How do you celebrate a holiday dedicated to memory when a person’s memory is fading?
That was the challenge my mother faced a couple decades ago.
Her sister Henrietta, in her eighties, in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, was living her final years in a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Batavia, New York, halfway between Rochester, where Aunt Henny had spent most of her adult life, and Buffalo, where she and Mom had grown up.
Aunt Henny, who had not had children of her own but was a second mother to me and my two younger sisters, left Rochester as a senior citizen, returning to Buffalo to live several years.
She had been in the US Army during World War II; Mom had volunteered for the Navy; the siblings, Mom would tell us, “were the talk” of Buffalo’s Orthodox East Side—two Jewish girls, from a family of Yiddish-speaking Orthodox immigrants from present-day Belarus, leaving home to serve in military uniforms.
Aunt Henny, older than Mom by more than a decade, had a more-traditional bent, keeping a kosher home, joining a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Rochester walking distance from her home and hosting Seders to which I and my sisters were sometimes invited.
When she later moved back to Buffalo, she always joined my family’s Seder, which I had led since I was a kid—Dad, who grew up in Berlin’s heavily secular environment, knew neither Hebrew nor the basics of Pesach.
Each year Aunt Henny would help Mom unpack crates of kosher l’Pesach dishes and utensils, lend a hand in the weeks before yom tov in preparing kosher food for the Sedarim and the rest of the holiday, and sit at our Seder table, taking her turn in reading from the Haggadah.
Then Alzheimer’s arrived.
Eventually, no longer able to care for herself in an assisted living facility, Aunt Henny moved into the VA hospital, for which she was eligible as a veteran. The food there wasn’t kosher; Aunt Henny would eschew obvious treif items; finally, as the disease progressed, she had no idea what she was eating.
Mom, driving to the hospital or taking a shuttle van a few times a week, would bring kosher snacks.
At one point, Mom wasn’t sure if Aunt Henny recognized her—or any once-familiar faces. Words failed Aunt Henny, conversations were limited. Her memory, Mom said, “wasn’t there.”
The VA hospital provided wonderful care, but there would be no Seder there. Aunt Henny was the only Jew in the wards.
Mom was determined that her sister would have a Seder—no matter how much, or how little, Aunt Henny understood.
The Seder would have to take place before the start of Pesach, since Mom wanted to be back home for the Seder that she was leading in my absence—I had moved away, and was spending the chag with friends in a frum neighborhood in the Greater New York area.
If the timing wasn’t perfect, Mom’s sentiments were—Pesach would not pass unnoticed by Aunt Henny.
Mom drove by herself to Batavia—Dad, in failing health, wasn’t up to the trip. She loaded the car with kosher food she had made, paper plates and plastic utensils, boxes of matzah and bottles of grape juice, a dish of homemade charoset, chicken soup, a Seder plate, candles and a few Haggadahs. “Everything for the Seder,” Mom said.
At the hospital she unloaded the supplies and carried them to a private room that the nurses had set up.
A white lace tablecloth covered the table. Out came the plates. A Catholic couple sat at the table with Mom and Aunt Henny; the husband, a fellow VA hospital patient, had attended a Seder in Italy with a Jewish GI friend during World War II and had fond memories. He, wearing a kippah that Mom had brought, and his wife were delighted to join the festivities.
Mom offered a little explanation about what would take place. Then, a stickler for reading every word of the Haggadah, mostly in English, she began the Seder.
She wasn’t sure how much would penetrate Aunt Henny’s Alzheimer’s fog. Aunt Henny was mostly silent.
Then came the Seder’s opening berachot. Suddenly, Aunt Henny joined in, in Hebrew. “She started singing the prayers,” the ones she had heard at the Finkelsteins’ Seder table in Buffalo some eight decades earlier.
Aunt Henny didn’t sing all the prayers, Mom said, but more than she would have expected. The Catholic guests at the table “were surprised” by Aunt Henny’s sudden liveliness.
Otherwise, Aunt Henny did not participate in reading the Haggadah.
How do you explain this Pesach miracle?
Short-term memory is the first victim of Alzheimer’s, doctors say, while some long-term memories remain intact. And music often spurs memory.
Mom has another, simple explanation.
“Some things you never forget.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.