I have never been a religious person. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, I was dismayed by the exclusivity, the narrowness, the restrictions. I wanted to be like everyone else. In childhood, I couldn’t see the differences between Christians and Jews that everyone made such a fuss about. I was a happy kid. I loved the world. I was a crackerjack whistler and a tomboy, an embarrassment to my extremely conservative family.
Thus I grew up, rejecting religion. All my boyfriends (those were not so many!) were not Jewish. After leaving home in adolescence, I mischievously brought various heterogeneous individuals (including a Mennonite and a Roman Catholic whose brother was a priest) to meet my parents, probably causing endless worry. Oddly, when I married at twenty-five (my parents had long given up hope), it was my first Jewish boyfriend. This surely confirmed for my parents that there was a beneficent god. They were delighted. Morton Klass was poor, but he was Jewish!
I have always been a lefty liberal, and I believe in the innate goodness of people. My recent almost total loss of vision has confirmed my beliefs. I’m amazed at the kindness and the generosity of people around me. Strangers cross me willingly at streetlights. Subway riders help me by telling me the station and letting me sit. Shopkeepers describe their wares and tell me the prices, and in general, survival is possible only because of New Yorkers’ civility.
My own family is amazing, not only the adults but my two young grandchildren who do not comprehend—as I still do not comprehend—the magnitude of this loss of vision. They are so incredibly considerate, helping me onto the elevator, testing my vision every five minutes to see if I’ve improved, being enormously proud when I can read a large sign over the shop in the street. They enjoy even the smallest of my visual triumphs.
About my children I cannot say enough. It is weird to be cared for by one’s children. They do it generously and without hesitation, and it’s difficult to respond appropriately. “Thank you” is the logical response, but it’s inadequate. It’s the automatic response for small courtesies, and these are far greater than small courtesies. They have opened their homes and their hearts to me. Everyone has a busy and committed calendar: duties, jobs, family responsibilities, social engagements, the crowded New York life. To have a blinded elder parent for whom you take responsibility is to take on a full-time job. And there is no appropriate protocol: a million thank yous are not enough, and there’s no conceivable way of lightening the burden, at least at present.
The parent caring for the child is biologically correct. The child caring for the parent seems a distortion. That this grown man whom I taught to walk is now carefully guiding me across the street, that this mature woman whose thick hair I braided and tied with ribbons is now fixing my meals and measuring my medication feels somehow amiss, and it doesn’t matter that it’s being done with grace and gentleness. It just doesn’t feel right. And though I try to be polite and gracious, they continually make light of what they are doing, to put me at my ease. There is no other way to handle this situation. The dependent parent is dependent. The responsible child is put upon. Biology did not provide accessible means for this octogenarian to survive without help. And the logical helpers are kinfolk.
The deep faith of the truly religious eludes me. I envy the comfort it brings, but in my current condition I am supported and comforted by the love of kin and the “kindness of strangers.”
Perhaps I should have been a Quaker. They believe that goodness and Godliness on earth is abundant in each of us. Their recognition of human goodness is revealed in their simple motto, “All He hath is thee.”
Hi, Sheila. What a delight to see your blog essay in my in-box, as I sit at La Guardia waiting for my plane home. I got here at 9 a.m., striving for the Morton Klass Special Prize for Early Airport Arrival. At first I was rewarded by a very long security line, which allowed me to feel highly superior to all the frantic travelers around me, who all seemed to think they would surely miss their flights. But after making it through the long line I discover the flight to Kansas City has been delayed (equipment malfunction on the incoming plane – they had to turn around – the usual uninformative information…). Fortunately, I have found a seat by a power outlet, so my laptop will keep me entertained until the plane finds its way to NYC. With any luck, we will only be an hour late.
I love your essay. There is a kind of grace in allowing others to do for us – in some ways, it is much harder than to do for them. And it does seem to be the odd irony of life that we get a shot at this when we are youngest and oldest, and not so much in the middle.
I’m so glad I got to come to NYC this weekend. Thank you for all the shared stories and wisdom — and for endlessly tramping around in the hot humid New York heat without once complaining. I am going home full and satisfied, on every level!
Yes, Sheila, I too have come to appreciate the kindness and love of kinfolk, but also of non-kinfolk and have learned to accept both gifts with grace, I hope. Can it be that many of these younger “strangers” are offering us their kindness because of their need for adopted roots? We have become surrogate grandparents of a sort. There is more manifestation of love than most people may realize.