the holidays

Come late August there’s a noticeable shift in light that catches me off-guard. Little by little, the shortening of days so imperceptible since the summer solstice is suddenly dramatic. Leaves start to lose their lushness. The lazy hazy days of summer are about to give way to September, with its nostalgic echoes of back-to-school mode.  More to the point, I’m hit with an inescapable alert: The holidays are around the corner.

To hear the intonation of that phrase—‘the holidays’—the way I do, you have to be Jewish. You have to picture a mother taking off from work days ahead of ‘the holidays’ to shop and cook. Chicken soup. Pot roast. Baked chicken. Fish. To grasp what she meant when she said, the holidays are late this year, or the holidays are early, requires an understanding of days measured by the lunar calendar in a secular world ruled by the sun.

The Jewish calendar is in fact marked by four different new year celebrations—one for trees, one for the tithing of cattle, the springtime new year (Passover) we associate with freedom from slavery and the beginning of a Jewish identity. But the ten-day period of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur gets pride of place as the Jewish New Year marking the beginning of the world.  As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn, I would put on holiday clothes, meet up with friends at the neighborhood synagogue. Going to services was something you just did, whether or not you knew the full import of why you did it. My mother didn’t go and my father put in an appearance, if not for the full spectrum of services, always for the Yizkor portion in memory of the dead on Yom Kippur.

Thanksgiving, in contrast, was not a holiday we observed, except to watch the parade on TV.  What kind of American family, you might ask, doesn’t gather for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving? I could say the Jewish holidays were all that mattered to my mother, and that’s mostly true. But there was something else at play—something beyond her comfort zone in the kitchen, with its standard Jewish fare handed down from generation to generation.

It’s called turkey.

I can’t handle that big bird, she once said to me, her face crinkled in disgust. Even the chicken she cooked had to be cut into pieces, nothing to remind her that it was once a living, walking creature.  If cleanliness is next to godliness, no chicken wing ever made it into the oven or soup pot with even the tiniest feather intact.

When I left the fold, moved into Manhattan, Brooklyn would call me back for the holidays as I knew them. Thanksgiving would be celebrated with city friends. One year, a cousin of mine who had started a Thanksgiving tradition of her own, asked me to switch things up, be with the family. It was a memorable gathering—a coterie of cousins smoking weed as we cooked, drinking exquisite wine, laughing. Finally the real reason she was so insistent: a cake with one candle, #26, in honor of the marathon I had run weeks earlier.

Families fall apart. Parents die. Rituals get diluted. You don’t have to be a Jewish mother to know that there are strategies more powerful than guilt to keep families together at holiday time. You don’t have to be too sentimental to long for something that seems further removed with each passing generation.

Come September comes the weeping for what’s gone and with it the reminder of how I’ve made the holidays my own, a mix of family and friends who know they can count on a good Jewish-style brisket for Rosh Hashanah and Passover. Chanukah brings my legendary latke parties. Then there’s that all-American November holiday when I roast, to perfection, that big bird my mother would not touch.

Mother of the long-distance bride-to-be

My daughter sends me a text along with a photo, shoes she is trying on. Jimmy Choo mules on sale. They’re comfortable, she texts. We wear the same size.

They’re gorgeous. One of us should have them, I text back. I’m thinking of her wedding, an outdoor, grassy affair. Special days require special accessories, not to mention lots of special attention.

She may be hesitant but I don’t miss a beat. In a flash, I’m online ordering the shoes, which will end up being for me, and which will not end up being quite right for the dress I end up buying.  Not that I’ll have any problem finding something else to where them with.

Another day, another text: Did I get the right dress?  So many choices, more than one exquisite, how can she help but second-guess?  That’s what mothers are for, to reassure. Absolutely.  That she remains unconvinced is beside the point. I cannot change her mind.  I can do little to ease her disappointments about friends who can’t come to the wedding or anxieties as the day draws nearer and nearer.

Did we invite too many people? 

Did we block enough rooms?

Should I go blonder for the wedding?  

My daughter is getting married.

She lives 3,000 miles away.  In the grand scheme of mother-daughter moments, something feels a tad wrong with this picture.

Not only does she live 3,000 miles away but the wedding will also take place 3,000 miles away.  My husband and I live in New York, she and her fiancé have made a life out in California, which makes it all the more fitting as a place to celebrate a life event. And maybe ‘wrong’ isn’t quite the right word to capture the sense of something missing from traditional rituals in times so often defined by nontraditional ways of living.  A parent really can’t ‘give away’ a bride who’s been living with her fiancé. Brides more often than not wear white for reasons that have little or nothing to do with purity/virginity.  Yet weddings, like other rituals that bind families, still have their hold on us—and largely for the right reasons.

Sentimentally speaking, a wedding is an affirmation of love (putting aside cultures in which arranged marriages are the norm).  It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love. In a world that seems dark these days, there’s every reason to celebrate the hope infused in two individuals choosing to make a life together.  From a standpoint of tradition, a mother of a bride who lives far away is caught between unmitigated joy that her daughter has found someone she wants to share her life with and a gnawing ache about moments missed when all the showering of attention that is part and parcel of pre-wedding commiseration has to be done long-distance.

Every wedding has echoes of weddings past, calling up remnants of our tribal roots, with traditions handed down from generation to generation. It all seemed easier when family dispersal was more the exception than the norm it’s becoming. Holy or not, two individuals joined in wedlock become links in a family chain. Broken or not, families are extended through this new link in the chain of lineage.  Jewish tradition brings a ketubah into the picture, a contract signed by witnesses just prior to the ceremony attesting to the obligations a bride and groom agree to. Today’s ketubot are works of art, something even those of the non-Jewish persuasion are drawn to. Then comes the ceremony, after which we eat, we dance, we tell stories to mark the day—stories that will be handed down, stories recalled through pictures.

We cry, too.Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do. That this is the wedding of my own daughter, all grown up now, moving on, only ups the emotional ante.

If I feel deprived of something, it’s the intimacy that would seem to be part of wedding planning. All those details—venue, food, flowers, music, rabbi—negotiated over the terrain of distance have me feeing one step removed.  All the texts and phone calls from my daughter have me thinking how different it was with my own mother when I planned my own wedding.

My mother, long gone, will not be at the wedding. My husband’s mother will, and that’s a blessing all its own. That it’s taking place on Mother’s Day Weekend brings an added joy. My idea of a good Mother’s Day was always simple: let me linger in the morning over coffee and whatever I feel like reading; let me not think about what we’re doing for lunch or dinner. My daughter’s first year in college brought her back for Mother’s Day, a surprise orchestrated with her father. Boston is not far from New York. California is. It’s the way we live now.

To be the mother of a bride on Mother’s Day weekend is a gift that can’t be quantified.  To be the mother of a soon-to-be-bride who lives far away requires an extra measure of attention to what is and what is not within my control. There is no planning a wedding without stresses. On the surface it’s about logistics and details, which largely fall on my daughter as the point person and which I can do little or nothing to relieve her of.  The best I can do is remind her, in conversations and texts, of what is and what is not within her control. That good friend who can’t fly because she’s seven months pregnant will indeed be missed. And maybe the wedding will be a larger affair than she wanted because so many people have such good feelings about the happy couple.

I remind her, too, to look at the big picture and the deeper significance of getting married. With any luck, it will be a picture-perfect day, with a bride exuding the kind of joy that transcends any worries about the perfect dress. Or shoes.