The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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It’s autumn, and I’m listening to Rickie Lee Jones sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story as I drive up Route 2, the sun in my eyes, my rose-tinted glasses giving the fall colors a makeover. And why not a bit of deception for a woman like me, a sucker for a raspy voice and sentimental Broadway lyrics such as these: “Make of our hands, one hand, / Make of our hearts, one heart”? Soon my eyes are wet, and I can barely see the view as Rickie Lee sings, “Now it begins, now we start; / One hand, one heart. / Even death won’t part us now.”
Yes, I see again that I’m a weepy Platonist longing for beauty, for the ideal, always hungry for essential union. I first heard this song sung by Tony and Maria in the wedding scene of West Side Story when I was a morose teenager, obsessed with ill-fated romance and the Holocaust. Right now, I’m not thinking about these two obsessions of my youth, but about my dead mother, and I don’t want to revisit this grief because it’s an old ache that has little to do with the actual Ruth and her faults. (Three years after her passing, I can still easily list them: critical, demanding, controlling.) All this colorful emotion today seems to have nothing to do with the ache for her, and the ache seems to have nothing to do with anything I can name. Yet, along with the old grief, there is a red sun rising within me — and that’s about as far as I can get without telling you the story of the crow and the mezuzah.
When I was thirteen, my mother gave me a mezuzah, a tiny piece of parchment inscribed with a Jewish prayer and enclosed in a small case. Though traditionally attached to the front door post of Jewish homes, it can also be worn around the neck. The one my mother gave me was filigreed silver and very unlike the fancy-schmancy gold jewelry she usually insisted I wear. To my radical dismay, I liked it. It grew warm with the heat of my young body as I went around dreaming of better days. By “better days,” I mean those that would include a handsome boy who adored me, a brilliant career in the ballet, and a trip on an ocean liner to France — or, at least, a trip away from our apartment in Queens: goofy Michael Epstein playing “Chopsticks” upstairs; my mother looking me up and down before school and insisting that I exchange my sneakers for “real shoes”; and the leaden presence of my father, stiff as one of those ventriloquist’s dummies on TV. My father rarely spoke to me, unlike the handsome boy of my dreams, who found a seat next to mine on the ocean liner, read poetry aloud, and talked for days, mostly about me.
On the parchment scroll inside the case was printed the Shema, the holiest of all Jewish prayers. I’d prod the prayer scroll through the small opening in the back, making it dance up and down. I’d memorized the words in Hebrew school, so I didn’t have to take it out and read them now: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” This monotheistic anthem of the ancient Jews is, I realize now, oddly akin to Tony and Maria’s “Make of our hearts, one heart.” This idea of oneness conveys to me a soft fusion, without thrusting or effort, an encompassing safety. If no one can separate you from the whole, then you can’t be blamed, tagged, shot.
I wore the mezuzah intermittently as an adult, but returned to wearing it regularly during my mother’s dying years. I bought a new chain for it with a foolproof lobster-claw catch, and it would sometimes hit my husband in the face when we made love. It lay cold and wet against my skin when I swam in the neighbor’s pond, with tadpoles darting around me and the trees rising above, like strong hands holding up a heavy burden.
The prayer scroll had visibly browned and shrunk, but I could still see it through the small opening. As my mother traveled backward in time, her body contracting and her mind doing the odd tangos, foxtrots, and hokeypokeys of dementia, the mezuzah stayed with me. I held it as I stared at her in bed. I wore it as I set down my grief on page after page and inadvertently began a book. The mezuzah was steadfast, like the wild apple tree entangled by grapevines outside my study window, like nature in all her manifestations. I found solace in my gardens, in the fact of grass and flowers, in how the earth supported my body as I knelt to work the soil or lay down on it to rest and breathed in its familiar, ancient smell.
When at last my mother died, I took the mezuzah off and placed it in a small, carved wooden box, which had replaced the large, black, fake-leather jewelry box she’d once bought me. I felt relief after her passing, and, happily, mystically, I seemed to find her in my gardens, in the tidy sky, in the untidy woods. I continued to hear her voice, softer now, but still advising me.
I finished my book, which was accepted by a small press. A friend asked if she could read it, then passed it on to a friend of hers who funds unusual projects. A few weeks later, that friend of a friend offered me a sizable grant to help publicize my book and get it into the world’s hands. I discovered that the philanthropist’s money had come from Holocaust reparations. I’d been born just as the camps were being liberated, so this gift felt like the completion of a circle, another layer in the healing of an unspeakable, and mysteriously personal, wound.
Oddly, I could no longer wear the mezuzah. I’d put it on, then quickly remove it. I asked a friend who was wise in such esoteric matters what to do. “Margaret,” I said, “I can’t wear it; it has bad energy or something.” I explained how it was emotionally tied to my mother’s long, hard death and to all other forms of Hebraic misery. “Is there any way to kind of ‘clean’ it? I’d like to wear it again.”
Margaret suggested I take it outside in my yard and find a tree — “You’ll know which one is right,” she said — then put one end of the mezuzah in the earth under the tree and let the tree’s roots “take the negativity out of it.” I was to leave it there for twenty-four hours.
Her instructions reminded me of how, in our kosher home, when a fork meant for dairy was accidentally stabbed into a piece of chicken or meatloaf, Mom would stick the fork in the soil of a potted philodendron (the planter was in the shape of a donkey wearing a sombrero) and leave it there for twenty-four hours; according to Jewish law, this would purify the fork.
I found the “right” tree easily — a barren maple — then brushed aside the dry leaves at its base and placed my mezuzah, with its new chain and lobster-claw catch, partly in the ground. Then I went inside, wrote myself a note, and taped it to my desk as a reminder: “Mezuzah below maple behind garden with arrowwood border.”
Twenty-four hours later, I walked slowly, almost ceremoniously, across the yard, found my tree, and looked down. The mezuzah was gone. I got down on my knees and pawed at the ground. Then I got a rake and combed the entire area. I got back down on my knees and ran my fingers though grass, dirt, and leaves. Nothing.
I ran into the house to tell my husband what had happened. After a long round of questions to make sure I hadn’t simply forgotten where I’d put it, he said, “Crows like shiny things. Sometimes they put them in their nests.”
Just then, a dark flock of crows flew noisily over our land.
“People underestimate crows,” he added.
I went back outside and stood beside the tree under which my most treasured personal possession had been lost. I looked down at the ground and up at the sky. I thought of the crow plucking the mezuzah from the ground and spiriting it away, and, to my surprise, my sorrow began to lift. I moved from a state of dark panic to one of joy and freedom. I loved the idea of a bird flying sky-high, the silver chain hanging from its beak, the legacy of bondage, persecution, and grief taken up into a clear blue fall sky. It was nature, after all — the shiny fortress of the night sky, the earth with all her green indifference — that had comforted me during and after my mother’s death. Surely, I owed it a gift in return.