I Lost My Mother’s Watch

My baby, now ten months, has never had a bottle or a babysitter. He has spent most of his life at home with his parents and siblings – any time we are around someone else, he furrows his brow in suspicion and clings to us tight, and I think – פנים חדשות באו לכאן – a principle from the purity laws which literally means, “a new face has arrived here.” Yitzvi does not like new faces. Though he is often cared for by his father and siblings, he has never been apart from me for more than an hour since he was born – I leave him for early-morning runs and late-night walks and an occasional trip to browse in the bookstore, but otherwise he is always at my side.

Lately Daniel has noticed that any time I leave the room, Yitzvi begins to whimper, as if he is terrified that I am leaving him forever. In response, Daniel has begun throwing him a small plastic ball, which Yitzvi slithers on the floor to retrieve, shrieking with glee. Inevitably the ball will get away from him again, and Daniel will catch it, hold on to it, and look squarely at Yitzvi before throwing it again in his direction. In so doing, he is replicating a game that Freud observed in his infant grandson – the baby would throw a wooden reel attached to a piece of string so that it disappeared inside his crib, saying the word “fort” (go forth). Then he would pull the reel out of the crib by the string and say “da” (here). Freud understood that the baby was enacting the experience of the loss of the mother, playing out this loss as a way of training himself to tolerate absence. Each time Yitzvi catches the ball and then loses it again, he is learning to accept that Daniel and I will not always be at his side.

I commented to Daniel that if Yitzvi was training himself to tolerate loss, then he was essentially internalizing the lesson of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” a villanelle about the “art of losing.” The poet develops a catalogue of losses, beginning with the small things (“lost door keys, the hour badly spent”), then moving on to more significant and fantastical losses (“some realms I own, two rivers, a continent”), and culminating in the real loss that has motivated the writing of the poem – the loss of a loved one (“the joking voice, a gesture I love”). She tells herself to “practice losing farther, losing faster,” as if loss were a game that one could train oneself to get better at playing. Daniel reminded me that one of the first losses the poet chronicles is “my mother’s watch” – which we always understood to refer to a wristwatch, or perhaps a pocket watch, but certainly a time-keeping mechanism. Yet as Daniel brilliantly pointed out, “my mother’s watch” could also refer to the Bishop’s mother’s loving supervision in the sense of hashgacha – the constant presence of a parent watching over. Each time I walk out of the room, Yitzvi loses his mother’s watch, a loss he must practice time and time again.

Not long ago, in our study of tractate Shabbat in daf yomi, we learned in the Mishnah that “young boys may go out on Shabbat with knots” (66b) The Talmud asks about the nature of these knots, explaining that they relate to a case where “a son has longings for his father,” unable to separate from him. In such a situation, the father “takes a strap from the right shoe on ties it on the boy’s left arm.” These knots—the Hebrew word is kesher, meaning connection—are a way of binding father and son and helping the child overcome his longings. The Talmud goes on to relate the mnemonic for remembering which shoe and which arm is Tefillin, which are tied by the right hand on the left arm. As Mara Benjamin notes in The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought, Tefillin, like the strings linking father and son, function as transitional objects enabling us to train ourselves to cope with loss. Jews wear Tefillin to experience the force of our connection to God in spite of the distance – they are a reminder of God’s watch over each and every one of us, known in Jewish theology as hashgacha pratit.

In just over two weeks, Yitzvi is supposed to attend a small daycare for a few hours each day. We have no idea how it will work – how will the baby who refuses to drink from a bottle and is terrified of all new faces agree to lose his mother’s watch every morning? And how will we, as his parents, not wince in pain when he tugs at the taut strings binding us together even from a distance? I suppose we have no choice but to follow the commandment inscribed in the Tefillin we bind and unbind – to love him with all our heart and soul and might, and with the fierceness of that love, to let him go.

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