I wasn’t with my father when he died. No one was. In his music school’s office, he died alone, working on his book of student accounts. I was at Mississippi State University and drove to Jackson in heavy rain in a pickup truck with broken windshield wipers. I felt I suppose, as most children do when a parent dies. It was as if the world’s foundation had cracked, was irreparably broken. I realized I would have only memories of my father to sustain me in the future.
The night of the day he died, I slept in his bed, in his place, surrounded by the scent of him. It was as close to my father as I could get. Today, in Israel, I have only three things that belonged to him: a family Bible, much in need of repair, and two broken wristwatches.
My mother died ten years after my father. She had remarried and was living in Florida. She was as happy as I ever remembered her. I called her the weekend before she died. I was planning my trip to see her for Thanksgiving. It was my last conversation with her. When I went to Florida, it was to attend her funeral. Something I had not expected. Before leaving to return home, her husband gave me a lamp. It wasn’t a personal possession. Those were all gone before I got to Florida.
I took the lamp back to Pennsylvania with me. Not long afterward, one of my children accidentally pulled it off the table it was on. It crashed to the floor, broken to bits. Today, in Israel, I have nothing, “no thing,” that belonged to my Mom. I have many memories of her, though. There is one especially piquant one: I remember the taste of Pond’s face cream from the kisses I gave Mom before going to bed each night.
There is a passage in Proust’s Swann’s Way, which captures, I believe, my experience with the deaths of my parents.
When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.Marcel Prouse. Swann’s Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff
Over twenty-five years after my mother’s death, I still can summon, at will, the taste of her upside-down pineapple cake, the crunchy texture of the baked edges of the cake, and the sweetness of the glaze from the slices of pineapple.
When I sold my house in Philadelphia in 2010, I had to go through a life-time’s accumulation of things and decide what to keep and what to give away or throw away. The circumstances were such that I had to do this alone. Needless to say, it was difficult. I don’t know if I made the right choices. My daughter has all of the holiday decorations; my son has objects of special meaning in his life. Sadly, I disposed of most of my books, first-editions, autographed copies, books no longer in print. There was no space for them in my new house.
This selection process continued when my wife and I moved to Israel in 2015. Even so, as I sit at my desk in my study here in Beersheba, I can look around me and see some old familiar volumes: books by Agnon, Frost, Proust, Singer, Verne, and Mishima. I’ve kept my Encyclopedia of Philosophy and my complete first edition of The Harvard Classics. But what I’ve learned, over the years, is that, in time, these too will disappear. What, if anything, remains amidst the ruins of our past?
In a recent blog, I shared some lines from a poem by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. Here is an excerpt from another one, “Farewell! but, Whene’er You Welcome the Hour.”
You may break, you may shatter
the vase if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang
round it still.
Here is a superb rendition of Moore’s complete poem, sung by the Scottish-Canadian tenor John McDermott. It is from McDermott’s album My Gentle Harp: A Tribute to Thomas Moore.
Holiday seasons aren’t only days of joy; they can be challenging times for many of us. Sometimes the pain is almost unbearable. They frequently arouse memories of past celebrations with loved ones who are no longer living, people we miss beyond our ability to describe our loss. But these memories are incredibly precious. They are the scent of the roses from the shattered vases in our lives. In Moore’s words:
All the best,
Sorrow can be lightened when shared. The scent of the aftershave my father z”l used and the feel of his five o’clock shadow are strong memories.
At this moment, kept indoors by cold and with a feeling of less to do because of the pandemic, your evocative writing is especially apt.
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What, if anything, remains amidst the ruins of our past?
Beautiful, bittersweet words to contemplate.
Happy holidays to you and yours from Australia.
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My mother also made a very delicious pineapple upside down cake!
Happy New Year
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