Leftovers: Ritual value

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My sister’s small, lovely Jewish funeral was held on April 5, two days after she died. As is the custom she was put into the ground wrapped in a plain and simple burial shawl.

Tradition tells us we are all the same no matter if we were wealthy, indigent, or high-ranking in the public eye. Without embalming or make-up added to her ashen face, she was returned to the earth in a pine box with nothing to keep her earthly vessel from decomposing.

Natalie LaddThe process was one of many rituals that brought comfort and order to a surreal time.

At 67, my sister clearly did not want to die. She had come to accept my making arrangements for the inevitable but spoke angrily, as if it were years away. 

“Everyone thinks I’m dying tomorrow,” she told my brother a week before she went to the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough. “It pisses me off because you’re all just giving up. It’s like you all want me gone. I don’t want any of the drugs they want to give me to speed up the process. I don’t want to go to a nursing home.” 

My brother, truly a professional at calming our older sister down when her fears – real or imagined – would surface, listened as she struggled for now-evasive words that used to flow so easily. He patiently validated even the most outrageous things before telling her he heard her. He often told her it was understandable to be afraid. Walking our sister off a ledge to safety became a ritual in our lives that eventually brought me as much solace as the ancient practices of how to bury and mourn loved ones. 

Thinking about and planning for rituals and customs have preoccupied my time over the past six months. Both words, “rituals” and “customs,” take on subtly different meanings when used as nouns, and then adjectives. Both have to do with order and expectations, providing guidelines for everything from religious pomp to daily simplicity. Fortunately, we all have them.

Most of my family-of-origin rituals can be found by Googling modern Jewish-American holidays and life events. Although “customized” to my clan’s situation and circumstances, they influence who and what I am and how I conduct myself. I’ve loosely interpreted and modified much of the way my mother did things from her ritualistic playbook, and think my daughters do the same with mine.

Brenda Haberman marker
A temporary marker at Brenda Haberman’s grave will eventually be replaced by a stone in a traditional Jewish ceremony of unveiling. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Ladd)

But this is about my sister. Calling out some of her rituals keeps her close, so here are a few we always talk about, no matter how simplistic they may seem:

Room-temperature coffee made up of half water, half coffee was her drink. She walked to Coffee by Design on Congress Street almost every day and once tried to tell me it was a classic Americano. Telling her Americano was espresso and water made no difference so I didn’t choose that battle.

Not a week went by when we all didn’t receive photos taken on her flip phone. They were usually images of nature: a bug in her tiny garden, a random flower she saw near the library, or an odd-shaped pile of snow. She would then follow it up with a phone call going into detail about the motivation for that particular shot, the exact location, and of course, the day, date, and time. If we were unreachable by phone, a very, very long text soon arrived.

An admittedly terrible cook, my sister loved to watch British cooking shows and would send me recipes regularly. This was her way of asking me to cook those items for her, which I did as time would allow. How do I know this was a ritual for her? Because she would write “Recipe of the Month” on top of the letter that arrived by snail mail.

If it sounds like I’m mocking her in some way, please know that isn’t the case. I am remembering her the best way I know how and will transition to a journal that I plan on writing in daily. I’ll be keeping up the practice of jotting down the rituals that made her my own special sister, at least until my family comes back within a year, and we have the unveiling.

That’s when we will visit her gravesite together and reveal the stone that marks my sister’s grave. Tradition tells us the soul is at rest when the marker is finally placed or unveiled. 

Until then, keep your own loved ones close and pay special attention to their personal rituals. You’ll be amazed at how the quirkiest of memories will keep them near your beating heart.

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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