“I never want to inherit this holiday,” I sighed to my mother over the phone, as we discussed the extensive Passover preparations under way in her house.
She shrugged off my comment with a hearty laugh. She didn’t seem to mind the work—the whole house turned upside down, as plates, silverware, pots, and pans exchanged places for eight days, and shelves and counters were lined with plastic to protect from errant breadcrumbs somehow not scrubbed away. A festival of freedom? Jewish women everywhere know better. But mine was never your Jewish mother-cum-martyr type. She was happy to see Judaism alive and well, and you could almost measure that joy in the chocolate covered matzos, coconut-crusted marshmallows, sugary fruit rings, and nubby horseradish roots piled in every corner of her kosher-for-Passover kitchen.
As was our custom, I made it to Boston that year with my husband and children a few hours before the meal. There was time to chop apples for the charoset, slice the celery, salt the water that would symbolize Hebrew tears. That was about the extent of my participation every year—a helping hand, a seat at the table, but otherwise, I was free to chat on the sidelines with my cousin or sister, keeping my young daughters engaged or ushering them off to bed or sofa corners as the night deepened. Even though I was 36 years old, I was still one of the kids then, the ones who just had to show up, pitch in here and there, maybe even bring some food or wine, but still, no matter how old, no matter how many kids of our own we had, the kids got to wallow in the inherent passivity—and the privilege, I now realize—of that role.
It was a great Passover. Everyone showed up: my brother and his family from Florida, my sister and her husband, and my aunt, uncle, and cousins from New York and San Francisco. It was great because it was exactly what the Seders always were for us—matzo ball soup, sweet meat tzimmes with potatoes and prunes, brisket the first night, turkey the second, strawberry-rhubarb-cranberry sauce. Just as reliable as the menu, which never changed, my mother peeked out from the kitchen when we started moving through the haggadah too quickly while she was getting organized for the next course—eyes sparkling behind lightly smudged glasses, cheeks rosy from the steaming soup, a stained apron wrapped around a brightly colored silk top and flowered skirt—I’m coming, wait! She didn’t want to miss the discussion—whether of ancient texts or family lore—and was just as quick to quote a medieval commentator as to retell a story about her own mother or grandmother. There was singing and there was humor, always humor: When the salt water came out, one of the fake eggs that my grandfather had collected precisely for this purpose was surreptitiously delivered to the newest person at our table, as the kids watched—alternately delighted and horrified—for the poor guest’s unsuspecting reaction. Later my mother would dole out afikomen presents for the kids and for the grown-ups, too—books and puzzles and tchotchkes, just as my grandfather had done years earlier. And when the guests had left and the dishes were washed, my mother emerged, finally, from the kitchen, eyes glistening with satisfaction.
A year later she was gone.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the shock of losing my mother, the absolute bafflement surrounding her sudden and permanent physical absence, was compounded by the fact that when she died in mid-March, 2008, the Seders loomed, terrifyingly, just a few weeks away.
How could we have Passover that year? My mother made Passover. How could there ever be Passover again?
Observant family that we were, there was one obvious solution for that year: I had a kosher home, a committed family. The way to keep the Mesch family Seder alive was to host it myself.
For six years, we have managed to create a Seder that is lively and fun and warm and holy. We honor my mother with the food (mostly the same menu she used to prepare) and memories, we sing to her and for her and of her. We keep the same guests—family and extended family—but always add on if we can (the bigger the better, right?). It is, in many ways, my parents’ Seder. Humor and fun. Stories and singing. Finding the places where your story wraps around that of the Israelites, where Jews before you asked questions you can now recognize as your own.
The only problem is, I’m not my mother.
And so, at the end of it all, and sometimes throughout, I feel a lingering emptiness. I ask myself: This is mine, now? Forever? I have to be that stable Jewish force, the one holding tradition and family together, while those around me can simply be themselves? How did I end up in the role of grown-up? Of matriarch?
The nearer I get to recreating my mother’s Seder, the less air I seem to find to breathe. Taking on the roles my mother so heartily, joyously embraced—selfless hostess and bearer of tradition—does bring me closer to her. She is a ghost in my kitchen as I stockpile matzo and sort through her old dishes, making room on my wiped-down shelves; her handwriting on rapidly yellowing index cards, her voice in my head; her stories echoing at the table. But what if this closeness to her also brings me further from myself?
My mother embraced the weight and permanency of tradition. Year after year, holiday after holiday, she wanted the same thing from her very satisfying Jewish practice. But what if my identity ebbs and flows, and what if consistency is the very thing that makes me want to fly the coop?
My Jewish identity is not the rock-solid determining force of my being, around which all else is organized—as it was for my mother, is for my father. Despite my commitment, my keeping kosher, my Sabbath observance, there is a part of me that resists conformity, a part of me that can’t comfortably inhabit the role that my tradition has carved out—or at least, not all the time. Maybe it just takes a few years after your mother dies to realize this about yourself.
And so, this year, as I face Passover once again—Passover, the holiday when I try to assume my mother’s role, while not wanting to step into her shoes—I wonder if maybe there is some other choice that honors tradition and family while tending to that part of myself that sometimes chafes against the precise combination of those roles?
My mother died on the same day as another one of her favorite Jewish holidays: Purim.
Purim, a festival of joyous celebration commemorating the events of the Book of Esther, where synagogues are filled with children in costume, and adults are supposed to drink until they can’t recognize each other. But since I lost my mother, Purim signals for me not joy, but rather dread: Purim means that Passover is around the corner, so every year I find myself on the long but too short road between these two festivals, both so closely intertwined with her memory.
My mother loved Purim. An elementary-school teacher, she had a certain childlike quality that came out especially on this holiday as she alternated between her Little Bo Peep costume and evolving combinations of hats and scarves that my sister and I had left behind, or sartorial flourishes she had gathered when she and my father—only recently liberated of tuition burdens—began to travel more widely. That was my mother, in Paris or Florence, always looking to improve her next Purim costume.
On the first anniversary of my mother’s death, we all wondered how it would work. How can you have a yahrzeit on Purim? Can you stand up and say kaddish, the prayer in memory of the dead, in a sea of superheroes and princesses, and when our rabbi himself might be disguised as Elmo, or Elvis?
Hours before heading to synagogue for the service, I went down to the basement with my 7-year-old daughter to finish her transformation into a cowgirl. She was already in her jeans and boots, with a button-down shirt and bandana around her neck, and we were looking for the pink cowgirl hat I had picked up in Texas earlier that year, to toss over her blond pigtail braids.
But then we found two cowgirl hats.
No one was as surprised as me when I found myself, minutes later, matching my daughter’s jeans and boots to complete the look. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why I felt suddenly compelled to dress up, having rejected that part of the tradition for decades. But I felt safe underneath my disguise. When I stood up to recite the kaddish, pink embroidered hat still tipped on my head, its thick waxed strings loosely bound beneath my quivering chin, yahrzeit on Purim felt no stranger than being a Jewish mother when you no longer have one. The world is turned upside down, then right side up again, and so it goes. Fear, delight, grief, celebration, fear, delight; one day, one moment, to the next: This is Purim, this is life.
By putting forward a version of myself that was explicitly not me on a day that I felt vulnerable, obligated to commemorate my grief in public and to embody my relationship to my mother’s absence in a way that seemed dauntingly permanent, I may also have been, intuitively, holding on to the childlike freedom of becoming. When your mother dies, can you still be a child, I was asking? When your mother dies, can you continue to grow up?
I’m not finished, I say on Purim, as I find myself in costume now, year after year. I can still surprise you. And next year I may even be someone else.
Might Purim be the real festival of freedom, then?
This year, as the matzo boxes and candied-fruit slices begin to populate grocery store aisles, I am trying to see beyond the burden of tradition. How can I affirm my own freedom in the roles handed down to me, from generation to generation, I wonder? How can I be a mother to my own children on and through this holiday when I am so unlike the mother who taught these traditions to me?
It just may be that the only way to truly celebrate my tradition’s festival of freedom is to free myself, at least a little, from my family traditions, in order to clear a path for my own way in. I’m not exactly sure what that will look like. But maybe that’s the point. In other words, I need to find a way for Passover to be a little more like Purim. A holiday, then, with room for me to surprise myself.
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