Earlier this week, Ronna Wineberg wrote about Chanukah and shared a deleted scene from her first novel, On Bittersweet Place. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
When my father died at 93 in June 2012, I wanted to do something to mark his death. To say Kaddish. My mother had passed away in 2010. We sat shiva for her. Afterward, in the flurry of clearing out the house near Chicago where they’d lived for 55 years, taking care of my father, and moving him to an apartment, I hadn’t said Kaddish for her with regularity. This was a nagging omission.
At the time of his death, I was revising my novel, On Bittersweet Place. I stopped the revisions, shaken by the loss. Though my father lived a long life, he’d been doing well and died suddenly. As I wrestled with my grief, I realized I might have been too cavalier about the deaths that occurred in my novel.
A friend once told me that losing the last parent is like losing a third parent. Now I understood. I felt the loss of my father, my mother, of who they were together, and also of the protective, loving layer they had provided for me. In the best circumstances, there was a hierarchy to mortality; the buffer had fallen away.
After my father’s shiva, I returned home to New York and proceeded with my plan. I didn’t have high expectations when I went to my first Friday night service at the little shul in Greenwich Village. The synagogue I attended for holidays was far. I chose the one in the Village because it was close to where I lived. I was disappointed to learn there was no daily minyan, only Friday evening and Saturday morning services, occasionally Sunday morning. I thought of the synagogue as the “little shul.” The old building was set back from the street, behind a courtyard, and it was tiny, like a rustic city house. I went there hoping the synagogue would be a repository for my grief. I imagined I should be able to weather my parents’ deaths with ease, perspective, and acceptance. But, in truth, I felt unanchored.
That first Friday night, twenty congregants sat in the small sanctuary. When I stood to say Kaddish in this new venue, shock swept through me. I had reached this point in life: an orphan. I was flooded with an ache for my mother, my father, the world they had created together. My father’s humor, the tilt of his head when he laughed, his quiet wisdom. When I was younger — with youthful arrogance — I had been critical of him. Now I was flooded with love for him, the depth of which I hadn’t realized when he was alive. The words of the Kaddish, like a chant, calmed and comforted me.
After services, the rabbi, cantor, and congregants greeted me warmly. I met a man at synagogue that night, also a writer. He became a friend. His mother had just died, too, two days after my father. This became the ritual that summer, fall, winter, and spring: Friday night I attended services, looking forward to Kaddish, to thinking about my parents. Judaism was important to them. In the little shul, I felt close to them. Sometimes I attended on Saturday morning. After services, I visited with others in the congregation. Then my new friend and I walked home together. We parted when our paths diverged. He went west. I continued south. But first we stood on the sidewalk and talked about our losses, the raw grief, the administrative details, family complications, the closing up of a parent’s life and final closing up of an essential part of our own lives. We talked about our writing. He and I were walking down the same road.
I said personal prayers at home because there was no daily minyan.
To my surprise, I began to look forward to going to services, seeing the rabbi, my new friend, and others. We developed a bond. The predictability of the routine comforted me. I was grateful I’d found this new world.
During the year of saying Kaddish, I went back to work on my novel and considered what it meant to suffer a loss. Suffer. I thought about what a parent can give to a child. Not a physical gift. But time, attention, emotional connection.
I saw more clearly what the Czernitski family in On Bittersweet Place could give to one another. I felt greater empathy for my characters, for Lena and especially her mother and father who had lost parents. And I remembered a quote by Sigmund Freud I’d read years ago. He wrote about his father’s death: “By the time he died his life had long been over, but at a death the whole past stirs within one.”
I knew the past stirred within many of the characters in On Bittersweet Place. Lena and her family had fled their homeland in the Ukraine after the October Revolution and settled in Chicago in the 1920s. They had been persecuted, lost relatives and a home. I knew the past stirred within me when I thought of my parents. Like Lena, I wanted to slam shut the gates of tears. I understood the characters with new depth and felt a kinship. I understood the poignancy and finality of absence. I dove into the work of revision, eager to help the characters wrestle with their grief, mourn, and join the world of living again.
Ronna Wineberg is the author of On Bittersweet Place and a debut collection, Second Language, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition, and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. She is the recipient of a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and elsewhere. She is the founding fiction editor of Bellevue Literary Review, and lives in New York.
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