A year into the plague, we’ve now missed two Passovers, one Rosh Hashanah and one Thanksgiving, the three holidays on which my wife and I generally gather with lots of family. We’ve also missed untold visits from friends and family from out of town, or our frequent outings with those in the New York area. We’ve all mastered the art of the Zoom, but it’s not the same. For one thing, there has been no ripping apart a challah and tossing pieces to everyone, no ritual carving of a turkey or brisket, no taking seconds on cake while complaining that you’re stuffed. In short, no food sharing. Everyone eating their own food on a Zoom call just doesn’t hack it.
On the plus side, though, the technical distance enforced by Zoom has strangely immunized me to the gloomy dread of death that has infected me at family events since I was quite young. From maybe the age of ten, part of me has always feared that somebody at a large family gathering would die before I saw them again. I would analyze to myself who would be the most likely and from what cause—cancer, heart disease, accident, suicide. But now, instead of wondering whether this time will be the last I see anyone, and everyone, on Zoom I assume that everyone will survive and that we’ll all be together on the other side of the pandemic. Given we are in a global health crisis, my confidence in survival strikes me as more foolish and irrational than my previous anxiety!
A few years back I wrote a poem about the secret presence of death—future and past—looming over family events, contrasting the fact that we die alone with the wonderful joy of togetherness we feel at a family dinner or celebration. Main Street Rag published “The Best of Times” two years ago.
The Best of Times
Black-bean spare ribs, tangy cabbage salad
celebrate a high school graduation.
Silent dread invades me as I think
that this will be the final family time
for one of us: aunt and uncle in their eighties,
another uncle soon retiring from a stressful job,
sickly sister, secret addict, cousins overweight:
there are just too many here today
and a single marching time, always forward
into dark unknowns for all of us, one by one,
and all the ones who come after,
and all the ones who come after that.
Though one by one we die alone,
tonight we gnaw on bones together,
banter cherished stories heard before
and we want to hear again,
stories in stories of whistling past shadows,
swinging at the short end of a long rope,
kinfolk no one’s met in whirling waters,
huddled over steamy bowls of hope,
the best of times reduced to anecdote
or ancient bas-relief, tableaux emerging
from a plaster that is life itself, being lived,
every moment, even as it hardens into past.
Published in Main Street Rag (2019)