It’s Thursday, which means I’ve got my regular lunch date at the JEA for some kosher eats.
I’ve been escorting my mother-in-law almost every week for over three years to the Senior Lunch Bunch, and it’s a constant source of entertainment and education for me. I absolutely adore the other regulars — like Holocaust survivor and yiddishe joker Chaim, Savannah native and trucker-mouthed Micky, the elegant and eagle-eyed Dorothy, the hilarious and sprightly Beezy, and hostesses with mostesses Thelma and Miriam (who’s 88!) Since I no longer have any grandparents with whom to steep myself in generational Jewishness, I value their interest in me and my family. (Of course, it could be that El Yenta Man loves to flirt with everyone, too.) They’re mostly in their 80s and even 90s, yet they remember our children’s names and their schools and exactly how many weeks now I’ve been unemployed.
I wish I could say the same for my mother-in-law. Her dementia has advanced considerably in the last year, and though the Yenta Lunchers always welcome us with waves and air kisses, she’s long past recalling names or recognizing faces. In fact, beyond immediate family and her dedicated and wonderful caregiver, I’m guessing all faces look the same to her. I try to be patient with folks with whom she once co-chaired a Sisterhood committee or docented at the temple who come up and say “Don’t you remember me?”, as if they’re going to be the ones who shake her out of her out of the neural tomb into which she has receded. It pains me so much to see her face draw up in confusion, because she knows she’s supposed to know this person. My mother-in-law, always such a dear, such a lovely lamb, never wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she just shakes her head and gives a small, barky laugh and stutters her one rehearsed line, the longest full sentence she says anymore: “I’m sorry, but my memory situation is a mess.”
We’ve had to have some family discussions on whether we should take her to synagogue for Yom Kippur this year. My father-in-law is afraid that she’ll be disruptive, sighing and asking “What? What?!” anytime there’s a lull in the service. Which is probably true — last year she threw a fit when he tried to take her to the bathroom because she couldn’t communicate that she’d left her purse in the pew. But most everyone knows what’s what since this family has been part of the Jewish community for almost 40 years, and if anyone’s going to judge or get crabby because this poor confused woman makes a bit of noise has some more repenting to do, am I right?
I’ve taken the stand that she needs to go. Just for the closing service, mind you — her dear caregiver will sit with her Monday morning while the rest of us suffer — but I sense that this will be our last opportunity to share a synagogue service with her. She grew up Orthodox as a child, and as lost as she is inside her mind, I believe the memories of Jewish liturgy remain like stone pillars in the slippery liquid of unfinished thoughts and disconnected identity. I’ve seen her lips moving when we say our Shabbat dinners on Friday nights, and I know she remembers. And even if she starts eating the little pledge envelope stuck inside the prayer book, I know that when she hears the Sh’ma and the closing shofar blast, it will pierce her consciousness someway, somehow.
That leaves Kol Nidre, the opening ritual of Yom Kippur and usually a meaningful prayer for me to attend. I’ve decided to pass on it this year to spend it next to with Marcia on her old leather couch, listening to Jewish TV Network’s live broadcast at 6pm PST, 9pm EST, this Sunday night. I watched a bit of last year’s broadcast and it was somber, familiar, exactly as it always is and should be, even though it was taking place 3000 miles away. Though I’ll miss the experience of being at the temple to usher in this day of Atonement, I’m thinking watching it online with thousands of others who couldn’t go in person — for their own personal, perfectly valid reasons — could become a family tradition.
For me, for her, I have no doubt that the right way to pray Sunday night is in the living room.