I didn’t need to worry about what my mother would say or do, because she wasn’t here to say or do it
I feel like I’m too young to light a yahrtzeit candle.
My mother died when I was 25 years old. Her yahrtzeit is Rosh Chodesh Iyar. At the time, we were living in America, where Pesach is eight days long. Since I am notoriously bad with Hebrew dates, I relied on the fact that she passed away a week after Motzaei Pesach.
My method for remembering was foolproof. Easy to remember, Pesach is always eight days (right?). Pesach that year ended on a Thursday evening. I remembered the hectic Friday preparations. Scrambling to get challah made (shlissel challah, what a zechus!). Pulling leftovers out of the fridge. Commenting on the incongruity of eating Pesach food with challah. And, of course, finding that last Pesach Tupperware container in the back corner of the fridge, only after everything else had been cleaned and put away.
I remember the next Friday. Sitting by her bed while she received dialysis. Glancing at my watch, calculating how much time I had until Shabbos. Should I go home? Or stay with her? The decision was made for me as her breaths increasingly rattled in her chest and she left This World.
Every year I put a yahrtzeit candle on my post-Pesach grocery list. As the rest of my family is not observant, I held on to lighting for my mother as sacrosanct. I was probably one of the last Jewishly affiliated people in my family. I had a responsibility. I was literally trying to keep the torch of my mother’s memory going.
The year we moved to Israel was a year of firsts. First time living in a foreign country. First time sending our daughter off to a “real” school. And the first time (at least since I became frum), we would be holding only one Pesach Seder. And, as is the custom here in Israel, Pesach is only seven days. Not eight like everywhere else.
The excitement that first year of observing Pesach as the Torah describes was palpable. As the chag ended that year, my husband and I felt privileged to be in our land, celebrating Pesach as we felt it should be.
Then began my internal reminders. Pesach ended on Wednesday night, so the next day is Thursday, so, Mommy’s yahrtzeit is next Thursday, I kept telling myself. Thursday, don’t forget, Thursday. That week, I dutifully bought the candle. Placed it in its place of honor on the stovetop. Waiting for the sun to set crimson in the sky, the smell of graphite filled my nose as the match burst into flames. As match met wick, my eyes pricked with tears, as they always did.
After reflecting for a few minutes, I turned to take care of dinner and moderate the usual sibling squabbles as they grabbed my skirt. As the evening wore on, I would glance back at the flame, secure that I had fulfilled my task.
Later, after the kids were in bed and my husband came home from work, chatting over dinner, he commented on the candle. Then paused.
“What’s today?” he asked.
“Wait a second….” He hesitated.
“What’s the problem?”
“The last day of Pesach was—”
“Last Wednesday night,” I said, “so, Thursday is her yahrtzeit. Remember, she died a week and a day after Yom Tov ended.”
“Beryl,” he said with a gentle voice, “you mean Yom Tov in the States. You forgot that chag ends a day earlier here.”
My food sat in my throat. How could I have overlooked such an important detail?
Shame and regret overcame me.
Tears filled my eyes.
I had miscalculated my mother’s yahrtzeit.
My husband tried to reassure me. After all, anyone could have made such a mistake.
Maybe yes, maybe not. But I had.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why I was so disappointed. Yes, I had miscalculated her “day,” but it wasn’t like I couldn’t just light the candle again the next night. My rational voice kept asking me what the big deal was. There was just something about the anticlimactic-ness of blowing out the candle just to light it again the next night.
My emotional voice reminded me that the ikar of a yahrtzeit is about remembering someone. I carry my mother in my thoughts all the time, so why is that candle so important?
And, then I realized it wasn’t my voice. It was my mother’s.
She was an exacting person. High standards for herself and others. Giving compliments was not her strong suit. She expected people to remember things like birthdays, anniversaries. And what was her yahrtzeit if not the only anniversary that mattered for her now?
I berated myself. Checked the calendar over and over again. Had I really made the mistake?
A few weeks later, I found myself still struggling.
Why wasn’t I forgiving myself? And, in a moment of clarity, I realized that on some level, I was waiting for my mother’s disapproval. I was so used to hearing my mother’s critical voice, I couldn’t fathom my own disappointment enough to mark the gravity of my mistake. Unless she added to it, it was impossible for me to be upset enough.
She always felt like she had gotten a raw deal. Her father died when she was young. As a young woman coming of age in the 1960s, she became a nurse instead of a doctor, because “women just didn’t go to medical school” back then. At 47, she was diagnosed with a disease that was expected to take her life within a few short years (though in the end, she lived much, much longer than anyone expected).
This series of raw deals unfortunately became the lens through which she saw the world. And, I realized at that moment, she had passed on that inner critic to me.
I was critical of myself because I believed I was supposed to be. I now began to realize that my assumptions about my reactions weren’t really my assumptions, but rather what I assumed I thought I was supposed to do.
It was at that point that I decided to do something different.
My mother was no longer alive. I didn’t need to worry about what she would say or do, because she wasn’t here to say or do it. I didn’t have to fill that role for her or for myself anymore.
So I learned to forgive myself.
People make mistakes. People are human. And, not only is that okay, it’s just the way it is.
As I learned to forgive myself, I learned to forgive my mother. She was a tough person, focused, driven, and successful. She was also critical, but her criticism of others was more a reflection of how she felt about herself rather than how she felt about those around her. Even though that reflection wasn’t accurate either.
So, by the next time her yahrtzeit came around, I was ready.
I was ready to light the candle on time.
Forgive my mother.
This essay is l’illui nishmas my dear mother, Sima Leah bas Shaul’s, 21st yahrtzeit,
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 808)
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