“We’re all just walking each other home.”-Ram Dass
On March 27, 1924 a child was born to Henrietta and Edward Hirsch. Her name was Selma Rose and in the midst of a large extended family, which included an adoring older brother Jim, as well as 12 aunts and uncles on her mother’s side alone, she thrived. She used to tell me that she was shy around new people because as a child, her playmates were mostly my uncle and her many cousins. They all lived within a a few block radius in Philadelphia and would spend many summers at the Jersey shore in a rented house where marathon Monopoly games would ensue. My mother was a devoted daughter who, after her own father died when she was 18, lived together with my grandmother until her death right after my 4th birthday. When my parents married in 1956, my dad moved into the house in which my mother had been raised. In 1961, a year and a half after I was born in 1958, the four of us moved to the New Jersey suburb of Willingboro. My father used to say “I didn’t move in with them, she didn’t move in with us, we all lived together.” They had an atypical in-law relationship. She was involved, but but not invasive, offering mother love, but not smother love. When she passed, she left a space, but not a gaping hole. My parents held her in memory and would invoke her name and example, as if this ‘third parent’ was still a presence in many ways. As my mother aged, I saw more of my grandmother in her and would marvel at some of the stories she shared about my “Giggie” (since I couldn’t pronounce grandma, or anything sounding remotely like it and the name stuck:). Even the neighborhood kids referred to her that way. The first time I visited my mother in the hospital less than a year before she died, I saw her as a vision of my grandmother lying in the bed, with oxygen and all the healing accoutrement surrounding her.
I have precious memories of my second day of kindergarten, when my mother walked me almost all of the way there. It was only four blocks from 123 Pheasant Lane to the Pennypacker Park Elementary School and on the first day, she accompanied me door to door. On day two, she walked me to the end of the street, or so I thought. Later, she told me that she stayed far enough behind, so that I didn’t see that she really followed me to the school, so I would feel like a ‘big kid’ and she could still be sure that I arrived safely. On day three, I was flying solo! And so it was throughout my life. She remained close enough for support if need be and yet, unobtrusive and non-interfering. Yes, she kvelled (Yiddish for bursting with pride) at the successes of my sister Jan and me and yet, didn’t take credit for them. She and my dad encouraged excellence in all we did, but didn’t push. We were both competitive swimmers and she always told us that once it stopped being fun, we weren’t going to do it anymore. It never stopped being fun and I was on a team from ages 11-18 and then coached for three summers that followed.
She encouraged me to follow my dreams, and in many ways, helped to shape the creative aspirations of the woman whose words you are now reading. She fed us books as if they were just as vital a form of nourishment as food, affection, praise and guidance. We were surrounded by word-wisdom and the library felt like a toy store to me, a magical place where a library card was a key to a treasure trove. She would take us there each week for story hour and to bring home stacks of books that I zipped through, hungry for more. She would read to us and we to her.
In the last few months of her life, I once again resumed that ritual, except I was the one entertaining her by reading cards and letters friends and family sent to her, as well as chapters from my then-book-in-process. She did alot of kvelling then and reminded me that she would have enjoyed them even if she wasn’t my mother. That was high praise for sure. She loved to sing and her favorite which became mine was Nature Boy, sung by Nat King Cole. In the last few years of her earthly incarnation, we would often sing it to each other.
Tomorrow, as I celebrate her 88th birthday…not sure exactly how I will honor her memory, I am beyond grateful to have been born to her and my father (pictured on their dream trip to Israel). Recently my son Adam and I watched family videos from my childhood and I marveled at how young and beautiful she had been and in more recent images, how she had aged well and was lovely still. Adam had shot a mini-video of her wheeling her way on her walker through the hallway in her Ft. Lauderdale condo the summer before her passing. It is the only recording I have of her voice and as he saw what I was typing, he encouraged me to watch it again. It took less than a minute, but it was just enough to bring on a tearful trickle and wistful smile. Although I was not with her when she passed, on November 26, 2010, I felt that, just as she had walked me to school, I was indeed walking her Home, watching from a few steps behind.
Happy Birthday, Mama-cakes!
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”
http://youtu.be/-_m0etqUNg0 Nature Boy