How much energy and time do you want to devote to creating and preserving memories, and how much just to living?
We treasure family photos, letters, journals, scrapbooks, and genealogies. Yet family life is sometimes more disrupted than it is enhanced when we spend our time capturing it in old-fashioned formats or on Facebook, YouTube, or ancestry.com.
Recently, I was given a fabulous gift. Rabbi Ilana Grinblat contacted me to ask permission to mention my children in her forthcoming book. Putting my kids’ names in print? Fine. Retrieving a story about them? Priceless.
In her essay, Ilana reflected on the tendency, especially among adults who feel overloaded, to focus on finishing things more than enjoying them. Children, by contrast, tend to be “fully present in each moment rather than always thinking about what needs to be done next.” I would caution that we spend a lot of time socializing kids out of that mindset – principally through overscheduling and excessive planning.
By way of illustration, Ilana recalled a meal that our families enjoyed together. “My son, Jeremy, his friend, Emmett, and Emmett’s sister, Hannah Mathilda, each ate a cookie for dessert. Jeremy commented: ‘Emmett, you won because you ate your cookie faster than your sister.’ Emmett replied, ‘No, Hannah Mathilda won because she enjoyed it more.'”
My point is not just to schep nachas from my daughter’s eating meditation or my son’s observation of it. (That’s a bonus.) My point is: I had completely forgotten this episode! I am sure that I enjoyed the moment because Ilana’s recollection rings a distant and pleasant bell. But I let go of it. It would have been irretrievable to me had Ilana not devoted some of her enjoyment in that moment to planning for future enjoyment. She divided her focus between present and future, and eventually captured the memory by writing it down.
Of course, you could argue (as my kids well might) that Rabbi Grinblat has a better memory than I do. But memory is complex and unpredictable, even fickle. It’s possible that this event stuck in her mind, while some other experience we shared stuck in mine.
Nevertheless, Ilana wrote it down, and I didn’t. Her (imperfect) memory was preserved, and my (at least equally imperfect) memory didn’t stand a chance.
This past President’s Day weekend, I enjoyed a girls’ “stay-cation” with my daughter, while my husband and son took a trip. Hannah Mathilda (the cookie-eating guru, now 8) made a “spa” for us in our family room. She set up ottomans that are low to the floor to create a massage table. After she completed my fabulous massage, I asked her to help me up. She gave me a faux-sour look and replied, “This is a spa, not assisted living.” So much for indulgence.
What might seem rude in writing was hilarious in person. (She also did help me up.) Between Ilana’s essay and H.M.’s zinger, I was inspired to open the file labeled “nachas” on my computer and record this episode. Imagine my chagrin when I saw that my last entry had been August, 2012! How many memories have I lost by being – only – in the moment?
My husband, Craig, is a filmmaker. It is both his profession and his passion. Some of his fondest childhood memories are of making family films with his dad and editing the football reels for his high school. Yet Craig has recorded very little of our children on film. This is not just a case of the cobbler’s children going shoeless. It’s a conscious choice on his part. When I ask Craig to capture the latest performance at the JCC or in our living room, he sometimes agrees. But usually he replies: “I want to be present. I don’t want to live with my head behind a camera.” He opts for the unencumbered and fleeting beauty of the moment.
To record or not to record, that is the question.
Rabbi Lenny Mandel, who serves as cantor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, tells a beautiful and heartrending story about preserving family history. His paternal grandmother was one of 13 siblings from Sokol, Poland. Her birth name was Bracha Bilt, and Lenny had seen reports of a Hirsh Bilt of Sokol, who brought food to fellow Jews imprisoned by the Nazis. Might Hirsh have been a relative? Lenny called an older cousin, Moishe Kelman, to discuss the family tree. He reported in our synagogue newsletter: “I asked the woman who answered the phone if I could speak to cousin Moishe. She was his half-sister, and she told me they had just gotten up from shiva for him. I was devastated.”
Rabbi/Cantor Mandel was lucky enough to find travel papers and photographs that confirmed that Hirsh Bilt was his great-grandfather. However, Moishe’s stories could not be recovered. Their loss compounded the essential loss of Moishe’s death and hit Lenny hard. He issued a plea to our congregation that is worth sharing:
“I have been imploring you for some time now to reach out to your older relatives: your grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles, great-great ones if they’re alive tooâ€¦. Sit them down, ask questions, and either know shorthand or bring a recorder (most of your cell phones can record hours of talk). Learn where you’re from, what your ancestors did, and how they survived whatever they had to survive. There’s going to come a day when your kids will have questions, and even though you won’t be able to answer them all, hopefully you’ll be able to answer enough.”
“Enough” is exactly the right, inexact word. We need to be purely in the moment “enough” to enjoy our relatives in real time, and we need to record “enough” of our history and theirs to leave a legacy.
Finding the right balance is just about as personal and fluid as memory itself.
Karen Golden, a professional storyteller and a friend, is one of six siblings. Her mother was an obstetrician/gynecologist in the days when female physicians were rare. In addition to raising kids, practicing medicine, volunteering at her synagogue and Hadassah, and roller-skating daily, she kept a daily diary for each of her children, not missing a single day, until they reached 18. On that birthday, she gave each child the gift of a journal that recorded all their special and everyday moments.
Karen has only the warmest memories of her mom. She experienced her as fully and lovingly present. (She wrote the diaries at night, after all the kids were asleep.) It’s an astonishing – and intimidating – legacy. Perhaps that’s why the story of those journals has stayed with me. I didn’t even need to write it down.
In “Einstein’s Dreams,” Alan Lightman imagines time functioning in a variety of ways. One chapter describes a world without memory, in which people record what they most want or need to know about themselves in a Book of Life. “With time, each person’s Book of Life thickens until it cannot be read in its entirety. Then comes a choice. Elderly men and women may read the early pages, to know themselves as youths; or they may read the end, to know themselves in later years. Some have stopped reading altogether. They have abandoned the past. They have decided that it matters not if yesterday they were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, proud or humble, in love or empty-headedâ€¦ Such people look you directly in the eye and grip your hand firmly. Such people walk with the limber stride of their youth.”
Lightman reminds us that there is virtue in honoring the past, the future, and the present – and that in any given moment, we are likely forced to choose among them.
As a rabbi and an author, I believe in the written word. But I believe even more in what can’t be recorded.
So, if you are interested in advice from a mom who last memorialized her kids’ bon mots in 2012, here is my best shot: By all means, put pen to paper and hit the record button more often than you have in the past – for yourself and for the generations.
And then snuggle up on the couch, give someone you love a kiss, and just hang out together. Share a cookie or a forgettable joke. That’s love, too.