Susan's Blog

Friday, September 20, 2019

A New Year, A New Family Member — or Two

Recently I hosted a family party — my mom’s 80th — which was just immediate family and close relatives. It was great reconnecting with cousins and with my Aunt Georgia and Mom’s brother Gerard, and Aunt Rhoda, Dad’s older sister.

I think Mom felt the same way. She seemed on a high the whole day. I was particularly excited about this because it was one of the few times we had really celebrated just Mom, and not as part of a really magnificent couple with my dad (82).

We celebrate the two of them a lot, because they have a pretty extraordinary relationship, having started dating when she was 13 and he was 15. And even though the party was about Mom, Dad figured large in the whole thing because he is rather larger than life at times. And Mom is so used to basking in his colorful admiration that it made sense for Dad to have a big part in the event. He read her one of his best poems — he has written numerous books of his poetry, which were adapted as quotes about heartbreak — and also he sang to her.

But another wonderful thing about the day was that all Mom’s grandchildren were there at the same time, which is a rarity these days. And so all three of my sons were there, which made it utterly delicious for me. What’s more, Max and Ben brought their girlfriends. Interestingly enough, a cousin also brought his girlfriend, so there we were, an expanding family, and Mom as the Matriarch. Lovely to see the old and new faces.

Nat did not bring anybody, nor did any of us expect him to. Nat is far more solitary than his brothers. And although he lives with four other young men, who also have autism, they are in a group home with supervision. It is very difficult for me to imagine any of those guys out of context of each other and the staff of the home. In the past, we have managed to invite disabled classmates of Nat’s, or housemates from his various group homes — especially for his birthday or his concerts. But it never occurred to me to invite someone connected to Nat to this party because none of us are used to thinking of Nat that way.

This morning I was thinking ahead to other events coming up for the family and I remembered that I’d made a date for my parents to come to our house for Rosh Hashanah dinner.  I’m not all that religious but there is something special about certain Jewish holidays — Passover and of course Chanukah, the Jewish Christmas. But Rosh Hashanah is during early fall and is the Jewish New Year. The end of the year and the beginning of preparing for the new one. And autumn being harvest time makes it a perfect setting for this fall holiday. Rosh Hashanah is a favorite of mine and Nat’s.  Maybe it’s the beautiful crisp brilliant light of fall, and the feeling of renewal that autumn brings. Or maybe because we eat apple and honey (to symbolize autumn treats and sweetness in the year to come). We both love dipping apple in honey. Nat even knows the Hebrew prayers over the candles, wine, challah, and for the apple and honey.

My mom loves Rosh Hashanah, too, but it is in a more bittersweet sense. She remembers her parents, brothers, and grandparents at this holiday and how rich a celebration they had, being Orthodox Jews. The excitement extended to the food — not just apple and honey but also specialties like kasha varnishkes, chicken matzo ball soup, and carrot tsimmis. But I think that typical of Jews the food is associated with love and fun, and family. And Mom really misses her original family. This time of year she is particularly vulnerable for not having them there. I sometimes imagine that for mom the presence of her ghosts can fill her heart with such longing that she has a hard time actually enjoying it with the rest of us. I feel for her. I want to help that ache but of course I can’t do much.

This year Mom called and asked if she and Dad could spend the special dinner with me. I was so delighted to get this call, because it would make the dinner so much bigger than what it usually is:  Ned, Nat, and me. I think that like my Mom, I tend to remember the Rosh Hashanahs of my girlhood, the intensely moving evening service at Temple and all of our special food as well as seeing friends and family like my Aunt Rhoda. But my memories are strictly happy and full of the desire to continue those special times with my sons and their significant others, because I’m lucky enough not to have to experience the pain of loss that Mom does. Knock wood, my loved ones, old and young, are still with me.

I thought about inviting Max and Ben because now the dinner was feeling more special with Mom and Dad coming. But I didn’t invite the boys because they had just been here for Mom’s party, and it’s a bit of a hardship for them to interrupt their lives — Max works as a cameraman in New York, and Ben is in college in Savannah.

I wondered how to expand the family — it had been so much fun being a bigger group at Mom’s party and also in childhood. But without Max, Ben, and assorted girlfriends, there didn’t seem to be a way. I wondered about my Jewish friends but they all have their own dinners.

Then I thought about Nat. I envisioned him in his seat at the end of the table, saying the prayers, wolfing down the apple and honey and then the brisket, and then getting out of there. And I felt sad to think of his solitariness, his typical isolation. Yes, he does want and need his space, his autism demands it, but I also know that he has relationships with others. I started to think about those others: his housemates. Suddenly I got really excited, imagining them there.

But just as quickly I imagined how difficult logistically it would be to have his housemates there. They’d need staff, and would I be able to make the staff feel welcome in that setting? No, the boundaries are just too hard to cross; I thought they would feel awkward. And as far as asking the housemates’ families: well I have never met any of them. I did know that they were likely not Jewish. So where would I even start?

And then another idea dawned: I could invite Paul and his wife Rachelle. Paul is Nat’s case manager at his day program, but he has also done respite for us many times, and Nat always leaps for an opportunity to hang out with Paul. Paul seems to love it, too. His texts and photos of Nat and him together always show a mutual enjoyment. Because of Paul’s unique relationship with Nat, and his clear love for him, I have found that I can ask Paul for advice on Nat. Paul’s wisdom is far beyond his years. I got very excited about asking Paul to come because of the different ways Paul has been in Nat’s life and because I can see that this relationship will probably go on for a long time.

So long, in fact, that I wondered if Paul would even be there for Nat when Ned and I were too old to be. I realized that if there was a chance that Paul would become even more important in Nat’s life at that point, then Paul should take a prominent position in Nat’s life now. Suddenly I saw the absolute truth in this. I thought of Max and Ben again, and how they would likely have girlfriends with them more often than not, and that the family always makes room for these new faces.

So why not make room for the important people in Nat’s life? Maybe his housemates couldn’t come but maybe with more planning they would someday. But Paul only required an invitation and desire to go.

Suddenly I really needed to make this happen. We would take Nat’s attachments as seriously as we took Max and Ben’s. I confirmed with Ned about expanding our dinner this way and then I went ahead and invited Paul and Rachelle. Paul said they’d come and added that he was always eager to learn about new things (in this case Rosh Hashanah). I think he will take particular pleasure in seeing Nat say the prayers.

This new addition to our family holiday will make Mom happy, too, I just know it. Because even though I can never bring back her now departed loved ones, I can show her that the next generation is expanding in all sorts of ways, and that our family traditions of food, love, and tradition are as strong as ever.  As Nat used to say, ages ago, “It’s a-different, that’s okay.”


How absolutely wonderful. You continue to inspire me!

— added by Susan on Friday, September 20, 2019 at 4:01 pm

You remain awesome!

— added by Donna Baker on Friday, September 20, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Just lovely Susan!

— added by kim mccafferty on Wednesday, October 2, 2019 at 1:36 pm

Thank you!

— added by Susan Senator on Sunday, November 10, 2019 at 8:02 am