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  • It is August 14, 2012 and it is 32 years since I lost my mom, Rochelle. Every year, I light the memorial candle and gather the few photos and letters that I have, along with the journal I made for her with her single entry tucked inside the tie dyed soft cover. I ride my bike to some empty, pretty place to savor my memories, to feel her inside me like an echo , and to have a deep, cleansing cry. I also take the notes I wrote on a yellow legal pad about those first three days without her.

    My brother Josh and I were so lucky to have seen her just days before her sudden end. It had been a year or so. She’d come to California to visit each of us before heading on with friends to a wedding in San Diego. She never made it though, because of a head-on crash on the coastal Great Highway 1 with a drunk driver.

    I can picture her in the passenger seat of the rented Datsun, head turned back to face Carmi and Elly in the back seat, her animated, infectious laughter, questions, and mirthful candor filling the car with warmth and fun. It’s the same energy that drew so many to her apartment every Saturday afternoon. My brothers’ friends loved to be around her, as did her peers from the Orthodox Jewish community. I’m sure that the four of them were having a great time as they neared San Juan Capistrano, though Carmi doesn’t remember anything the one time I ask, and I barely know his brother-in-law David, and Carmi’s 28 year-old wife died of injuries three days later.

    There is no bigger fulcrum in my lifeline. It was the launching pad for so many things that followed. But every summer on this day, I read her words and go back in time. I feel her passions and smile often reading lines about dieting, teaching, dating, mothering, and moving forward. There are only a handful of people I’ve known with such a wealth of poignant positivity.

    There are three letters from the “Rice Farm” at Duke University in Durham where she went twice to shed many pounds. The actor, James Coco, was there one year, but alas, he was gay and unavailable. She’d return to St. Louis gorgeous and thin. For a more exotic dieting excursion, one year she convinced Bracha, Carmi’s mom, to go with her to a yoga and fasting retreat in the Bahamas with Vishnu Devananda. I remember one time as a little boy, she took me to the Art Institute in Chicago. She stood with me in front of the tall skinny Giacometti sculptures and told me just to stand there and look for awhile. “Look, how great they look, El. Look how skinny!”
    It was easy to design a gravestone for her and my brothers agreed right away. I chose the tallest thinnest one and wrote that her “courage and laughter” was “our home forever.” I am so blessed to carry her imprint like a silkscreen design on my heart. Sometimes I recognize her in the face I realize I’m making.

    During our final weekend in San Francisco, we went to a women’s art show at Fort Mason. We were both mesmerized by an exhibit of whimsical ceramic plates that were painted with funny, heartwarming relationship-scenes. The artist’s father was also in the booth and the four of us kibitzed awhile. Rochelle bought one with a couple in bed, the woman doing a crossword puzzle, her partner reading a novel.

    There was no rule so sacrosanct that it couldn’t be broken when she heard a deeper calling…. except for loving her three boys and letting them know it. Her devoted friends were from different walks of life – the familiar Orthodox families sharing Sabbath meals, the gay men who treasured her earthy gusto, the African-American suitors who could appreciate an ample booty, the young people and students who could discuss things with her that they’d never bring up with their parents.

    For me it is a bittersweet anniversary and ritual I repeat each year. Rereading her letters I feel her just as though we were sitting together at the kitchen table, and simultaneously I feel the absence – not only of her, but like a piece of me, some limb that used to help me climb or some vital organ that made my heart beat a little stronger. A few days after the crash, when I learned that the ceramic plate had been smashed to bits, I burst into another round of tears. I found the artist and have had a similar one hanging on my wall wherever I have lived these past 32 years.
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