Wednesday, December 10, 2014

You'll Be Surprised That This Is The Gift That Doesn't Get Old, Even When We Do.

The National Mall, Washington DC
As we head into the holiday season, which customs and traditions are you most looking forward to? 

Do you repeat those you enjoyed as a child?

Have you created new ones with your family?

It's hard to tell which ones stick with us through the years and why.

Along with the many benefits of bringing loved ones together, I have discovered that these traditions, often planted in childhood, can bring great and perhaps unexpected comfort and joy as we age and our short-term memories dissolve. 

Let me tell you about Cecilia....... 

One of my first assignments as a hospice volunteer was to visit with Cecilia* aged 86. 

Cecilia was living with her daughter, unable to take care of herself. 

She was suffering from congestive heart failure and increasing memory loss.

She had traveled a long way in many senses to get to this point. 

Physically she had journeyed from her Moroccan birth place through Europe with her husband and one small child to Boston, Florida and eventually Maryland. 

Emotionally she had to find new friends and community in different countries and states and she had learned three languages along the way.

Religiously she had come very far from her roots. She had grown up in a traditional Jewish family. She told me she had gone to synagogue every week with her father and siblings. She described, the delicious foods her mother made for the Sabbath and how as she grew up she used to love to cook. 

 Married and with a small child, the traditions of  her birth family went by the wayside as she and her husband made their long trek to the USA. 

Her grown daughter that she now lived with, had moved away from the religion of her birth and Cecilia, in her last years celebrated nothing.  

But spiritually she continued to have great faith in G-d and she tried her best to be loving, appreciative and kind.

As her memory of the present deteriorated she began to alternate speaking French, her mother tongue  with English (my school book French was tested to its limits) and she had a hard time remembering what she had done days or hours earlier.

However, I discovered that if we talked about her childhood, her recollection was sharp.

 Her excitement bubbled when I bought her warm doughy challah to eat, which she had not tasted in years. And when I suggested around the Jewish New Year that we dip some apple in honey as is customary for a sweet new year, her face lit up and her eyes danced with excitement. 

But it was when I began to sing some simple Jewish prayers from her childhood that she may not have recited for 60 years or more, that she seemed to come fully alive.

On one visit to Cecilia, I bought 2 Shabbat candles to light and  we said the blessing together, over and over.

 She could not remember my name but she knew every word of that prayer. 

When we sang songs from the Passover seder  she could finish the lines I started. 

We ate hamantaschen on the festival of Purim and lit Chanukah candles. 

On each of these occasions it  felt as if she was revealing precious hidden jewels that had been stored away. Treasure waiting to be found. 

Each recollection made her glow and brought her great joy.

These rituals  were etched in her heart. Undisturbed for years. Neglected but not forgotten.

 She would cup her soft hands around my cheeks, her milky brown eyes edged with tears and say to me,

"You are like my sister. Thank you, thank you."

And I would look back at her with my own moist eyes and wonder at the miracle, importance and staying power of 
childhood memories and ritual and tradition.

Six years ago I helped Cecilia reflect on her memories and found ways to bring  her comfort and joy.

Today my memories of Cecilia and the happiness we shared together through her recollections are bringing me comfort and joy. 

In fact her memories have lasted longer than her lifetime because through her I  have seen firsthand that traditions transcend generations, families and backgrounds

I have learned that customs and traditions, repeated with  purpose, love and joy like those Cecilia's parents must have practiced are priceless long-term gifts to your family and friends. 

They live on, like a pilot light in your heart and  endure long past the occasions themselves. And if the memories of them are fanned as you age, they may bring you and your family more comfort than you could ever imagine.

Please tell me about your favorite family traditions. Why are they so meaningful to you? Leave me your thoughts, below.

Wishing you all, the best of what this season has to offer. May your memories always comfort you, give you strength and calm and remind you of the many happy times in your life.

To all of you who celebrate: Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas.


* Her name and identifying characteristics have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

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