Kaddish for Karen Leys (1952-2018)


Its so strange to think
That you’re not there
In that little house on Salem Avenue
Sitting on the couch
Quietly reading fantasy novels on your Kindle
While Dad watches NCIS,
As if you’d always been there
And always would,
While I sit here across the mountains
Hunched over a notebook
Writing til my hand cramps
Trying to make sense of it all.

Less than a week ago
I stood before family, friend,
And virtual strangers
Eulogizing, reciting your life,
Explaining your soul,
Ukulele singing Over the Rainbow,
The Kaddish never too far away,
Drifting at the edge of consciousness,
Aramaic words and Hebrew letters,
Chanted, Sanctified
By deep Yiddish voices praising God.
But it never leaves my lips
–I can’t remember the words,
The rhythm beating in my heart–
Besides, no one would understand,
Least of all me.

A week before,
Days after you’d passed,
Walking damp grass
Under a light rain,
Looking for my grandmother’s grave
Near the lake.
Drawn to Hebrew engraved stones
Of no blood relation,
Rocks in hand to remember
Spiritual cousins,
Children of Abraham,
I breathe out Kaddish,
An involuntary response
Only the dead and I can hear.

Struggling, writing, composing for days
How to summarize a life, a soul
In words, pictures, and songs
–What my mother means to me
in 200 words or less–
Where to begin, what to say,
We all know how it ends.

Your parents’ whirlwind wartime romance,
When peace came to the Pacific
Grandma brought his picture to the dock
To ensure she remembered his face.
A childhood with no fixed location,
Grandpa’s restaurants, relocations, and wanderings.
Beatles and Meter-maids,
Rainbows and Munchkins,
Pretty little bluebirds fly,
Why, oh why, can’t I?

Remember the Spring of ’69
–Forever your favorite number–
When your eyes met his
For the very first time,
And your life changed forever.
A love born that would never die,
You never knew you could love
So completely.

Married a year later,
After missing Woodstock
Due to traffic.
Your father told you not to screw it up,
His father didn’t bother to show up,
His mother, the hairdresser,
“Accidentally” turned your hair green,
But quickly remembered how to fix it
When she realized your weren’t backing down.

The way he looked at you that day
–You can see it in the pictures–
You’re his all, his everything,
Together you are finally whole.
When you died we could all see
The empty space standing beside him.


Three years later
The picture was complete
As I entered ass-first
At the end of the Second Act,
Or was it the beginning of the Third?
Delivered by an Italian Catholic,
Circumcised by a New York Jew,
Named for two crazy uncles,
Two beloved brothers: John & Walter,
Christened in an Episcopal Church,
Cradled in Wally and Judy’s arms,
The Godson who converted to Judaism,
And in whose heart the rhythm of the Kaddish beats.


You gave me life, you gave me everything.
You’d have given me the world,
If it was yours to give.
From New York to Oregon,
Baker City to Albany,
You created the perfect home,
Built of love, respect, and stability.

Toys and games,
Training wheels, roller skates,
And walks in the park.
Books and TV,
Whole universes inside my mind,
Narnia and Whoville,
Gotham City and Metropolis,
Strolling down to Sesame Street,
Across the trolley tracks from Mr Roger’s Neighborhood
Where the sidewalk ends in the Land of Make Believe.
Visiting Spiderman and Letterman at the Electric Company.
Playing with the Beaver and the Bradys
–Marcia was such a bitch–
Passengers on the Starship Enterprise,
Sailing away with Ramblin’ Rod,
Choosing sides in a Family Feud
To decide if the Price is Right.
Going to war with Hogan’s Heroes
And the Black Sheep Squadron,
Recovering at the 4077 M*A*S*H,
Back in time for Luke and Laura’s wedding.

I went off to school,
But you were never far behind,
You spent so much time
Just waiting outside the school for me,
They invited you in
For PTA meetings, School Carnivals,
And volunteering in my class.

We moved once more,
Your last migration,
To that forever home on Salem Avenue
That you and Dad worked so hard to buy,
You lived and loved there ’til the day you died,
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You gave me music,
Listening every morning
To the Country Western station:
Willie and Waylon,
Johnny and June,
Kenny Rogers as the Gambler.
You introduced me to The Beatles
Though a VHS copy of Help!
A gateway drug to Bob Dylan,
Changing my life forever.
I shared with you
My love of The Who
A new old group I discovered in ’89.
Years later I’d take you to see them live,
Quadrophenia and Boris the Spider,
Pete, Roger, and John,
A memory I’ll cherish forever.

You loved all children,
Not just your own,
–Though I know I was your favorite–
Worries for their safety
Made you a crossing guard at first,
And then—after being replaced by technology
A teacher’s aid in the building where I went to school,
You’d attend there long after I’d moved on,
Educating, advocating,
Making them feel special and safe.
Greeting them every day at the door
With a smile to start their day,
Making sure they had breakfast
And school clothes,
Playing Santa and protector.

You mothered by friends
When you thought they needed it,
Last minute birthday parties
And Valentine chocolates,
Setting an example
Of what a parent should be.
Even into adulthood
To all my friends
You were Mom.

I went off to the Army,
But you were never far away,
Visiting me in Missouri
After basic training,
Christmas in Germany,
Dad’s birthday at the Alamo.
Phone calls, letters, and vacations,
You were always with me,
And always will be.

After the Army I hit the open road,
Following my footsteps across America.
You supported every crazy scheme,
If you knew it was important to me.
From the gulf stream waters
Back to the New York Islands,
Knowing the road would always
Lead back to you.

You even accepted
And tried to understand
As I declared my soul Jewish,
Entering into the Covenant of Abraham,
Encountering the Kaddish for the first time.
You recalled with a smile
The kind Jewish pediatrician
Whispering in my ear,
Tallis draped across his shoulders,
Performing a Bris on a Gentile baby.

I returned for a while
To that comfortable cottage,
Sweetly situated on Salem Avenue,
But I was drawn away again
–Though not as far this time–
Across the mountains
By my all, my everything,
The love that made me whole.
And you understood
And were never far away.

You became a grandmother,
A role you were born for.
A new child to spoil and love,
And teach by your good example.
You loved him like blood,
And he loves you still,
Because love is not bound by DNA.

Baseball games and birthday parties,
Wedding dances over the rainbow,
Christmas and Hanukkah,
Packages of presents.
Lunch at Clear Lake,
Visiting Sahalie Falls,
Exploring the Secret Garden
At Belknap Hot-springs.

Dad and you alone together,
Retiree road-trips just because you could.
Last minute trips to see the glaciers
Before they melt
And long planned vacations.
Short trips to the beach,
Red Wood trees and San Francisco trolleys.
You’d drive and hour
For the perfect piece of pie.

Day by day you grew sick and weak,
Your body turning against you,
But you never lost that spark,
Purple hair and teapots,
Tricked out walkers and wheelchairs,
You wouldn’t be caught dead
With a boring cane.

You never cared what others thought,
You lived life your way,
And encouraged me to do the same.

I can still see the light in your eyes
When your grandson asked
To take you for a walk,
I’ll forever remember the smile on your face
As he pushed your wheelchair
Down to Waverly Lake
One last time.

There was so much more
You wanted to see or do:
Celebrate 50 years with my father,
Watch your grandson graduate
High School and College,
And admire his firefighter uniform.
You’ll be there for it all,
If only in our hearts.

Still at the podium,
Kaddish swaying in my brain,
A prayer for peace,
For shalom,
For wholeness and repair,

Trying to summarize
Your life and loves,
I conclude there
As I do here,
With the final words
Of the mystic Beatle
“Love One Another.”