So—back to the topic of this blog, sort of. Last week I led two shiva minyanim, both for a dear friend whose mother had passed away very suddenly. Despite the shock, this family was able to speak and let others into their grief—functional, unlike some others I've encountered who were completely frozen in pain. My friend shared wonderful stories of traditions that created memories and a foundation for everything that followed in her life; her words invited us all into that warm and loving place for a few minutes. It was a little gift of a kind of childhood for which I didn't yearn back then, but only later on when I figured out that other peoples' lives were different from mine: trips to new places, laughing crowds, patterns and rituals that continued with the expectation of never ending.
I would not change the way I grew up for the world. Yes, there was yelling and death and a small, often contentious little unit of us that never travelled further than the Bronx Zoo, but also a lot of love amidst the strife. It was rarely expressed in a storybook way, with big holiday dinners or group sing-alongs (although I'm working on an essay right now for my writing class about songs my father sang to me when I was really, really little, some of which have been re-appearing in popular culture and dredging up long-forgotten Russian melodies from the dustier parts of my brain). But I knew with certainty that my parents, aunts, and uncles, for the brief period I had them, had hearts bigger than the universe, and I was in the center of them all.
My friend's siblings span the spectrum of Jewish observance: far right, middle, and disdain for the whole business. And in their grief, differences became more powerful than all they shared: the outer two factions would not help those of in the middle (my friend and I) form a minyan. They found enough people on the nights I led, but not the others. This caused everyone a lot of pain, although not enough to cross boundaries of observance. Which would have been a betrayal of memory and tradition as well, I guess, so it really was a no-win situation. It also reminded me that even storybook lives have their torn pages.