Finding My Wings

I hate bugs. I don’t know what it is about bugs, but they can send me into a frenzy. Maybe an ant I can handle; anything bigger or anything that flies? Forget it! As soon as I see them you’ll catch me scurrying away.
But there is a well-known number in my house: 800-LIVE-BUG. Have you ever heard of it? You can order all types of live creatures and watch them in their natural habitats. As a mother of insect-loving boys, I have put aside my fears and my feelings of disgust and let these creepy crawlers into my home. We have watched ants make anthills and ladybugs go through the cycles of growth. But I have found that the most fascinating bug cycle to watch is that of caterpillars becoming butterflies.
The really ugly-looking caterpillar arrives in a clear container and spends a week eating this brown goo. It then crawls to the top of the container and spins a chrysalis. And we watch. We watch as it doesn’t move for days. It actually seems dead – until one day everything starts to change. We can actually see wings through the chrysalis. And after another day or two, the creature starts pushing its way through. It isn’t easy work. We watch as it really struggles, sometimes literally bleeding from the effort. When it finally emerges, its wings are shriveled and fatigue overtakes it. The brand-new butterfly must rest from all its hard work. But after a short amount of time, the wings open up and are transformed with beautiful colors, and the butterfly starts flying around. It is hard to believe that that really ugly-looking creepy caterpillar was the same bug as this pretty insect (that’s not to say I won’t panic if it becomes loose and flies around my house!).
As the process was taking place not long ago on my kitchen counter, I wondered, Am I a butterfly? Actually, aren’t we all butterflies? Recently I spoke on the Chazak Hotline. I started off saying that a number of times I was told, “Oh you should speak on the Chazak Line.” And I thought to myself I know I have a big story. But I don’t know that I have anything to share. Have I really made changes? Have I really worked on myself? Am I a better person because of my many challenges? I don’t know. Let others speak. I don’t think I have what to offer.
Recently, I put together a book called Comfort, Courage, and Clarity, which is geared for adults who have lost a parent. There are twelve topics ranging from “Acceptance” to “Celebrating Simchos” to “Finding Hope.” It is a compilation of writings – some are mine and many are taken from other authors and publications. At the end of each article, I put in a bunch of introspective questions that aim to foster growth in a person.
One day after it was published I was hit with a realization. I couldn’t have done this if I hadn’t made changes myself. I think I can answer every one of those questions. And that is only because I was forced to look into myself and to make changes. So when it was suggested again that I speak I accepted.
As I watched the butterflies emerge I realized that we are all butterflies because no one goes through life without struggles. And most people become better because of their struggles. I don’t know what each person is struggling with or what they are doing to better themselves. But I do believe that as we struggle, we are learning how to spread our wings, become better people and reach the heights that Hashem wants from us.
So, am I a butterfly or a butterfly wannabe?
I think both. I hope like that struggling butterfly, my struggles have forced me to change for the better. But I still have more changes to make. Unlike a butterfly that has reached its peak of prettiness once its struggle is complete, I have to continue struggling to make changes that will beautify me even more.
So maybe I am a butterfly but also a butterfly wannabe.

When the Journey Can Be the Reward

I have traveled many roads. Some were straight and easy, while others were dark and winding. Some of the roads led deep underwater into long eerie tunnels, while others were narrow and mountainous, so that I feared that one wrong step would lead me over a cliff.
If I would have a choice I would only choose to travel roads that are straight, with bright sunlight lighting up the way and beautiful scenery to enjoy as I coast along. But who is given a choice? In this life, we don’t get to choose which roads we have to travel.
As I once slid into the driver’s seat of my van, my son commented on his desire to drive. “It’s so much fun to drive. It means you’re in full control – like you’re the master, and the car is the servant,” he told me.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, Really? Do we ever have full control? Oh no. The roads we travel on aren’t the ones that we choose, but rather the highways and byways Hashem has chosen for us. The only choice that we have is how we will deal with the roadblocks we bump into on these windy, dark, narrow and mountainous roads.
In Pirkei Avos, פרק א’:פסוק ג’we are told, “אנטיגנוס איש סוכו…אומר: אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין…לקבל פרס” – Don’t be like servants who work only to get reward. But that seems so impossible. I should work and work on doing all the mitzvos and doing them with the right intentions and never get a reward? I am not a car, which my son says is like a servant. I am a real person with thoughts and feeling, desires and wishes. As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld says, “If I am doing and doing and never getting anything in return, then the whole relationship seems meaningless. It feels like a master-slave relationship. And if Hashem is giving me all these challenging roads to travel with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and without a thought of reward, then how can I continue onward?
Author and educator Rabbi Yaakov Astor explains that time moves slowly when you’re expecting, waiting, pushing for something to happen – and it’s not happening. But when you’re focused on the process – accepting that what is happening is the way things are supposed to unfold, then the result doesn’t matter.
I remember a difficult road I had to travel when I was in high school. I was chosen to head a big project. I was excited and felt honored to be the chosen candidate. However, the other girl that was chosen to work with me had social issues. It was really difficult to work with her. The whole project wasn’t working out the way I had hoped it would. I felt incompetent – like a failure. I also felt stuck. I am doing this with someone who is incapable, therefore it is a disaster, and I can’t fix it.
I could have become angry at the hanhalah for doing this to me. I could have judged and criticized this girl for her wayward thinking and odd behaviors. But I recognized that that would keep me on a dark road of anger and resentment, devoid of any shining sun and beautiful scenery.
If Hashem placed me in this situation, which required me to work with this girl, then perhaps He wanted something from me. I had to learn how to explain things over and over again with patience. I had to learn tolerance for her emotional incapacities. And I had to learn to let go of the outcome. Perhaps that year Hashem didn’t want this project to be a smashing success. But He wanted me to work on my middos.
This is one of the deeper things אנטיגנוס comes to teach us. Do good without expectation of reward: when focusing on the process – which for me was working with this girl and making sure she didn’t feel put down because of her deficiencies even if the desired results wouldn’t follow – the right frame of mind that one comes to when working for pure motives becomes its own reward.
My roads may be winding and twisty. They can be dark and scary, with roadblocks of all kinds. Bur I ask Hashem to please help me to be like the servant who wants to serve Him in order to go through the process of bettering myself.
After all, what do I know about what’s really best for me? But doing His Will will undoubtedly bring me to bright and airy roads.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

My Father

לעילוי נשמת אליהו בן שמואל יעקב
כ”ט ניסן תשס”ט

Remembering My Father
My father was a real family man. He loved when yom tov came around and his married children overran his home. The madness of everyone squished together gave him only pleasure. He especially loved giving each and every one of his children and grandchildren a berachah on Friday night. Each son-in-law became a son, and each child was a precious gem.
My father was a working man. He had a store and put many hours into his work. He was also a man who always had a joke to share. Wherever he went, whomever he spoke to, he always had something funny to say. He wasn’t a great rav or a rebbi. He wasn’t a rosh yeshivah or a rosh kollel. He wasn’t a big askan or a big leader. Yet, he could never be called simple. He wasn’t just a balabus. He was a simple person on the outside, and a person full of tochen on the inside. He was someone who constantly worked on himself and grew closer and closer to Hashem as a result. When a nisayon came his way, he took it and grew from it. He changed himself because of it. We could never praise him when we saw something great in him. He was too humble. He didn’t think there was anything to talk about and loathed the praise. He didn’t need people to see his growth. Everything about him was very low-key.
At one point when he was unemployed he spent his mornings learning. He loved finally having the time to do this and was hoping to finish all of Shas. Although he could have chosen to do this in a shul or bais medrash, he chose to learn at home. No one had to know that he spent all

of his time learning.
How typical of him to be niftar in Nissan when we couldn’t say hespedim. There was so much to say, but it all had to be toned down. But my father had a zechus that most niftarim don’t have. A few minutes after he was niftar, Radio Kol Berama in Lakewood played a speech by Rabbi Peysach Krohn; in his talk, he shared some divrei Torah from my father, as countless people tuned in. Could it be he was zoche to such a thing because of the high madreigah he was on? As R’ Dovid Goldberg, the Rosh Yeshiva from Telshe Cleveland said, “He didn’t just say the ani ma’amins; he was the ani ma’amins. He learned them and lived them.”
As a little girl, I loved waking up on Shabbos mornings to the sound of my father’s voice learning. As an adult I am really able to appreciate all the time he spent learning, especially the mishnayos he learned to make a siyum in time for my brother Chesky’s yahrtzeit.
As a little girl, I marveled at his kibbud av v’eim. When Zaydie called for him, he ran to pick up the phone, no matter how busy he was. As an adult I realize I never knew the true extent of his kibbud av v’eim. I only found out after his petirah how he drove Zaydie each morning to shul, how he decided whether the weather was good enough for him to go out or if he should encourage him to daven at home, and how he always showed up at his house on Friday afternoon to make sure everything was ready for Shabbos.
As a young child I didn’t appreciate how he always wanted us home for Shabbos seudos and would be upset if we ate at a friend’s house. As an adult I realize how lucky we are to have had such a strong, loving relationship.
As a young girl I didn’t appreciate the stability in our home. B”H, I had two parents and siblings. This meant we were a normal family. As an adult I can appreciate how lucky I am to have grown up in a healthy home permeated with love.
As a young girl I didn’t know to be happy that my parents didn’t fight with each other. As an adult I know how fortunate I am to have had parents who had shalom bayis and always displayed concern for one another.
As a young kallah, I thought it only natural for my father to accept my chassan as his son. As a married woman I understand how lucky we are that each son-in-law became a son and that they in turn looked at my father like another father. He never judged and always accepted each person despite his/her shortcomings. Maybe that is the reason he stayed so close to his children. Maybe that is why to so many people he was a favorite uncle, and why so many people gravitated to our house.
As a teenager I knew there was no way to understand my father’s pain at losing his only son. As a mother, I realize I could never begin to understand the searing pain that he experienced.
However, I think I was able to appreciate how he took such a painful experience and grew from it. He asked, he learned and he changed. Many people mentioned at the shivah that they remembered my father’s hesped for Chesky. They remembered how he took something so painful, and through his tears he was mechazeik and continued to be mechazeik his family for the next eleven years. Our family knew of the many different nisyanos that came his way. Our family also saw his pain and fear. But our family saw how he grew closer and closer to Hashem. It was like climbing a ladder. He started off on one of the lower rungs and climbed and climbed one step at a time, until he was on the highest step – so, so close to Hashem.
He didn’t bury his pain. He faced it, he grabbed it and he became better from it. Each Succos we saw his hurt as he relived Chesky’s last Succos, two weeks before he was niftar. But despite his pain he made coming home so enjoyable and fun. We laughed at his predictability. We rolled our eyes at his corny jokes, and we groaned at his idiosyncrasies, such as comments about the garbage can that filled up too quickly.
The children coined the name “Funny Zaydie” as soon as they learned how to talk. They called him this because that is what he was to them. He joked with them, he played with them and he laughed with them. Funny Zaydie had a place in their hearts that no other Zaidy can have.
On the other hand, we knew whom to call when we were down and in need of chizuk. We reached out to our father who had a depth to him that not many could match. With wisdom that only life’s experience can bring, my father was able to encourage us and countless others.
Before the levayah my husband asked me if there was anything in particular I wanted him to say in his speech. I responded, “Everyone knows my father as someone who is funny and always had a joke. But he was such an anav. Tell the world who he really was. Tell everyone about his unwavering trust through so many hardships because they don’t know.”
But I see how wrong I was!
The deep void of losing this special person is felt by so many people. Nephews we never knew he had a relationship with. Brothers and sisters-in-law who were so different from him. And friends who couldn’t walk into the house without crying. All these testify to the fact that many people did realize his tochen. Yes, wherever he went he brought laughter.
Yet, people realized he wasn’t just a man who loved a good piece of cake and a good joke. He was a man who always aspired to be more. People realized that his davening took longer than most because he really had the connection that we all crave. People realized that they could ask him for money from the Zichron Tzedakah Fund that was set up l’iluy nishmas my brother because he would help out quietly and discreetly. People realized that they could do business with him without any contracts because honesty would always come first. Yes, friends and relatives all over knew him and realized who he was. And the pain of losing him is so strong and so deep.
When my son Yecheskil was born, it brought some nechamah to my father for the loss of his son. Right from the beginning, my father introduced him to Chesky’s tefillin and Chesky’s bike. He talked to him about the day that he would be old enough to inherit Chesky’s prized possessions. But my father wasn’t here anymore to give my son his only son’s tefillin. He wouldn’t be there for any grandson’s bar mitzvah.
We always enjoyed a close relationship with my grandparents, and of course I thought our children were going to enjoy that type of relationship with my parents – forever. But during shivah, Yecheskil, then a third grader, started learning mishnayos, and he couldn’t share the news with his Zaydie. Moishy and Dovy had just started getting to really know their Zaydie over the Pesach that had just passed, and now that relationship is over – forever.
People trying to be menachem us said, “At least you have good memories to hold onto.” But I wanted to shake them. Didn’t they realize my father is too young to be a memory?! We – his children – were too young to be without a father and Mommy was too young to be a widow. Our children were babies. He couldn’t just be a memory. We needed him to be here as a proud father and grandfather.
No, we determined that he will not just be a memory to us. He kept Chesky alive for us in our hearts and our minds, and we will always keep my father alive in our hearts and minds. We talk about him, share his jokes and his divrei Torah. We comment on what he liked and disliked. We bring him into our homes and families’ lives by saying what Zaydie would have said and done.
As we talk more and more about my father, my children will get to know who Zaydie was. He was an easygoing person who was so, so close to Hashem. He was a tzaddik and someone to emulate for all posterity.
And as painful as this is for us, we must do what my father would have done. We have to take the pain and grow from it. We have to grab this hurt and become closer to Hashem from it. It seems almost impossible. But we have my father’s actions to lead us, and we will try to follow.

Roundtable Night

A while back, my daughter’s school had a roundtable discussion with the mothers. There was a panel of teachers, and each teacher had a turn to answer a submitted question. The answers sparked a lot of back and forth between the mothers and the teachers.
I looked around, and I saw realness. I heard sincerity. I felt earnestness. Regardless of our differences we all want the same thing. To raise our children to be ehrliche, ovdei Hashem. And oftentimes we feel confused about how to reach this goal.
Thinking about this, the word mesorah came to mind. We each have our own mesorah from our parents and grandparents that we want to hand down to our children. I have my own personal mesorah, just as each mother sitting in that room has hers.
It might be from a Bubby, Babbi, Oma or Grandma. But all of us mothers are connected by the desire to pass down our personal mesorahs. We might come to a roundtable event, call a teacher or seek out the advice of a rav to guide us. But we mothers have the power. Through actions more than words we can help our children be the best they can possibly be. That night as I looked around I realized our capabilities and our desires to continue to pass down what we have from our ancestors.
Which brings me to my own grandmother.
Recently my grandmother was niftar. Following her petirah, I was flooded with childhood memories. I remember going to her house for yamim tovim and spending time with all the cousins. I can picture her peeling apples on chol hamoed Pesach, giving my mother a list for the grocery store and putting on her tasteful jewelry on a yom-tov morning.
I can feel the excitement when we knew my grandparents were coming, loaded up with gifts for a two-week visit. I can see them sitting at our table eating supper and them taking their daily walks. I can picture my grandmother making her Hungarian gefilte fish in my mother’s kitchen and baking her heavenly kokosh cake.
My grandmother was very quiet. She kept to herself, always a little bit on the sidelines. Perhaps her quiet nature and unobtrusive way of getting things done speaks louder than any words.
After her petirah I turned to my aunts and uncle and asked them to tell me more about my Babbi. She was eighteen years old, the youngest of ten children, when the Nazis stormed her village and deported her to Auschwitz. She lost her father, stepmother, six siblings, six sisters- and brothers-in-law and many nieces and nephews. While two of her remaining siblings went to live in Eretz Yisrael, she decided to follow her older sister to America. And so this quiet woman came to a new country, leaving behind what was once familiar and had been shattered.
She came to this strange country after growing up in a small shtetl on a farm. Her father was a tremendous talmid chacham and a Belzer chassid who ardently followed the Rebbe and spent the Yomim Nora’im with him.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was from Czechoslovakia. He grew up in a more cultured, bustling city. He was an Oberlander, with very different minhagim from the Chassidim.
Before the war a shidduch with a Hungarian farm girl would have been laughable.
But he also came to America after losing his whole family in the war. He had harrowing experiences and was ready to rebuild. I don’t know who their shadchan was, but together they were ready to start rebuilding.
Coming as they were from two totally different backgrounds, one would have thought they would disagree over minhagim, each wanting to continue what they had learned from their own parents. But my grandmother was 100% mevater. As far as anyone knows (aside from not eating gebrokts), she never once said, “But my father, a tremendous talmid chacham, did it this way.” She knew that to have shalom she would need to accept her new husband’s ways. And she did.
I think it is safe to say that vatranus was what defined her. She was happy to give anything to anyone. She just needed to know that those around her were content. Even as she lay on her deathbed, she worried about each person who came in. Are they hungry? Do they have a place to sleep? She couldn’t relax until she knew that her guests were well taken care of.
The lessons we learned from her are precious. She taught us how to find our inner strength and to carry on despite the struggles we might have. She taught us how to live in the moment and appreciate what we have. She taught us to quietly get things done, to make sure everyone feels good and not to make problems where none exist. She taught us about being machsihiv Torah. She would never stop or disturb my grandfather from learning. Whatever was going on could always wait until Zayde was finished.
As I mentioned, Babbi stayed on the sidelines. We knew where we could find her, but she didn’t need to be noticed. I always wanted to know more about her. What was her life like growing up in the shtetl? What were her war experiences? How did she come to America? What was it like to get married with the only family in attendance at her wedding her older sister? But she wasn’t a talker. It was hard to get her to share. And besides, there was always next time to ask.
There is no next time anymore. Babbi left this world and with her went all her memories and all her experiences. But my dignified Babbi gave over so much to us. Not with words but through actions.
It’s her actions that left indelible impressions on her progeny.
I saw this from my mother, her daughter. My mother experienced so much suffering. But she was always ready to continue onward. She never let herself get sucked into self-pity. She never let her suffering stop her from being there for others, and she appreciated the positive moments amidst the suffering.
All this is part of my mesorah, and I want to pass it down. The mother sitting next to me that night might have learned other things from her parents and grandparents. But we all have similar goals: to pass down to our children what our ancestors held dear.

 

Do You Know Who You Are?

Do you remember that girl in your class who was really pretty, whose hair was always perfect? Did you compare yourself to her and feel ugly? How about the girl who always had a witty response? Did being around her make you feel as if you were just so dull?  Do you still find yourself thinking like that? Does your super-clean sister-in-law make you feel like an incompetent housekeeper or your stay-at-home neighbor make you feel like an incompetent mother? Do you ever feel that you are boring, that you always mess things up, that you’re not so smart or talented or just a complete failure?
Guess what? You are normal. Probably many of the people you think are better than you look at others and also feel inferior in some way. It’s almost as if this is a mandatory qualification for being a woman.
I know a tenth grader who is on top of her class academically. She has a wonderful personality and lots of friends, and her middos are extolled by many of her teachers. Yet when I asked her why a teen who has everything going for her would have low self-esteem, she looked at me as if I was crazy and answered, “Isn’t it obvious why?”
Low self-esteem doesn’t stay behind in a classroom. If it isn’t worked on, it follows us straight into the workforce, marriage and motherhood.  But no matter our stage in life, it’s never too late to work on improving the way we feel about ourselves.
In פרקי אבות, פרק ב: משנה ו, it says, “.ולא הבישן לומד” What does this mean? One can’t learn because of embarrassment? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that if a person has a question in learning but won’t ask because he feels that he should know it, or he must not be smart because no one else has this question, then he loses out on very important learning opportunities. How can a person learn if he always feels embarrassed? This is not a good embarrassment, nor is it humbleness. It comes from feeling bad about one’s self and the repercussions are not positive.
With these kinds of feelings it is hard to achieve anything. How can you accomplish if you always feel that if your ideas had merit someone else would have come up with them or that you’re just not capable of carrying them out? Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you should feel incompetent or unqualified. And as the Mishnah says, your shame will stop you from understanding, learning and accomplishing.
There is one kind of embarrassment that is praiseworthy. This comes from anivus, true humbleness, like Moshe Rabbeinu displayed. We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu was an ענו מכל אדם. Yet, Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He knew his strengths and used them for עבודת השם.
We are all mirrors reflecting tiny pieces of Hashem’s various middos. Therefore, we must be careful to acknowledge when a talent exists within us. It is not egotistical to know that you are a great organizer, a wonderful listener, a talented party planner or a very patient, loving mother. Rather, realize that you are a reflection of Hashem’s attributes. When we can acknowledge that the strengths we have are from Hashem and we are ready to use them for our own growth or for the sake of those around us, then we are acting in a G-dly way. This is a positive kind of “embarrassment.”
So let’s say you are the typical mother and wife fighting those nasty voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good, that you are inferior to others. You don’t know how to handle this child’s issue. You aren’t sure that you are showing enough support to your husband. And maybe in general you are doing something wrong because your children almost never show responsibility. What are practical applications to help you like yourself?
You can know that like every living person, you are perfectly imperfect. Your flaws were given to you by Hashem, Who wrapped them all up together in a box for your life’s journey. (You can imagine what color your box is, the size of the box and whether it has a bow or not.)
Accept your limitations – they are from Hashem. But don’t become complacent about them. Work on them with Hashem. Ask Him to help you make changes to turn your negatives into positives. And don’t forget to recognize your strengths. Find them. Remind yourself every day about the qualities that are specific to you.
Talk back to your negative voices. You can tell them, “Listen here, Voice, I know you are trying to making me feel bad about my flaws. But guess what?  Everyone has flaws. I also have strengths. That’s what I am trying to focus on. So you can keep telling me that I am not good enough, but I will keep telling you about all my strong points.”
Consider the following quote: “It’s not what you are that is holding you back, but rather, what you think you are not.”
Learn what you are so that you can use your kochos fully.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

A Mother’s Love

 

Oftentimes, I wish I could think of just the right word; sometimes it seems to be on the tip of my tongue, but instead I stammer and stutter my way through my thought, hoping that I am getting my point across in some way.

I had such an experience with a friend who doesn’t have a very good relationship with her mother. In addition, her mother is not frum, which probably aggravates the situation even more. I was telling her how I wanted my mother’s opinion on something. I obviously couldn’t get it from my mother, so I got it from a friend instead. But really, I was longing for my mother’s input. She couldn’t understand what I needed my mother for. What was it that my mother could have offered me that friends and family couldn’t?  I tried to explain what the relationship with my mother was like. I tried to explain the connection that we had. But she couldn’t get it. I stuttered and stumbled and groped and grappled for the right words to explain the unexplainable.

It then became a mission. I felt I must get that point across. What is a mother’s love? How strong can a mother-daughter connection be? The feelings are so strong. The words must be out there somewhere. But I couldn’t find them.

I didn’t give up. At the risk of the friends in my group chat thinking I had really gone nuts, I sent out a text asking if anyone could define a mother’s love. The answers weren’t long in coming: unconditional, a natural connection, love earned just because of being born, irreplaceable, love without strings attached.

Maybe it’s all true. But it is also all cliché. And I needed to explain the connection I had with my mother in real words. I needed to define that indefinable love.

And so I turned it around. I asked myself how I would describe the love I have for my children.  The question almost took my breath away. The love is so deep that my heart starts to hurt. I want to protect and shield them from all pain. I just want everything to be perfect for them.

I also felt confused thinking about the question because I realized that I want perfection for them in ways that don’t even make sense. I want to hug them so tightly and never let go, but I want to teach them independence. I want to make all the right choices for them, but I want to teach them to make their own responsible decisions. I want to defend them fiercely, but I want to teach them to take responsibility. I want to teach them the fine line between self-respect and anivus. I want to teach them to care for others but not to be stepped upon. I want to nurture them with love and encourage them with positivity. I want to cultivate our values and foster our connection. My love is so absolute that it transcends logic.

I know that is how my mother felt toward me.

That “transcending-logic love” made her care about all the small things in my life that no one else would care about. It made her take interest in me and my family in areas that no one else would have interest in. The love made the unimportant important to her. It made the insignificant news significant to her.

And the best friend and the closest aunt can’t replace that.

I had a gift that my friend isn’t fortunate enough to have. It is the gift of real maternal affection. Now, how can I describe this indescribable gift? How can I explain my unexplainable loss?

I went online and searched for that right word. I googled definitions but couldn’t find anything. After a long while I found a word that tugged at me. The word is ineffable. The definition is indescribableinexpressible, beyond words, beyond description, begging description.

I have been searching and searching for that perfect word – for that word that can define what I had with my mother. And I found it!  But I have come full circle. Because the word ineffable has taught me that I will not find that right word. It doesn’t exist. And simply said, that is what I had with my mother. Something that is indescribable.

Perhaps my friend has a better vocabulary than me. Maybe she is familiar with this word. But if not, I will teach it to her.

I can tell her that that the reason I wanted my mother’s opinion is because of our ineffable relationship. It was something that I can never put into words. And that is the person whose opinion has the most value to me. I know I am fortunate that this was our relationship.

But I miss it.

Holding on to the Memories: My Scrapbooking Journey

 

I have been told that I am a very emotionally rich person. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. But I certainly did feel overwhelmed with many emotions after my parents died. There was so much longing, so much wishing for what once was – all that emotion with no place to put it.

I wanted to keep everything as it used to be. I wanted to hold on to the past so tightly that it would never leave me, to create a bubble for myself and my memories.

It was actually my sister who got me into scrapbooking after she was given the idea by a mentor. I was always hearing about the tools and supplies she was buying. And then one day I said, “Why don’t I do this too?”

I have found this new outlet to be very therapeutic. It has allowed me to take my roiling emotions and put them in order. I can put my feelings into these pages and grab onto the memories.

In recalling the past, I realized that there are different kinds of memories: there are the actual pictures in my mind of past events, and there are also “feeling memories.” For example, smelling a particular food or hearing a specific phrase can engender strong feelings, and when I have these feelings, sometimes I like to just sit and experience them.

Creating a scrapbook has prompted a lot of the feeling memories. Sometimes I feel sadness or longing. I am documenting a world that is no more. But creating the pages has helped me identify the emotions and put them in order. It has helped me enter the bubble I was yearning for, and afterward I am able to emerge and continue functioning.

Another valuable benefit of my scrapbook has been to allow me to share the memories with others. My children learned that the oldest grandchild coined the name Funny Zaydie for my father because he made people laugh. They can get a glimpse of our family birthday parties and the yamim tovim we spent together. Depending on my mood we can share what I’ve created and cry together or open it and laugh together.

One thing that I found really nice about scrapbooking is that there is no right way to do it. I enjoy writing, and I found that writing releases a lot of emotions and helps me put my thoughts in order. If you are more creative or artistic, you can narrate a full story with pictures and cut-outs.

If you like things to look just so, there are so many tools and materials you can use to create that perfect look. If you would you rather accomplish quickly without focusing on exactly how everything is placed, that’s okay too. After all, this is your bubble of memories.

Every craft store and even your local discount store (Target, Walmart, Amazing Savings) has loads of scrapbooking materials. I found it helpful to walk through the aisles and peruse the selection, which includes backgrounds, borders, stickers, lettering of all sorts, 3D applications and more. Sometimes seeing an item brought up a memory, and I knew it was just what I needed for my book. Then again, there are lots of materials you can find in your house: a piece of fabric or wrapping paper, a postcard or picture cut from a magazine, a ticket stub, etc.

Included here are some samples of what I’ve created.

Page number one was meant to be a more serious page. Learning, halachah and minhagim pesach-page-page-003were an integral part of who my father was. I therefore chose colors that would be appropriate to this tone. Although I didn’t use any real “wow” materials here, it conveys the memory of my father holding on to what was really important to him. It was easy to find pictures of the sefarim and shtender. I could have made it fancier by making a 3D shtender or even including a picture of my father standing behind it and learning. Another option would have been to color copy the cover of a sefer and shrink it to size. What I created here, however, is a simple page that is filled with strong memories.

pesach-page-page-004The second page describes one of my mother’s hobbies. It makes me smile. She enjoyed shopping, and I enjoyed shopping together with her. For this page I wasn’t aiming for the same tone as the one depicting my father’s learning. I therefore chose to do it in a brighter color to create a lighter feeling. When I look at it, I see my mother standing near the cashier, pulling out the right card. This is a page that gives me a pleasant feeling.

My parents, especially my father, was a real family man. He pesach-page-page-002took great pride in his children, and we felt this each yom tov. So for my third page I chose to focus on how my father performed bedikas chometz with the grandchildren. When I look at this page, I see and feel this special brand of family pride. The reference to cleaning is a nod to my mother’s involvement here. To make it more real and personal, I cut out a piece of an actual shmatte. Using matzah paper was an obvious choice. It makes the page so much more appealing with little extra effort.

So where should you start?

You can create pages arbitrarily, working on ideas as they come to you, or you can work systematically. For example, go through all the significant events of a single year, documenting each one on its own page. Create a spread for each yom tov, showing how your family celebrated it through the years. Create a page for each family chasunah. Or create pages by the season: a fall section might include the first day of school, Succos, raking leaves; a winter section might include Chanukah, snowstorms, family melave malkas; a spring section might include Pesach, planting flowers, mowing the lawn; a summer section might include family vacations, visiting day, family BBQs, etc. Perhaps your book might include a section showing the time before your parent was sick; the period during which your parent was ill; and a section showing family life or activities after your parent’s petirah.

Do you have any mementos from your parent? A scrapbook is the place to stick your mother’s favorite magnet or your father’s yarmulke. Any picture or item can be the springboard for a page. I actually did the credit-card page after I found my mother’s cards in her wallet. My mother’s essence wasn’t shopping like my father’s was learning, so it wasn’t until I found the credit cards that I thought of making this kind of page.

Above all, remember that this is your space. If you love the color orange, use it. Your best friend might not understand why you chose that color – that’s okay. Tap into your emotions and your memories.  Your sister might question your perception about something – that doesn’t matter because this is your safe place to release and experience your emotions.

Does this whole idea feel overwhelming to you? Then don’t make a scrapbook, make a scrap page. Choose something that is precious to you and create just one page surrounding it – you can’t go wrong.

Happy scrapbooking!

Dear Bubby

Dear Bubby,

I am so sad that I was only a baby when you were nifteres, and I never got to know you. But my mommy always tells me that you loved me so much. During the one year of my life that you were alive, I gave you so much joy. Each time you saw me, your face lit up. You played with me and made me giggle. You held me and made me feel loved.

The night before you were nifteres, you had a small procedure, and afterward they brought you to the critical care unit. The nurses weren’t used to a patient having as many visitors as you did, and they were aggravated about it. They definitely would not have been happy to see a baby there. But you were really sick, and Mommy knew you might never see me again.  She knew how much joy I brought to you. Shhh…don’t tell anyone – but she snuck me in. You were too weak to hold me or coo to me. But you gave me a smile. I know I am lucky that I was the last grandchild you smiled at.

Sometimes I wish you could still be here with me. My mother tells me how much you would love hearing cute stories about me and cuddling me while reading me books. You would love to buy me new dolls and books, and you would love to talk to me on the phone.

She tells me that we would come to you for yamim tovim together with all the cousins, and it would be such a blast! I feel so sad that I lost out on that experience. When I play with all my cousins, Mommy tells me that you would have such nachas watching all your eineklach playing together. All I know is that I love playing with them, and I love when we spend time together. It is sad that we can’t all play together in your house.

You missed most of my milestones. You missed when I started walking and talking. You never had a chance to see how inquisitive I am, how I love learning or to see my bouncing curls as I skip and giggle with carefree joy.  I look so big in my uniform, but you never got to see me in it. Do you even know that your granddaughter is an aspiring ballerina? Well, I am. I do ballet all around my house. I twirl and pirouette. I walk on tippy-toes and jump up. But if this worries you, don’t let it— because when I grow up I want to be a tzaddekes.

Guess what?! On Wednesday we are having our aleph-bais siyum. I get to wear my Shabbos clothes! My mommy will brush my hair until there are no knots and my curls frame my cheeks. Then she will look at my sparkling green eyes and the touch of freckles that light up my face. She will tell me how proud you would be. She will tell me that I have your sparkling green eyes. I don’t know what your eyes look like, but I do believe that I would make you proud.

Tonight I sounded out words and wrote them down. I figured out that Chanukah is spelled with a chof, a nun and a kof. Mommy said that we have to save this paper with my first words. I told her that I can show it to you when Mashiach comes. She also wants to save my first sight-word book to show you. I told Mommy that I might not be “in this age” anymore by then. But she said we can still save it for you.

I wish my mommy could tell you about all the good middos I have. Yesterday, I held the door open for her even though my hands were so full of things. That is because it was kibbud av v’eim week in school. Now it isn’t anymore, but maybe sometimes I’ll still do that mitzvah.

Mommy was happy that I made a kiddush Hashem at the bank. That’s because I got a lollipop and was having fun. But don’t worry – as long as I am in the mood, I will try to make “kiddush Hashems.”

Sometimes if I am hungry or tired, I get very kvetchy. Probably on those days my mommy would call you up and say, “I have a kvetchy little girl in my house.” But don’t be sad that sometimes I get “kwetchy” and maybe even talk with chutzpah.  I think that as I get older and learn more about good middos, I will give you lots of nachas.

I am still just a little girl. But I know that in a way you and Zeidy and Tante Esti and Uncle Chesky will always be part of my life. Because I always hear about you.  And I really do want to give all of you nachas up in shamayim.

Still, like my mommy I do wish that today you could see how cute I am, that today I could talk to you on the phone and that today I could show you my first page of words.

My doll is crying now. I have to go take care of her. So, bye.

Love,

A Little Girl with Sparkling Green Eyes who Never Got a Chance to Know Her Bubby

Friendships Can Make all the Difference

Do you remember how the years of high school can be filled with social stigma and social anxiety? Social circles and social acceptance are of utmost importance. I remember girls who wouldn’t walk down the hall to get a drink without a friend, as others might view them as being friendless. That was not a risk worth taking. Are you nodding along, even as you laugh at how silly this sounds?

The truth is, friendship really is important. Friends are influential – for the good and for the bad. A friend can help a person find herself – who she is and who she wants to become. A friend can encourage and inspire. A good friend continues to fill this role as one moves on through the various stages of life.

In the first perek of Pirkei Avos, the sixth mishnah tells us: “קנה לך חבר” – be mindful of who your friends are. Make sure that you are forming relationships that will help you grow and change, relationships that will allow you to learn and teach, relationships that will make you feel good about yourself so that you can be a positive, productive person.

A negative friendship will put you on a downward spiral. You might find yourself doing things you don’t really feel comfortable doing, going places you never went before, wearing clothing that are not up to your tznius standards or letting your children do things that are not really on par with your chinuch standards.  In such a friendship, you might feel anxious, confused and down on yourself, and when you stop to think about it, you might feel that the things you are busy with are not really “you.”

A positive friendship, on the other hand, can help bring out your ma’alos and strengths. Such a friendship engenders good feelings and pushes you to want to be a better “you.” In the company of a good friend, it is often easier to make the right decisions.

On the first day of my year in sixth grade, a new girl walked into the classroom, and we all realized we had a star in our class. I felt so lucky that she chose me to be her friend – her best friend. My new friend brought out my fun side, as well as the introspective side of me. As the years went by, and this girl continued to impress our teachers and amaze the principals, I really felt lucky that she was my very best friend. I had my social standing with a friend who was helping me grow.

Eventually we grew apart. But I can look back and see how our friendship helped mold me as a person. Years later, already married with children, I became acquainted with a woman in my town. Over time and with shared experiences, we eventually became close friends. I know how lucky I am for the friendship that we have. My friend is there for me whenever I need her. We share chinuch concerns and ideas – both practical and theoretical – and support each other when making difficult decisions. She is there for me when I am down because of a parent or sibling’s yahrtzeit; she helps me to get to the crux of what I’m experiencing so that I can move on. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we build on the strengths and encourage through the weaknesses.

 And so I try to use my friendships for growth, and I try to be a friend who can inspire growth.  I hope I am passing down to my children the lesson of having a good friend and of being a good friend.  I hope that my parents are looking down and having nachas from the friends I have, the friend I am and the friend I have taught my children to be.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

My Nephew Eli

He was gentle and he was kind. He was wise and witty. He was a dazzling beacon of sunlight to all those who knew him. He was my nephew – my nephew Eli whom I never really knew because of the distance we lived from each other.

He was a courageous warrior, fighting his sickness for four long years, unwilling to surrender.  But the disease was more powerful than he was and eventually took over his body. On September 29, 2016 my nephew Eli returned his neshamah to Shamayim. He was only eleven years old.

As his father wrote, “It is with forever shattered hearts that Eli was niftar.”

I realize I lost out on an opportunity to get to know this valiant soldier.

So I asked his parents to tell me about Eli, about the extraordinary little boy whom I never really knew. And I now echo his father. It is with a forever shattered heart that I will never know Eli the way I would like to.

When Eli was five years old, an adult would have been forgiven for thinking that he was closer to twenty. He astounded everyone when he asked his zaydie for a set of Chumashim for his afikomen present that year. His zaydie would have been fine with buying him a remote control car or a scooter. But at that young age, Torah was what he cherished. When he received his gift, he went outside, sat on his big electric car and read the pesukim of the Chumash. He didn’t yet understand what he was saying, but he understood the pleasure that the timeless words were giving him.

By the time he was seven he had read through the entire Chamishah Chumshei Torah. As he got older, just reading the words wasn’t enough for him. He wanted more knowledge, more understanding. And so he started reading The Medrash Says. Like a sponge, he soaked everything up. He asked questions to his zaydie, a big talmid chacham, and zaydie would be astounded at his young grandson’s knowledge.

Sadly, by the time Eli’s class was starting to learn mishnayos, he was already sick, only attending school sporadically. One day his father drove him to school and arranged a time to pick him up shortly after. Eli walked into his classroom and was exposed to mishnayos for the first time. By the time his father came to pick him up, Eli had learned two mishnayos ba’al peh.

It wasn’t just Torah that he loved – he loved tefillah too. Eli loved to daven, especially with his zaydie. He always wanted to go to his grandparents’ home for Shabbos so that he could spend time davening in shul with zaydie. Eli didn’t want to lose out on an opportunity to connect with his Borei Olam and therefore had many alarms on his phone to remind him about different tefillos. As he left the hospital, it didn’t matter that he had just been through harsh treatments; often, shul was the first place he stopped.

Yes, you can be forgiven for thinking that we are talking about an adult. But the amazing thing was that if you looked at Eli, you saw a child. He loved to play and joke. He liked reading and playing wii games. He was a kind, caring and fun-loving brother. He was very sensitive to the needs of his siblings, giving each one what they needed.

And he was a compassionate friend as well. He cared about his classmates and was the first to run over to console a friend who was hurt. He acted with extreme selflessness. Whether it was giving his time or his snack, it was done with a smile. As a letter from his classmate testifies: “He was the brightest, sweetest, most loving, sharing boy. “

Eli accepted his challenges. While most children were in school and riding bikes, Eli had to be admitted time and time again to Children’s Hospital. Maybe for treatment. Maybe because he had fever or maybe for extreme pain. But he didn’t complain. His attitude belied his age. He wanted to do what needed to be done and then continue on with life.

He had to take foul-tasting medicine with awful side effects. But he took it with acceptance. He was also scrupulously honest. If it was time to take his medicine, he would tell his mother he needed ten more minutes. His mother trusted that he would come get it when he said he would – and he did. He was so young, and yet he understood that each word we utter has value. In his mother’s words: “I learned about emes from my son.”

The Gradon house is open to many guests. Some of the regular guests are recovering addicts. About eight months ago, one of the guests had just reached a four-year anniversary for his recovery. Each guest sitting around the table had the opportunity to say something positive about this person. When they came to Eli, his father passed over him. But he said, “No, I also want to say something.” Everyone stopped to pay closer attention to this child. What was he going to say? With a maturity beyond his years he said, “Just as you conquered your addiction, so too, you should conquer your aveiros.”

Eli had no aveiros to conquer. He was only a katan. But his love of learning, of Torah and mitzvos, made him seem like a tremendous gadol. And as family friend said, “We were not zocheh to keep Eli.”

I feel sad that I didn’t have enough of an opportunity to know this little tzaddik who was my nephew. But I learned a lesson. Family is most important. Many of our families are large, and we have extensive extended family as well. This is something that is so easy to take for granted. But I can say, “Eli, in your death, you have taught me the value of family.”

Eli should be a meilitz yosher for his parents and siblings and for all of his extended family, and may we be zocheh to the geulah sheleimah very soon.