Loss, Love, Legacy & Lutes: Incomplete Musings on Intergenerational Trauma

For reasons I still don’t quite grasp, my father was buried in a sealed metal vault. Definitely not what I had in mind when I thought about the Jewish tradition of covering a loved one’s coffin with earth, “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” But maybe more what Dad would have liked? At least, as close as he would get to a “cool,” ancient-Egyptian-style burial.

Two years later, in a rabbinical school class on Midrash, I flashed right back to that sunny July morning, standing by the grave as cemetery workers struggled with a pulley and heavy chain to place my father’s coffin in the underground vault and then noisily screw the cap on the metal covering. A lump in my throat. An urge to cry and laugh and shout in anguish, all at the same time. The day, incongruously gorgeous. The reality of the vaulted burial, anathema to me. I tried not to think about my father’s claustrophobia as metal clanked against metal.

Midrash, if you’re not familiar with it, is often dubbed “rabbinic fan fiction.” Filling in the gaps in the Torah (the terse text that forms the basis of Jewish sacred literature), midrash, as a genre, imagines interactions, fleshes out the motivations of figures like Abraham and Sarah (and even God), and depicts incidents “skipped over” in the narrative. And midrash continues into the contemporary moment (though not part of the canon of Jewish literature as earlier works of “the Midrash” are considered).

So I was sitting in my Modern Midrash class, listening to Rabbi Jill Hammer, a talented midrashist, read her take on the tale of the recovery of Joseph’s bones from Egypt.

The scene: an eerily quiet, dark Egypt, as the Israelites prepare to finally leave the place where they had been enslaved for generations, still preserving their Hebrew names, and their customs and their stories, to set out for God knows where (literally). Someone remembers the promise made to Joseph long ago, that they would, upon his death, return him to the land of his ancestors. The Egyptians had embalmed Joseph’s body and placed him in a metal sarcophagus, submerging the coffin itself into the Nile; now only Serach, the daughter of Asher, the only person listed in the genealogy of Israel both before and after their experience of enslavement (making her impossibly old), recalls its location (Bereshit/Genesis 50:25 and Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammdenu to Exodus 4:2). She and Moses stand on the shores of the mighty Nile, the heavy sarcophagus on the shore.

Rabbi Hammer writes:

Serach began to hoist the heavy lid with her spidery fingers. Moses leaped to help her, honoring the will of Asher’s daughter, but his heart grieved. He did not want to see his ancestor, his hero, as an embalmed Egyptian nobleman. It reminded him of what he might have been. He turned away his face as the lid slid off and thudded into the reeds.

A tender sound from Serach startled him. He glanced at her face, then into the coffin, and his breath caught in his throat. The embalming work had been undone. Inside the lead box lay a pile of bones. It was a small pile, for Yosef had been a small man. The wrappings, ointments, and perfumes had dried and faded. They lay in small fragments on the floor of the coffin.

“God brings us back to ourselves at the last,” Serach said. (Rabbi Jill Hammer, “The Bones of Joseph”)

A tender sound escaped my throat, there in the narrow classroom. And I ran from the room, the door barely closed behind me before the wracking sobs came forth, and the tears flowed.

I’m not sure I understood why, then, the image of Joseph’s bones hit me so hard. But now I know it has something to do with love, and loss, and legacy.

My father used to tease that he wanted to be buried in a pyramid (or at the very least, in an elaborate mausoleum, or beneath one of those giant stone balls. My mom tried her best, and eventually settled on a gravestone topped by a small carved ball.), with all the supplies he might need in the afterlife. You know, golf clubs, a light jacket, maybe his cat (alive or dead). He had lots of superstitions (Owls are bad luck. Sleeping with the window open will let in the night vapors and make you sick. Dipping your hand into the water and blessing yourself with the sign of the cross would protect you from drowning if you couldn’t swim. To be fair, he always did that last one, and he was a terrible swimmer, but he never drowned, so…). He used to tell us that if he died before our mother, we had to make sure they exhumed him before her burial so that she wouldn’t be buried on top of him, “blocking the exit.”

Seeing that metal lid lowered over his custom-painted coffin (my mother chose the color to match the suit and tie in which he was buried, a detail he probably loves from over there in Olam HaBa, the World to Come) freaked me out. I’ve never been comfortable with embalming, with displaying dead bodies at wakes (my father’s was indeed thus displayed. I coped, but it wasn’t easy. Long story short: My family is Catholic; I’m Jewish.). I’d much prefer the knowledge that the person who nourished me in so many ways, with his sense of humor and flair for drama, had returned, at least in the form of matter, to the earth, nourishing the ground and the plants and the animals and the very air I breathe right now. I didn’t want to preserve my father in the moment of his death. I wanted to let his bones rest, and let all that was him in spirit and personality and lesson and legacy live on, in a new way. The moment Rabbi Hammer read of those embalming wrappings, rotted to rags, a humble pile of bones the only remains, I thought, I want that.

Flash forward, about six years later. I am standing at a different grave, though it’s still a gorgeous summer day, hot and bright, honeysuckle thick in the air. This time there are mountains in the distance: the Catskills. The grave is my mother’s mother’s. The wracking sobs are back. Cleansing? Cathartic? I hope so.

I’m so angry, my scalp tingles and my arms vibrate. I’m confused. And I am deeply, deeply sad. My older son stays in the car, scared, I think, at this overwhelming emotion from his parent. My younger child stands beside me, hunched over searching for a stone to place on the grave marker, in accordance with Jewish custom. Then I feel a small hand reach for mine. I look down, and my child says, “I’m gonna go get Mommy for you… Mommy! You need to come! Ima’s crying.”

I am, crying. The tears cloud my vision like the lichen clouds the engraving on the flat stone. My thoughts are, Gorgeous font. I can’t believe I found the grave so easily after all this time. WTF?! Why is she listed as “wife” and he’s just listed by his name? And then, aloud, “What were you thinking? What were you thinking?”

My legacy isn’t only mine. It’s intergenerational. And it comes with so much loss, and pain, and anger. And the story isn’t mine to tell. Suffice it to say, as I stood at the grave of one of two grandparents I had ever met (those were my father’s mother, and my mother’s mother, Juanita Estelle, the woman at whose grave I was shouting), I was thinking about loss and legacy, and the ways in which some moments, some stories, become embalmed, pickled, sealed away and buried, in ways that poison the very water we drink, the very earth in which we grow our nourishment.

I remember Nana as a sarcastic, sassy, self-assured woman who joked and laughed. I remember her sitting in a low chair, basically in the ocean, never swimming, but essentially bathing in the waves. I remember her feeding french fries to seagulls, patiently listening to my constant chatter, and watching the cardinals from her kitchen window.

But, a few years before this intergenerational trauma cemetery visit, I had learned a secret about Nana, a decision she had made with which I vehemently disagree, and which changed my image of her from a benevolent source of love to a complex, full human being with flaws and prejudices and sins. Her decision affected my mother deeply, and led to the keeping and preservation of a Secret. And, again, it’s not mine to tell, but it was certainly mine to feel, to know down to my bones, never having heard it spoken aloud.

Which brings me to coffins, and love, and loss, and legacy.

We inherit many things that aren’t treasures. We inherit mental illness, and, as we’re becoming increasingly aware, we inherit the toxicity of Secrets, and shame, and trauma. We inherit the stories left untold aloud, embalmed and buried and sealed, but never, ever forgotten.

If I could have known what Nana was thinking, when she made her decision more than fifty years ago, a decision that would touch every aspect of my mother’s life, and, in turn, mine (and my siblings’), then perhaps any rotten parts could have decomposed. Perhaps the flesh of misguided religious teachings and cultural stereotypes and harmful concepts of gender and all sorts of evils could have become so much dust, and everything good and nourishing in my grandparents could have churned in the bellies of worms alongside the bad parts. And this would generate healthy nutrients in the earth, primed for new growth. Perhaps the bones alone would be left, a structure around which to build the life of a new generation.

And maybe there’s still a chance that’s true. “God brings us back to ourselves at last.”

Rabbi Jill Hammer puts these words in the mouth of Serach bat Asher, the only person to survive the more than four hundred years of Egyptian enslavement, and one whose legacy is not only trauma and pain but memory and healing. She is named in this week’s Torah portion, among those who escaped enslavement and now seek to build a new life in a new land (Bamidbar/Numbers 26: 46). She is linked to moments of hope in the face of despair, like the moment she convinces Jacob that Joseph still lives (Sefer haYashar, Vayigash 14). As the story goes, Jacob’s sons intuited that the shocking news would be less lethal, easier to absorb, transformed through Serach’s harp and voice. Her skill at the harp is a talent also linked to King David. Indeed, some midrashim claim she lived even until David’s time, and that she served throughout her life as a midwife. According to some stories, Serach does not die, but enters into heaven alive via a ladder, a resplendent, elderly woman whose willingness to pass memory along helped the Jewish people not only preserve the past but make sense of it, transform it into a nourishing source of communal resistance and meaning-making.

How can we transmit and transform legacy, turning loss into new life? Serach gives us a clue, for she uses art and emotion to transform, rather than preserve, the past. She’s not one for embalming, and the messines of birth does not make her squeamish, and she has no qualms about exhuming a patriarch and reaching into his fancy Egyptian sarcophagus for his humble, human bones. And she plucks the strings of the harp to give the stories new form, to make them, as Rabbi Hammer writes, into “ritual.”

Many of us have heard Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord” (“Hallelujah”). My teacher, Rabbi Hammer, imagines it was actually Serach bat Asher who taught David this gentle art (“The King’s Harp”):

Serach placed her fingers on the harp and strummed simple lullaby music, a folk tune to soothe a tired patriarch. The lulling sound changed slowly to become a longing lament, and Serach began to sing of loss and trouble. Her high voice was sweet and strong, making [a person] weep with the world for its harsh realities. Yet as the aching swelled, it was transformed into a hymn of passionate hope, and Serach’s singing became joyful. She sang of miracles, of Isaac’s birth, of Rebekah at the well, of Isaac’s wondrous prophecies and Noah’s storm-tossed ark. Her song dipped and soared like a bird, thrummed and piped like a frog; it made anything seem possible. (Rabbi Jill Hammer, “The King’s Harp”).

The legacy I am passing on to my children is not one of Secrets or sarcophagi. I don’t want to embalm it and seal it away. I want their legacy to be as lasting and ephemeral as a song accompanied by the harp. I want stories that resonate on multiple levels like sympathetic strings. I want songs that turn tales of the momentous, cruel decisions of parents into the resilient creativity of their children.

Because “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” does not mean that things return to precisely how they were, physically and materially. It means, rather, that what we were and what we wrought in our lives lasts beyond our passing days, becoming nourishment for the new generation. Our bones remain, as do our souls. But all else becomes earth, becomes foundation, becomes seedbed for what comes next.

A part of me needed to be angry at my Nana. That same part of me drove right from the cemetery to the town where my mom was raised. My own two feet carried me to the house that used to seem mythically significant. It was sadly run-down, holes in the wall where the roof sloped down, lopsided porch, paint peeling. It seemed tiny. How did they raise eight children here? I cried more. And then I drove us up the hill (right at the intersection) to the church. I walked to every door, hoping to find one open. I don’t know what I planned to do. Light a candle for Nana? Pray? Sing something in Hebrew? Scream? Instead, I sweated in the summer sun, tried a bunch of locked doors, and got back into the car. I cried some more.

I remember my kids asking me why I was crying, and I remember saying that I was full of a whole bunch of feelings, and that crying is a way to express them.

I wish, now, that I had brought a harp. Okay, not really. But… kind of. I wish I had a way (with my mother’s permission only, of course) to turn the story of a Secret into the story of complexity and resilience, of socialization and family systems. I think I will, someday.

Through stories and songs, through memories and melodies, we can be like Serach bat Asher. We can keep the memories, including (maybe especially) the hard Truths, and present them tunefully, so that they can be churned and churned into fertilizer for a new generation. We can usher new self-images based on the stories of how our ancestors nourished despite some toxic ingredients.

The past isn’t all pain and tragedy (says a Jewish person!). The past is also creativity and grit and love and mistakes and corrections and apologies and forgiveness and song and laughter and good food. There’s so much richness in the past, I could weave it into a song we could sing forever.

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