My Mother's Words (and Stuff)

It's seven months today since my mother died. Her death, and this passage of time, are always on my mind. I replay her stroke over and over in my head, and the weeks after. Some of the intensity of these memories has dulled in the intervening months, as you might expect, even though I don't want them dulled. Then this month my sister and I began the arduous task of revisiting our mother's home, our childhood home, and beginning to sort through the things that are all that's left now that Mom is gone.

When our father died 14 years ago, the loss was tremendous, but not structural. That is, the house and the family remained intact. There was a chunk missing, but nothing crumbled. But losing a second parent disintegrates the family system. The family I came from is gone. My sister and I are close; we are linked to each other horizontally along the family tree. But there's nothing above us. And where there once was something, there's now only stories and stuff. A house full of stuff.

I've been cautious about writing too much about this. We all have losses; and terrible things are happening in the world right now demanding our attention and compassion. No one needs to listen to my droning on about my mother. But still, this week seemed right to yield a bit to the temptation. Because this week we begin reading the fifth book of Torah: Deuteronomy, in Hebrew called D'varim. It begins,

Eyleh had'varim asher diber Moshe el B'nei Yisrael...

"These are the d'varim that Moshe spoke to the Children of Israel."

This book is made up of the d'varim, (which we will, for now, translate as "words") that Moshe spoke. It is a great and lengthy speech given to the people on more or less the eve of the prophet's death. In it he recounts the people's journeys and struggles and the laws they were given, as well as offering a generous helping of advice of his own. This book being titled as the "words of Moshe" is in its way ironic, since all the words of Torah are, in our tradition, those of Moshe. Or those of God given through Moshe. And even here, Moshe is, in our imagination, doing the overall transmission, as he does for the rest of Torah. So in D'varim, as if in an iterative loop, he is now telling the story of his telling the story.

So why this second telling? In Greek it's called Deuteronomy, the second law. But it's not a different law or even just a recap of the law given in earlier books. It's a rerun of all the travels and traumas, a final summary, a postcard from the wilderness sent into the future. Is Moshe modeling something about how you make sense of a journey? You retell it, using d'varim?

But d'varim is a squishy and surprising word in Hebrew. It's root, d-b-r, as a verb typically means "to speak." As a noun, davar (plural: d'varim) means variously, and with fairly equal distribution, "word" and "thing." What is the connection between a "word" and a "thing?"

When I was an undergraduate in linguistics, we were taught a theory, unpopular at the time or at least unprovable, called the Whorf Hypothesis. Benjamin Whorf, in his work on what was termed "linguistic relativism," made an argument that language was essential and precedent to thought. That we cannot think about things for which we have no words. Language defines the categories through which we perceive, well, everything. The academic world, protective of its ability to think above all else, frowned on this idea. Sure, language helped you express ideas cleverly, clearly, but ideas were primary, and not dependent on having language to name them.

But there's been a resurgence in this kind of understanding as we grasp more about the brain through neurology and neuro-linguistics. The prevailing science now suggests that language itself builds brain pathways, forges connections between disparate islands of understanding within the brain. When language is lost, so are things. The ability to connect observations into complex thoughts; the ability to see oneself as separate from the whole are wiped away. Things lose their thinginess. Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor writes about the stroke she suffered 18 years ago, in which a left hemisphere brain bleed left her languageless. And in her language-free state, she was like an infant, without distinction between her world and the world. Without thoughts to trouble her, without thought even as to the passage of time.

So as far as perception and meaning are concerned, words and things turn out to be intimately tied up with each other. Words are the stuff of things.

My mother died without words. Like Bolte Taylor, hers was a left hemisphere bleed, depriving her of useful speech for the last five weeks of her life. She did not seem to lose her receptive language, or not all of it. She revealed an awareness of her surroundings, a recognition of people. She could respond appropriately with facial expressions to stories being told or greetings being relayed. She would roll her eyes at the mention of someone whose mention would normally have brought about the rolling of eyes. She would laugh at jokes, not just as a reflex to tone of voice and other social cues (as some of the more cynical doctors suggested), but even at subtle jokes delivered in impenetrable deadpan. For this reason she didn't seem as far gone as Bolte Taylor initially was; she wasn't in some pre-lingual state of Oneness with the vast universe.

Mom was present. She seemed to understand. But she couldn't create language. She could, in a garbled way, provide a missing lyric to a Gershwin standard; she could sort of speak along with the shema. She could give forth words when the giving forth of words was a rote act. But she couldn't use those utterances to communicate. It was as if understanding was on one island in her brain and language was on another, and there was no bridge between them. So while she might squeeze your hand lovingly, if you asked her to squeeze your hand to signify yes or no, her ability to squeeze your hand instantly left her.

Before her stroke, my mother was rarely at a loss for words. She read, she wrote emails, she mastered Facebook at age 80. She learned to read Hebrew over and over beginning in late middle age, never satisfied with her progress. Nonetheless at 79 she chanted Torah for the first time on Yom Kippur in Cotati, California; a beautiful piece of Parashat Nitzavim that I'd assigned her, saving the closest-to-home thought for her, ki hamitzvah hazot - "this mitzvah is not too wondrous or remote for you." She was frequently on the phone with her friends, or her cousins, or her cousins' children, or her grand nieces. She lived in the telling. Her primary way of relaying information was through the story of how she received the information, reenacting the dialogs involved in that process.

She, like me, was full of words. Kind words, as a rule. But words.

She was also not at a loss for things. And this part sometimes distressed her.

In 1958 my parents masterminded a move out of the city of Chicago. They would become suburbanites, transplanting to the Village of Niles which, though it abutted Chicago's northwest side, was still "the country." Otzinplotz.

The developers offered three home layouts. My parents chose the ranch house with the full basement. They chose the brick color and the window size too. They chose the paint and the flagstone and the trees.

The basement of the house in Niles soon became a "thing." It stopped being invisible architecture and asserted itself. First off, it was a dozen steps below ground and, it seems, situated below the actual water table, or at least the water table on stormy Chicago summer nights, when too many inches of rain in too few minutes would cause the Village sewer pipes to fill and overflow and back up into any structure stupid enough to live at that depth. My childhood, my parents' empty nest life, and my mother's old age were all punctuated by basement floods, wiping out whatever was unlucky or unimportant enough to be caught on a low shelf.

The natural rhythm of floodwater was, in fact, just about the only culling system ever deployed in that basement, whose vast holdings of untouched items continued to grow over time. I think of Bellatrix Lestrange's violently self-replicating vault contents in Harry Potter. Or another generation could think of Fibber McGee.

My parents were very central in both their families. They were beloved and trustworthy, and they were the people with the big unfinished basement. What this meant was that as generations died, whatever of those people's things remained unclaimed would end up in our basement. Silverware. Photo albums. Fur coats. Scrapbooks. Financial records. Sheet music. Never absorbed into use, but held in suspension. An additional burial. A genizah.

And not just the personal effects of the dead. Relatives who moved out of state would consign to my parents' basement whatever keepsakes they didn't have room for in the moving truck, only to "forget" them there permanently. Meanwhile, my mother, who hated to entertain, whose anxiety dreams always involved company coming over unannounced or not having enough food to serve on Thanksgiving; my mother would receive gifts over time - wedding, anniversary, business gifts. Trays, punchbowls, coffee service, chip-dip sets. Beautiful items that would mostly stay in their original boxes in the basement, in the hope that there would never be enough guests in the house to actually necessitate their use.

Over time, my sister's and my childhood things took up residence down there as we went on to college and our adult lives. Papers, drawings, scout projects, school assignments from kindergarten through high school. Bicycles, furniture, board games and enough papier-maché to keep you fed for a good post-apocalyptic month. Add to this my parents' business records. And my grandparents'. And my great grandparents'. And then the items of pure sentiment - cards. Birthday cards, anniversary cards, Jewish new year, Christmas, get well and, the hardest to part with, condolence cards and memorial books for a variety of relatives. All these found their way into boxes and onto shelves.

My mother became helpless thrall to this sea of stuff. She was a museum guard, entrusted with keys but no instructions, then abandoned indefinitely by the rest of the staff. My mother saw the burgeoning basement as her failure. If she were a stronger or better or different kind of person, the past would never have accreted in such an aggressively physical form.

But it wasn't her fault. It was too great a responsibility for any one person. She was the vault keeper for over a century of family history. Nothing could be discarded guiltlessly; everything demanded a curator's eye or a historian's. Not for economic value, although certainly there were and are many collectibles sitting there still. But for some other kind of value. For the lives that these things represent; for the stories these things still have to tell.

Mom was not incapable of throwing things away; she just couldn't throw away stories, especially other people's stories, her loved ones' stories. And the basement became the repository, the library of all of those stories. All the words from those now-silent voices. And so, in her helplessness, if once in a while she unconsciously shelved a box or three too low and - surprise! - they were wiped out in the next flood, who could truly blame her?

Over the years my sister and I begged Mom to move to California. But she didn't want to give up her life in Chicago, her friends, her house. Of course if she moved west, she could have flown back and seen her friends with the same frequency with which she now saw her children and grandchildren. But I think the house held her; particularly the basement. She was someone who enjoyed the active retelling of the past, and I think she could not imagine its erasure, which is how I believe she saw the task of clearing the basement out.

Since she's died, there are no more words from her. And she didn't get her final chance to recap her story, like Moshe did. Not yet, at least. But even without words, there are the things, oh the things!

The basement full of memories - her memories, our memories, and the memories of other people long gone - memories about which we can now only speculate. In beginning the ambitious work, my sister and I have morphed from being liquidators to being curators. Every item has its story, every thing is a word. Our job is to release the story from the prison of physical form; to let it return to its existence in the world of word. We call each other over from opposite sides of the basement. "Look at this." "Remember this?" "Was this Aunt Hattie's? Aunt Anne's? Whose?"

Where we don't know the story, we guess. And in some cases we can only shrug.

My sister commented on the childhood papers and the greeting cards. She said, "You put these away thinking that some day you'll revisit them. And now that's what we're doing." On Mom's behalf, on Dad's, on our grandmothers' and grandfathers' and great aunts' behalves, we are revisiting them and trying, through the din of silence and years, to hear their voices one more time. Some of those voices might make it to this page. And others, well, if they just make it once more to my ears and my heart, that will be have to be enough.

Eyleh had'varim.

These are the words. These are the things.