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94 6 The Memory Books My mother continued to plan her death. She was writing letters to each of the grandchildren, so they’d have something to remember her by. She was compiling the family recipes, so that each of us would know how to make Grandma’s pot roast and Nana’s fruit-filled meringue. She was dividing up her jewelry—did I want her diamond and ruby necklace? What about her sapphire ring? And by the way, isn’t there someone you can think of for your sister? I’m not going to last much longer, you know. But it was bullshit, and I can say that with authority, because God just wasn’t ready for Mom—not yet, at least. Even I, with all my doubts and dark corners about the very existence of the Almighty, knew that if He had any sense at all, He wouldn’t be in any hurry to meet her up close and personal . Who could blame Him? She was so bossy she would have gotten to heaven and started rearranging the furniture. Unlike in the beautiful, stirring gospel number “I’m Too Close,” which expresses the yearning to give up the struggle and surrender to death, my mother didn’t have the slightest longing to see her God’s face. The top of the hill? Forget it. She liked living in the broad green valleys. The next world? She liked the one she knew, the one where you could get a big, juicy hamburger and slather it with ketchup and relish, or sneak out of the house for lobster, which is strictly forbidden under the laws of kashrut—laws my mother had taken up when she married my father and ignored as much as possible thereafter. And though she probably didn’t think of it that way, my mother’s orientation toward both her life and her death was very Jewish, for in Judaism the material world with all its sensual splendors is as much a part of God’s glory as the most distant stars, and, what’s more, it’s only through the material world, the everyday world of talking on the phone and going to the grocery store, enjoying a good cup of coffee or rocking out to the Rolling Stones, or perhaps Bruce Springsteen, that divinity can be glimpsed. She kept talking about dying, but instead of dying, she got fat. A few months before my bat mitzvah, Mom called me, again, to talk about her impending death and the kind of flowers she wanted on her casket , but then she switched subjects, telling me that she was sending me a just-because present, one of the zillions of presents that my mother has given me over the years for no reason whatsoever other than because she felt like it: because she happened to be in Bloomingdale’s or because she knew I could use a new coat, or a quilt covered with pastel-colored hearts, or an antique dining-room table with eight early-American ladder-back chairs. Sometimes (as in the case of the dining-room table and chairs) I liked the stuff she gave me; sometimes I didn’t; but always, and no matter what, her extravagant gift-giving filled me with a sense of queasy guilt, which would then lead to a bout of hypochondria, wherein, usually in the space of two or three days, I’d develop the warning signs of AIDS, as well as numerous cancers. “You’ll like it.” “Thank you,” I said, already feeling burdened by it—whatever it was. But when the just-because present arrived a few days later, it turned out to be Nana’s “Memory Books”—scrapbooks I’d pored over when I was a girl and which for years had been stored in the corner cabinet in my mother’s sitting room. My mother had also sent me a note. It read: “Because I know that you will keep Mother’s memories for her.” I unwrapped the packages slowly, so as not to cause further damage to the brittle, yellowed pages. In Judaism, there are prayers for everything: There is the blessing over fragrances, Blessed art Thou, Our Lord and God, King of the universe, Who creates species of fragrance; the blessing to be recited upon smelling herbs and spices, Blessed art Thou, Our Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who creates herbage; the blessing recited upon hearing thunder, Blessed art Thou, Our...


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