Open Letter to My Students 38: Mr. McGarrity

I grew up reading Maggie Muggins, a popular Canadian story-book series for kids. Each chapter is a different day for little Maggie, who stumbles across the endless curiosities of childhood. Her every adventure ends with a verse, like: “Tra la la la,  tra la la lay, I helped a squirrel find food today, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”  Or, maybe:  “Tra la la la, tra la la lee, I held a bird who could hardly see, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Maggie’s confidante is Mr. McGarrity, a grandfatherly farmer next door who explains the world’s wonders when Maggie comes running in astonishment or fear. With a lifetime of experience on which to draw, he has seen it all before, whereas for Maggie, everything is new. 

I do not romanticize Maggie’s wide-eyed naivete: In her world of anything goes, the cute and cuddly animals of today can be terrifying monsters tomorrow. Nor do I disparage Mr. McGarrity’s clearsighted sense of the familiar. The sunset is not less beautiful just because we’ve seen it before, and it’s rather nice to know that no giant spider will pop up out of nowhere to eat us. Maggie and Mr. McGarrity are a pair – like Laurel and Hardy, Batman and Robin, Antony and Cleopatra. They are the classic idealized duo that we know so well: childhood innocence and grownup sophistication. They need one another.

In my mind’s eye, I remember being Maggie once upon a time, but having turned 80 just last week, I look into the mirror and see Mr. McGarrity. I wonder what the Maggie Muggins stories would look like from Mr. McGarrity’s point of view. 

The chapter I have in mind finds Mr. McGarrity marking the first anniversary of his wife’s passing, as indeed I am this very day. Since Mrs. McGarrity died just a year ago, he has tried valiantly to keep the garden going, even though his heart isn’t always in it. He enjoys the buoyancy of Maggie, a welcome relief from his memories. What he has learned in the year gone by is the persistence of those memories. Maggie sees each day’s adventures as a surprising confrontation with things of the world that she had never noticed before. Mr. McGarrity knows all about the things, but he has had to confront the memories associated with them. Memories too come in two varieties: not cute and cuddly/terrifying but warm and comforting/painful. “Tra la la la, tra la la lay, everything reminds me of yesterday. I wonder what I’ll remember tomorrow.”

We moderns are consumed with memory, because memory makes us human. Without it, we are static blobs in three-dimensional space; with it, we are projected into time, replete with birthdays and biographies, histories and holidays. We can “remember the Alamo” or “the Maine” or “Amalek”; watch the ball drop on New Year’s eve, celebrate the Christian Eucharist or the Passover seder. We go to great lengths to establish a chain of memory: pictures on our phones; children’s artwork on the fridge; inherited knickknacks all over the house. We keep yesterday’s letters; last year’s paperwork; filing cabinets filled with stuff we could have thrown out but didn’t. These all add up to a trail of breadcrumbs scattered in the forest of time; on important anniversaries, we take trips down memory lane, retracing our steps through the breadcrumbs to remember what has brought us to where we are.

We don’t usually walk around the house taking it all in. But Mr. McGarrity does. The desk in the spare room is where Mrs. McGarrity used to work; the half-finished novel on the bedstand is what she was reading near the end; she never liked her old wristwatch; she wanted to buy a new one; but there’s the old one still telling time, as if time hadn’t stopped for her. No lamp, book, recipe, picture, pot or pan is simply what it seems. Each one has a story: sometimes tender, even comforting; sometimes plaintive, even crushing. 

Judaism has words for life’s breadcrumbs: each one is a zekher or zikaron, from the root z.kh.r (or z.k.r). The usual translation “remembrance,” is fine as far as it goes, but the deeper meaning of zekher/zikaron is “pointer.” That’s how remembrances work. Children like Maggie, still trying to figure out how to get around in life, see things as the furniture of the universe: a soap dish is for washing your hands; candlesticks are for Shabbat dinners. How do birds build nests? And what are rabbits for? The furniture is familiar to Mr. McGarrity. What he is discovering is their histories: the way they point to a time when Mrs. McGarrity used them, lit them, joked about replacing them, or lovingly tried to feed or grow them. 

At her funeral, Mrs. McGarrity was remembered in a eulogy, a verbal reflection on her life’s breadcrumbs and her pathway through them. On anniversaries of her death, the McGarrity family will gather to say Yizkor, the prayer that asks God to remember her, or, more accurately, a prayer that directs God’s attention to her, pointing her out as she once was and maybe as she still somehow is, lodged in the eternity that God alone can access. She should know she is not forgotten, by us and by God. 

Immediately after her death, the household of pointers was altogether overwhelming, an endless minefield of memories that Mr. McGarrity would sometimes just as soon forget. Yet Judaism cherishes memory, he knew. Zikhronah livrakhah, the rabbi said at the funeral. “Her memory will be a blessing,” or maybe, even better, “Remembering her will be a blessing,” and with the passing of the year, Mr. McGarrity has begun to suspect that the rabbi was right. He cries less and smiles more. Yizkor Elohim: “God will remember” Mrs. McGarrity and so will he, in what is increasingly becoming a sacred act of conscience. Mrs. McGarrity lives on, in the memories and memorials that celebrate her story: what she loved, what she left behind, what she wanted for her family, her community, the world even. 

Rosh Hashanah is coming: Mrs. McGarrity would have welcomed it, taken it seriously.  It is called Yom Hazikaron, Mr. McGarrity knows, a day that celebrates memory itself. God remembers, we say as the shofar is blown; and we remember too. It will take more than the year gone by for Mr. McGarrity to sort it all out completely, but meanwhile, he is back in the garden, picking up the pieces of his own life, and wouldn’t you know it? Along comes Maggie Muggins again. In Maggie’s version of events, Mr. McGarrity is her rock, the kindly old man who makes sense of her world, as she learns to live within it. As Mr. McGarrity sees it, Maggie is the inquisitive and effervescent child, who reminds him that the world is still worth making sense of. Maggie is learning to live; Mr. McGarrity is learning to live again.

4 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 38: Mr. McGarrity

  1. Joseph Edelheit

    So….we passed as two ships in that dark night of 71-73….but shared an amazing graduation lunch…and then kinda sorta shared some time via the CCAR, ‘and I remember a great walk around the lake when you came to Temple Israel Mpls just after I got there…. Then I retired from the congregational rabbinate with a heart condition and a psychiatrist who promised that I would die!!….finished my DMn from the U of Chicago, Divinity School….and taught at St. Cloud State University…….kept my head and heart into HIV/AIDS in India…and the Paul Ricoeur Society…we lost touch…but my close friends….Marilyn and Roger Price…and Doug Padgitt and Tony Jones and now Pat and Pekka Sinervo…all got close to Larry Hoffman…so I guess we are still kinda sorta close…

    Yesterday Pekka told me he is coming to your famous Shabbaton….and I told him to make sure that you know…that I was YOUR first rabbi…taught him, did his wedding….stayed close has he grew in Reform Judaism…so NOW when he is a past UJR Canada Prez and Larry Hoffman Scholar in Residence, let’s not forget where/who it began….I am SO proud of Pekka…as a Jew, Scientist, husband, father…etc, etc…. I asked him to ask YOU…to teach him about the origin of L’Olam Va’ed….and if we could connect it to infinity….?

    Hugs Larry…I pray that your Ave’lut is becoming a source of infinite loved memories…

    When you think of me…I always hope you laugh the way you did on June 1, 1973…..one of us is really OLD..

    We should Zoom….

    Joseph A. Edelheit Rabbi, Emeritus Prof. Religious and Jewish Studies Author. “What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human” (2020) Co-Editor, “Reading Scripture with Paul Ricoeur” (2021)

  2. Larry, this is incredibly beautiful. My sincere condolences as you observe your wife’s yartzeit. As one of your “Maggie Muggins,” I still appreciate the knowledge and wisdom you shared with me, and continue to provide through these writings. Finally, let me wish you a wonderful, if belated, birthday. May there be many more. 

    Rabbi Howard O. Laibson, RJE, CASD

  3. Jeffrey Stiffman

    Larry, there are tears in my eyes as I read this. You share your inner feelings in such a moving way. I’ll never look at Zikkaron the same way again. Thank you for being my guide.

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