by Ann Bookman
It is almost Rosh Hashanah. It is almost time to get out my noodle kugel recipe and order two large briskets and a round challah. It is time to polish my mother’s silver. I love hosting my children and grandchildren for this festive holiday celebrating the birth of the world, a time of renewal and repair. I wonder whether my children will still celebrate it when I am no longer here. I wonder whether I have done enough to pass on my love of certain Jewish traditions.
This question of passing things on is, of course, very fraught for me. I am BRCA1-positive and so is my daughter. This is not something I wanted to pass on, but we do not control our genes. I am grateful that my daughter and I are both healthy, having taken advantage of the testing, screenings and procedures that are available to those with a BRCA gene mutation. How I wish that my mother, my maternal aunt and my maternal grandmother—all of whom died young of breast or ovarian cancer—had these preventive tools available to them.
The question of what we inherit and how it affects our lives is the subject of my new collection of poems, Blood Lines (Kelsay Books, 2022). In the book, I explore the tension between genetics and our social environment and write of navigating the poles of fate and randomness.
My mother was not told when her breast cancer metastasized. The 1960s were a different time and the “C-word” was not spoken aloud. There was so much silence in my family about her illness, all under the guise of “protection.” The poems in Blood Lines break that silence, speak the unspeakable, and in so doing pave a path for truth-telling and healing.
While I still mourn the loss of my mother when she was 52, I celebrate her life and her accomplishments as a wife, mother and sculptor. The book includes poems about her illness and poems about the many things she passed down to me beyond her genes. She taught me to love swimming in the ocean and how to float. She introduced me to the mysterious and magical process of artistic creation when she sculpted a portrait head of me at age three, while I “posed” on our kitchen table with my own lump of clay. She passed down her mother’s menorah which I light for Chanukkah. And so much more….
Now it is my turn to consider what I will pass down to my daughter, my son and my grandchildren: L’dor Va Dor as we say in Hebrew, from generation to generation. By telling the stories of the women in my maternal line, I show both their commitment to family and their work in the world, their lives of caring and strength. I write of my great-grandmother Rivka who was a midwife on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. I write of my grandmother Edith–my middle name–the first woman in her family to graduate from college and my aunt Jeannie who wrote a book on the struggle for affordable housing and civil rights.
By writing of my own struggle to live and love fully in the face of health risks and uncertainty, I hope Blood Lines will give all who live with BRCA gene mutations—and others who face health challenges, grief and adversity—a sense of hope and optimism. It’s a time to dip apples into honey; let’s savor the sweetness!