Saturday, 15 August 2015

Baking Away the Blues...One Day at a Time

I woke up this morning to face the monumental task of studying for 3 final exams...monumental not because they're finals, but because I cannot rely on myself to hunker down and focus these days.  Distraction and restrained grief are my constant companions these days, and they seem to have a way of dominating my spirit.

Before Mama died Dad warned us that her passing would be difficult.  We countered that living with anticipatory grief, watching her die before us and losing her over and over again had prepared us.  He warned, again, that it hadn't.  I let it be, assuming that I had grieved the worst of it already.  Now I know that I did not really understand what grieving a death of parent would be like, at least not for me.  

The day Mama died I cried, and cried.  I was a soggy mess of tears and overwhelming grief.  She was gone.  It was real.  But the next morning when I awoke I told myself "I am strong, I will not cry".  I wanted to be an example for my kids, a source of strength for my grieving family, and a matriarch my mother would have been proud of.  I cleaned the house in preparation for house guests and a Shiva, showered and did my makeup (as Mom would have told me to) and went about picking up Uncle Van and Noel from the airport.  I did not cry that day.  I came close, but I did not.  In fact, I did not cry the day of Mama's funeral either.  I had a brief moment of panic when we arrived at the Feld (cemetery), but I did not cry.  I kept hearing Mama's voice telling me "Nomi, remember that women are the strong ones, and we need to stay strong for the boys.".  And I did not cry. 

I found prayers during the Shiva very difficult.  That made me cry.  I could not be in a group of people, saying Kaddish (Sanctification - meant to help the soul of the deceased in its journey upward).  I would suddenly feel this shaking from inside, and the tears would push their way to the surface.  Not a pleasant experience.  I prefer to say Kaddish alone.  It is between me and G-d and Mama.  That way there are no tears, just a direct connection with me and my mother.  It is my way of honouring her memory.  

And so, four weeks have passed since my mother died...tomorrow marks 30 days, and the end of the Shloshim (30 day full mourning period)...and I am utterly shocked by my involuntary reaction to the loss.  Don't get me wrong...I love my mother and miss her terribly...but this is nothing new.  I have dealt with the loss of my mother for 9 years...14 actually.  I reconciled myself to the fact that my advisor, confidante, best friend, was gone...I had come to accept that years ago.  What I wasn't prepared for was the finality of it all.  How painful it would be to know that she was gone from this earth.  That it would actually be more painful to visit a grave than to visit a virtually comatose shell that was once a vibrant, exuberant, beautiful, graceful, lovely and loving person.  

And now I am overwhelmed with this...grief...grief that makes me so very tired.  I thought grief presented as tears and expressive sadness, yet I am just so tired.  And still, life goes on, the world doesn't stop, and I have to write exams...which means I have to study...which means I have to read, and absorb what I am reading.  No small task when all you want to do is...bake?!?! read that right.  All I want to do is bake, and cook, and bake again.  All of Mama's recipes. I want to read her recipe notes written on the back of envelopes and notes left for Davie or me or the cleaning lady!  I want to see her handwriting and feel connected to her.  

I woke up this morning and came right down to the cookbook shelf, pulled out the Golden Recipes collection of recipes and sifted through all of them.  I found every recipe that I have not yet tried (OK - except the herring, boiled fish and jellied veal), and put them aside.  As soon as I finish my final "final" I plan on baking away my blues, one recipe at a time, one day at a time.  And I will share them with you...again, like the old days.    

I guess we all heal in our own way, and the kitchen is my haven, my mechaya ("lit. = which makes live: relief; joy (said of a person, thing or situation").  Mom always used the word mechaya..."it's a mechaya Nomi"...meaning it's a relief.  She would say it in the context of walking into an air conditioned room after being out in the punishing heat, for example.  That's the context in which I always used the word.  But for some reason, now, in writing this post, the word popped into my mind.  My kitchen is a mechaya.  Funny, how we can read into a meaning depending on our circumstance - the literal meaning of the word is "which makes live", and I guess the kitchen and my mother's recipes will make the part of me that feels like it's died live again...

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Water Tower - A Mom Memory Moment

Mom's Water Tower 
(Ironically located at the top of my street)

Mom was already presenting signs of what was then termed "Mild Cognitive Memory Impairment"  when she and Dad moved into their condo.  She would fixate on what I thought were the strangest things, and tell me about them over and over again.

One of these things was "my water tower".  She would call me often to tell me that she was looking out the window of their condo and could see my water tower.

I would tell her the tower wasn't really that close to where we lived, but OK, we'll call it my water tower, after all, it seemed to bring her comfort and make her feel that much closer to me.

Fast forward 10 years.  We now live in Aurora, and the water tower is 1 block away from our house, we can see if from our front windows, and various areas in and around our home.  I guess that's what they mean by bashert (meant to be).

And now my mother has died.  Since losing her,  I spend a lot of my quiet time in our backyard.  The other day I looked up and realized that I was staring directly at the water tower.  Only now it is Mom's water tower, and it brings me comfort when I look at it...somehow it makes me feel that much closer to her...funny how life has a way of bringing things full circle...

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Twenty Years With My Bashert - Happy Anniversary Carlo

Our family made it through the first milestone without Mama.  Carlo and I marked our twentieth wedding anniversary yesterday.  Twenty years...where did the time go?  It also marked 3 weeks to the day since Mama died.

Carlo and the girls tried so hard to make things nice for me, but in a subdued way, knowing that I am in the Shloshim (30 day mourning period) and don't feel comfortable participating in any celebratory functions.  I am not the most observant Jew but certain things just feel wrong, and to not observe the 30 days is one of them.  

So we kept it quiet and simple for our anniversary.  And it was lovely.  For the first time in the 5 weeks since we were told Mama was terminal, and the 3 weeks since we lost her, I didn't feel lost in sadness.

Carlo made a reservation at our favourite restaurant from yesteryear, Vincent's Spot.

We always loved it there.  Nothing has changed since it opened it's doors in 1977 and I'm so glad it hasn't.

The ambiance is a throwback to the 1950s, like walking into a scene from the Godfather, with music to match.

I was really pleased to discover they haven't changed their menu either.  The food was always so delicious.  You know how you can remember something being one way, only to revisit it years later and it doesn't measure up?  Happily, this was not the case.  Every dish was delish, and even better - the girls agreed.

Carlo used to take me to Vincent's when we were dating.  It was our spot.  The owner and his wife were so friendly and warm.  I always got along with Helena.  She would come and visit with us at our table during the homey.  And when Carlo proposed, it was Vincent's Spot that he took me to for dinner first.  So it seemed a natural choice to return there 20 years later.  What I didn't expect was for Helena to remember us. But she did.  She came to our table, took a long look at Carlo, then at me, and said "it's been a long time"...and that was it...we caught up on her growing family and ours, and she "welcome(d us) home".  It was the nicest evening, and for an evening, the suffocating sorrow of the past month eased and I enjoyed myself.

Vincent's Spot is located in our old neighbourhood, where Carlo grew up, bought his first house, where we lived when we first got married, where Sara was born.  It's a 45 minute drive from where we live now.  We arrived extra early (allowing for rush hour and ParaPan Am games traffic) and were able to take the girls on a drive down memory lane - literally!  We saw the house Carlo grew up in, the baseball diamonds he played at, and the schools he attended.  We saw our little wartime house and the maple tree Carlo planted in the backyard when Sara was's so big now!  We pointed out the Tim Horton's we drove through on our way to the hospital when I was in labour with Sara.  We drove by the "Kissing Bridge" on Woodrow Drive and all our old haunts from when we were dating, and I was just a little older than Sara is now.  How time flies...

Anniversary #19

This anniversary is significant for me in many ways.  It is a milestone, it is the first without my mother, and it is the last before Sara moves away to university.  But beyond the fluff and romance, there is the strong bond and deep love that sustains us, and has kept me going through this incredibly difficult period in my life.  Carlo has bolstered me in my darkest hours, letting me mourn without any judgment or interference, always there when I need mother loved him and knew he would take care of me, and he does.  The measure of a relationship or friendship is not how one treats you in the good times - that is's what they do in the worst moments, and Carlo has shown me that I really do have a knight in shining armour, mine just wears chinos instead.  I love you Carlo.  Happy Anniversary.

Anniversary #20

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Mourning a Mother Lost...

July 24th, 2015 
Today is the last day of Shiva (the formal Jewish mourning period immediately following a funeral) for my mother.

The whole experience has been so surreal....watching my mother die, listening to Sara eulogize her so beautifully, burying Mama and now sitting Shiva...the 6 days we've lived since Mom died feel like a lifetime, the only respite being sleep.

I have learned so much over the past 3 weeks, about myself, my family and our circle of friends and family.  I...we...have experienced the unparallelled kindness and generosity of virtual strangers.  Our family in Toronto was always very small, and so we created a family made up of friends.

This "family" we built sat around our Yom Tov table, shared in our celebrations and our sorrows, and now, in our darkest hour, they have gathered to buoy us, and keep us from sinking irretrievably into the deep abyss of mourning.

When Mom died, I called Michael and his wife Kate.  I've told you of them many times before.  We are raising our families together here in the Greater Toronto Area, but our roots trace back to Regina, many generations back.  Kate is a second mother to our girls, and provided a warm, safe haven of escape for Becca in the weeks preceding Mom's death.

While we planned a funeral on Friday, Kate kept Becca with her.  Later that night, she and Michael and their kids stayed with our family as we sat, in shock, reeling from the day's events.  They made us smile, and kept us going.  They are our family, and our dear friends, and we are blessed 

The next day we awakened and set about getting ready for our out-of-town family's arrival.  Mom's youngest brother Van and her favourite Isman cousin Noel flew in from Regina.  Our small family grew a little, and our life boat expanded.  As horrible as we all felt, we were together, and that felt a sombre kind of way.  We remembered Mom with stories of yesteryear, ate a little, hugged a lot, and somehow made it through another day.

Sunday was the day of Mama's funeral.  The forecast called for thunderstorms but I knew she wouldn't allow that, and that sunny blue skies would shine down upon us - and they did.  We made it to the funeral home and David, Dad and I said our final goodbye to her body.  It was strange looking at my mother that way.  I was filled with a serenity and calm as I stroked her keppy (head) and said Kaddish ("Sanctification" - the prayer said for a deceased immediate relative).  Her spirit was no longer there in her body - she was free.

I believe that she is with me now, filling me with a serenity and peace I haven't known since she fell ill all those years ago.

The seating in the funeral service was awkward.  The Mourners are seated in the front row.  The second row back was for pall bearers and the Mourners' immediate family.  In our case, Carlo and Lena were Pall bearers but sat with Dad, Davie, Van and me in the front row. Lena's parents took care of Baby Max, and Diane, sweet Diane, took care of Sara and Becca, who kept Abby between them.  Diane, along with Kate, is my proxy.  Our girls love her, and she loves them.  And on this day of heartbreak, we all came together, and together we made it through.

The funeral began and Rabbi Lipson of Beth Emeth spoke so beautifully, talking of my mother as Aishet Chayil - a Woman of Valor, and she was.  She made a family, she was the glue.  She kept us united, and sewed a tapestry of love, family, joy and giving.  She will be missed, but she lives on - in all that she was, and all that she gave...she lives on in all of us.

Then Sara spoke.  She wrote the most beautiful, touching, heartfelt tribute to her Bubbie...she made us laugh and cry and laugh again.  It was a proud moment for me, and I am sure, for Mama.  Sara has given me permission to share it with you here.
Hi everyone, my name is Sara and I’m Carol’s eldest grandchild. Today I will be speaking on behalf of my sister Rebecca and my cousins Abigail and Maxim. I was lucky enough to know my grandmother while she was still well and with that I have so many memories that I will cherish forever. So today, I want to tell you all about the amazing grandmother Carol was to us.
When I was six months old, my mom needed to go back to work and my Bubby insisted on taking care of me for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. She did this for 3 years and when I went into grade school she would pick me up after school ended and take care of me until my parents came home. She was my best friend and we did absolutely everything together.
I remember being a little girl sitting on the kitchen counter while my Bubby and I made banana bread together. She taught me this rhyme while we would stir the ingredients in the bowl: “mixy mixy, a la pixie diddly dum and diddly dixy”, whatever that meant. It was always so much fun and that was the thing about my Bubby, she was always trying to make sure I was entertained by doing something that helped me grow into my own. And cooking and baking was something we always bonded over.
Anyone who knew my grandmother knows she knew how to cook, every Shabbat, Yom Tov, and special occasion was held at my grandparent’s house. We had these incredible dinners and my Bubby made sure that everyone was having a good time and was satisfied with their meal. Being a homemaker was so important to her and she was really good at it. She made amazing rib roasts or steaks every Friday night and from an early age my grandma trained me to always eat from one of the two bones. It would drive my mom insane while she watched Bubby and I gnawing on these gigantic bones together, I guess because it wasn’t the most flattering moment for either of us but that’s okay because it was really funny to watch her squirm.
We did a lot of things that bothered my mom, now that I think about it- mainly the fact that my grandmother spoiled me rotten and was very lenient with me. Every week we went to Yorkdale without my Zaida or mom knowing, and I always came home with a new toy and new clothes. Because when it came to shopping for me, Bubby was very indulgent. But they eventually learned that she would never accept that I had too many toys or outfits because it wasn’t like she was going to stop anytime soon.
And then my little sister, Rebecca, came along. You would think that would threaten me but it didn’t, because Bubby always made sure we knew how loved and important we were to her. One of the most significant things she shared with the two of us was the piano. Becca and I spent so many hours learning to play and listen to her play her favourite music; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was one of our favourites. She introduced us to beautiful music and Rebecca’s future passion. Because to this day, my sister plays the same piano we played all those years ago with the same passion and love she did when our grandmother first introduced us to it. Only now, she plays just as beautifully as Bubby did.
She truly was the most loving and caring grandmother in the world - even when she got sick. The one thing she never lost in her battle with Alzheimer’s was the love she had for her family. When she found out David and Lena were having Abigail 7 years ago, she was ecstatic. We all waited in the hospital for her arrival and Bubby was so excited to meet her third granddaughter. And when she was born, Bubby tried to bond as much as she could with Abigail before she wouldn’t be able to anymore. My uncle would take Abigail to our grandparent’s house every Sunday so she could spend quality time with her grandmother and it made Bubby’s life a lot brighter during a time where she was suffering. And even at the end when it was difficult for her to even move, she was still filled with so much love for her family. Because when Maxim was born just last year she was there at the brit milah and she was smiling, which truly meant a lot. I feel so blessed that I was able to know her and have my moments with her, but I have so much resentment that my cousins were not given that same opportunity and I wish they could have had memories of their bubby too.
I won’t lie to you all, these past ten years have been really difficult for me. I feel robbed. But I think we all feel that. Robbed of an incredible woman with so much grace and love in her. It still makes me angry sometimes. But I’m thankful that she was able to teach me so many different things and influence me in so many different ways. I owe a lot of who I am today because of her. My love of the art of shopping and dressing your best, the importance of having class and grace, and loving and going the extra mile for your family.
I idolized my grandmother, I used to go through her closet all the time and try on her shoes, go through her makeup, douse myself in her perfumes. Even now, I’ll sit on the floor in my mom’s closet and just go through her jewelry or look at photo albums filled with pictures of her. All I ever wanted was to be just like her. That’s still all I strive to be. She was a loving mother, wife, sister, and grandmother and will never be forgotten. Thank you Bubby for everything you taught and gave me, I love you up to the sky and back again.

We made our way to the Feld (cemetery) and it was then, for the first time since Friday, that the sorrow gripped me.  We asked people who were dear to Mom to be her pallbearers and to accompany her to her final resting place.  Her son-in-law and daughter-in-law, her cousins Noel and Michael and her best friends Nora and Jesse.

As we pulled up to the Feld I was overcome with sadness as the reality of Mom's death hit me like a ton of bricks.  My uncle Van was sitting beside me in the limousine...those moments are a blur...I remember him rushing to give me water, which seemed to distract and calm me all at once, and I remember yelling at myself in my head to get it together.  And in an instant the panic attack was over...gone as quickly as it appeared.  He held my hand as we walked to the graveside, and kept holding it for the longest time.  I didn't let go,..he was like my security blanket in those moments...I have no idea how long I held on, but looking back I am so grateful to have had him there.

Burying my mother was indescribable...watching her casket being lowered into the earth...somehow though, I knew her spirit was no longer in her body, and  knowing that made it bearable.  I looked up at the beautiful blue skies dotted with fluffy white clouds and knew that Mom was with us, watching over her family, because the forecast called for thunderstorms and yet they were nowhere to be found.   As I stood, arm in arm with Dad, watching people shovel earth on Mama's casket, I looked across the Feld and saw our daughters, crying...and then my sisters-in-law, Renate and Marisa swooped in, each taking care of one of their nieces.  Knowing that the girls were cared for by women who loved them in the one moment when I could not be there brought me comfort and relief.  And looking back, I can say that I am blessed 

I vaguely remember going I walked through the doors of our home I realized that our lives for the next 6 days would be like nothing we've ever a Shiva in your home is chaotic.  I really needed Carol Joy - the "hostess with the mostess" - to guide me through it, but she was not there.  People were telling me to feed my father, and I stood there, overwhelmed, arms full, trying to think of what to put out to serve guests.  We'd been hosting the family since Mom's death on Friday, and Carlo and I were taking it meal by meal, never even thinking that we'd need to feed people after the funeral!

When I had thought of "hosting" a Shiva in the past, I never imagined that I would have been working full-time and in school full-time at night, with mid-term exam and papers due.  There had been no time to bake and prepare in advance of the Shiva - we were working, and sitting vigil at Mom's bedside.  The only reason we had any meals or baking prepared was because of Carlo's foresight - he saw what was coming and started to cook, bake and freeze, knowing how important it would be to me and that I could not do it myself.  But this covered meals immediately following Mama's death.  The Shiva, that was another story...

Just before we left for the funeral Lena and I looked at each other in horror when we realized that we'd need to feed people after the funeral.  We didn't know what to do.  So I asked my cousin Michael if he could bring a veggie tray or 2 by the house.  Little did I know what was coming...

I'd never felt so alone as I did in those first moments at home after the burial.  I found Mom's best friend Nora and worriedly asked if it was okay to serve chips and nuts and pop - that was all I had to put out at the moment.   I explained that I had never organized a Shiva and had no idea what to do.  She gave me a big hug, and stepped in, saying that I, too, was a mourner, and to leave it to her.  She showed me how to set up the Shiva meal planner, and the tables, and took over the kitchen along with Diane.

As Nora and Diane set about putting the Shiva together, Michael, Katie and their kids started walking in, arms laden with shopping bags brimming with every imaginable food and drink item to fill our tables and serve our visitors.  I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude for our wonderful friends & family - who stepped in and just took care of us.

I looked around and saw Sara surrounded by her best friends, me with Diane and Katie, and Nora and Gella, a friend of Mom's from years gone by, and marvelled at the continuum across the generations.  I talked to Mom, in my heart, with a sad smile and a tear in my eye, I thought about how proud she would be, to see the wonderful people we surrounded ourselves with, the family we had built out of friends.

What can I tell you about Nora, Michael, Diane and Kate that could possibly do them justice?  They saw us suffering and rallied to give us strength, and love, and support.  They went to great trouble, effort and expense to take care of us.  They were so good to us and there are no words that can ever adequately express my appreciation for all they did. I am truly blessed to have them in my life 

Nora has been my mother's best friend since they met over 30 years ago.  They have laughed together, loved together, lost together.  The have celebrated so many simchas (celebrations) - their children's weddings, grandchildren's births, mothers' deaths.  Through thick and thin they were side by side.  As Mama got sick, Nora and her husband Jesse - Dad's best friend of 60 years - stood by my parents' side.  They socialized with them, helped them, and me, move them out of their house and into a condominium. Even when it became difficult to be with Mom, as her disease progressed, Nora never shied away.  There were those people who dismissively said "everyone has their problems", but not Nora and Jesse, Mom and Dad's problems were their problems.  Right to the end.  And so we asked them to be Pall bearers at Mama's funeral.  Because it was only right that they stand with her in death as they did in life.

Michael is Mama's first cousin and one of our closest friends.  Mom always loved Michael, and had a special spot for his father, Uncle Paul, who was her favourite uncle growing up.  As I've already shared in previous posts, Michael and I are raising our families together, in the same neighbourhood, and same schools.  Over the years we've grown very close, and here, in this city where neither of us has much family (although I am lucky to have Dad, Davie, Lena and the kids), we have each other. We've had our children at the same time, and strange enough, our kids' lives are following parallel courses.  Sara and Lily will be going to the same university out of town together in September, and Becca and Jack will go to the same high school together.  As they, and we grow, we do it together.  And through it all, Kate and I have built a deep and strong friendship.  She, like Diane, is my sister by choice.  I am so blessed to have her in my life.  We have shared the joys and the sorrows and all the growing pains of life, love and loss together.  She is my partner in crime through 4 years of dance competitions, and every time we're together she finds a way to make it special and fun.   She and Michael are our Jesse and Nora.  They, together with Diane, have buoyed our family, and me, through this horrible loss.  They have given given without asking, and walked with us every step of the way.  They filled our fridges until they were overflowing, sponsored a Shiva meal, and came to be with us every day.  Michael rearranged a work conference so he could be with us. Jack stayed with Becca constantly.  Who does all that?  Only exceptionally specially people.  Mama loved them, as do I, and it seemed only fitting that Michael accompany her on her journey to her final resting place.

Noel is my mother's all-time favourite cousin. They grew up together in Regina, and are 8 months apart in age (he is older).  The stories Mama would tell of growing up with Noel and his family remind me so much of Becca and Jack and our families now.  Noel's parents and Bubbie Lou and Zaida Bernie had cottages a few doors down from one another at Sandy Beach outside Regina.  The shenanigans they got into as kids and teenagers...well, let's say they had tons of fun.  I remember 1 story Mama told of when they were tweens, and a group of them decided to get some corn from a nearby field.  Noel filled in some of the blanks for me before the funeral - apparently all the boys went first, got their share of corn, and told the girls they had to go in and get their own.  When the girls went, the farmer had already been alerted by his watch dog, and poor Mom was the one that got caught as she fled through the field...literally caught by her pigtail braid!  She would laugh every time she recounted the story...and smile every time she spoke of Noel.  In fact, one of the soft spots she had for Carlo from day one was the fact that his features reminded her so much of cousin Noel.  How happy Mama would have been to have Noel here with us, to share his calm, kind words of wisdom and comfort...and thus we found the last Pall bearer...the missing link.  It was right, fitting and proper that Noel accompany Mama to her final resting place.  She loved him so.  She loved all of her Pall bearers very much, and we felt good about the choices we made, about the people who would take Mama, with love, to her final home.

Diane is my best friend, and has been since the day we met, some 28 years ago, on the first day of university orientation.  We have walked every step of life together since, the good, the bad, the happy and the sad.  She is adored by my kids and was by my mother.  Mom always saw Di as her other daughter.  Diane and I practically lived in each other's houses as young women, and she was a part of our family.  She and Mom and I planned my wedding together, with her and Mom growing even closer through the whole process.  My mother loved Diane, and I know Diane loves my mother.  She was one of the few people who saw Mom in her final days, and she brought her comfort in her moments of suffering, as she did for me and our kids.  How can I ever repay her for all she did?  She put her life on hold when Mama's death was imminent, rearranging her work schedule so she could be available on a moment's notice.  She ran for a funeral and a Shiva.  She sponsored a Shiva meal.  She was always there when I needed her.  And she even observed a week of mourning herself, staying in, reflecting on her loss, and ours.  She is my other Nora - I have 2 (Kate), and am so blessed .

And then the Shiva went on...and seemed to be endless, and while I really appreciated the people who came to visit, I found that I could not grieve, or mourn...because there were always others around.

So when we rose from Shiva on the afternoon of Friday July 24th, on the 1 week anniversary of Mama's death, it hit me full force...and I plunged into a dark place of nothing, of emptiness.  I don't know how else to describe it, except to say that I feel empty inside.  And tired.  I lay around watching movies and Golden Girls all afternoon and evening, and all the next day too.  Golden Girls brings me comfort - ridiculous, as it sounds, it takes me back to a time when life was simple.  It reminds me of the winter vacations in Palm Springs with Mom and Bubbie Lou and Zaida Bernie.  It was just like Golden Girls - except not quite as funny.  Mom always loved Golden Girls and so do our girls and I.  So I watch repeat episodes and escape my racing mind and broken heart, 30 minutes at a time.