Newspaper columns are, by their nature, a place to explore the particulars of social events closely aligned to one’s own culture, to a specific time, and a very specific place. Most of the time, I follow that format, talking of current events and social problems that affect my own friends, neighbors and countrymen. But every once in a while, I come across an event that crosses all cultural, religious and national barriers: a life passage that affects all those who partake in what is commonly known as the “human condition.”
The marriage of a child is one of those events.
Like every other milestone, it too has its contradictions, its bittersweetness. I, who am not prone to tears from the cloying lyrics of schmaltzy musicals, find myself humming “Sunrise, sunset,” wondering, really, where is the little boy I carried when I look over the suit my six-foot son has chosen to wear under the wedding canopy in a few days.
My favorite filmmaker, Giuseppe Tornatore, who made a number of the most wonderful movies in history including, “Cinema Paradiso,” also made a much lesser-known film called “Everyboy’s Fine” (Stanno Tutti Bene). It’s about an aging father who goes off to visit all of his married children to see how they’re doing. In the film, there is a recurrent dream image in which the father sees himself and his wife as young parents walking along the beach with their little children dancing around them, when suddenly strings appear out the sky. Everyone looks up, and the children, despite parental protest, grab hold of the strings, and slowly a large air balloon bears them aloft as their parents look on helplessly from below.
If I hadn’t been through this before with my daughter, I’d feel a bit panic-stricken. Now, of course, I am wiser. I understand the compensations. Children will grow up. When you hold them in your arms and think they are yours forever, you’re mistaken. They are simply lent to you for a relatively short period of time. But they do atone for their crime of growing up by providing you with grandchildren, some of whom look remarkably like the “little boy (you) carried.”
With my own son, his growth coincided with certain milestones in the country’s history which give it special meaning. He was born in August, 1973, two short months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. I remember the moment we had to go down to the bomb shelter in our Jerusalem apartment building. The image of my infant son sleeping peacefully in his carry cot on the cold gray cement floor as we adults fearfully discussed the invasion is etched upon my memory. When we emerged into the light of day again, and into the new reality of thousands of casualties falling on all fronts, I wondered what would happen when he was old enough to be a soldier in the Israeli army.
I thought about it again at his swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall the year he turned eighteen. Tall, dark, tanned by the strong Middle East sun in the airforce camp where he’d done his basic training, he walked with his head held high among other Israeli soldiers.
His bride was born years after the Yom Kippur War. But her father, a career soldier who lost an arm in a training accident, was there in the midst of it while my son slept peacefully, protected by him and men like him.
To the bittersweet universal experience of raising a child and seeing him fly away to his own life, there is a special compensating joy here in Israel: that our children have come through the wars, the terrorist attacks, their army service, and Israel’s dangerous roads, well and happy, ready to start the story once again; ready to hold their own children in their arms, to watch them grow, blossom, then fly away.
A few days before the wedding, I was walking past the old Bikur Cholim hospital in downtown Jerusalem when a young couple emerged and got into a waiting cab. The young woman held a newborn wrapped in the same type of blue blanket that had swaddled my own son twenty-six years before. The young mother looked down at her child with love and pride and concern. Her job, I thought, has just begun. And mine, I realized, tears coming to my eyes, was finished.
I hadn’t done badly. I’d raised him, after all, ”to Torah, to good deeds, and (now), to the wedding canopy”, the three ultimate blessings bestowed on new parents at a child’s birth.
Of course, our relationship will continue, G-d willing. We are part of each other’s lives – such important, irreplaceable parts. But the parenting has to end. There is nothing more ludicrous than an aging mother telling a fifty year- old son to put on a sweater… I vow not to be one of those.
I will watch as the balloon rises. I will wave to him and his bride as they smile down on us, soaring up into a future of their own making. And I will whisper a prayer that their trip will turn out to be as blessed as my own.