I went to replace a gallon of bad milk and return a bag of mealy peaches, plus we needed potatoes. The cashier, who couldn’t have been older than 16, admired my tattoo and asked me first what the Hebrew meant and then what *that* meant to me.
I told him “Aya” means hawk and is one of my wife’s Hebrew names. He went on to tell me that he’d have to think long and hard about getting ink, and I told him that had been the case for me, too. Then I asked if he had any ideas.
“Well,” he said, “I had a brother who I never met because he was strangled by his umbilical cord, so I always thought maybe I’d do something about that.”
“Did he have a name?” I asked. “BJ,” he told me. “My parents just called him BJ.”
Then the bagger, also of high-school age, chimed in. She gestured to her back and told us about the Banksy image she imagined spreading across her left shoulder blade– the butterfly girl. “Suicide has been a big part of my life the last few years,” she said. “And I’m a writer so I love defiance and symbolism.”
When I mentioned that I was also a writer, she brightened and told me she is a published poet and takes workshops with a local group for teen writers. She looked so proud.
I left the store with milk, potatoes, and a reminder that all of us carry so many stories, whether they’re visible to the outside world or not.
Originally posted in 2007 and shared today for the 10th consecutive year.
October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 73rd birthday. My mother’s next-oldest sister, she died on September 2, 1998 when SwissAir flight #111 crashed in Peggy’s Cove, Halifax on its way to Geneva. She was one of 229 passengers. During and after my college years in NYC, I spent some good chunks of time with Nancy at the Tribeca loft where she lived and taught. For that, I’m grateful. She understood the body – and taught me something about how to listen to mine. Happy birthday, Nancy. We miss and love you.
October 29 also marks the anniversary of the death of Pearl Primus. To Pearl, I was “Daughter #3.” The first time we met has become somewhat legendary in our family; I was five or so, nonchalantly reading a book upside-down on our living room couch on Crescent Street in Buffalo, trying to act casual in the presence of this entrancing guest.
When I was in fifth grade at Pelham Elementary School, Pearl came as a guest to my class. Our teacher, Judy Brooks, was African-American and the majority of my classmates and other teachers at this small, rural school were white. Pearl walked in the room, dressed in layers of bright patterns, gold and silver and wooden bracelets jostling halfway to each elbow, necklaces and earrings heavy with meaning. She was regal. Her slightly hushed voice commanded total attention and respect. And she laughed readily when the kids looked around the room, puzzled by her introduction: “Someone in this room is my family, and it’s not Mrs. Brooks.” I beamed.
For many years after that, Pearl would periodically give me masks as gifts – from Barbados, Trinidad, from Liberia and Senegal. But she would never tell me their origins. Ever the teacher and anthropologist, she wanted me to do the research, to find out for myself the source of these treasures, which graced the walls of my room throughout high school. My mother loves to recall that Pearl predicted I would someday become “President of the PTA.” Whether she would feel I’ve lived up to that potential, I can’t say, though I am raising her namesake.
Pearl died in 1994. I was a senior at Barnard. My parents came to the City and were with her in her New Rochelle home when she passed. Just before the phone rang in my dorm room, my mother calling to say she was gone, a butterfly–Pearl’s spirit animal–fluttered in my open window from the air shaft with a narrow view of the Hudson. It landed on the sill and stayed there, beautiful, patterned wings opening and closing slowly, for what seemed like a long while. And then it flew away, towards the river.
This week holds another yahrzeit. In the earliest hours of November 1, 2002, my maternal grandmother, Celia Renner Topf Straus died at the age of 92. I think of the Grammy-ism we most love to love: You are jewels in the crown of my rejoicing. “Love, Grammy,” she would say at the end of a message on the answering machine. Love, love, love. And, God is Love. A Yiddish-speaking Christian Scientist. One of five sisters, mother of four daughters. Whose Hebrew name we finally learned just a few weeks before her death, then gave to newborn Aviva: Simma, treasure.
Each day is a life. Each life is a jewel in the crown. For years and years, I would see the abbreviation Z”L after the name of someone who had died and have no idea what it meant. Finally, I must have asked, or looked it up: Zichrono Livrocho. Of blessed memory.
May their memories be blessings. May we all dance–as Nancy and Pearl did–to the Aztec saying: “Every day is a dance with death.” This week, may you celebrate life and honor the dead. Share a favorite memory of someone you’ve lost, eat something they loved to eat, listen to music that moved them, read their favorite passage out loud or walk some sacred spot. Turn your face toward the sun for an extra beat. Breathe. You are alive.
In Jewish numerology (Gematria), the number 18 signifies “chai,” or “life.” And about the number 108 — my parents’ house number — Shiva Rea writes: “108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun).”
I wrote a poem once, in 1998, about my parents’ house. It’s called “Dreaming Pasternak” and to this day, it might be the best poem I’ve ever written. The house plays an important role in the poem, which came directly from a dream. I mean that literally: One morning, I woke up, put on my mom’s old soft pink bathrobe, grabbed the latte I’d stored in the fridge from my Starbucks shift the night before, a notebook and pen, and my pack of Marlboro reds, and climbed out onto the flat part of the roof where I liked to sit and smoke and write. And I didn’t so much write the poem as I wrote down the poem; it came all at once, as if it had been prewritten in the dream and I was just getting it onto paper.
In the poem, the house was the house of love. The house of love on the hill. The house that love built. The house was built in the 1880s I think, by a man named Edward Thompson. He was also known as Thompson the Tinkerer. He apparently built the house for his beloved wife, Frances. That’s all I know, but I always thought it a romantic story.
I had a relationship with that house. With myself in it. It was a house where we celebrated Christmas until we didn’t. It’s the house where I didn’t quite know I was Jewish until I did — and then I dreamed, too, of Jewish babies I couldn’t save, of the Holocaust in ways that made it clear I’d be there, running, running, and unable to save my own sister.
It’s a house where my mother has grieved the loss of not only her sister Nancy, who died 18 years ago today on SwissAir flight #111, but also of her sister Bobbi, who died in 2015 after a decade of cancer.
It’s the house where I think of myself as having swallowed silence and given it to the moon. Where I was the moon. Where I could not quite grow up. Where I would be a scholar but not a lover.
I don’t know who will die next, or why death is the thread I’m pulling on. But it’s in the air, maybe because of September. Maybe because of growing up. Maybe because of remembering grief, the grief of Nancy’s death. I’d lost two grandparents before, but it was her death that brought grief into my body for the first time. I was lost.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.
I was blind, to think that I would stay in that house forever. That I could come back here and be anyone other than this me, this woman, not a mile from that house, writing. Doing exactly what I always knew I wanted and needed and was waiting to do: Be fully myself. Fully alive. In my own house of love.