My father died eight years ago just 10 days before Passover. The day before, as we were packing to go up for what we thought was just another visit, my wife asked, “Are you packing a suit?”
“What for?” I asked. I guess denial is more than just a river in Egypt.
Part of Jewish custom when you commemorate the loss of a parent is to tear your shirt over your heart, a ritual called Kriah in Hebrew. The Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic sage, teaches that when you tear Kriah for a parent, it is like opening your heart to express all the love you carry inside. Problem for me was, I didn’t have a shirt.
So the next day, I went to the store to buy a shirt. Anyone from the Washington, DC area knows a store called “Syms,” where you could buy dress clothes for reasonable prices: “An educated consumer is our best customer…” went the slogan.
As a kid, my father introduced me to the stock market. One of the stocks he carried in his portfolio was “Hart, Schaffner, and Marx” – a clothing company. I used to joke that it was an imaginary stock, since I never saw a Hart, Schaffner, and Marx label on anyone I knew.
So as looked through the rack for a white shirt my size, I had to stop and catch my breath. There was a white shirt, hanging on the rack – Hart, Schaffner, and Marx. I decided to buy two. One I would destroy with Kriah at the funeral; the other I would keep to remember my father.
As I was walking through the store, I happened to look down at the dress shoes. My father had taught me to buy dress shoes where the sole was sewn to the main body of the shoe: “The glue-on soles fall apart too quickly,” my father counseled. A pair of black Cole-Hahn’s caught my eye – $64.99. That was an amazing price for such good shoes. So though I wasn’t shopping for dress shoes, I knew my father would approve.
I have worn those Cole-Hahn’s for the last eight years. My father was a big believer in repairing good shoes, so every time over the years the heels or soles would wear out, I would have them repaired. There was something about those shoes. Like the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx shirt or the small collection of my father’s ties I wear for special occasions, those shoes were a connection I didn’t want to lose to my father.
Losing a parent goes in stages. There are many steps in letting go. Beyond the immediate experience of death and loss, the funeral and the shiva, there are little lettings go along the way. Changing the voice-mail message; cleaning out belongings; changing a residence – each is another letting go. The celebration of annual holidays or milestone occasions – a Bar Mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding – these occasions are other little pieces of letting go.
Each year on my father’s yahrtzeit we gather to tell stories of my father before lighting the candle. My children were very young when their grandfather died, and their memories of him, like mine, no longer continue to grow. They rely on me to tell the story of his journey, of my journey with him, so that his journey can be part of their journey. Their memories of him grow by making my stories their stories. And my memories of him grow as I carry him in my heart day after day, year after year, along the journey of my own life.
The Passover Seder works the same way. By telling and retelling the story, we make the experience of our ancestors who journeyed from slavery to freedom our experience and our story. By keeping the memory of their journey fresh in our minds, we keep ourselves from fully letting go of them. Matzah, Maror, and Charoset, like shirts, ties, and shoes, each are symbols we hold onto so that we do not lose our connection to our past, or lose our way in the wilderness.
Despite my best efforts, my Cole-Hahns have worn out beyond repair. And yet I wasn’t able to replace them. I wasn’t ready to let go.
But then, one day just before my father’s yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, I was walking through Costco. There, on display, were boxes and boxes of Cole-Hahn’s. I saw a box in my size – black with sewn soles. I looked up at the price – $64.99. I smiled. It was time to let go.
It will be hard to break in those new shoes, and hard to let go of my old Cole-Hahns. But memory is stronger than leather, and my father and I can keep walking forward together, even in a new pair of shoes.