My husband’s mother died almost seven years ago, of a heart attack. One day she was teaching first grade, the next day she was gone. She’s buried at a beautiful, quiet cemetery up in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. We drive to the Catskills every summer to visit family, and always stop at the cemetery along the way. The experience has changed over the years. First we were dating, then we were married. Then I was pregnant, then we brought our baby. But every year we stand by her grave, and tell the story of our lives over the past year.
So it didn’t occur to me that I should do anything differently this year. In the car on the way up, I decided that the best way to talk about things with my almost-2-year-old was to say, “This is where we go when we want to talk to Bubbe Sharry.” I was actually proud of this brilliant idea. And then we got out of the car.
Abigail was tired and a little bit cranky. Dan had her help him collect rocks to put on the gravestones (his grandparents and some cousins are buried there too). She liked finding rocks. And she liked putting the rocks in their places, and noticing the flowers and bugs in the grass. But then we started talking to Bubbe Sharry and that didn’t go over well. I started tearing up, and when I tried to explain that this is where we go to talk to Bubbe Sharry, Abigail said, “Want to see Bubbe Sharry!”
Then I really started to cry. (Of course seeing her mommy cry only made things worse for our 2-year-old!) Abigail, I want to see Bubbe Sharry too. I wish I’d really known my mother-in-law. We were lucky to have met twice. Rumor has it, she liked me. I liked her. It would have been nice to have been able to hear more about how she raised children. And I’m sure we wouldn’t agree on everything, but I would’ve liked to have known her.
Explaining death to a 2-year-old is complicated. And perhaps close to impossible—they’re so young. But as luck would have it, they have selective little memories. Abigail seems to have forgotten the cemetery, but she certainly remembers the chicken nuggets she had for lunch that day. Us adults, on the other hand, have long memories, filled with the people who’ve come before us, who made us who we are, and whom we thank for giving us the gift of life. Ashkenazi Jews name our children after our ancestors who’ve passed away, both to honor their memories and in hopes that the child will have some of the traits of the deceased. We knew from day one that Abigail would take after her namesake Bubbe Sharry—after all, they both were multiple-sneezers. And we hope that she’ll take after her grandmother in many other ways: her kindness, her warmth, her hospitality, and her incredible love for family.
And if collecting rocks at the cemetery is part of helping our daughter take after her bubbe, well, I don’t think it’s such a bad plan after all.