The ProsenPeople

The Family Plot: Childhood Lessons on Death

Thursday, September 28, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. Earlier this week, she wrote about learning to mourn for her mother. She is blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the process of writing a novel about family, I realized that all families have their secrets. I’m not referring here to the Binder family, whose secrets I became aware of while living for so long inside the pages of Once More With Feeling, but to my own family of origin whose secrets I knew so well that I had forgotten that others might find them interesting.

If, as I grew to suspect, all families have secrets, then ours was death. Although most of the older generation passed away at an early age, I never discovered how anyone had died. They died, was the reply to all my questions. How does a person die? This was always offered with a shrug and an eloquent hand gesture meant to imply resignation: Well, how does anybody die?

Ever valiant, my father once explained to my sister and me that the cause of death was when a person’s heart stopped beating. This was always the case, no exceptions. Even cancer, he said, even old age or an automobile accident. If a man jumped out of an eleventh floor building and was shot on his way past the ninth floor and choked on a pigeon as he passed the seventh floor and was decapitated by a flying hatchet as he plummeted past the fifth floor, he still died of a not-beating heart.

Disease and accident might set a person off on their mortal trajectory, he said, but it all came down to the heart in the end. The hour and minute and second hands on the old ticker stopping, for want of a better word: dead.

Once a year, during the busy, God-bothering, sociable days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my mother would visit her family, all of whom were domiciled in the nearby Westpark Cemetery, although not in any particular section because we were not the kind of family to admit to, let alone plan for, death, by way of advance booking and family plots. She would pass the day with her uncles, her grandmother, and her mother, but it was at her father’s grave that she lingered. She missed him the most because she’d missed him the longest.

I used to ask my mother what she did in the cemetery because I wanted to know what I might be expected to do one day at my parents’ graves — although this was not a thought I could articulate, even to myself. As she had once demonstrated how to separate whites from yolks, as she had once bought me tampons and explained how to use them, I wanted her to show me how to mourn, even if the object of my mournfulness was the distant vanishing point of her someday-never disappearance from the world.

She shrugged. I just catch him up on the family, she finally said. What you and your sister are up to. A lot happens in a year, she clarified. Babies and so forth.

Does he . . . I started to ask but stopped because I couldn’t think how to finish.

Of course not, she snapped. Dead is dead, what can he say?

Dead! She had never voiced that word before and it shocked me. Dead is dead, kiddo, don’t make me spell it out! My mother’s nihilism, even—especially—in the context of her sentimental attachment to the hospitable dead would be devastating, I knew, at some future point of her not-thereness when she could no longer be questioned about mortality because, like a drop of water falling into the ocean, she had become indivisible with her death. She was an elusive silver fish, always swimming away, and water was her medium because it was fluent and mysterious and unlikely to be caught in a child’s imperfect, sieve-like understanding.

But what are the lessons of water? That it takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured? That it rises as steam and falls as rain, its molecules in constant motion as if agitated by their own indecisiveness? That it provides the solvent for the ounce or so of human chemicals from which we are made?

When I was little I didn’t like to be separated from her, so one day my mother sat me on the kitchen counter and poured a glass of water from the faucet. Then she inserted her pinky finger in the water.

What happens when you take out the finger? she asked.

Nothing. Nothing happens.

This was how she taught me that no one is indispensable, that water closes over what has displaced it, that loss finds its own level.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.

Counting the Ways: How I Learned to Mourn for My Mother

Monday, September 25, 2017 | Permalink

Méira Cook is the author of the recently published novel Once More With Feeling. She will be blogging here all week as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many of the characters in my novel Once More With Feeling are haunted. They are haunted by the living and the dead, and by all the usual apparitions: memory, ghosts, forgetfulness, weather, good deeds, and bad decisions. I can relate to these characters as I, too, have felt haunted all my life—but never more so than when my mother died.

This year is the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death. Her yahrzeit is the day after Shavuot, which sometimes falls in late May and sometimes falls in early June. 

My mother did not believe that a daughter could say kaddish for her parents because in the orthodox tradition in which she was raised, only men were counted as members of a quorum of ten mourners. Women don’t count, she said.

Counting is of some significance nevertheless, because Shavuot is calculated by counting off exactly seven weeks from the second night of Passover. Passover, the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of slavery, is linked to Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, in this way establishing a connection between physical and spiritual freedom. 

The forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the "counting of the Omer," a time of semi-mourning and a strict accounting of days. My mother fell ill shortly before Passover and died the day after Shavuot.

Because of the moon-skewered Hebrew calendar, Shavuot occurs in late May some years and early June in others. And this is true in the country where I was born, South Africa, as well as the country where I now live, Canada. Although it’s fall in one place and spring in the other, both are restless seasons of turning or budding leaves, of early or late rains, of the dying or the greening year.

What counts is time, however it is added or subtracted. What counts are the days that accumulated before she died, which were forty-nine, and all the days to follow which, I grew to understand, would be incalculable.

Even writing about my mother feels like a transgression. She kept her own counsel, was fiercely private, and did not believe in self-expression. The modern idea that feelings are dangerous when repressed, as uncomfortable and potentially explosive as wind on the stomach of a colicky baby, would never have occurred to her.

She was neither heartbroken nor heartless. But neither was she openhearted, and her most characteristic gesture was to tap her wrist, smile at me, and then slowly turn over her hand so that she could tap the inside of her wrist. The message—to me, her daughter, the divining rod of her remote moods—was clear: show the outside, conceal the inside.

She was the most dignified person I’ve ever known, dignity the spinal column that kept her upright, and secrecy what ran through her as marrow through bone. When I left her, not as daughters usually leave their mothers—which is to say when they grow up—but before I was quite grown, and for a wild adventure and a fierce man and another country—which is to say forever—she was stoic, a Spartan mother. 

But I knew what to expect; she had taught me the lesson of the turned wrist: how to transform pain into a graceful gesture, how to show only what I was willing to display, how not to break down in airports.

Dignity has a price, of course. For years I didn’t believe that I counted, either as a Jew or as a daughter. It was too painful to live within the narrow mathematical calculations of these double negatives which, since they didn’t cancel each other, seemed to cancel me. But when she died I realized that, whatever she said, my mother had always counted to me, and that I too counted because the pain I felt was more convincing than any prohibition against expressing it. 

And so I have attended synagogue on the last six anniversaries of my mother’s death and recited kaddish in her memory. It’s my way of remembering her and I hope it counts, counting being a matter of memory work in this case, and not mental arithmetic. But counting, I have learned, is not always chronological and, except for Genesis, words rarely create the world.

Sometimes it is necessary to count forward as when a mother recounts stories to waylay death, and sometimes it is necessary to count backward as when a daughter encounters these stories, these creative and wholly fruitful truths. Remembrance flows in both directions at once, like a mythic river, and like that old Greek river, cannot be the same river even once.

Every year my children accompany me to synagogue in late May or early June. Although there is no obligation to say kaddish for a grandparent, my daughter and sons stand up with me and chant the Mourner’s Kaddish. Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba. We sit together, amongst a congregation of men and women who are equal. I look at my children and hope that I am teaching them to mourn. It is, after all, a way of counting, of adding your number to a necessary quorum of mourners. It is a way of being counted upon.

Méira Cook was born in Johannesburg and worked as a journalist in South Africa. Since coming to Canada, she has published widely as a poet and fiction writer. She has won the CBC Literary Award for poetry, the Walrus Prize for poetry, and the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award. Cook lives in Winnipeg.