I’ve been thinking about the ways we are shaped by whatever we resist.
Because of anomalies in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversaries of my parent’s death fall a week apart, the 20th and 27th of the month of Adar, which this year begin on two successive Monday nights, 28 February and tomorrow. My father died in 1957, when I was small, and my mother in 1999. My custom is to light a memorial candle, which burns for more than a day. When I wake during the night, I can see the shadows of flame flickering on the wall outside my bedroom door, igniting memory.
My father was a hard-working, turpentine-scented housepainter who immigrated to this country as a young man, leaving behind everything he knew. He died suddenly, at 47, of a heart ailment undiscovered while he lived. In our family stories, he is a hero and light, the decent core holding together a system that began to rot and drop away the year he died. My mother’s story was very different: embedded in a sticky web of family relations, she lived with her parents their whole lives. It is very difficult to see her as an independent actor; instead, it seems to me that almost everything she did was conditioned or coerced by too-close relationships, the effects of her actions rippling through too many lives.
Eventually, my mother was forced by the deaths of other breadwinners to work hard herself, but the condition to which she always returned — the one she sought for comfort — was an anesthetized indolence, in front of the TV, an old-style women’s magazine on her lap, her hand conveying nuts or pretzels, anything crunchy into her mouth with the fixed arc and regular pace of a piston. When I grew to adulthood and questioned aspects of the family legacy, she shrugged and said “I don’t know what you’re so worked up about. I see families like ours in the movies all the time.” (She was right, of course. I think the one that cut closest for me was James Mangold’s 1995 \Heavy\, where Shelley Winters stood in for my mother, despite such superficial differences as playing an Italian.) It’s not a pretty story, but I’m seldom up for a family dysfunctionality contest anymore — so unsatisfying to chew on the dry crusts of the past — so I’ll just stipulate that on the rare occasions when I tell my tale, the most frequent response of my listeners is a dropped jaw, all the way to the floor.
It’s not altogether a bad thing to be shaped by our resistances. Shamed and appalled by my family’s socially and ethically marginal behavior — gambling, check-kiting, and so on — I am virtuous to a fault, setting ethical standards I sometimes need climbing-gear to reach. Even though this can be annoying to my more healthily relaxed companions, I don’t regret it. I respect myself, and that is worth a great deal to me.
But this week, thinking about my parents, I see that allowing my resistances to shape me has not been an altogether good thing either. For one thing, I am really tired. I have not had a vacation in ages, and still — terrorized by that image of my mother anesthesized before the TV set — I cannot seem to give myself a break. I worry about wasting my life, about failing to use myself fully, coming to the end of my time without having contributed what I know I have to give. My father’s story figures in here too. His work was grueling and dangerous in those pre-EPA days of lead-based paint and other toxics. His sudden, premature death instilled in me the idea that life is short, and the moral I took away was the same: I can’t afford to waste it.
Last Monday night, when we lit the \yahrzeit\ candle, a friend was visiting from out of town. After I blessed my father’s soul to rise higher still, to be healed from all the injuries he brought into this life and those he took from it, my friend said, “And may he be proud of his daughter.” This touched me so deeply, in a way I can’t entirely explain. My own theology at the moment is shaky and unreliable: I’m by no means certain that my father’s soul persists, and if it does, in any form that allows for things like “daughter” and “pride.” But I yearned for it to be true.
Suddenly, I wasn’t very proud of myself for having woven the lessons of my parents’ lives into the idea that I can’t afford to rest. It seems to me they point much more clearly to a better lesson, one that I claimed as my new year’s resolution back in January and have been regularly forgetting ever since: that as we have been given these amazing brains and bodies, with their capacity for enjoyment, it is incumbent on us to make good use of them, which is to say, to experience the pleasures they offer.
“A person will one day give reckoning for everything his eyes saw which, although permissible, he did not enjoy,” wrote the sages (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12). I can’t afford to go away on vacation right now, but for the next two weeks, I have decided to take one at home. There are a few things I have to do out of necessity, but not so many. In the rest of my time, I plan to enjoy the pleasures my eyes see in this world, spring in blossom, sunlight on water, even watching TV in the middle of the day! To honor what was not possible for my parents, each for their own reasons, I’m going to give myself a break.