One of the strongest, and most aggravating, qualities of my mom was her memory. In this fashion, among others, I suspect that she wasn’t very different from most Jewish mothers.
She remembered everything.
Birthdays, anniversaries, phone conversations we had seven years prior.
My mom’s memory was like an old medieval tome, recording every which event of the kingdom in perpetuity. Her mind was our family’s record, a vivid collection of everything that had ever been.
And as strong as was her memory, even stronger was the lasting impression she left on every person whom she met. For better and for worse, you could not forget Lori Bolotin. She was so giving, so caring, so much of a pillar in her community that she left an indelible mark on all those whom she touched. She was too nudgey, too impatient, too, sometimes, forgive me, mom, obnoxious to ever be forgotten.
And so it was with that reality as my backdrop, that I could not help but feel the deep irony, the sick sick irony, of some of the first angst-filled words I heard after her passing. Only hours after my mom’s body turned cold, decades too early, on that beautiful December morning in San Diego, my dear sister, tears rolling down her cheeks, looked up at me and my father said, “What if I forget her?”
Forget her? My impulse was to laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion. Humor, quickly turned to indignation.
How could you forget our mother. She was – as much as any human being I ever encountered on this earth – unforgettable. Don’t be ridiculous.
You cannot forget Lori Bolotin.
No, Shanna, I heard myself wanting to yell that morning. How dare you suggest that. As dead as is her body, her memory is alive and well and permanent.
But that was then. It had only been but hours since I last spoke with my mom. And now, sixteen months later, after the endless days of kaddish and memorials and ceremonies and ritual, I find myself wrestling with the hard truth of my sister’s fear.
Let there be no misunderstanding of my words. I will never forget my mom: her dark black hair, her soft hands, the weird sounds she made as she had conversations with herself in the car. All it takes for me to bring myself to the brink of tears is to take a brief second to hear the sound of her voice in my head.
But these days, as we’ve emerged from the valley of the shadow of death, I’m not sure that I always remember her. There are days that pass when I fail to recall that she’s gone. Days when her image seems slightly less vivid in my mind’s eye. Days when I ponder how much has happened to me in the year and a half since she left this earth and then, suddenly, am left breathless by the realization that she does not know of it.
I am sure that I will never forget her. But I also fear, that every day that passes, I remember her less. And with each forgotten memory, each faded detail, it feels like she dies anew.
And I know that so many of us parallel these same experiences, this same angst, as we mourn the loss of those whom we love.
We cling to that piece of clothing that still carries their scent; we gaze at picture after picture; we watch that short video clip over and over again.
We do everything we can to stimulate and concretize our memories of our loved ones because we know, deep in our hearts, that that is the closest we can come to bringing them back to life. We cannot revive the dead. But the memories of the time we had with them is almost just as good.
Memory is all we have. The rest is just stuff.
Ours is a tradition that upholds the value of memory as great beyond value. Remember what Amalek did to you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.
But while we remember, we simultaneously forget – the memories fade with each passing day. And that is something with which, for good reason, we cannot be comfortable.
Four times each year we pour out these emotions in prayer. The words of Yizkor are particularly short and straightforward. May God remember the soul of my mother, my father, my husband, my wife.
We beg God to remember our loved ones because we, too, desperately want to recall them. We cling to our memories, even as, over time, they inevitably fade, and we pray that as much as time erodes the vivid colors of each picture in our mind, that it will never ever wash away our memory entirely.
We beg God to remember our loved ones so that we will remember as well.
After all, as much as we may fear forgetting, remembering is sometimes infinitely more accessible than we realize.
The night before Passover, Danielle and I were busily preparing for our seder. We cooked and cleaned and went through a long litany of tasks that seemed to have no end on this most complicated of holidays. At about 10:30, Danielle called me over to taste the fruit of ongoing labor: her charoset, which she had just painstakingly diced and prepared with a butter knife.
As the chopped apples touched my tongue, tears flooded my eyes and I collapsed to the ground. In an instant, I was no longer standing next to Danielle, no longer in Dallas, but back, in my mom’s kitchen, preparing seder with her. She grated the apples, Danielle chops them, but the distinction was irrelevant in the experience. The mere taste of apples, cinnamon and bad kosher wine was enough to make my mom more real than any moment since the day she died. She was there, with me, with my fiance whom she’d never met, cooking for the festival to come.
On these holy days, when we may feel their absence the most, we need reassurances more than ever that our father, our mother, our brother, our wife, still exists, still is real, is not a made-up creation of our minds.
We will never forget those whom we love. But sometimes we need help remembering.
Let the words of Yizkor be our motivation. As we beseech the Holy One to remember those whom we love, let Yizkor help us to remember those we lost, to remember that the memory of our loved ones is only as far away as one smell, one sound, one taste. It never dies.
That is how we fight death, how we stand up in the face of loss, and celebrate that which we once had, celebrate those who once were, and keep them infinitely close to us during our most sacred of times.
Master of the Universe, may it be your will that you remember our loved ones. Yehi ratson, may it be your will that their memory inspires and fills our lives. Though we are mere mortals, may it be your will that their memory is immortal. Through your loving kindness, help us remember, and through our memory, may we keep them alive.