Posts from the ‘death and dying’ Category

To Life, Music… and Difficult Memory

 

 

 

There was a man who kissed me the day we met. He was already 90; his musician wife stood smiling beside him.

 There was a woman whom I never met. One day I saw the words “Music saved my life,” and I knew that we were connected, close. That was this winter. Last week I found a DVD on my disorderly desk, and got to know “The Lady in Number 6” a bit better.

 Harry Jagoda, 100, and Alice Herz-Sommer, 110, both died this week.

 

 

 

 

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 Although it visits us all, grief is a strange, strange bird – different at each appearance. Perhaps because I knew neither of them intimately, perhaps because of the Holocaust, I am grieving publicly. Certainly because of music.

 In Italy a lifetime or two ago (few years before I was born) Sgt. Harry Jagoda had an employee named Flory. Her mother, her first music teacher, put her on a train saying Don’t talk with anyone; just play your accordion.

Flory Accordion Her mother’s last words were like a charm. No one asked the charming accordionist if she was Jewish. She made it to Italy. Soon the Gis were presenting their sergeant  with wedding dress, made from a parachute, for his new bride.

 Meanwhile Alice, already a concert pianist, was sent with her son Raphael to the showcase Nazi camp at Terezin. Her husband was put on another train, and disappeared into Dachau. “Every day in life is beautiful,” said Alice a few years ago, in Malcolm Clarke’s beautiful and modest documentary about her life. [ http://nickreedent.com/ ] She had earned the right to say that,  in a way we would wish on no one. Yet her voice rings more true for that.

 My grandmother, no musician, sang songs like the ones Flory Jagoda still sings and writes. One day I will ask Flory if Harry fell in love with her songs, when he fell in love with her. Sixty years later I was fortunate to become a minor voice in that counterpoint of love. Even now, in grief that the rest of us can barely guess at, Harry and Flory are circled’ round with love.

 My grandmother sang “Los Bibilicos” and the other songs because she, like Flory, grew up singing and speaking Ladino, Djudeo-Espanol, the language of those Jews who thrived in Al Andalus (Muslim Spain) and fled the Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. Their descendents were, like my grandmother’s family, thriving in Greece in the 1930s. And in Bosnia like Flory’s family. (When Their Catholic Majesties declared the Expulsion in 1492, the Ottoman Sultan welcomed Jews into his North African and Mediterranean empire.)

 As I said, I am writing this because grief is a strange bird. My grandmother survived a stillborn child, her entire family from Salonika swallowed by the Holocaust, and years later her only granddaughter. But after a minor accident she told me, her only grandson, that she had had enough. She died two days later.

 In 1955, I think, we all shared her one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. We shared it with a couple from grandma’s home town. I was eight, and I didn’t know what the blue numbers on their arms were for, the tatooes that enrolled them at Auschwitz.

 While my father– another sergeant –served in t North Africa and Italy, the world of European Jews ( like his fathers Polish parents and his wife’s Greek ones) came to an end. Although blissfully or willfully ignorant of that fate, other Americans in 1941 were looking at the possibility that Hitler’s war of conquest would succeed – and maybe that the world as they knew it would also end.

 “You don’t have to be Jewish” to believe in 2014 that are entire world, our planet itself, is in deep danger. Political violence and climate change are both products of human arrogance and domination, that now appear in the clothing of corporatist transnational Power.

 Some will say that to mix politics and personal grief is a sin, a desecration, or at best a sad delusion.

 But I reject all pious complacency, all denial – however sympathetic and understandable –- of the magnitude of our danger. Harry and Alice both lived long, beautiful, life-affirming lives. They chose affirmation as does Flory, in her life and her music. They know at what cost the preciousness of life is maintained.

 They knew and know (I imagine Alice Herz Sommer nodding here) what Franz Schubert somehow composed  before dying at 31. What the young officer and poet Wilfred Owen left us before the last guns of World War I stopped his mouth.

 Goodbye Harry whom I knew for a few mere hugs and kisses. Goodbye Alice whom I knew only as a voice, an image, a smile. Who said we should thank Bach and Beethoven and Schubert for making us happy.

 Through my tears I say thank you Harry Jagoda and Alice Herz Sommer. You are gone and you remain, while we remain.

Lay6cara

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/alice-herz-sommer-concert-pianist-and-holocaust-survivor-dies-at-110/2014/02/26/f3f38f40-9e6a-11e3-a050-dc3322a94fa7_story.html

The Map of Syria: Another Graveyard?

In Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a ghostly old couple adopt a baby that has been in desperation left in their cemetary. Thus the dead again care for the living – as we must care for the dead. Neither of “us” have done such a good job.

Such were my thoughts after reading Liz Sly’s brutally comprehensive front-page Washington Post piece this morning. on the history of the “map” – political, sectarian, religious – of the former Ottoman empire. After three years of war and no end in sight, Syria is of course the focus.

Here are some quotes taken, but re-arranged,  from the article. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrias-civil-war-tests-whether-borders-drawn-less-than-a-century-ago-will-last/2013/12/26/6718111c-68e2-11e3-997b-9213b17dac97_story.html)

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We never had borders…. a long time ago, the French came and drew these lines. —  Mohammed Shamas,  shopkeeper near the line between Syria and Lebanon

If Syria is partitioned, there will be war for 100 years to come. The Alawites will have the coast, the Kurds will have the oil, and the Sunnis will be in the middle with nothing. — Abu Zeid, 37, Syrian refugee.

They made sure when those borders were drawn to maintain trouble between us forever. —  Mohammed al-Jamalhis farm in Syria and Lebanon.

The wars will change, but there will always be wars. — Issam Bleibeh, deputy mayor of Hermel, Lebanon-Syria.

The only solution is to share everything. Abu Zeid.

…it is all very difficult to predict.  Fawaz Gerges, London School of Economics.

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Gravedigger, pt.2

Here is the poem I misremembered a line from, in my sleep, in my grief, in the previous post (“Gravedigger”).

It was written over 40 years ago, after my sister died. Her maternal Grandfather, Sabbatai (“Sam”), died in 1950 or 1951, some months before Susan was born.

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Sandy Among Angels

Who are these gauze-and-bandage
diaphanous birds squatting in clouds?
I fell out of green,
I fell out of green! Nothing
but to search among the dead
for grandpa Sam’s grey eyes.
My face is bruised in the torn cotton.
Sam, grandma, any-
one, where has the world gone?
It fell from behind my eyes
in a hospital, in a quivering
rosepetal on the sill; someone said
Her pulse fluttered like a just-born bird!
and then it leapt
still blind, white, still-born
among the eternal corrupt angels.

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Susan&Sadie

Susan and her grandma Sadie, c. 1960

Gravedigger

Tuesday afternoon I dug a hole in the rocky clay hill behind our house. It was a small hole, but difficult for my unlimber body to dig into the spot I had chosen beneath a laurel bush. I knew the grave was large enough when I carefully laid the stiff body of our cat Pooh alongside of it.

We were away for three days. It seemed as if Pooh had waited for us, because when we found him he started to cry, and then howl as Lilia tried to give him water within eyedropper. He was our baby, and his howl was a baby’s puzzled protest and cry for help. We could only comfort him and cry ourselves. He vomited and then rattled terribly for about a minute. I got up to look for some antibiotic. When I returned, Lilia said He’s gone.

Pooh was 19; we learned from our niece who was feeding him while we were gone that he had bled from his nose and begun stumble sideways. So the shock was grave, but without much surprise. During those few minutes Lilia mobilized like the caring skillful nurse-mother that she is. Her own expressions of pain cause me to sob harder, from a place beyond words. Later I thought of my father saying It wasn’t supposed to be like this, as he lay dying in my arms. In the middle of the night I awoke thinking “Her heart fluttered like a just-born bird,” which is a misquoted line from a poem I wrote over 40 years ago, after my sister had died.

My mother, who is 91, through the first handful of earth into the grave; I had to help her remain standing. Lilia’s mother Florinda, who is 99, was also there. Her mind is often in the past, but never more in the present then with our baby grandson, and the animals who live in our home. Florinda used to pick Pooh up like a baby and wrap him in the blanket on her lap.

In my mind, lives and deaths have always flowed merging and separating like streams of water. I think of one, I think of many. The warm rising and falling of Pooh’s chest that I could no longer find as I kneeled on the living room floor. Hospitals and the Holocaust. Baltimore and Africa. Frederick, Maryland and Falastin. That is who I am. Almost – maybe – like a professional mourner. Brother. Teacher. Grandpa. Gravedigger.

Life goes on, “they” say, usually leaving out that death, too, goes on. So, for now, our family goes on – without one beloved creature that added so much to it. On top of the mound of earth I placed a round plaster plaque that had been in our garden: Kindness is the greatest wisdom.

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