My grandmother never owned a smartphone. Yet she worked full-time, raised a family and always remembered our birthdays.
Each morning, she would drink her coffee and set out to do what she needed to do, all without the support of any modern gizmos or gadgets.
Although her life was complicated, her organizational system was elementary. She noted all dates of importance — from a forthcoming simcha to a podiatrist appointment — on a calendar sponsored by the local funeral home.
Everything that mattered hung there on the refrigerator, marked on the calendar’s numbered squares. It was within them that she lived her life, plotting out the days, weeks and months that assembled into years, and ultimately a personal legacy.
As a young girl, I noticed only the pictures on the opposing pages, where biblical scenes lifted from elaborate oil paintings — of Avraham walking with Yitzchak, of Moshe with the tablets — illustrated each of the months. The characters wore disquieting expressions, and the images struck me as eerie, parallel versions of the Torah stories I loved. They frightened me, but they
left my grandmother unscathed. She simply turned the pages without ceremony and a year unfolded.
At that point in my life, I could not articulate the reason for my reaction. I still ran impatiently after time. I mourned lost toys and regretted nothing of significance. I had no cuts deep enough for me to understand what the calendar scenes represented. So I continued to puzzle over their meaning, even well into my adult years.
During the first summer of my marriage, the answers came to me in the mail.
It was Elul, the month of self-reflection that draws us close to the new Jewish year. An assortment of calendars arrived from the organizations with which we were affiliated, and I felt obligated to choose insightfully which from among them would represent us on our refrigerator.
As my mind raced back to my grandmother’s bygone calendars, I opted instead for the one with the prettiest pictures. I wrote in the dates that defined my new family while recalling the images that plagued my young dreams.
In that moment it occurred to me that I must have sensed — even as a child — the fierce power those illustrations possessed as they leapt off the paper and into the real world. They dared me to look in the eye what I was not yet ready to see: that there is no sense in rushing time, that pain is inevitable and that the real meaning of sacrifice is often hidden from view like a ram in the bushes.
When my grandmother died, she bequeathed to me her disinterest in technology. But she tried less successfully to bestow upon me the ability to view a lifetime as the sum of both its blessings and its challenges.
Many years passed before I embraced that message, freeing myself to walk around the stumbling blocks in my way, rather than trip over them. I finally understood that it was precisely because the calendar images evinced the full and often hurtful spectrum of human emotion, their arrow hit its target.
This past summer when the calendars arrived, I chose the one with the largest boxes and the simplest pictures. With my grandmother’s hand in mine, I turned the pages and penned in the dates that stay the same, while marveling at the squares’ ability to encompass all of the side plots that will inevitably compose the story of this year.
As I proceeded, I recognized that each month bears an earnest responsibility to guide us in the ongoing cycle of our lives. Tishrei carries the burden of repentance. Adar ushers in an atmosphere of levity, Av a period of anguish, then hope.
When I turned to Kislev, I marked in the two yahrtzeits — my grandmother’s and my mother-in-law’s — that immediately flank my birthday. I have been told it is a heavy weight to bear, celebrating between two dates that represent what I have lost, but I rather appreciate having these women at my side.
Taking me by the arm, they whisper that God is in the details and steady me when I need balancing. In a softer way than the calendars I remember, they tell me that the light with the potential to burn brightest is the one inside us, the one that fills in the empty squares to craft a meaningful life. They both knew it while they lived. Shamefully, I learned the lesson only after they were gone.
Finally, they point me to the calendar on my refrigerator, and reassure me that only anger and fear — not disappointment and loss — can spoil things, and that reverence, devotion and love make it glow long after we have turned our last page.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer in Edison, N.J., where she lives with her family. She blogs at mypaperedworld.blogspot.com and is at work on a memoir about raising boys.