Anchors of Happiness


We’ve all read about how experiences are better gifts for your kids than toys, but I really liked the way this study put it: holidays with your family are “happiness anchors” in your memory that have lasting effects on your psyche. Now that I’m a parent, I realize how much work my own parents put into arranging special trips for us–not necessarily the giant, Disney-type extravaganzas that most people talk about, but everything from beach vacations to day trips and little rituals at home. Here are some of the moments anchored in my mind.

  • I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go see comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. I remember driving out to the countryside, being a little scared in the empty darkness but feeling safe with my big brothers, guarding my eyes against the passing headlights to preserve my night vision.
  • I remember road trips that my father planned meticulously, always making sure we’d be near the best delis at lunch time. I treasured a Bazooka Joe comic in Hebrew from a Jewish deli in Connecticut for years.
  • I remember trips to mines and quarries: a boat ride on an underground river, a cold cave pool that never saw the light of day, and giant loose chunks of mica free for the gathering.
  • I remember hours and hours of reading out loud before bedtime: Narnia and Robin Hood with my mother, Tolkien and Homer with my father. Just one more chapter, please!
  • I remember one glorious time when someone offered us a free dumpster full of books that survived a fire, and my father couldn’t resist. We parked it in our driveway and climbed in and dug around for treasures all week.
  • I remember science museums, art museums, planetariums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, mountains, operas, concerts–but also so many small things that my parents probably thought were no big deal: helping my father organize books for a book sale. Science experiments with my mother. I even have deeply happy memories of my bi-weekly turn to come along on the grocery shopping and get to pick the flavor of soda for weekend dinners.

I’m writing these down mostly to remind myself that my kids don’t need big fireworks from me. Today my six-year-old got to come–just him!–to Walmart to buy diapers, and we stopped for a little snack and a chat afterwards (“Subway is the best restaurant ever, Mama!”). My four-year-old is thrilled because she got to do “cutting practice” today (something my mother used to do for me),

Tovah cutting

and my two-year-old is just happy that I watched her do a trick. (“Watch this, Mama! SAME TRICK!”) They will remember the vacations and the expensive trips, but they’ll remember the little things too.


Memories of Father George

Two weeks ago, my fourth child was baptized by Father George Majka, the priest who married me and my husband. After the baptism he hurried off to pack for his yearly vacation–his one luxury, as far as I can tell, and a much-deserved one. He flew to the Dominican Republic, where he went scuba diving and drowned.


As my husband commented, he was just moving on to his eternal vacation, that place of “light and refreshment” he had earned by over thirty years of sacrifice as a priest. I was also reminded of what my father said when Mother Teresa died: bad news for us, but good news for her. I’m very happy for Father George, and I’m convinced he’s in heaven already, and his body is whole again and he’s free from his suffering.

Father George was in terrible health. He was a very large man with breathing problems, and he had to stop and rest after climbing just a few stairs. You could see what a great effort it was for him to make it through the Mass. In spite of this, he never took shortcuts. He gave beautiful sermons every week, sang every hymn, and only sat down to deliver his sermon once that I can remember. I remember being heavily pregnant in the heat of the summer and often sitting down in the pew to rest, but feeling ashamed when I noticed that Father George never took the easy way out: he said each Mass reverently and thoughtfully, on his feet, even though it was obviously difficult for him to even stand.

Father George loved singing. His regular speaking voice was a bit high and unimpressive, but when he sang, a deep and powerful voice took over. He sung the hymns like he meant them, and you could tell he enjoyed them–you could always hear him whistling them after Mass. He had a unique way of picking hymns: he picked whatever directly corresponded to one of the readings, especially if it had a direct quote from the Bible passage. This led to a lot of weird hymns being selected, but it really drove in the theme of the readings. He would even cherry-pick verses: “We will sing hymn number 405, verses 1, 3, and 5.” When we picked “Alleluia, Alleluia, Let the Holy Anthem Rise” for one of our wedding hymns, he requested that we skip the second verse, which “doesn’t really do anything for me. But the third verse really sends me!”

Rest in peace, Father, and pray for us to be as strong and dedicated as you!

We Would Still be Slaves

My family is privileged to be Jewish, and when I was growing up we celebrated Passover every year on the day before Easter.  My father would lead the service, pausing often to explain how different parts of the Exodus story or of the Passover seder were prefigurements of Christ.  We would spend Holy Week cooking all the ceremonial foods, feast on Saturday, clean up, and go straight to the Easter Vigil, where the readings from Exodus and the description of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb confirmed the direct connection between Passover and Easter.
My father discovered more and more Eucharistic symbols in the Passover ceremony each year: the stripes and piercings on the unleavened matzo (the scourging and piercing of Jesus’ pure body);
the action of wiping blood on the lintel and doorposts (which makes the sign of the cross); the angel of death (the death that entered the world through original sin) who is escaped through the blood of the spotless lamb (the sacrifice of the innocent Jesus on the cross); the redemption from slavery (the slavery of sin and death); and the middle of three matzos (the second person of the Trinity), which is broken and hidden away, and must be recovered and unwrapped in order to finish the celebration with dessert.

A tomb with the stone rolled away, which I saw on a trip to Israel.

I’ve written about my personal response to the litany of gratitude, Dayenuhere.
Here’s something new that just struck me this year.  In Exodus 13:8, when God is commanding the Israelites to celebrate Passover every year, He says: “you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.'”  The Haggadah (the book of prayers for the Seder ritual) comments: “In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had left Egypt. It was not only our ancestors whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed from Egypt; rather, He redeemed us, as it is stated: ‘He brought us out from there, so that He might bring us to the land He promised our fathers, and give it to us.'”  Later on, the Hagaddah makes it even more explicit: “If God had not taken us out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh.”
As a child, I took this literally: I guess it’s possible that I, a descendant of Jewish ancestors, could still be a slave in Egypt.  Later on, I realized that it was meant symbolically.  But now, in light of the coming of Christ, I believe that it actually is literal.  If Jesus hadn’t shed his blood for us, we would still be slaves to sin and death.  When we say that we ourselves were rescued from slavery, we are referring to the power of the Cross that reaches to us across eternity.  Jesus did not offer redemption to just his followers, or just the Jews, or even just the righteous, but to everyone.
Happy Easter!  Tell your children that we celebrate not because of what Jesus did two thousand years ago, but because of what he did for us, today.

Exodus, by Marc Chagall