15 April 2009


For it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

One year ago today, Madeline Lee Gilford passed away. When I first got the news, I couldn’t imagine how I could go on — though I knew that Madeline would insist upon my doing so, and that my failure to obey her would result in her finding some way to reprimand me. She had no patience for people who feel sorry for themselves. Life had dealt her harder knocks than it has ever dealt me, and she’d coped, uncomplaining; she’d always dusted herself off and gotten on with her business. So, therefore, should I.

But I do feel sorry for myself. She’d be furious over that, but I can’t help it. I miss her too much. I can’t express to you how much lonelier and less interesting New York is without her, what an ache it is to know that she’s not going to call me up, and that I can’t drop by to see her whenever I please.

How I’d have loved to share with her my “Other Madeline” project, the Madeline Kahn biography! She’d have torn open her address book, looking for mutual connections, and then begun to dial: “It’s Madeline! When are you going to talk to Bill Madison?” Not Do you want to? but When? And woe to him who resisted her!

Though Madeline made me an honorary Jew, she wasn’t herself observant, and she didn’t pass on to me very many traditions of the faith. (History, politics, art, psychology: yes. Chopped liver and random Yiddish phrases: absolutely. Faith: no.) That task was left to others, and it was from a school friend, Laurence Zakson, that I learned of Jahrzeit, the year-long period of mourning a loved one. We were in seventh grade at the time, and the concept didn’t mean much to me: it was an obligation to light a candle, Laurence said, and to recite the Kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a close family member.

Years later, Melia Bensussen explained it differently to me. The year of mourning wasn’t so much an obligation, she said, as a process, really something like a gift. “You get a year,” she said, a whole year to work through your sadness. For me as a WASP, the orderliness implicit in that system held great appeal, as did the permission to feel bad for a while. But at the end of the year, Melia said, the process is over and done.

I hope today to combine the practices. If I can find a Jahrzeit candle in Paris, I’ll buy it; if I can’t, I’ll improvise. I may even say the Kaddish. That will make me feel a little better, I expect, but only a little. No matter how much I tell myself I’m lucky to have known Madeline at all, no matter the comfort I draw from my enduring connections to her children and friends, this process will take more than a year.

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