Yesterday was the day I decided to visit my mother, who died New Year's eve 1992, as a result of a cardiac surgeon's slip. This doctor admitted it to my father and me a few days after my mother's surgery (yes, incredible) But I don't want to dwell on that awful revelation, and confession, both of which should never have happened, but on how I find my mother at the beach on Rosh HaShanah. I skipped services at this nurturing, permissive, disciplined, sometimes unconventional, free-thinking and often irreverant house of worship I've joined, Kolot Chayeinu, a tiny bit guilt-ridden. I told a fellow member who asked whether I was coming to the second day of RH services nothing about my plans.
I decided yesterday, after a many year break, to partake in the family ritual that my mother had established for us. A bit of background on my mother, Mitzi, as everyone called her, or Amitia, her given name or Shulamit Bathsheba Berger, her Hebrew name, whose initials (SBB) are etched on a gold ring I've worn for more than thirty years: A non-God fearing, but Jewish-identified, somewhat self-hating Jew, with good reason perhaps in her case due to her father, a domineering rabbi she seemed to loathe. She told me more than once, her voice shaking, about the rituals that were observed to the 'T' in their home, such as plunging all the silverware in the flower pots in the week before Passover while her father, who gave her not a second's worth of religious education, and who could hurl a plate of prunes across the dining room, indulged in lobster sandwiches on his paid holiday from his congregation down in Long Beach, Long Island, hundreds of unseen miles from his home in Montreal. My mother cooked a ham for her first Passover meal. (I often wondered what my father, who was far more conventional, must have thought when the glazed ham -- and I'm sure it was perfectly cooked and irresistible -- reached the table. Actually he probably wasn't as chagrined as you might think. Probably did NOT think he'd made a big mistake in marrying my mother. He told me about how, when a teenager, he'd "tested" God by playing ball one Saturday in lieu of attending synagogue and when nothing at all happened to him, it made him think. But I know he scratched his head in misery when he came home one day and found my mother painting the piano blue. )
So, with nothing but venom in her heart for all things to do with religious observance, every year my mother, father and I drove out to Jones Beach for Rosh HaShanah, walked the boardwalk, or sometimes right along the shore and we all agreed that God dwelt here. It was usually a bit cool, and we'd buy clam chowder and find a picnic table in the sun.
There's no doubt about it, he - God -- does dwell at Jones Beach. It is a perfect choice of a place for a non-observant Jew. Yesterday, which was the first day of the year I'd made it to the beach at all, I found the scene nothing short of mesmerising. Because the cool, constantly changing colors, the endless stretch of sand, the horizon that confounds water and sky screams -- the infinite, the source of everything, the beginning of time.
I tried to think weighty thoughts like these. But I became quickly aware of thinking, which I didn't want to be doing. I wanted to be feeling, and remembering. And luckily, these thoughts didn't stick. They slid away when I began to talk to the birds I came across as I walked in my bare feet "down the beach." Which is something my mother would have done. She spoke endearingly to to all kinds of creatures, as though she were their mother. 'You poor thing!' she might have said to the miniscule sandpiper that was hopping along on one leg. I did it too, not out of a sense of modelling my mom's ways -- I think that would have been somehow a bit sappy -- but out of a sense that it was what the occasion called for. I spoke to this little bird. And I was, I'm pretty sure, terrifying the one-legged sandpiper and myself, I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I felt connected to my mother like no other thought or photograph or scrap of her writing might have done. 'How come you have only one leg? What happened to you? But look how well you're doing!' This small amazing bird, which was part of a swarm of sandpipers that flowed in and out with the waves, to snack on the grubby life that was left exposed by their retreat, kept up with her swarm remarkably well. Then suddenly, she let the other leg drop. She actually had two legs!
When I finally sat down on a towel I'd brought, and watched the sky turn dark and the sea turn to slate, and caught the alien eye of the seagull and began to ask the bird what it wanted, and to assure it I had nothing for it...I felt content. Content and completely at peace.