That’s Not My Tractor or Why Proust and I Didn’t Cry For Our Grandmothers

My grandson Alexander has a book called That’s Not My Tractor. I’ve read the book approximately two hundred and sixty-five times. It’s a Touch and Feel book, and it is exactly six pages long with one sentence per page. It says, “That’s not my tractor, its engine is too bumpy,” and Alexander touches the bumpy engine. “That’s not my tractor, its trailer is too rough. That’s not my tractor, its funnel is too smooth. That’s not my tractor, the tires are too squashy.” And Alexander touches the tires. “That’s not my tractor, its seat is too scratchy.” And then on the last page it says, “That’s my tractor! Its headlights are so shiny.” Alexander loves the happy ending. He touches the shiny headlights on his very own tractor. And he smiles at me for being a wonderful grandfather, and then he tells me to read the book again.

After reading this book a couple of hundred times, it got into my head, and it has given me a parallel, believe it or not, for something that happened in my own emotional life, something that before this, I had never really understood. It took That’s Not My Tractor and a scene from a very different kind of book by Marcel Proust to explain a mystery in my life about my reaction to my grandmother’s death. So I want to tell you about a scene from one of the great books, I want to tell you about something that I learned about grief, and then I want to tell you a secret about a lot of us, leading to why we say Yizkor today.

Marcel Proust is one of the greatest modern novelists; he is remembered for his descriptions of French society, of love and jealousy, but also for his close studies of the power of memory and its role in our lives. Proust’s series of novels is À la recherche du temps perdu, called Remembrances of Things Past in English, and the passage I’m interested in is in the fourth volume Sodom and Gomorrah. This passage speaks to me and I want to tell you about it.

Marcel goes to his hotel room, sick and exhausted, suffering from cardiac fatigue, and very much alone. He bends down to take off his boots, trying to fight through his pain so he can perform this simple task. But just as he touches the top button of his boot, something happens to him; he feels a divine presence. And he starts shaking and crying. A memory that is more than a memory overwhelms him. The presence that comes to him in this moment of distress is the same being who had helped him in a similar moment years earlier when, he says, he “had nothing left of myself, had come in and had restored me to myself.”  Who was this being?

He writes: “I had just perceived, in my memory, stooping over my fatigue, the tender, preoccupied, disappointed face of my grandmother….” It was not the face of his grandmother who had had a stroke and eventually died and who he had not missed. He had nothing in common with her. No, he had just perceived his real grandmother, the one before the stroke, and he saw her face again in a “living reality.” Why was this happening now, a year after she died? He hadn’t missed her, yet now she was enveloping him.

Proust makes a brilliant distinction between the calendar of facts and the calendar of feelings. A year may have passed on the calendar of facts, but the calendar of feelings operates at its own rate. It is only at this moment that he truly realizes that his grandmother is dead. He had watched her long, lingering, painful, difficult death and he had become so used to it that he took her death in stride and was unaffected.

So here’s Marcel the narrator, and he has never really understood that his grandmother is dead, but now he gets it, because in this moment of exhaustion while he is taking off his boots, he remembers how his grandmother had once helped him in another bad moment, and this moment and that moment are now one. It’s not only that he has his grandmother back; he gets himself back, the person he once was when he sought refuge from the world in his grandmother’s arms. He remembers that day as if he is living it again. He is walking down the hot, stifling street past the pastry shop and he cannot bear to wait until he will see his grandmother and feel her arms around him. And now, he has that same need again. But he knows she will never again be by his side. So here, in this moment, his need for his grandmother has reawakened, and in this same beautiful moment is unbearable pain, because it’s only now that he knows she’s dead and she is lost forever. He feels the anguish of this contradiction, between a moment of complete and enveloping love and tenderness and a moment of utter finality and pain.

And he says that if you would take all the genius of all of the great thinkers of human history, his grandmother would have preferred any one of his defects to all of that genius.

Think about that, that his grandmother would have taken him over all of the great people of history. I hope you can relate to this from some relationship in your life. Was there someone in your life who felt that way about you? I hope that there was someone who felt this way about you.

I had a grandmother who was exactly like this. I was her firstborn grandson, her late husband’s namesake, and the sun and moon bowed down to me. Frankly, she was the only person in my life who ever felt that I could do no wrong. Alas and alack, other people seem to think I have a few inadequacies.

My grandmother was a remarkable woman. She followed current events closely and admired intellectual politicians like Adlai Stevenson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. She knew art and even wrote manuscripts on Leonardo da Vinci and Marc Chagall.

She lived in a fantastic apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a wonderful view of the Hudson River and New Jersey. She lived in the very apartment where William Randolph Hearst had been caught in a love tryst that would destroy his political ambitions; cf. Citizen Kane. When I went to Columbia and the Seminary in New York, I lived sixteen blocks away, and I would go to her apartment every Friday afternoon, often with my friends, who would be so excited to join us for what they thought was a home-cooked meal. They gobbled up dinners ordered and delivered by me from Meal Mart. My grandmother held court and we discussed the issues of the day. Those were wonderful Shabbat dinners.

My grandmother got sick and after a prolonged illness passed away.

I remember looking at her on her deathbed at the hospital, on a dark lonely December night on a cold dark hospital floor in New York City, and I didn’t cry, and I wasn’t moved, because she wasn’t my grandmother any more.

She was small and wrinkled and shriveled and her elegant and cultured voice was silent. And when she died, I didn’t even cry at her funeral.

What was wrong with me? Where was my pain? Was I that cold?

And just for the record, why have I never felt her presence? I have felt the presence of other people I’ve lost, but never the presence of a woman who was so dear to me.

At that time, it was not that I couldn’t care; it’s that I needed not to care as I did. I was exhausted emotionally from the years of worrying about her, and maybe, yes, there was some relief in me.

So I defended myself against my grief. My grandmother’s name was Dorothy, and when she died my son Danny was already a month old, and somehow retroactively he was a replacement for my grandmother, he became named for her, which may be illogical chronologically but on my calendar of feelings made perfect sense.

Now I’m a grandfather, and I have grandsons whom I dote on the way my grandmother doted on me, and the sun and moon bow down to them on a daily basis. And when I read That’s Not My Tractor, when I read that book, I think about Proust, looking at his dying grandmother, saying, “That’s not my grandmother, her face is too wrinkly. That’s not my grandmother; my grandmother’s not that old, not that small.”

And I remember seeing my grandmother on that hospital bed, and I say, “That’s not my grandmother. My grandmother knew art and politics and music.”

Which brings me to Yizkor. Because I didn’t cry, because my calendar of feelings didn’t work, I needed the structure of grief that Judaism gave me to remind me to do right by my grandmother.

I usually talk about people whose grief wrecks them. Now I’m talking about those of us who do not grieve enough.

There are these moments when we have nothing left of ourselves and we need help, from G-d, from other people, but also, perhaps, from those who have passed on.

Haven’t you felt that way for a moment, when things were bad?

Have you ever felt one of your lost loved ones helping you, or has a memory come to you of what they would say or what they would do in this situation?

You could say: I get Proust’s distinction between the calendar of facts and the calendar of feelings. It’s a great way to express something that I’ve felt many times in my life. The calendar of facts, the timetable in days and months and years, doesn’t fit with the calendar of feelings. And what Judaism gives me is a rigid timetable.

Shiva: the first week of mourning.

Sh’loshim, the first month of mourning;

the unveiling of the monument before the year is up,

and then the anniversary of the death every year, the yahrzeit.

Isn’t Judaism forcing the calendar of feelings into a calendar of dates and facts and arbitrary periods of time? Doesn’t every person’s grief have its own timetable?

My answer is that we should not assume that we’ll grieve, that we will remember. Not everybody grieves too much; a lot of us grieve too little. Judaism tries to make sure that we won’t grieve too much, that we can go on with our lives, but also that we are not so wrapped up in our present that we forget our past, that we are not so self-involved with the blur of right now that we do not remember to focus on the people who gave us so much.

I’m accusing me, and I’m accusing you, of only randomly remembering, of not paying proper respect, and Judaism, which does not leave it to us to do the right thing, teaches us over and over what the right thing is.

Proust admits how he just didn’t grieve for his grandmother. Nothing pushed him. So it took a random act of unbuttoning his boot to remember and to grieve for a woman who had loved him and made him what he was. We can’t depend on random acts that may or may not make us remember.

Every Shabbat, I stand on this bima and read the names of your loved ones. And every week, most of you whose names I read aren’t here to pay your respects to your own loved ones, the people that you put down on our list so that we will read their names and remember them and pay honor to them. So let me get this straight: I should read the names of your loved ones and that takes care of your obligation? You’re not embarrassed not to be here; you just don’t care. It doesn’t matter.  Such minimal effort and you can’t be bothered.

Maybe I should understand: Your calendar of feelings has nothing to do with the calendar of facts, dates and anniversaries. But I don’t believe that. Your feelings are evoked by dates, by birthdays and dates of death and anniversaries. Don’t tell me that you’re not affected on those days.

Maybe your lack of response goes back to Alexander’s book. That’s not my tractor. My grandmother is not in a grave and her name is not on a list that’s read in shul and she’s not defined by a date.

Well, I’m not buying that one either.

I think the answer’s worse: I think we just stop caring. We distance ourselves before the person dies and then as every year goes by we care less and less. I always thought that absence makes the heart grown fonder. Now I’m worried that time makes the heart go empty.

Think about Marcel who gets himself back when he remembers his grandmother.

I’m saying that we have to stop to remember and honor and love but also to remember whole parts of our lives that we don’t think enough about.

That’s my mother. She meant the world to me.

That’s my father. He made me who I am.

As we say Yizkor, think about this: Don’t you want to be remembered? Don’t you want to feel like your life meant something to somebody? Shouldn’t you be here, not just today on Yom Kippur, but at every yahrzeit, to remember and honor the people you love?

If you want that for yourself, shouldn’t you do that for others?

On these High Holidays, I’ve explored our duties to each other, how we must be of service to each other, what a parent owes a child, what siblings owe each other, what people who have / owe people who don’t have, how we should talk to each other, when we should be vocal and stand up for who we are and when we should be quietly supportive.

And I’m bringing this together now by saying that we are what we remember, that if we choose to forget, we are ignoring part of who we are.

Part of Marcel Proust was his grandmother’s love and when she got sick he distanced himself from that love because he could no longer feel it. But he was pushing away a love that was unique in his life, a love that he should have cherished in his thoughts all the time, because without that love he never would have been who he had become.

I think about my grandmother a lot more these days, and I realize that I strive to be the grandparent that she was to me, that I had been imitating her all along without knowing it, that I look at my grandchildren like she looked at me, that she taught me more than I remember I remember.

But even more, I’ll probably never know what it meant to my whole being that there was someone who loved me that much, who was so proud of every move I made, that somehow, in ways I don’t know, it doesn’t matter to me what other people think when I do something they don’t like, because I know that I’ve got one person who’s got my back.

And so I want you to think about the people in your life,

who are still with us or who have passed on,

who are to you like Proust’s grandmother was to him and my grandmother was to me.

And I ask you to un-distance yourself, to jump back to a time before they got squashy tires and bumpy engines and rough trailers and scratchy seats.

I want you to remember that their headlights are so shiny that they light the road ahead for you, so that you can live your life in a way that will make them proud.