Memory shapes personality – of people and of nations.
Recently I’ve been contemplating the significance of collective memory. In Passover the Jewish people are commanded to remember how God delivered us from slavery over 3000 years ago. Not how our ancestors were freed from slavery, rather how each and every one of us was personally delivered from slavery. This is a very different, very personal perspective and one of the major difference between the Jewish people and all other nations. Collective consciousness is purposely expanded to encompass our Jewish brothers and sisters in other countries, across generations and spanning centuries. What happens (happened) to them happens (happened) to us. This awareness shapes Jewish consciousness, teaches values and drives actions.
Today my thoughts are on the significance of personal memory. Sima Maschkowski (mother of my beloved Lenny), passed away this morning.
Sima was one of the kindest people I have ever met. The core of her being was kindness and love.
I know because Alzheimer’s disease stripped her of everything else.
What do you know when you can’t remember anything?
By the end Sima didn’t recognize the home she lived in for over fifty years. She had no idea where she was. A gregarious and lively person, Sima could no longer recognize her neighbors or long-time friends. Sima who loved pretty clothes didn’t remember how to get dressed on her own. She, who loved fresh fruit and spices forgot about food and didn’t remember how to eat on her own. She even forgot that she loved having hot coffee in the morning and in the afternoon.
Sima often confused the names of her son and grandchildren. She would call one by the other’s name. And when she couldn’t recall the name she’d say: “Hello my Prince!”
Even when she started forgetting how to talk Sima knew that she loved her family with a passion. She recognized the people that belonged to her and the only thing she cared about was their happiness. When she was unable to do anything else she sat for hours, looking at pictures of her family and saying to them: “Bless you, God bless you.”
Alzheimer strips away everything. Knowledge acquired throughout a life becomes inaccessible and inapplicable. Everything stays inside the brain but the person is unable to pull it out and put it to use in the appropriate time or way. Social skills and norms evaporate. Language disappears. Slowly it becomes harder and harder to connect with others.
Memory shapes so much of who we are. Like an onion stripped of its layers, less and less remains. When there are no more layers the onion leaves scent / flavor. Even without its layers, the essence remains.
Some people who have Alzheimer’s disease become violent and aggressive. When Sima had nothing left, she was kind. She was unable to demonstrate her kindness, she just was. That was her essence.
Born in India in 1928, aspired to be an educated, dignified lady, like the English ladies. Much of what she learned she taught herself by reading, practicing writing and emulating those she admired.
After the Second World War, Jews from Israel came to the Jewish community in India, bringing them news of the Holocaust and of the need to rebuild the Jewish nation in the land of Israel. As a result, Sima decided to leave her comfortable life in India and make Aliyah. Her mother was against the idea of her only daughter leaving to go so far away but Sima adamantly told her: “6 million Jews died. I have to go to help the people and build the Land.”
Today this is a dramatic and frightening move to make, the bravery it took then is difficult to comprehend.
In Israel Sima learned to be a nurse. Another way to help people. Remembering people she helped made her happy until she was no longer able to remember.
Sima loved children, especially babies. She used to bring toys to a poor family in the neighborhood and give them to the children when the parents weren’t around. She wanted to give without making the parents feel shame. She just wanted the children to be happy. Sima never looked for credit for the kind things she did. It is only because others saw her actions do we know about them today.
Sima married the love of her life and had one son who was the jewel of her eye – until her grandchildren were born. One jewel became three and everything centered on them. When they were happy she was happy.
Love and kindness is the essence of Sima. That was the connecting thread throughout her life and it is the memory she leaves behind for those who were blessed to know her.
What shapes your consciousness? Or mine? What is the essence we will leave behind?