whether i was tired or not (it was rarely "not), whether I was in the mood to contemplate the liturgy (seldom), whether or not I wanted to talk to the people after the service concluded (who has the time? I had to work...), it existed like shoes or underwear - part of the daily uniform: don't go to work without them.
Of course there was a hidden message in this routine - that remembering my mother had become part of the daily uniform as well - getting up for minyan was - believe me - a departure from what my normal morning would have looked like, and I carried the absence of her with me. But I also remembered what my nephew Dov said to me during shiva when he saw me crying: "Doda Esther, why you cryin'?" I said it was because I was sad because I missed Savta Shuly. He looked up at me with his giant eyes and said, "But Savta Shuly's in our hearts!"
And he was right of course. Ema is not just in my heart, but in my blood, in my head, in every word I write.
"Kol haneshama tehallel ya." Every soul shall praise you (God). Neshama is close to the word neshimah, breath. Not just every person, or every person's soul, but with every breath we take in we should exhale praise. But moreover, my mother was in every breath I took - literally, because of her (and some other guy), my brothers and I exist, owing our lives and breaths to her.
I have two stories to share that on their own probably mean nothing. And together, they probably also mean nothing. But in the mind of an English major, even stories that mean nothing mean something. It's statements like this that make me understand why some people had suggested that I pursue the rabbinate. But that's another story.
Listening to my mother's voice telling me to go to the gym instead of to Mincha/Maariv, I became aware that I needed new sneakers. The ones that fit the best were a pair of shoes that were designed to tone your legs as you walked. (Just to reassure you, this was not the entirety of my workout plan, but I thought I'd would give them a shot.) I looked at the tag and saw that they proudly proclaimed: "Now with built-in instability!" Everytime I wear them I think about how my mother would have laughed at her daughter intentionally buying shoes that basically say, "yes, we're shoes, but don't rely on us to hold you up - we're inherently unstable."
On the day of the yahrzeit, I was at a place called Yogurtland, one of those by-the-ounce frozen yogurt shops. Even though it was lunchtime, the place was empty, except for me and the arrival of what I quickly learned was three generations - a daughter, mother and grandmother. The oldest of the three walked right into me, even though there was plenty of space to my right and to my left. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "You almost fell over." I looked at her - I was standing steady, or so I thought. "Come on, grandma," the granddaughter said, trying to guide her away from me. But the woman came back, leaned in and said, "I didn't even know that you were a person."
True that this was a likely case of dementia, but that day, the day between mourning and returning to the land of the non-mourners, I was definitely not as stable as I might have thought. And maybe the woman was right - maybe I wasn't a person.
Life is unstable. It has built in instability that makes us almost fall over. If we are to be people in the world, we must accept this instability and live with it, but by surrounding ourselves with friends, family and community, online and off, we provide a grounding counterweight to that instability.
Minyan is one of those structures - it's like the trust exercise where a person falls back and relies on her teammates to catch her. And usually, they do. Minyan provides a counterweight, an anchor during times of extreme instability, a context for personal loss and pain within the universal human experience. And minyan also provides the text, the liturgy, for when life's challenges make words fail, and spontaneous prayer is far from possible.
Not every service resonated. Not every kaddish helped me feel better - or worse - or about the same. (Yes, I went to the eye doctor this week.) But the structure gave me a template for living, for moving my life forward. Just as the daily minyan formed the path for each day in my year of mourning, I look forward to establishing a new routine, as I return to active participation in the joyous things that life has to offer, and I know that I will carry my mother with me in my words, and, as Dovie noted, in my heart, forever.
May 6, 2012