the stones I cannot place

My mother’s ‘passing’  has crippled my writing.  And apparently that’s not all. It would be unfair to blame her, per se, because that would be rude.  But I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that she’s had a hand in it.  Some lesson left to teach.

I thought what would be fitting (I had this brilliant idea last spring, when it had to be submitted), would be to handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand (the ‘it‘ in question being the writing paralysis, I suppose)—with academic distance and a sense of humor.

Ok, she stopped me cold. She stopped me flat. What was it she didn’t want me to say?

On Thursday I’ll be presenting my treatise on her miraculous exit from the physical world and ascension into something so clearly elevated, that it leaves me breathless (but hopefully not speechless).  I have been writing the piece.  It’s just still a little clunky. And this is Tuesday.The Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association are being held in my own beautiful City by the Bay, San Francisco this year, thank god. The conference starts tomorrow.

Our session is entitled The Boundaries of Consciousness: Visions, Delusions, Mind, and Brain.  And I named it such a) in keeping with the theme of the meetings (boundaries) and b) so that I could deal with my mother’s passing while surrounded by friends who might be looking at the same or similar phenomena.

It’s been a terrible year of death and dying, actually.

My wish had been that my mom’s departure (14 minutes into New Year’s Day) be the last death of the year.  That, apparently was way too much to ask for. As of today, not one, not two, but three friends and colleagues from the Anthropology of Consciousness have passed on into the vast nothingness of death (or if that’s wrong, wherever else they might find themselves). That would be: one terrible terrible suicide that I keep playing over in my head; one sudden heart attack and gone just-like-that, and one cancer of some sort.  Three very different ways to go.

My mom’s death feels like the only reasonable one.  She was, after all, on the near-side of 85. She grabbed that number by the hand and yanked it to her with all her might, celebrating that birthday a fortnight early. Her preemptive proclamation of 85 year old status needs to be credited to her account.  She was close, very close. Give it to her.  The quibble side of me, the side that likes precision and detail, says no.  The side of me that watched her go, says what the hell?

I’ve changed.

I let things go. I let them slip. I say, what do they matter?

I’m wondering what’s important and what’s not. I quit my job (but got called back again for one last emergency go). I’m lecturing without notes, without precision, sticking to the larger point, always the larger point.  I don’t care if they the students don’t remember detail. I can barely write them a decent exam, let alone grade it. I don’t care whether they use MLA or Chicago, or who gives a — I’ve let it go. I used to care.

And I’ve slowed down. I’m just not willing to speed from place to place. For anybody.

And I’ve sped up. There’re things I’d like to finish that have been left undone. That maybe matter for somebody.

Mrs Tzaddik has passed on.  I’ve sold her house to a family of Egyptians. Her objets d’art are distributed among hundreds, if not more, by now.  She’s blowing in the wind, blowing in the wind.

But here’s what I’ve held on to. The line I have not crossed.

A stone. A plaque. A something there. A marker for my parents’ graves. This, the hardest thing I’ve ever never done—as if the placement of that stone will hold them down and seal their tombs and fates, and keep them from ascending. Keep them from just rising back into my emptied life. They were large, those two. The holes in my heart are deeper than I thought could happen.  I thought this would be easy. Dr Efficiency, PhD.

My mom hated that side of me. Well now it’s gone. And because of that, she doesn’t have a stone.

But she’s not nagging, and neither is my dad. They’re not complaining. Yet.


I’ll hold somebody’s hand, and do the deed. I promise.

And what’s the fear?

That if it’s done I’ll never ever, ever-ever, see them live again.

They will not rise. They will not speak. They will not teach or argue.

But even then, I’ll probably handle it as I handle all things I don’t understand.

Probably write a paper about it. The ‘it‘ in question being the completion of a ‘closure’ ritual, I suppose. With academic distance. And very likely no sense of humor at all.

Rebecca Camhi Fromer
Co-founder of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, Berkeley, CA
1927– 2012