“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, January 6, 2012

Day 30: Two Weddings, a Book Launch, and a Funeral

Today is January 6 and it's my wedding anniversary.

Today also happens to be, for Christians, the day of the feast of the epiphany.  It celebrates the "shining forth" of God to humankind in the person of Jesus, as well as the visit of the three Magi, and Jesus's childhood events leading up to his baptism.  I only just read today that the feast was once based on the Jewish Feast of Lights.

My husband and I did not pick this date because of its religious significance.  Although he was raised in the Anglican church tradition in England, he's not a believer.  I was raised by wolves.  Although I was born an agnostic Jew, a cultural heritage I'm happy to claim, and am drawn to Buddhism, if I had to describe my spirituality in a phrase I'd say God = Love = Dog.  I believe in love and compassion and nature and animals and the forces that connect the dots, and my husband is a loving, compassionate atheist.  This combination works for us.

We had been together for almost 10 years when we got married.  Our friends gave us gag cards that said "Don't you kids think you're rushing into things?"  He was a widower with two sons and I had decided long ago that I was "not the marrying kind."  But in August of 2000, I was in Cochin, in the Indian state of Kerala, and I came down with a wicked case of motion sickness. Outside, some kind of parade was going on, an elephant marched past, firecrackers went off, and I called Kerry up and said, "I have the worst case of motion sickness and I think we should get married soon."  He said, "Funny, my father was just saying he'd like to see us get married before he dies." 

We picked January 6 because it was convenient for all of us.  The date fell close enough to the holidays to ensure our boys could be home.  We had the week off from work.  It was a convenient time for Kerry's father, his brother, and sister-in-law to fly over from England: not that any of them relished coming to the North Country at the height of winter.

So we got married in our house in a small ceremony.  There were 70 of us altogether.  I've already told the story of the shopping blitz in which we bought our wedding garb and rings on a frenzied afternoon in the city (see Day 13: Lucky 13, or the Story of the Wedding China).  All I knew about the Feast of the Epiphany was that three wise kings were involved.  As I looked around the room, the wisest man in sight was my father-in-law, Ian Grant, whom I still miss dearly.  (He died three years later and this trip, for our marriage, was his last trans-Atlantic crossing.)  He was always kind and generous to me: the best father I ever had.

2.  Not long ago, my sister found out that our parents were also married on January 6.  This came to me as a shock.  Here I'd spent my whole life trying to re-invent myself and prove I was free of my family and its terrible burdens and I had to go and pick the one day of the year that my parents had already nabbed for themselves.

Suffice it to say, their marriage did not go well.  How could it have?  When they stood before the justice of the peace, my mother had already been hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia, and my father's alcoholism was fairly advanced.  She was a beautiful, talented pianist who seemed destined, until the breakdowns began, for a life as a concert musician, and my father was a gifted painter and novelist, but art could not save them.  They had two daughters: I was born a few years into their marriage, and then 16 months later, my sister arrived.   After the divorce, when I was in kindergarten, we never saw our father again.  He stopped sending support checks a few years later, stopping writing letters, and although we were still very young when he died--22 and 21--we didn't find out about his death until years after the fact.

3.  My sister, Mira Bartok, wrote a  beautiful, heartbreaking, and ultimately affirming memoir about her relationship with our gifted, tormented mother: The Memory Palace.  I had thought it came out on January 6, 2011, but actually, my sister just informed me, it came out on January 11.  So the book's anniversary is this Wednesday.

In researching the book, she revisited the city where we spent our childhoods: Cleveland, Ohio.  She made other visits afterward to attend her high school reunion and to do book promotion for the memoir, and more.  That city was haunted for both of us, haunted with the most anguished kinds of memories, but in the process of doing this work my sister reacquainted us with the friends and family of our youth.  Even with our mother's friends.  And cousins, and second-cousins, and third-cousins, and their babies.  And we are all connected again. Cleveland, instead of being the mythic place of hell in my nightmares, as it was for so long, is now a place we can go to be with loved ones.  Our dear friends from school days: Stephanie and Sandy and Herta and Cathy and Eileen and Patty and Mary Beth and others who are now facebook friends that we plan to see this summer in June.

Writing a book can teach us that sometimes we can go home again. 

Part of the tremendous sorrow and anguish we carried had to do with our decision, when we were both very young women, to divorce our mother.  That's a very long story we've both written about elsewhere, but believe me when I tell you that the decision was heartbreaking and terrifying but without doing it, we might not have lived.  Our mother's illness made her violent in later years, and although violence is not the thing we want to remember about our mother because she was also loving and self-sacrificing and gentle when she was well, she almost killed her mother, and could have killed my sister too.  Watching that almost happen was what made me decide we had to live another way.  Without her: the woman who had given us life and given us art and who still loved us, in her way, as we still loved her.

At the end of 2006, we were reunited with our mother again.  This story is told well in my sister's memoir.  I have also written about it at length in my diaries and will one day tell that story in a public way, from my own older daughter's point of view.  In those weeks we were reunited with our mother in Cleveland, all kinds of amazing things happened.  We became a family again: not just a family of three, but an extended family with all our old friends, and new ones too.

Our mother had spent many years in a homeless shelter and the women who passed through there called our mother, "Mother."  She was, to them, a sage.  A wise woman.  A maternal figure who shone with something like grace.  Her suffering, in the end, had cleansed something dark in her.  She still had demons, but she believed, in the end, even in the torment of her illness, in the beauty of nature and animals.  She painted trees.  She loved owls and dogs.  And I don't think she ever stopped believing in love.  As we sat with our mother each day in the nursing home my sister had found for her, as hospice workers came and went, women from the shelter came to pay their respects.

These women all shared their heartbreaking life stories with us.  I wrote some of them down.  They had lived through loss and hurt and sorrow, their dreams broken or on hold, yet they came to our mother's bedside to show their love and respect.

It was like we suddenly had a dozen new sisters.

A few years later, the shelter was named for our mother.  Who does that?  Who names their shelter for the oldest recipient of its care, not its donors?  Cleveland is really a remarkable place full of wise, compassionate people, and my sister and I were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the Norma Herr Women's Shelter was dedicated two autumns ago.

My sister started a fund, My Words are my Shelter, in which donors can give money to help the shelter buy a journal for every woman who spends time in the Norma Herr shelter in Cleveland.  You too, gentle reader, can help buy a journal for one of these women if you choose.  The hyperlink above gets you to Mira's List, the blog Mira writes for artists to find grants and space to create, and details are posted.

You can also read more about the shelter and see a picture of our mother when she was young on this web site:http://www.mhs-inc.org/CWS.asp  Some people think I look like her, and some people think my sister does.  We haven't decided ourselves.

Our mother kept a diary.  My sister and I have our journals and our stories and essays and memoirs.  Writing saved our lives.  Art saved our lives.

The transcendent power of art is also my religion.  Literature's epiphanies, its revelations, are the bread that feeds me.

4.  Our mother died on January 6, 2007.  Of all the days in the year, her body gave out on her wedding anniversary--and mine.  My sister and I were in the room with her, and we both told her we loved her before she died, and she told us she loved us.  The forgiveness between us was the most powerful kind of healing I've ever experienced in my life.

My husband arrived the next day with Zoe, and I was sad that my mother never met my husband or our dog.  But I was glad they were there.
The title of today's post promises that you'll also hear about a funeral, but instead we had a memorial service at the shelter two weeks later.  All of the women who had visited our mother in hospice were present, along with some friends we'd once thought were lost forever.

That year my husband and I did not celebrate our wedding anniversary.  There was just too much going on.

But tonight, we will.  It's just going to be simple.  We'll eat in our kitchen that overlooks the Grasse River.  Light candles.  And eat comfort food.  Roast chicken from 8 o'clock Ranch.  Roast potatoes and kale.  Some nice wine.  Simple food, but enough for a feast.

That chicken is one big motha and we'll be eating leftovers for days.

from the first session of taking pictures using manual settings on my new camera, under Tara Freeman's ace tutelage

 Our mother, Norma Herr, as a young bride

8 o'clock ranch farm

Mira and I have rules about posting pictures of each other without permission, as we always have extra chins in our photos that the person posting doesn't notice, but I think she'll be okay about this one from our vacation in Paris this May.  If you see her, please tell her how thin and beautiful she looks here.

Me posing as The Thinker beneath Rodin's The Thinker at the Cleveland Art Museum, July, 2011

The view of the Grasse River from our kitchen window--a fine backdrop for a feast, I think.


  1. Happy Anniversary to you and Kerry. I enjoyed reading this, Natalia. You write so beautifully and eloquently. Enjoy this special, meaningful day.
    Ann Marie

  2. Natalia, I had the pleasure of meeting your sis at a signing of her book. I think the world of you girls, and am consistently blown away by both your words, and resillience. Happy Anniversary.

  3. Wow--it's amazing how Jan. 6 resonates in your life. So many reasons to be mindful and celebrate what you have!

  4. Such a tribute to your mother and sister and yourself and your marriage. Happy anniversary to you and Kerry; happy publishing day to Mira, and happy Special Day (that's what my friend Emily and I call mother's anniversary death day) to you and Mira.

  5. My mother also is a paranoid schizophrenic and resisted medicine for many years until she was passing through Cleveland, went to a homeless shelter, and someone there saw she was acting irrationally and forced her into a psych ward - something I'd been trying to do unsuccessfully for many years in New Jersey. I'm not sure if it was the same shelter your mom stayed at or a different one, but I'll always be grateful that they made that effort. The psych hosp put her on Abilify and she recovered enough to attend my wedding two years later and fill out forms for housing for the disabled, where she stayed until she stopped taking her meds and became homeless again. But she is still a lot better than she was before she got on the medicine. Cleveland could teach other places about caring for the homeless and mentally ill.

  6. I thought of you and Mira many times today and remember that night 5 years ago very well, along with that beautiful memorial service. Perfectly written tribute Nat! xxooxx Cathy

    ps...did not know about the 2 wedding anniversaries though! How extraordinary!

  7. I love my girl! You have had a special place in my heart since the 1970s. Your beauty and brilliance have touched so many lives since then! I am so happy we are reunited! Happy anniversary to you and Kerry! Love from Mary Beth and "Love Czar" Zhenya

  8. So moving... Thanks Natalia.. and Mira and Norma!

  9. Your Cleveland coterie loves and misses you. I am happy that Cleveland can have some happy memories for you now, perhaps like it never did in the past. Your friends here celebrate with you in spirit.

  10. I love this post- as in your book, your voice is really true to who you are from within your lifelong experience.
    I'm glad I can renew or re-know this voice through your blog! You've consistently made good choices in your life, and it is so nice to see how things have played out so well. A good reminder that making the effort is so worth it.