Forgetting

I have a fear of forgetting. Not little things like where I left my car keys or whether the diswasher is full of clean or dirty plates, but huge things like my first kiss, how it felt on my 8th birthday when I was finally able to have a sleepover, and building my life with my husband. I worry that one day I’ll wake up and my memories will begin to fade in tiny ways that aren’t really noticeable at first but then turn into entire blacked-out passage, similar to a redacted government report on Area 51.

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease. I’m not a therapist but I’m 99.9999999% sure that this is where my fear stems from. She was diagnosed when I was in late middle school years (7th or 8th grade) and we watched warily as she went from a strong woman with opinions about everything to moments where she honestly seemed like a small child. It was creepy, to be frank. It was painful for everyone, but most of all my grandfather who watched his wife deteriorate at a time when he had planned for them to relax and travel, finally able to enjoy their retirement. There were entire days where she had no idea who he was and I think it broke his heart. I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t.

I have a recurring dream that makes me feel so tiny and inconsequential that every time I have it, it takes me about 3-4 hours to feel normal again. It always starts the same way. I’m at a party. I’m in an unknown house surrounded by unknown people but I feel like I should know them. The house, while totally unfamiliar, has a weird familiarity about it, almost as though it’s a compilation of many known places but put together in a way that I don’t understand. I keep opening doors and finding unexpected things, like gardens where bathrooms should be, basements on the third floor, bathrooms where I think I should be finding a kitchen, dentist offices set up in the middle of a bedroom. I’m totally lost and confused and trying to keep my cool because I don’t want anyone else to realize that I don’t know what’s going on.

What’s worse is that everyone seems annoyed with me. I have no idea what I did or who these people are, but face after face keeps coming up to me to demand something of me. The problem is, not only do I not know who they are, but I don’t really understand what they’re asking. The last time I had this dream, a man I perceived to be about my age kept insisting, “You have to find the frog! No one can get started until you bring the frog to the stadium!” So not only do I not know where I am, have no idea who I’m with, but now I’m being asked weird things I don’t know the answers to.

And then everyone gets frustrated. They seem to have figured out that I’m acting and don’t actually know anything but this makes them more annoyed. Everyone at the party begins to tell me things but I can’t keep anything straight. Sometimes male voices come from female mouths and vice versa. Language dissolves and it seems everyone is suddenly speaking gibberish. Everyone faces me and speaks, and speaks, and speaks and I can’t turn anywhere or do anything because voices and faces and hands and bodies are everywhere and I can’t find anyone to tell me what is going on.

And then I wake up.

But I have this dream the way people who are afraid of drowning dream of water. It’s terrifying because it could conceivably happen in real life. I am petrified that one day, this is what life will be like. I won’t have any control and I’ll have no idea who I am, what is expected of me, or even what the social norms of the situation might be.

My fear isn’t so much that I won’t be in charge or I won’t be an authority figure, but that I’ll forget my life. I worry that everything I am will cease before I die and then time unwinds for me, leaving me feeling like a child in a room full of adults.

My fear is that I will forget everything that mattered and was important to me, I will no longer know who I am, and I will be infinitely lonely.

An Introduction to Real New Jersey and Really Being Jewish

When I tell people I’m from New Jersey, I can see them immediately picture the traffic on Route 80 heading towards New York City, the Jersey shore in August, and a lot of confusing right-hand exits that allow you to make a left-hand turn. I’m not from that part. Don’t get me wrong – Jersey isn’t so big that you’re ever that far from that part, but to this day I have no idea “what my exit” is off of the Turnpike. I don’t think I’ve ever purposely driven on the Turnpike, in fact.

The part of Jersey that I’m from is known for – get this – farmland. I know, no one pictures Jersey farmland but I swear it’s there. The town I grew up in, by the time I was growing up in it, didn’t really have much in the way of farms left but you didn’t have to go far for a true North Jersey experience. The Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, for example, is an annual summer event that people actually travel from other states to go to. I know this is mindblowing information. You probably think I’m referring to a New Jersey that existed in the early part of the Twentieth Century. I’m not. I was born in 1983. That means that my early childhood memories really started sticking around 1987. I’m not describing a Jersey-of-Old, but even as I write this, I am staring at a live, working Jersey farm. And for the record, I’m not capable of time travel so I’m not writing this with a feather-turned-pen and an inkwell. I’m typing on a computer because it is 2014 and there are farms in New Jersey. I swear.

The more confusing thing for strangers, aside that I did not grow up in the New Jersey that they’re picturing, is that I’m Jewish. I am Jewish and was raised in a small town so Catholic, we had two Catholic churches. I am Jewish and I am not from the parts of Jersey known for being Jewish, namely, the parts close to New York City or, at the very least, Morris County. I am from Sussex County with its corn fields, bees’ nests, horses, poison ivy, and lakes – more lakes than there should be, it seems. And, in case there weren’t enough natural lakes, we even went and built man-made lakes to make sure that no one would ever be too far from a decent place to swim.

My hometown itself was a mix of many things, often trying to be something it wasn’t. Sparta is an odd intersection of the traditional and the new. Generations of families have called Sparta home (ours wasn’t one of these). Companies owned homes in new developments that they could rent out to their employees as a transfer perk (ours wasn’t one of these either). People from New York City’s five boroughs moved to Sparta to try to give their children a slower-paced lifestyle in the suburbs. This was half of our story.

My family came to live in Sparta the way I imagine many pioneers ended up in Colorado – they weren’t quite sure where they wanted to be for sure but the price was right, there was a way to make a living, and you were far enough from your relatives that they weren’t going to drop in on you unannounced. My father was raised in Queens and, very long story short, became an optometrist. My mother is from so far Upstate New York that my father swears she sounded Canadian when they met. They moved to Sparta because my father bought an optometric practice there. That’s pretty much it.

So, I grew up in an idyllic small town that is the dream of 30-somethings raising a family. It’s even ranked number two on some “safest towns in New Jersey” survey done by a local paper. Growing up was pretty much exactly like watching family sitcom. Our biggest problems were the mean kids at school, how badly you were going to be grounded for accidentally breaking a window with a baseball, and figuring out if the recluse in the neighborhood was a vampire or just really old. I don’t mean to suggest that we didn’t have struggles or obstacles or that we never dealt with real emotions individually, but as a community, we were pretty darn boring.

Unless you were different. In any way.

I once saved a copy of the Sparta Independent (yes, our real newspaper) that touted “Sparta Schools Celebrate Diversity!” The accompanying pictures showed five blonde boys, all wearing Abercrombie and Fitch shirts, smiling widely for the camera. I hung this on the door of my dorm room because I found it so funny.

In high school, if you weren’t blonde, at some point you experimented with blonde highlights. I was in high school in the 90’s so this is true for boys as well as girls. I did it once and will never do it again because as someone whose coloring was once described by my grandmother as being “Italian olive oil” it wasn’t my best look.

There were a handful of Jewish families in Sparta. Some were fairly liberal and had Hanukkah bushes, didn’t make a big deal about whether or not we had school on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), and generally didn’t stick out too much. Mine was not one of these. My father felt very strongly that we not “Christianize” our traditions to fit in. We never had anything that resembled Christmas decorations, we missed school for our holidays, and my parents often came in to my elementary school classroom to give demonstrations on how we celebrate our traditions. We were weird. We were even weird to parts of our family who lived in more Jewish populated areas and wondered why we would choose a place that had such a low Jewish population. To this day, I have no idea what the answer is.

Being Jewish was hard in the sense that everyone wanted to know if I knew their friend Ira or Rebecca or David or Miriam because he/she is also Jewish so I must know them! I usually didn’t. In seventh grade I got into an argument with a friend who insisted that the Katzens (our close family friends and another very traditional Jewish family) must be my cousins because we’re both Jewish and our last name starts with K. We are not related. I have two first cousins and they grew up in a suburb outside Chicago.

I found that people who don’t know many Jews, or were only close enough to me to ask me curious questions, were really very sheltered on what was appropriate. Here is a sampling of real questions real people I grew up with have asked me:

“What if you just went to church a few times to see if you like it?”
I have been to Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist services. The services are fine and I like them well enough. I prefer mine because while I see the beauty in the others, they still include Jesus which my faith just…doesn’t. I do like that they’re not three hours long, like our Saturday morning services are.

“Have you considered that Jesus wants you to know Him?”
Yes, I’ve considered it. In fact, I think most Jewish Americans consider, for at least half a second, that perhaps Ancient Jews missed the boat and we are the descendants of the most cynical group of people ever. But then I realize that it’s that cynicism that makes us so popular. Besides, I was raised in a faith that believes that the Savior has not yet come. While I respect your faith and your relationship with Jesus, I simply don’t believe Jesus is the Savior. We’re going to have to agree to disagree.

“Maybe no one has told you the glory and wonder and light that is Jesus.”
Everyone has told me. EVERYONE. I am aware of Jesus and all that has been attributed to Jesus. You don’t have to hand me a pamphlet, flyer, or invite me to your church’s brunch.

“You must be rich – you’re Jewish and your father is a doctor.”
Um…wow. My father worked really, really, REALLY hard to put himself through college and optometry school. Thank you for undermining all of his work by assuming that somehow his faith has anything to do with his finances. Besides, if being Jewish made you rich, why aren’t more people converting, especially in this economy?

“You killed Jesus. You are being punished for killing the Son of G-d.”
I personally have not killed anyone. If my life is a punishment, I’d love to go to hell – this is a pretty awesome punishment. Oh, hey, didn’t you say your family is from England? I guess you’re responsible for the crusades then, huh?

“Why don’t you put the O in G-d’s name?”
Jewish people don’t write out G-d’s full name in any language. It’s a sign of respect.

“Why is calling you a Jew offensive but calling you Jewish not offensive?”
It’s about context. I am Jewish and a member of the Jewish faith. A group of people like me would be called Jews. You could refer to the Jews living in New Jersey, Poland, Israel, or Ancient Jews. To call one individual a Jew, however, is biting and has negative connotations, probably because of the hundreds of years of antisemitism that relied heavily on labeling Jews as such, whether it be with armbands, Jewish stars, or the word itself. If you were to say, “Hey, Sharon’s a Jew!” I would probably respond with, “Hey! Say the whole word!”

“Do you want to order Chinese food – oh, sorry! I forgot you don’t eat pork.”
Yes, I do. Not all Jewish people keep kosher. It’s a very conservative tradition that many do still keep but my family kept kosher-light. We tried not to mix milk with meat and ate kosher meat when possible, but we ate shellfish and pork as well. Except for my brother – he was allergic to shellfish as a kid so he did not eat shellfish. He loves bacon though.

“Do you really have horns? How do you hide them?”
No, I don’t. But if I did, I would hide them with a complicated series of levers, pulleys, and theatrical makeup. Or I would just parade them around, wear only black, and insist that everyone refer to me as Sharon, Goddess of the Nightmares.

It wasn’t that I grew up in a small town filled with racists and bigots. I think it was actually that some of the kids I went to school with honestly didn’t know any other Jewish people and I was their first education with a faith that wasn’t somehow connected to Christianity. In a way, it’s kind of cool that I could answer questions and start to open up people’s minds to having respect for other’s beliefs. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel like a zoo animal at times, especially when a new kid started school and I was actually introduced by a mutual friend as, “Sharon, our resident Jew.” The new kid, by the way, was not impressed.

But basically, growing up in Sparta left me with the same childhood everyone else had. I went to summer camp. I joined the clubs and activities I found fun. I made friends. I cried because I wasn’t popular. I laughed hysterically at Pauly Shore movies (and am still embarrassed by this fact). I obsessed over boys who didn’t know I was alive and had sleepovers with friends. I reveled in thinking about how I would never live in a town like Sparta when I grew up because it was just. so. boring. and there was never anything to do.

I just didn’t have a Christmas tree.

The Realization

I can only imagine that my future is forged of wrought iron –
tangles of metal looping and lacing upsides and downsides and sideswaybound

to twist and bloom into something else entirely.

Somewhere I forgot what it was like
to be heated and bent
cooled and sealed

and how these horrible sounding manipulations
seamlessly fit in the giant map of my lifeline
in the palm of my hand

and how comfortably the idea of a wrought iron, twisting life
hangs on my wall.

After Great-Aunt Florie’s Unveiling Service

A white teacup saucer with small rosebuds
is sitting on the off-white carpeting
and I’m holding the small, matching cup in
my beauty-marked hand.

My undotted hand feels sore in two spots
where my teeth lie when I suck my fingers,
pressing my sign for “I love you”
against my small lips.

Mr. Big Bear and I are enjoying
afternoon tea with Grandma and Mimi,
stirring in plastic sugar cubes with pink
and silver tin spoons.

The women are sitting on my mother’s
yellow and rust flower patterned sofa,
I am kneeling on the other side of
the coffee table.

I pour cold water from my tea kettle
very carefully, spilling only drops
on the glass and wiping them away with
my undotted hand.

Mimi asks me to pour the next cup with
my dotted hand instead, and I find
it’s easier and I don’t spill at all.
She is right-handed.

I look up at her and smile, sticking
my undotted hand’s fingers into my
mouth, feeling pain, but sucking anyway,
enjoying comfort.