So I Danced

So I Danced

BY MAJORIE BUCKHOLTZ

Planning was in high gear for our daughter’s wedding: May 25, 2018. At 38, Hillary was the last of our four children to marry. Her biggest fan and staunchest supporter was Nana, my 99 year old mother. Nana grew up in a world where telephones were used only on special occasions and when horses rather than automobiles clogged the streets.  In her day, “gay” meant happy and the races did not mix. Married “ladies” stayed home to raise their children, and Jewish singles like Hillary were expected to marry within the faith.  “Nice” girls, it goes without saying, saved themselves for marriage.

She rejoiced when Obama was elected twice and was proud, at age 98, to submit her absentee ballot for Hillary Clinton.

Since the mid-1950s, when I became a teenager and could observe my mother as a person instead of “just” a mom.  I watched with wonder as the world changed around her—and as she changed with it. A working mom when it was still frowned upon, she ran a small department store with my dad. She smoked cigarettes, drank martinis occasionally and eventually believed in civil justice, equal rights, and, to my father’s horror, women’s liberation. She rejoiced when Obama was elected twice and was proud, at age 98, to submit her absentee ballot for Hillary Clinton. She actively engaged in political discussions in her community, and often railed at what she called the “old-fashioned” attitudes of some of her neighbors.

Even so, when Hillary brought home her non-Jewish partner, we thought perhaps she might push Nana over the line. However, after getting to know him my mother proclaimed thoughtfully, “Do I wish he were Jewish? Of course, but it’s not a deal breaker!  I’m not going to play G-d.” She explained that genuine love was too hard to find, and that if these two were right for each other, then she would never stand in their way. “Besides,” she said, turning her head toward them with a smile, “look at them. He makes her so happy. So, let’s make a wedding!”

But eight years went by with no engagement. They lived together. They were committed to each other. But the topic of when Hillary might get married was a subject that Nana never tired of discussing. Hillary was thoughtful and patient whenever the subject came up, but it confused Nana, and she often confided in me how much it bothered her that the couple would not set a date. Each of us in the family took turns explaining their position on marriage as they had explained it to us. It went like this: They love one another deeply and fully and are committed to a lifetime together—and doubt how a marriage certificate can strengthen their relationship. To them, it’s only a piece of paper . “I don’t get it,” she admitted, again and again.

Finally, last winter, just after Nana turned 99, the couple announced the news she had been waiting for. She was thrilled, but a little more serious than they had expected.  “I’m very happy,” she said. “I pray that G-d lets me live to see it.” Always sharp and on point, Nana asked the big question.

“So why now, after all this time?” she asked, genuinely wondering, but secretly hoping that they might be pregnant. “No way!” Hillary exclaimed. “We want you to be there, Nana,” and she humorously added one of Nana’s favorite lines, “ You know, you’re not getting any younger,” she laughed, and they all enjoyed the moment.

As her health worsened, she seemed to shrink in stature but grew even more resolute about attending the wedding. “I will be there!”

Her body was frail, but her mind was sharp, and she was deeply engaged in the wedding planning:  daily discussions swirled around the venue, flowers, the guest list, party favors. She loved Hillary’s gown, wiping away tears at the sheer beauty of this statuesque woman she had once cradled in her arms.   And when she saw the formal photo, noting that Hillary was wearing the six foot long, re-embroidered alencon lace mantilla that she had bought for my wedding, 52 years ago, she was speechless.  “She looks ‘almost’ as beautiful as you did in that veil,” She said finally, with more happy tears.

As her health worsened, she seemed to shrink in stature but grew even more resolute about attending the wedding. “I will be there!” she announced, adamantly, nearly every day.

One month before the wedding date, in response to her weakening condition, the nurses added oxygen and increased morphine to help her labored breathing.  Her caregivers hatched a plan to do her hair and makeup, dress her classiest suit, and take her to the ceremony for long enough to be rolled down the aisle in her wheelchair and sit under the chuppah for the short ceremony. She would get to watch her bride circle the groom seven times, hear the vows and the prayers, and shout Mazal Tov! as he smashed the wine glass.  They would then spirit her away, having given her the moment she’d craved so long.

But she was slipping away. Sober realizations alternated with hopeful days—days when she was her old self again. “Hope you’re not going crazy on the money,” she’d say. At those moments, we felt she’d surely make it to the wedding.

“How can I dance?” I thought, “My mother just died. It won’t be right.”

It was like that the day before she died. She was alert, thoughtful, and practical, just as she had been her entire life. But as she held my hand, she delivered the news I had been dreading. “Tell Hillary that I really tried … I thought I would be there. But I can’t do it. Tell them that I bless them.  Tell them that I am so proud of them.” She paused. “My prayer is that they be happy. That all of my children will be happy and well.” Breathlessly, she said to my brother and me, “I’ve tried to be the best mommy I could be. I want to make this an easy ending for you.”

And she did.

We buried her exactly one week before the wedding. Our son, Rabbi Charlie, officiated. She was eulogized by loved ones and details were handled as she requested. We covered mirrors. We mourned. We sat shiva.

It took me a few months for me to fully understand the final gift she gave us that last day of her life. By choosing to die when she did, she gave us time to complete all of the rituals and practices necessary to perform a good and proper goodbye and then prepare ourselves for the next major family milestone. Our tradition requires that a wedding is never postponed. Even for death.

We held the wedding celebration on schedule. Rabbi Charlie officiated once again. I felt Nana’s invisible hand, guiding me through the weekend.  When it was time for the Hora, everyone danced around the newlyweds. They were high in the air on two chairs, holding hands with a handkerchief between them, beaming.

“How can I dance?” I thought, “My mother just died. It won’t be right.”

I resisted jumping into the circle, but then I heard my mother’s advice as clearly as if she’d been standing there. “You will have plenty of time to mourn me,” I could make out. “This is about Hillary. Don’t blow it.”

So, I danced.

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