I woke on a Monday in April, 1965 on a strange new planet. No one had come to wake me for school, and I’d had a restless night, waking twice, each time going into my parents’ room, and finding the bed made, and no one there. Both times I called downstairs for them, the first time my neighbor Mona was there, and she told me to go back to sleep, my parents had gone out. The second time Mona’s mother was there, and she repeated the same message.
Monday morning I went back to my parents’ room and found my father and grandmother there. Where was my mom? I think it was my grandmother who took my hand and said, “Mommy has gone to heaven.” OK, but when will she be back? I had just turned seven, I was in first grade. My mom hadn’t been sick, she was 34, she had gone to heaven, and wouldn’t be coming back. None of this made any sense at all.
No one hugged me, or held me. No one asked me how I felt, or what I wanted. I don’t know if I could have told them if they had, but it would have been nice if someone had asked.
When you are Jewish, and someone dies, things move really fast. They kept me home from school, and the house became a whirlwind of frenzied activity. They had to get a funeral together so my mother could be buried within two days of her death. Because my mother was so young, and hadn’t been ill, no one was prepared in any way for this.
The house filled with people and food; so much food. There was food everywhere, and no one seemed to know what to do with me besides feed me. I wandered through the house, lost and confused, and probably not even hungry, but I ate. The food was so good, it was familiar, and it was everywhere. I remember the food almost as clearly as I recall the funeral service, held in our living room, with me sitting next to the Rabbi, while I played with the new slinky someone had given me.
We sat Shiva for a week. There were coat racks brought in from somewhere, real coatracks like you see at churches and synagogues, in our front hall. There were so many people, but the two people I really needed were gone; my mother, now in heaven, and my father, physically there, but like a ghost. I never saw him again. Or I never saw the daddy my father had been before we lost my mother. This new planet was populated with strangers, including the man who looked like my father, but now could barely look at me.
The kitchen was the only place that felt normal. Like many families on Long Island in 1965, we had a maid who lived with us, Katie. As I wandered the house I would be drawn to the comfort of the kitchen, of Katie, of the platters of Nathan’s cold cuts and rugelach. I would sit quietly at the table and eat. It felt good; it was the only thing that felt good.
It was how I learned to comfort myself when no one was there to comfort me. I learned this quickly and well. It takes some people years to find out how food can numb you to a bearable level of pain. On this new planet I learned in a week.