Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I went to Tucson and ended up finding my Jewish family all covered with whipped cream.

We are running the last ragged lap of the school year and I am now presented with a choice between writing as much as usual or adequately parenting my three children. Therefore I have decided to put up a few of my favorite older posts this week for you to read (or re-read). This one was originally published December 5, 2011.

My grandfather died back in March.

I cried when I found out he had died because he was gone and I would never see him again. But he was 101 when he died, and I believe that his last words were something to the effect of "I want whipped cream on my ice cream." So, mourning him was sweet as well as sad, and was even satisfying in a way. Of how many people can we say that they lived in relatively good health to be a centenarian without needing nursing care or losing their mental acuity and were able, up to the very end, to communicate their preferences with regard to dessert items?

Grandpa won.

He wanted things to go his way, and he could bend iron with the power of his mind to make sure they did. He could lasso otherwise formidable adults and bend them to his will, out of a combination of the power of their deep affection for him and extreme reluctance to incur his wrath. He used to drive me completely crazy, when I was a teenager, with his brazen expressions of what I considered sexist and insensitive remarks. Later, I learned to appreciate the powerful love he bestowed upon his family and the drive he had to live a self-directed life. He showered me with respect for my mothering, and support for the upbringing of my family. He also taught me, significantly, to be as formidable as he is, lest I lose another argument for lack of a well thought-out retort.

We drove to Tucson, my husband, three kids and I, eight months after his death, to put his ashes to rest, and to be with our family. He was the last living member of his generation, the last of two brothers and three sisters to pass from this earth. His funeral was brief and sweet. It was punctuated with bittersweet poetry and music to honor him for the man that he was. My children, all in dress clothes from ties to shiny shoes, seemed to appreciate the honor with which we wanted to bestow him, and they all behaved admirably and sat in silent contemplation during the service.

In the days that followed, I got to know this part of my family better; this part that was connected to me through the brothers and sisters of my grandfather.

I had stupidly spent the years of my adolescence and adulthood feeling, with regard to my father's family, like the wayward mismatched teacup thrown into a beautifully coordinated set.

My dad's family is Jewish and I am not.

My religious history is confused. I was raised inside my mother's family's religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, almost by accident, since my mother doesn't claim it. Her father was a very influential UU minister and, by contrast, a less affirmative parent. I went with my dad the musician, who is not a Christian, as he sang in a gospel choir on weekends. I studied Wicca as a college student and young mother. And I have lit the Hanukkah candles every year of my life. I celebrated Yom Kippur once or twice as a child, while I had a best friend who was Jewish, because it felt good to repent, but I did it alone in my family. I spent my childhood yearning for the sense of belonging to sanctity that I felt belonged to my Catholic and Jewish friends but not to me. I bitterly resented my best friend for getting the Bat Mitzvah that I did not.

In the end, the religious path I ended up on was the right one for the me that I have ended up to be. For better or for worse, I am, to my core, a Unitarian Universalist.  

But, standing with my family, with my lighter hair, fairer skin, and relative ignorance of all things Jewish, it is not without a kind of pain, that I note that this was not the religious tradition to which I belong. At least from my limited vantage point, it feels so much like a large extended family, the kind of beloved community that UUs always say that they want but that we never have because we are always arguing about whether or not we should call ourselves a church or whether or not it is OK to teach our kids about the ten commandments in Sunday school.

There was even a sing-along.
My family welcomed me as one of their own, with an immediacy of warmth and genuine affection that seemed so absolutely natural that I would startle occasionally to realize that I may have met some of them only once or twice in the past.

Often, when people ask about my health, I find it hard to reply honestly. If I do, they tend to become uncomfortable and begin to suggest that perhaps I have gluten intolerance, perhaps I need acupuncture, perhaps they have something to do in the other room that they just forgot...Somehow, all my relatives seemed able to be comfortable with the truth, which is a quality I find so rare in people that I have almost given up hoping to find it anymore. All of their suggestions or questions seemed a natural extension of their love and concern for me rather than a ploy to get them out of a conversation that might require them to stop and summon up a compassion that they'd rather not have to feel. I have been guilty a thousand times of failing to provide for another what they all seemed able to give easily to me.

Even more than I appreciated their capacity to listen and to care, I experienced another joy: I could see myself in all of them.

I could hear my sense of humor all over the room, exploding into laughter around me, out of other people's mouths. I could recognize the passion with which I express a point of view every time someone else conveyed one. I recognized the easy affection for children that I try to give my kids offered to all my boys, by everyone all around each gathering.

I had long ago found myself in mother's family; in my late grandmother's integrity and passion of conviction; in my mother's fiery temper, out-sized sense of justice and wicked sense of humor; in my cousins' natural shyness and capacity for perseverance for the end result; even in my minister grandfather gift for writing, which passed through my mother to me.

This time, I found myself in my dad's family. Which was even sweeter than whipped cream.


  1. I'm so glad you got to have this experience. I'd like to meet your dad.
    Love you.

  2. I'm very glad the trip hit you as it did, Tara. There is lots of love to get - and give - in the Gordon clan.

  3. "Unknown" is Uncle Michael...;-)

  4. What a lovely post. I love how you found yourself embedded within the fabric of your family and heritage.


  5. So glad you got the opportunity to have this experience ..

    1. Thanks, Larissa. So am I. It is amazing how important family is.

  6. I crave this feeling in my family. I'm not sure it isn't there, but perhaps I haven't been receptive enough to feel it. Maybe it's time to visit.


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