Last month I watched on Zoom as two of my grandchildren graduated – one from middle school, or junior high as we call it in Canada, and one from kindergarten.
The kindergarten graduate is one of my younger grandchildren, and I have been zoche to travel and attend quite a few. So because I had “been there and done that,” it wasn’t going to be an emotional moment, as perhaps the first ones had been. Except this time, when I saw her with her cap and gown, and her “graduating mask” that wittingly said, “zooming into first grade” I started bawling.
People who know me well are aware that I tend to be stoic, that I take things in stride; I’m not at all the touchy-feely type – probably a trait I absorbed from my Holocaust survivor parents – who had to numb themselves in order to continue with their lives. Both had suffered tremendous loss. My mother never laughed at funny skits, nor cried at sad movies. It took a physical stroke to her brain to break down the emotional barriers erected in her mind.
But here I was sobbing. I usually react to something on a subconscious level before consciously understanding why. With some self-examination, I usually figure it out. For example, I recently was in a serious discussion with friends about why so many people are so clueless politically. Someone in a somber tone suggested, “because they are brainwashed.” I immediately started laughing and kept it up for a while. My bewildered friends didn’t see what was so funny, since this topic was serious – and I didn’t either. Later, it came to me that subconsciously, I wondered, “do you wash a brain with shampoo or soap?”
So what triggered my sorryful reaction watching little Leah (named after both my mother and a great-grandmother on the other side) as she sat at an outdoor ceremony with her mask on?
It was the mask. A very cute mask with a witty message – but nonetheless, I realized that the mask represented something deeply distressing. Forced separation. Unlike their nursery graduation, or siddur parties, or class plays, etc., the children were alone; parents, and some grandparents were in their cars in the parking lot, watching as their nachas received their “diplomas” and a photo, but there was a physical distance.
Not a great one in terms of feet and yards, and just temporary, but it could have been an ocean away. The children could not see their families watching them in their vehicles.
Seeing Leah in her mask triggered scenerios that luckily I had via my imagination, based on a cruel reality, of parents and children and close relatives who were physically torn apart by the Shoah. Parents putting their bewildered children on a kindertransport to save their lives, wondering if they would ever see their sweet, trusting faces again. And surmising that these were the last glimpses their children, their noses pressed to the windows of the train that was pulling out of the station, would have of them – mothers and fathers and siblings waving with fake smiles of encouragement plastered on their faces. Praying that their youngsters would remember them. Would be able to recall their faces.
I speak to my friends, and we share our sadness that we’ve missed so many milestones – bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, births. While many restrictions have been reduced, many of us have family who live a plane ride away, or due to age and pre-existing health issues, are high risk and cannot go near their families who live in town. Some are awash in depression and worry, and we cheer each other up and reassure one another that this too shall pass and we will be reunited.
And we remind ourselves that we are a blessed generation in that technology enables us to see and communicate in real time. Those children and grandchildren, parents, siblings, whom we love are just a click away. Just a few short generations ago, when families were split apart due to immigration to North America, or who made aliyah, they likely never saw each other again. A letter posted weeks earlier with old news was their occasional connection. Or a few cold lines of a telegram.
Years later, a hurried, expensive, long distance phone call, often unclear due to annoying static, was a big advance in being “in touch.” We could hear, but not see.
How lucky are we to “participate” in long distance simchas. To see the chossen and kallahs march to their chuppah. And to “dance” along to the music and hear the shouts of mazel tov – and just as important, they can see and hear us. We are truly in the moment and “in touch” – even though we can’t physically touch.
So why did I cry?
Some of the tears were tears of gratitude that I could “attend” Leah’s graduation, and more recently, her brother, my oldest grandson’s bar mitzvah. In real time, I saw and heard him leining, as he practiced in a trial run from a real Torah. I couldn’t throw candy at him, but will, G-d-willing when I can. I have a good pitching arm!
My tears though were mostly of grief for our collective ancestors who were torn from their loved ones, with the likelihood they’d never see them again, or worse, not be aware of what happened to them. How horrible not knowing their fate, if their beloved relatives were suffering or in a good place. Seeing Leah sitting alone, gave me a very tiny but potent insight as to what so many children had endured.
May we all be reunited b’simcha very soon.