Filling that Empty Space


Growing up, I had never ventured too far from home. Daunted by the unknown, uncomfortable and anxious in unfamiliar surroundings, I had passed up sleepaway camp, the opportunity to study abroad in my junior year at college (full semester scholarship at Oxford- what had I been thinking?), and various opportunities to use my ESL training in job opportunities post-college at exotic locales worldwide. I was tantalized, yet more so traumatized by the possibility of world travel. So, stay I did –for a very long time… through my younger years at school, my undergraduate years, and my post-graduate ones too. Then my mother died.

Ironically, it was my entry into mid-life, perhaps a little early as we commonly conceive of this time period, yet in reality, in my very early 40s, likely the authentic beginning number-wise anyway, of the middle of my time on Earth, that I lost my mother. In truth, I had lost her long ago, as she succumbed to the evil and unforgiving claw of Parkinson’s disease. I had checked her into a long-term facility on my 40th birthday, a day when  candles and cake were replaced by the visual of my mother being weighed on a meat scale in the hallway outside the cubicle that was to be the last home that she ever knew. When the end finally arrived,  it was not long before some subconscious force from within came to the realization that the end was closer than I had envisioned, and that half-orphaned ( my father was still going strong at 88, a source of joy and comfort and companionship, particularly in the absence of my mother), I had, at best, only half of my life left to see the world that I had long feared.

Still  saddened and bound by the  responsibility that my grandmother presented at a nursing home nearby (I had moved her to New York from Florida after my parents had left on the heels of my mother’s advancing dementia), I knew that although my time away would be limited by my obligation to Nanny, I needed to see the world. Somehow the loss of my mother set a part of me free, and that part clearly had to run. The spring was upon us, and I was at my grandmother’s nursing home the day that the idea gelled. I had just explained to my mother’s mother that my mother was “away with a cold…” What was the purpose of explaining to a 98-year-old that her daughter had died? She would not likely process the information, could be temporarily traumatized by it for the few minutes she could process it if she did,  and would, for sure, ask me the same question likely 20 times within the three hours that  I would spend with her. So, assured that my mother was just away with the sniffles, when she began to nap that warm April day as we sat on the veranda, I began browsing through my laptop for worldwide destinations. Surrounded by the collection of vignettes of lives nearly over, elderly (and not so elderly, for a really sad view on young life impacted by disease and accident) mothers and fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunt, uncles, and dear friends, bound to their wheelchairs and geri-chairs for those who could not sit up, respirators, walkers for the lucky ones, and a smattering of aides, family members and acquaintances, I escaped into my cyberworld looking to live. The visual m around me was strong, my sadness, profound. Half with intention, and half with a motivation and “voice” calling to me from within, I knew that it was time for me to move ­–to leave the familiar before I was “one of them,” or worse yet, gone. I quickly narrowed my focus on Western Europe, settling on Spain and France. The following July, my two older children in tow (the younger ones remained at home with their dad, awaiting an August getaway to Disneyworld)  I traveled for the first time to Europe –the road to a global adventure long dreamed of, yet long avoided.

We departed JFK airport the first week in July, first destination, France. We spent  glorious days wandering the fields of Provence, visiting farmhouses and lavender mills, gazing upon the land that had been home to my favorite impressionist painter, Monet, in Giverny, and later taking in the impressive and renown culture and charm that is defined by Paris. Later, we ventured south to the seaport of Marseilles, learning its strong nautical history, experiencing Cannes, enjoying her markets and walking the streets that were just barely recuperating from the annual film festival transformation that had just passed. We moved on to the jewel that is Monaco, a tiny kingdom packed so tightly into the south of France, that one could literally drive straight through it without realizing its identity as a separate, sovereign nation. The trip led us on to Spain, first destination, Barcelona, where the dreamy, balmy nights were filled with colorful artisans, roaming musicians, delicious vegetarian dishes (one had to look closely; between Kashruth laws, a land that seemingly worships the pig as a source of protein, and my son’s aversion to “weird foods,” it was a real challenge), and the sounds of classic Flamenco and Spanish guitar on the streets. Our hotel was fabulously situated in Las Ramblas –the Spanish equivalent of Paris’s Le Champs Élysées, and there was something happening at any moment, day or night. Gaudi’s House and the Park Guell, a venue devoted to my absolute favorite art movement, Art Nouveau, were my delight, with the swirls and vivid worship of nature in art form. We discovered the Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona, an underground  jewel that is touted to be one of the oldest in the world. Our journey abroad included stops in Madrid, for the unique culture that only a metropolis offers, and the sand and ocean air only gifted by island retreats, in this case the beautiful isle of Mallorca.

I can’t say exactly how my mother’s passing was the impetus for this European peregrination, for the need for the new, the novel, the unknown. I am not even wholly sure that there was any real connection. I can’t say for sure, but somehow, I believe that at least, in part, the loss of my mother led me to somehow fill the enormous void that I felt when she left us. The possibility for travel that I had long dreamed of, yet long avoided, seemed to surface with a powerful hold in those gloomy, grief-stricken months after her passing. Was it that somehow that the impressive bonds of the only-child of an only child  dynamic that characterized my relationship with my mother had somehow, when lifted by death, “freed me?” Was her presence in my life so strong that venturing away from the nest, even after marriage and a family of my own had redefined me, was unthinkable before she was gone? I will never be sure. I can only say that running was what I felt compelled to do in that period after losing her.


The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School is a prestigious NYC Jewish Day School in the heart of New York City.  Located in the Upper East Side, this Jewish Day School promotes academic growth through community and collaboration.