It was the morning of the first Seder in 2018 when I woke up to a series of missed calls from my dad. My gut seized. Multiple missed calls are never good.
“Meg, we’re in the E.R.,” he said when I reached him. “Your mother was having trouble lifting her arms above her head to get dressed and I called her doctor, who said to get to the E.R. immediately. We are here, they’re running some tests. We don’t know anything yet. I’m fine. I’ve got something to read and mom’s in good spirits.”
“She’s in good spirits” is what I usually say these days when people ask, “How’s your mom doing?”
My mom is 70, a force of nature, and about seven years into a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her particular case has developed in an untraditional way — it started with word-retrieval challenges and progressed to a severe form of aphasia, or an inability to express herself through speech.
Luckily, so luckily, she continues to be effusive as ever. So, to declare her in good spirits is far from sidestepping a painful truth — we mean it with all the power those words are fundamentally due.
The first Passover Seder has, historically, been a huge affair in my family. We didn’t really start making Seders a big deal until I was in high school, most likely at my insistence.
Like many interfaith families, ours had to invent our own traditions, Jewishly and otherwise. My mom comes from a staunchly secular Jewish family that arrived in New York from Romania at the turn of the 19th century, eventually settling in New Jersey. My dad was raised Presbyterian in a God-fearing household in Rome, Georgia, a small town currently represented by the notorious Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, — his great-great uncle, Gordon Lee, actually held that very Congressional seat from 1905 to 1926.
Once Seder entered our family canon, we did it big. My mom and I would cook for days, borrow extra chairs from neighbors, bring up the heirloom card table from the basement storage locker, and transform our epically tiny Upper West Side living room into lordly dining for 18.
My mom was a famously good host. In high school and college, my friends would clamor to come over for dinner, and my mom would never disappoint: multiple courses, wine pairings, gorgeous linens, fresh flowers, incredible conversation. After dinner, she would hop over to the grand piano and my dad, a criminologist who also happens to be a professional musician, would burst into song in that particular way, for even kids who are now adults, that is equal parts annoying and charming.
With mom’s decline, I’ve stepped in, trying to take the role of hosting as seriously as she did. And for our family, Seder is the crown jewel of hosting.
That day in the E.R. three years ago, as we were waiting for test results, my mom turned to me and, working very hard to get the words out, said: “I want to come to your Seder.”
Your Seder. Again, my gut seized. Whether she had intended to or not, she was initiating a baton-passing that I was wholly unprepared for — even though I had functionally taken it over some time before.
It was also now my job to tell my older sister, Laura, who has Down syndrome and loves family celebrations that Seder wasn’t happening that year. Laura was not at all pleased, but seemed very accepting. But she called back minutes after we hung up, exclaiming: “Passover starts tomorrow! It says it on my calendar.”
Calendars are a kind of religion for Laura. Of course, her Gregorian ones rarely recognize the concept of “erev,” that Jewish holidays always start the night before, so Laura does not either. That day in the E.R., rather than remind her of a conversation we have had dozens of times over the years, I decided that Laura and her calendar just had to be right. We would not miss the first Seder; we’d do it a different day.
Eventually, we learned that mom had broken her clavicle. This was certainly not good news, but it was way better than some of the doctors’ original suspicions. We were discharged the next day, exhausted beyond measure, but grateful to be home.
I’ll be honest, celebrating Passover in any form was the farthest thing from my mind. But Laura clearly was not going to let up. We cooked a smaller meal and eschewed our usual guest list, but laid out the good linens and bought fresh flowers.
We diligently polished Elijah’s cup, which in our family is a silver goblet my dad won in the sixth grade for “Excellence in Bible” at The Darlington School for Boys. We navigated an abridged version of our already “Concise Family Seder.” And so we had our first Seder on the third night of Passover, which that year also happened to be Easter — cosmically fitting for us.
It was devastating and also beautiful and absolutely necessary.
I spent a lot of time thinking that year about the meaning of Seder, which comes from a Hebrew verb meaning to order, organize, arrange. Our 2018 Seder was not when or how it was supposed to be, but its performance became a grounding force for our family at a time we desperately needed it. Seder ordered us.
Now, more than a year into a pandemic, this idea has taken on a thousand more meanings. We’ve been asked to “reorder” in countless, unimaginable ways. Every stabilizing force in our lives has been jolted. Most of our methods for keeping time have vanished. The ways we orient to each other and to our collectives are radically redesigned on what feels like a daily basis.
It is… a lot. It’s often hard. It’s often devastating. It’s often beautiful. It’s often absolutely necessary.
And so, as we wade through our second Passover under a new order, I am reminded of this, which I now offer to you: while the version of order we know how to understand may be fleeting, we are never entirely without it. Maybe Passover starts tomorrow, like it says on Laura’s calendar.
Meg Sullivan is the director of JCC Harlem and an avid home cook, who has lived in (and loved) Harlem since 2012.