The first half of the holiday morning service concludes. In accordance with tradition, many congregants exit the shul sanctuary and mingle outside for a few minutes. The Yizkor books containing the short memorial service are distributed. No one thinks to hand one to a teenage girl. A few understanding glances come my way, but those who don’t know me just stare. I feel out of place. I don’t belong here; I am too young for this. I feel alone.
My mother died of cancer when I was 7 years old. Since then, I have been the youngest member of my congregation to remain inside the sanctuary during Yizkor. I watch my friends exit blissfully while I remain trapped inside, with people I don’t know, saying words I don’t understand. I keep my eyes cast down, avoiding unwelcome gazes. They don’t understand. I belong inside among the mourners. I am a mourner.
The chazzan starts and I struggle to follow along. As he chants the Kel Ma’aleh Rachamim, I tuck my head into my siddur. I glance towards my father who is keeping his watchful eye on me from the other side of the mechitza. He gives me the courage to lift my head and voice the words that will reach my mother.
Despite the awkwardness I feel, I will myself to go back each time. Partly because of the encouragement of my father and the commandment that is bestowed upon me to recite Yizkor. But what really draws me back time and time again is the idea of my mother’s soul drifting alone, only being lifted by the sweet prayers of her children.
Saying Kaddish each year on her yahrtzeit generates the same emotions. This year will mark the 10th year since she passed away. Each year is more difficult than the last, as I grow older and learn more about who my mother was and what having my mother would have meant to me. But then again, I feel blessed. My family stayed strong, my dad remarried and we are happy.
My most vivid memory is walking around Disney World with my mom, one year after she was diagnosed with cancer. When I say walk around, I must clarify that this was not by choice. If it were up to me, I would have been riding on the back of her new motorized wheelchair. She got to drive around, and I felt lucky — we did not have to wait on the long lines for the rides. I still remember the pride and joy of being with my mom, just the two of us, while my father and older brothers went on the more challenging rides. And I felt magic. Wherever we went, we were smiling and laughing. I have a photo of the two of us posed with the cartoon character Buzz Lightyear. To this day, I’m the only one who can look at the photo and smile.
I especially treasure the memory of the two of us on the spaceship ride. I controlled the height lever and made our ship fly higher and higher, with my mother playfully shrieking that we should go lower and lower. I can no longer reminisce with her. We cannot laugh over the spaceship ride, or about how ridiculous it seemed to have dolls reminding us that “it’s a small world afterall.”
Still, there is something about my trip to Disney World, walking around the park just my mom and me, that left a profound impact. I refuse to let my subsequent knowledge of the trip — that a social worker who works with families of cancer patients helped plan the trip — diminish my wondrous memory.
This story may be so significant to me because she died some months after we returned. Or maybe it’s because this story allowed her to never really die. I don’t have many memories of my mother, as I was so young. But somehow, I can describe to you in full and accurate detail the feeling of air whooshing through my hair as I flew higher and higher with my mother at my side. At Yizkor, I imagine my prayers rising, going higher and higher, until my mother hears them. n
Miriam Lichtenberg is a senior at SAR High School in Riverdale. She is the daughter of the late Rifka Rosenwein, who wrote the “Home Front” column on this page for seven years and died 10 years ago this month.
On Sunday Oct. 27, Drisha Institute will host a Day of Learning in Rifka Rosenwein’s memory. The event is free and open to the public. For reservations, contact email@example.com.