When I was four years old, I went into the kitchen and announced to my mother’s thighs that I was Jewish. No, honey, she said. You’re Catholic and that’s why we go to a church.
Mommy, I said. I’m Jewish. My mother always smelled like my father, but especially then.
She sighed and knelt down. How do you even know that word... and she peered at me with her green catholic eyes and Jewish nose – and I couldn’t answer her.
I wasn’t even sure what I said.
And today, I was walking and talking on the phone and a new friend asked if I was Jewish and I said, I’ve never done Ancestry or twenty three and me, but I have a feeling I am.
She said something like – you definitely are. And then she used some delightful yiddish words that lit my soul which reminded me of an 80-year old songwriter I worked with who sang a song in yiddish in my living room as part of his story…and everybody in my living room cried.
Then I told her the story of when I was four. I was walking through my neighborhood by the house of a friend because I like to take phone calls in motion when I can. And you all know how we all talk overly loud on the phone?
I was talking loudly enough that Janet heard my story from her kitchen or her living room while I passed her house and she texted me that she found out she was 49% Jewish on twenty three and me.
At moments like this I love my small town of Kilauea.
All this reminded me of being eight years old when my neighbor’s husband asked me to join him under the maple tree in a rusted lawn chair with his best friend from the city, who had a long gray beard and was a rabbi.
I gently touched the numbers on his arm – I remember a seven (completeness and perfection) and a five (humanity). He was older than most of the people I knew and suddenly my mother was standing next to me saying no, she can’t hear that story. She’s too young.
And they asked me to go stand by the white fence while my mother spoke to them in hushed tones, biting her lower lip.
In the end she trusted me to this holy man and the maple tree.
And that’s when he told me how he got the numbers on his arm – how his wife and his daughters died, they were buried in the earth next to him, but he was still alive, close enough to the surface to get air. I began to cry for his loss. I swear I could taste the dirt in his mouth, the grief on his tongue.
I never loved my family more than in that moment. I never wanted to lose them, but knew some day I would.
And the Rabbi pulled me onto his lap and told me about his God. He assured me he had another wife and new daughters and a son now and his heart had healed and he was happy.
If you are still alive, he said, you must be alive.
He had lifted me then to his gray beard, his kind eyes, my skinny legs dangling like stalks.
And I suppose this was my very first lesson in holding another person’s grief, as gently as I would hold a warm egg I wanted to put back into the nest, but the nest was gone.
His strong hands were under my armpits, and when I peered into his eyes I saw whole galaxies and the dark matter that kept those galaxies together. We were all tied to each other – and to each other’s grief, no matter the religion or the year or the age.
And I may never do Twenty Three and Me because holy shit my family tree is broken and fragmented and most days I don’t want to find the man who fathered my mother, whose skin was dark.
Because I already know we all belong to each other.
I was suspended into the truth and into the grief that day, and I have never, ever shied away from hearing anyone’s story, anyone’s truth, because one person’s grief is all of our grief.
And I learned that in a small town in New Jersey under a maple tree.
It’s a reminder we can all hold each others’ stories as gently as a small warm egg, knowing only the truth can birth any of us.
It’s really all we have.