The matriarchs grow old, my models, women who were women when I was a child. Who will be left to call me “Faygele” when they are no longer there? With no one but me to recall my childhood, who will validate the memories? They will carry pieces of me when they go. How much of their strength will they bequeath to me? The years pass, and the distance between us collapses in fan folds; one day I will be standing where they are now…” A Leak in the Heart, by Faye Moskowitz
Little did I know when I was reading this passage just a few weeks ago that one of my own “matriarchs” was so near being lost to me. My great-aunt, whose husband died just three months ago, became ill suddenly on September 16, 2009, and passed away last Saturday, just nine days later.
The day I first read the essay which begins with the passage quoted above, I spent the afternoon with my aunt. She and my uncle were childless, and many of the tasks normally undertaken by daughters and sons have fallen to me. It’s right, really. I lived just across the street from them for my entire childhood, and was in and out of their house as if it were an extension of my own. They became an extra set of parents to me, another pair of grandparents to my son. All summer, I’ve been helping her sort through the business re-arrangements necessary upon the death of a spouse. So we had made (another!) trip to the bank, and stopped off for lunch at her favorite neighborhood restaurant. Her appetite had been very poor since my uncle’s death, and I was pleased to see her tuck into the mound of mashed potatoes on her plate.
“I sure don’t know what I would have done without you to help me,” she said. “I just could never have gotten through all this stuff by myself.”
“I bet you could have,” I answered, although I know it would have been difficult. My aunt was the baby in her family of seven siblings, and as such, was spoiled by parents and older sisters alike. My uncle picked up right where her family left off, and until he became ill with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago, she had never so much as written a check. But she has managed their finances quite well during the last few years, and all bills have been paid on time, her check book was balanced, the car insurance and registration up to date.
I think my aunt had a reservoir of strength she never really tapped into, for her life was relatively easy, with very little heartache or sorrow. In just these last years, caring for my uncle as he descended ever deeper into dementia, she was forced to summon resources she’d never used before.
I never thought much about birthdays, and my 30th and 40th passed by easily and with little compunction. My 50th birthday, three years ago, brought a certain amount of angst with it, for I knew in my heart that the decade between 50 and 60 would be marked by many deaths. It’s inevitable, really…all my “matriarchs” – my aunts, my mother, even a couple of my closest friends – are in their 70’s and 80’s. In the past 12 months alone, I’ve lost three of them – two aunts, and an uncle. And yes, they’ve “carried pieces of my childhood” with them.
But in their lives, and in their deaths, they teach me. Grief etches lines and wrinkles on my face, but it also builds steel in my spine, making me breathe a little deeper, and stand a bit taller in my own life. A few years ago, I might have considered myself as living a rather charmed life – my worries were few and minor, my blessings many. After this year I have to think differently, for the world weighs heavily on my shoulders these days, and I would give much to turn back the clock a decade or two.
The days whirl by in a rhythm of their own, free-wheeling, out of my control. I grab at the nights with my fingertips and cannot hold on. Be productive, I tell myself, not certain any longer just what my quota is. I write, I teach, I mother and wife, I eat and drink and read. But my shadow shortens and threatens to catch up with me. I look to the matriarchs for their secrets and see they are falling. They speak to me with words that echo Eliot’s Wasteland. HURRY UP, they say. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.
by Faye Moskowitz
by David R. Godine, Publisher