My dad died 17 years ago, on August 20, 1994, at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, during my parents’ annual Truro vacation. I usually pay attention to that date.
Judaism prescribes specific rituals for marking the anniversary of a parent’s death. There’s a 24-hour yahrzeit candle to be lit. A special prayer to stand up and recite at the daily synagogue service. It’s customary for the mourner to make a charitable contribution in memory of the loved one.
The yahrzeit date doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar, but the Jewish, lunar one. For my Dad, that means Elul 13, the date that coincided with August 20 the year he passed away. Just in case I’m not paying attention to the Jewish calendar, my synagogue sends me a reminder. His yahrzeit this year falls on September 12.
The August date feels more real to me. It means summer vacation. Last year David and I were in Denmark. Two years before that, we were visiting my brother and his family at the Cape. There is no script for marking this secular date. I usually mention it to the people I’m with. On and off throughout the day, I’ll feel my father’s presence.
Last year, having a beer at a bar inCopenhagen, I remembered how sophisticated I felt, at eight, braving a sip of Daddy’s Tuborg when we visited Denmark in the summer of 1965. The year we were with my brother, there was no way not to remember our father at the beach – reading a Dick Francis paperback, noshing on roasted peanuts and burying the shells in the sand, joking with his friends, briefly braving the water, his arms splayed spasmodically as the cold surf surged over his swim trunks.
This year, I didn’t realize what day it was until it was over. We had just returned from visiting our son in Red Hook, New York. We toured Southwood Farm, where Sam has been working since February: pigs, chickens, a cow and her calf, a horse, Sam’s dog, goats, sheep, turkeys, vegetables, and a glorious view of the Hudson with the Catskills beyond.
“Sam’s great,” his boss told us, and ticked off his accomplishments. That was nice. It’s been a while since our last back-to-school night.
We ate dinner at a fantastic Italian restaurant, our table set up on the front porch of an old house.
The next morning we strolled around Rokeby Farm, where Sam and his roommates rent the 18th-century gardener’s house. We skipped stones on the surface of the river and checked out his landlady’s daughter’s CSA.
We packed two coolers full of happy meat from Southwood: goat, pig, ducks.
Lunch was delicious burritos from a cart beside a farm stand. We ate sitting on a blanket in a spot of shade over looking rolling fields, where a farmer was making hay.
On the way home, we visited the Circle Museum, at the side of Route 22 in Austerlitz. We’ve passed it lots of times, and always wanted to stop. At 40 mph, the place looks like a bunch of junk insanely recast as over-sized lawn ornaments. Exploring on foot reveals a dreamscape of industrial debris ingeniously fashioned into fanciful sculpture. We’ve got a spot in our backyard that’s just waiting for one of these pieces.
And where, in all this, was my father? He would have kvelled as much as we did to hear Sam praised. He would have been interested in seeing Southwood, but too hungry and nervous about our dinner reservation to really enjoy the visit. The dinner he would have adored. He wouldn’t have had much patience for our walk around Rokeby, but he would have loved talking to the other people who live there. The goat we brought home might have made him nervous. At the Circle Museum, I’m guessing he would have waited in the car.
But afterwards, on the beach with his friends, say, he would have told the story of what a quirky, fascinating place the Hudson Valley has become. And he would have shaken his head in amazement at his remarkable grandson, who lives so close to the land and works so well with his hands – so different from the way my father lived.
For us, it wasn’t a weekend for recalling old memories and reliving the past. It was a time for laying down new ones, and imagining the future. It would have been that for my father, too.