In 1963, after a 3 year fight with leukemia, my 6 year old sister died. She was 3 when she was diagnosed with it, after a false diagnosis of mono. Danny Thomas himself came to our house to ask my parents if they would let my sister participate in a new treatment trial called chemotherapy. They’d have to take her to the Jimmy Fund in Boston, but all medical expenses would be paid for. It was a hard couple of years, as you can imagine. She did have one almost complete year in remission where she could actually go to school. Being bald, my mother, ever the seamstress, sewed Linda a half dozen upside down flower petal hats.
Linda was smart, and knew much more than her 4 or 5 or 6 years. Once, Georgie asked her, bullyish, “When ya gonna die?” The other boys sharked around her, chanting it…when ya gonna die, when ya gonna die. My fists were balled up ready to take them all on. She looked at them, serene. “When God wants me.” It was deep.
Her last Christmas, D and I weren’t allowed to go to the hospital, no explanation that I can recall. The story my parents told was this:
Linda opened all of her presents, enjoyed them all. Looked each thing over and handed it to my father. “Give this to Joanna, give this to Billy, give this to Mary.” All children on the ward that she had come to know.
Mother asked her, “don’t you like your presents?”
“Oh yes, very much, but I’m not going to need them.” See, she knew.
The day Linda died, my parents came back from the hospital. D and I were in the kitchen with friends of the folks who had come to entertain us. My father stopped in front of us and said, “She’s dead.” They both walked back to their bedroom and shut the door. That was all they ever said to us about it. There were no more conversations, no help, no hugs, nothing. Being people who believe that death ends life and there is nothing more after that, what did they have to offer?
I kicked the shins of the funeral director when he wasn’t upset that my sister was dead lying there in that casket. I wish I could remember his name. I’d apologize for it all these years later.
So, with my sister dead and buried Mother had a nervous breakdown that lasted for years. Then it became the new normal.
In an odd family dynamic I’ll never really understand, it seems to me that Mother had 3 shares of caring (maybe it was love) and when Linda died she put that third share on my brother. All I really know for sure is that she started sending me to summer camp every year after that, for the whole summer. Six weeks. I never felt bad about it but always thought it curious that when I’d come home my bed would be filled with wrapped gifts of all sizes. I enjoyed the freedom of camp and after the first two week stint, since I knew the routine, I’d inevitability be elevated to helper or be given responsibilities. To this day I can still make a wicked one match fire and do other things from what I learned at camp.
For the first 4 years I went to Girl Scout Camp. When I was 16 they sent me to a horseback riding camp. Thus my love for horses.
I met a girl at that camp and we became fast friends. She lived in Pittsfield and we lived in Springfield. I took many two hour bus trips to visit her over the next few years. (Again, see how times have changed? No worries then about being abducted.) Tawny’s mother would make the best shoe box lunches. Generally I went to visit over the Jewish holidays, so it was from Tawny’s family that I learned about Passover and Hanukkah. That’s why the shoe box lunches were so good. Feast leftovers!
When Tawny turned 16 she had a Bat Mitzvah. Of course I was invited for the weekend with it’s festive lineup of a pre-Bat Mitzvah slumber party, the Bat Mitzvah itself, and then a catered supper that would have put most wedding dinners to shame. The gift table filled an entire corner of the room, and there were more things at home that had come by mail or delivery truck.
A Bar Mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ritual. Usually they are done when the boy or girl reaches 12 (for a girl it is 12 and a day), but Tawny had her’s at 16. I was familiar with a synagogue having been in one before in the 6th grade Unitarian Sunday school. There is nothing in the Old Testament specifically about Bar Mitzvahs. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony involves the young man or woman being called to read the Torah, a Haftarah portion [links from Wikipedia].
I tried to learn Hebrew once, it is difficult once you’re set in your ways reading left to write. By the way, do you realize that all cultures on the left side of Jerusalem read left to right and all cultures on the right side of Jerusalem read right to left? Interesting isn’t it?
The Hebrew language was foreign to me then. I’d heard it once before but that was it. My paternal grandmother spoke Yiddish from time to time but it’s nothing close. I was watching Tawny standing behind a pedestal called the bimah, where the Torah scrolls are placed when they are read. She had the pointer that they use to keep track of their place while reading. She began. A word zinged [as in an arrow zinging through the air] out from her lips and found my ears. Adonai. Pretty soon the whole of the synagogue was filled with just one word – Adonai.
I had no idea what it meant. Pretty soon the Bat Mitzvah was over, congratulations were given and we were in the car on the way to the celebration supper. Tawny’s mother asked me what I thought of the Bat Mitzvah. I only had one thing to know from her. What was that word?
God. Master. Lord.
Well, she only said God, but there is much more to it than that.
Read this if you want to know more, and I hope you will, of the names of YWHW.