In Jewish tradition, the apple is seen, not as a symbol of downfall, pain, and death, but of sweetness and love. Today is Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, a day in which we reflect on why we are on this earth and how we live our lives. We dip the apple in honey to look forward to a sweet new year — a year that is satisfying and precious. In doing so, we participate in a custom dating back to at least the 7th century.
We hear the blow of the shofar on this day, and it cries to us to awaken from our moral slumber and look towards God, to reflect on the year gone by and our various failings, to look forward to the year ahead and our potential for greatness. Rosh Hashanah is about new beginnings, new opportunities to make a better world. It is also about beginning a period of reflection and spiritual cleansing leading up to the day-long fast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
And why am I, an admitted atheist, so imperfectly explaining these traditions?
It is because Tuesday when I was down alone in a hot basement moving around equipment, all I could think about were the stories told at Michael and Sydney’s funeral a few weeks ago. And this morning, when I awoke with a start a few minutes before my alarm sounded and lay in bed getting my bearings, what went through my head were snippets of memory of my grandparents, Louise and Stan Dorn, the former of whom died a little ways back, the latter of whom took his own life just this week.
What do I remember of growing up, and how many of those memories are true? The boring scavaging for antiques, the backyard barbecues, the CB radio setup in the closet. Grandpa’s funny little laptop with the passive display screen and the trackball that mounts on the side and the game with the gorillas lobbing bananas at each other. Making a hanging pot and pan rack for the kitchen out of a big fish grilling cage we found at a garage sale, some fishing line, and a bunch of metal hooks. Those crazy little shih tzus, Buddah and Blossom. The tin full of strange metal trinkets and treasures, one of which I was allowed to take home each time I visited. Setting up the drip irrigation for all of the potted plants on the back patio. The smell of salt in the air and the hum of the electric lines. That old Mercedes convertible parked in the detached garage. Belgian waffles from a real restaurant-style waffle maker. Those Beatrix Potter figurines and the collectable mugs with the faces on them that, try as I might, I could never see the beauty in. A front sitting room full of delicate and fragile things such that no one could actually sit in it. That gruff smoker’s laugh. That statement, every time, “Louise, this is the best < whatever > I’ve ever tasted.”
When I was younger I was a bit closer to my mother’s parents, but as I grew up and they got older and moved further away we saw less of each other. We never entirely knew how to talk to each other. But my grandpa always read this blog and, whenever we did speak, he always asked me about things he found out about from these pages.
When I found out he was dead I was a bit stunned, for I had seen him just a week ago, energetic and bored, lying in a hospital bed watching television and waiting for his latest life-prolonging but painful medical procedure. But I wasn’t entirely surprised. It was no secret that he wasn’t getting much enjoyment out of life — hadn’t been, in fact, since she left him alone in the world.
We never talked about beliefs, I really don’t know if he thought he’d end up somewhere else when he left us, perhaps reunited, or if he assumed, like I do, that death really the last step. I’d like to think that he found some peace in the end, that he felt he was going to a better place. And for all I know, maybe he has. Regardless, he made a choice in his life and I don’t blame him for it, I can only blame myself, at least a bit, as I look back and think of some of the missed opportunities.
And perhaps that is a start, on this Rosh Hashanah, this head of the year, towards finding ways to make this new year better than the last.
You don’t have to believe in anything, or even know what you believe, to have the right to take comfort or meaning from rituals and traditions that were designed to let us know we’re not alone in dealing with life, or death.
Three unexpected deaths in just two months, that’s a lot. I had a string of deaths to deal with my first year at Berkman, and while in some ways already being in that contemplative space made dealing easier, in other ways it was harder to focus on enjoying the memories and trying to miss fewer chances to enjoy the people still here. Anyway, you know your friends are here to lean on when you need them.
Shana tova. Let’s hope this year is sweeter than the last.
My memories of your grandparents date back to the 1970s. They owned & ran Ceasars restaurant in St. Louis. Your grandmother, Lou, still had a front sitting room that no one was allowed to use. She used to scare us, just by her tone of voice, yet we were just 14 to 15 years old! Your grandfather was always the teddybear sweetheart that always had an interesting story to tell. I have a lot of fond memories of them, having fun with your mom, and enjoying time with the entire Dorn family.
I look through the windshield of life and not the rear view mirror. I do believe we find peace at the end….wherever that may be.
Linda Nesbit Larson
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