A Letter to My Tante Essie / My Dearest Aunt Esther

Hello Auntie Dearest,

My mom sent me a text today and asked me to call her. When she does this I know she has something sad or important to tell me. I called her like a good, obedient daughter (I hear you saying those words to me).  Mom told me that you passed away – she and I both cried. Arthur called my mom to share the news and explained that you had passed away the night before. Arthur is quite the character and I know he has given you your share of upset and hurt over the years. I know Seth will be there to honor you and I hope Ross, his wife and their baby can come to Arizona to honor you as well.  I am trying to visualize your memorial and I am having a hard time. Will Melissa and David come? What will Betty do? I am not sure we are invited. If we were, I am not sure I would go. I think I would prefer to stay out of their dynamics and focus on honoring you in my way.

I am glad you are no longer suffering. I know these past months have been quite painful for you. Physical suffering really takes a toll on one’s spirit, body and mind.  You always prided yourself on your brain – both your smarts and your memory. You took pride in the fact that you were still mentally strong, not repeating yourself, remembering the past and present. Mom said she talked to you about a month ago and for the first time she could remember, you repeated yourself a few times during the conversation. That is so unlike you and mom knew you really were not feeling well. You always managed to be a light for all of us, even when you did not feel well. You were so full of love for us all.  Thank you.

Tonight I find myself feeling grateful that I got to see you several months ago during my last business trip to Phoenix. It was a joy to have lunch with you. And I knew even then that you were not feeling yourself because you actually told me.  I knew on some level during that visit that it might be our last. I feel that I did a terrible job of keeping in touch with you via phone. I hope that the postcards I sent from my business trips helped to fill the void of my lack of phone communication.

Your experience with loss spanned a lifetime. Relatives lost in the Holocaust when you were a young girl, the loss of your own mother and father to illness and old age. Your dear son Jay, passing away in his thirties from the heart attack. Then you lost your husband, Uncle Saul after you moved to New Jersey.  Then your nephew, my dad, Ivan passed away and then my dear grandmother and your sister-in-law Audrey. My Grandfather, your only brother, Marc was the most recent to pass away.  I know you lost many friends from New Jersey and Far Rockaway over the years too. And always when we spoke on the phone, your voice was strong, you told jokes, you shared stories and you loved us.

You played the role of connector for my dad, my mom, me and Ben. Grandpop rarely spoke about childhood, your parents, his Bar Mitvah, speaking Yiddish and growing up in Brooklyn. It seemed to be a time in his life that he did not wish to revisit. The stories you told of our relatives, our Great Grandparents and New York were full of mischief and both happy and sad times. You held onto those memories as a source of joy and connection. I do not criticize Grandpop for his choice not to share, but I never understood why. He seemed to have a lot more anger and pain surrounding his early years. You mentioned more than once that maybe being the youngest child shaped your perspective and childhood in a different way. Perhaps  you really never knew why either.

I am reminiscing now of my family’s visits to your home in Cranbury, NJ. This was years after you and Uncle Saul moved from Far Rockaway. Years after Grandmom and Grandpop moved to Florida. Before Ben was born it was usually my Mom, Dad and me.  We would come for the day and you would provide the food. All the Jewish food my dad’s heart could desire; bagels, lox, cream cheese, borsht, gefilte fish, herring, tomatoes and onion.  I thought most of it was gross in those days, but not to worry, my Jewish genes have kicked in. I now like a good bagel with lox, cream cheese, tomato, onion and capers. My dad would be so proud. It is one of my small ways of calling him to mind and now I will be reminded of you too.

When I got off of the phone with my mom tonight, I read a Baha’i prayer for you.  The words expressed everything I desire for your soul.  If I could say it in Yiddish I would, just for you.

O Lord, O Thou Whose mercy hath encompassed all, Whose forgiveness is transcendent, Whose bounty is sublime, Whose pardon and generosity are all-embracing, and the lights of Whose forgiveness are diffused throughout the world! O Lord of glory! I entreat Thee, fervently and tearfully to cast upon Thy handmaiden who hath ascended unto Thee the glances of the eye of Thy mercy. Robe her in the mantle of Thy grace, bright with the ornaments of the celestial Paradise, and, sheltering her beneath the tree of Thy oneness; illumine her face with the lights of Thy mercy and compassion. Bestow upon Thy heavenly handmaiden, O God, the holy fragrances born of the spirit of Thy forgiveness. Cause her to dwell in a blissful abode, heal her griefs with the balm of Thy reunion, and, in accordance with Thy will, grant her admission to Thy holy Paradise. Let the angels of Thy loving-kindness descend successively upon her, and shelter her beneath Thy blessed Tree. Thou art, verily, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Generous, the All-Bountiful. -‘Abdu’l-Baha’

I hope you feel the words reach you as your soul travels to its next home.  Oh if I could call you now, I would definitely ask you about the next world. And yet, that is a great mystery left for each of us to discover when our body passes away and our soul journeys on. I can picture you with Uncle Saul, Jay, Grandpop, Grandmom and my Dad. What an all-star team I have in the next world! When I think about it that way, it is hard to believe I could be so blessed. You always had a special connection with my mom’s mom, Gladys too. I can only imagine that my Grandmother Gladys has welcomed you with open arms.

I have been reading a book by a woman named Naomi Remen. She is both Jewish and a doctor (She did well, right?). The book is called My Grandfather’s Blessings. Her essays are beautiful and remind me of the richness of the Jewish teachings and culture.  I wish now that I had talked to you about the book. There are so many beautiful stories and words in Hebrew that hold such powerful meaning. I read one of Naomi’s stories today while getting a pedicure (I know, I live such a life of leisure). I decided while sitting in the nail salon that I would write about the story for my blog. This is before I found out that you passed away.

It is a wonderful and divine coincidence that I read this story today of all days. In the story Naomi talks about the Sh’ma prayer that is taught to young children and often recited before going to sleep at night. It is also traditional for Jews to say this as their last words. I was touched by the simplicity of this daily prayer and the idea that it follows one from childhood to death. There are a few translations from the Hebrew to English, here is one of them.

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad – Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

As your shikseh great niece I make the following promises to you: I will keep bubbee, bubeleh, tuchas, shnoz, tchatzkies and oi vai alive. I will use those words with humor, lightness and love.  I will continue to honor our ancestors and eat traditional Jewish food. When I visit New York I will fondly remember that it is our family’s American homeland where you, my Grandfather, Grandmother and Dad were born.  I will love my family with all my heart, following your example.

May you rest well with your Lord dearest Auntie.

With love,

Amy

Note to readers: Tante, used in the title of this piece is the Yiddish word for Aunt.

My great Aunt Esther passed away last week on September 10, 2013, in Scottsdale, AZ. She was my Grandfather’s sister, my Dad’s Aunt. She was a delight; loving, strong-willed, feisty, full of humor, a tad bit vane and wonderfully New York Jewish. She grew up speaking Yiddish, married fairly late for time (at the age of 26, and prided herself on her fashion sense and design skills. She was married to Saul Landau and raised two sons, Arthur and Jay. Jay died in his thirties from a widow-maker heart attack. He left a wife, toddler daughter and an infant son behind. Arthur also had children, two boys, also my cousins. Aunt Esther loved her family with every fiber of her being and did that through some very rough times. Certain members of my family have a pension for enacting silence when they are angry and not speaking to others for months or years. Aunt Esther endured the silent treatment on multiple occasions and always loved right through the pain and conflict. When the silent party chose to emerge and speak again, she always welcomed them back. I have observed this trait in other Jewish families where the trend of invoking silence is used. I do not know if it is a Jewish thing, a New York thing or an Eastern European thing. Maybe it does not matter. I was never very close to Aunt Esther’s children and grandchildren. My family was always much closer with Aunt Esther and Uncle Saul.

Esther was raised in Brooklyn New York with my Grandfather in an apartment on Eastern Parkway. She went to the all-girls public school and he attended the all-boys school. My Great Grandparents were immigrants and did not have a lot of money. They learned to speak English and worked hard to support their two children, this included getting the family through the Great Depression. Aunt Esther and my Grandfather, Marc spoke English, Yiddish and Hebrew.

When I found out that my Great Aunt died, I was sad and also relieved. She had been ill and in constant pain for many months. Esther had a very high tolerance for pain, so when she openly spoke about her pain I knew it was serious. For me, loss always comes with sadness, no matter the circumstnces. The phone calls, the visits, the tangible and human parts of Aunt Esther are gone. My connection to her soul is not. This loss also feels a bit weighty because Aunt Essie (our endearing name for her) was the last link to my Dad, who passed away almost ten years ago. She loved my Dad and he loved her dearly. She was able to truly see him, something my Grandparents struggled with for a lifetime.

My Dad’s sister, Ann has some undiagnosed mental illness and her behavior ranges from unpredictable, manipulative, angry to sometimes dangerous. My theory is that my Grandparents carried a tremendous weight of guilt and responsibility for my Aunt’s condition, feeling that they were fully responsible. They were very critical of my father and his relationship with my Aunt. Through my eyes, my Father and Mother did an amazing job of setting boundaries to protect me and my brother, while also showing Ann as much love as possible. My Grandparents never saw this while my Dad was alive, but after he had passed they seemed to realize what they had missed. They acknowledged this to my Mom, almost as if they had just woken up to reality. They finally saw their son, Ivan as truly full and enough, after he was physically gone from their lives.

My Aunt Esther was able to love my Dad and see him as a wonderful man and father and kept a separate relationship with my Aunt Ann. I believe Esther saw these circumstances as they were and accepted them. Having lost her own son at a young age – I think she had already gained some valuable perspective on loving those around you while you can. My Aunt Ann is still alive, but I am not in touch with her and neither is my family. Sadly, she lost her brother, mother and father in a seven year time-span. Ann is sixty-two, lives in an assisted-living facility and is currently sober. I am not sure if she knows Aunt Esther passed away or not. I am hopeful that she will continue to be sober and to take good care of herself.

Below is a letter I wrote to my Aunt Esther the day after her passing. There were some things I wanted to share with her and that I needed to process. Love and loss are a universal part of the human condition. It is with love and connection that we also endure loss.  I am processing the physical loss of my Aunt Esther; the Aunt I could call, write and visit. Now our connection is solely spiritual and of the soul. Our physical connection was finite and our spiritual connection infinite. In my humanness, I am currently mourning the missing physical connection. 

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