The pages of the frayed old children’s book peek out of my nightstand, begging to be read once again. Prepared for the overflow of emotions and tears that I know are on their way, I wipe my eyes, put on my glasses and open the little white drawer. Inscribed on the inside of the book — written in my grandpa’s curly, comforting cursive — is a short poem:
May the wind be at your back,
Let no grass grow under your feet,
Spread your wings and learn to fly,
Let your boundary be the sky.
Thoughts with love from Aunt Liz
My copy of the 1980 children’s book “The Paper Bag Princess” is only one of many my grandparents sent out. In an effort to send Liz’s love to a generation she will never meet, my grandparents mailed out copies of this feminist-in-training story to all of her friends as they had children. The story itself takes the classic fairytale and flips it on its head: when Princess Elizabeth’s husband-to-be Ronald is captured by a dragon, Elizabeth outsmarts the dragon, rescues her fiance and then proceeds to dump him because he’s honestly a real asshole (my words, not the book’s). She runs off into the sunset in her paper bag gown and scraggly tiara, joyful as can be. Elizabeth learns to fend for herself and realizes that she does not need a judgemental, snobby prince to keep her in line, for she is stronger than he will ever be. What makes her a princess is not the beautiful gown she wears and the massive castle she lives in, but her ability and drive to forge her own path.
I tuck the book back into its crevice in my crowded drawer and finally get out of bed. We have to be at the temple in less than an hour, and I am nowhere near ready.
My mom struggles to zip up the dress I swore still fit me, and to my own embarrassment, my 12-year-old brother comes in to help her. Once it finally zips shut, I can feel my chest being pushed back into itself. It is unclear whether or not I will have the oxygen supply to make it through a two-hour service in this dress. One thing Liz and I do not happen to share is our cup size. But it once fit her, so I insist it will fit me. I slip into high heels that I cannot walk in and hobble out the door alongside my family.
I have never had the privilege of meeting my Aunt Liz myself. What little I know about her comes from teary anecdotes told by my grandparents and old photo albums I can barely stomach looking through. I know much more about the pain my family endures having lost a loved one at the tragically young age of 28.
She was kind, and sensitive, and thoughtful, and much more. She went to Cornell and then Harvard to study public health in hopes of setting up children for healthier futures. She loved the outdoors and grew up skiing with her family. She saw right through all of the bullshit thrown at her growing up and instead focused on finding true friends. She cried to my grandparents about problems with her friends and feeling overwhelmed by the world in the same way that I do. She understood the importance of being authentic and in tune with her heart. She was a beautiful, inquisitive soul who had a simple love for exploring the world and all its wonders. And the world loved her back for as long as it could.
The temple lobby is as antiqued and musty as ever. The dusty brown carpeting, the abstract art donated by half-hearted temple dues – all of it is the same as whenever I had been here last. As we take our seats in the giant, stained glass-adorned synagogue, we grab prayer books filled with Hebrew that not even the Bar Mitzvah boy himself understands.
Before they have the chance to take their socially distanced seats, my maternal grandparents come running towards me with love radiating from their teary eyes. They know I was planning on wearing her dress, but that doesn’t stop their emotions from overflowing all over their disposable masks.
This dress had not even originally been owned by Liz; she found it at a thrift store (another hobby we share). A few years back, we were sorting through my grandparents’ closet when we stumbled upon this simple little flapper-esque dress. My grandma raved about how proud Liz was of this absolute steal of a Nicole Miller original dress. I had been waiting for the right occasion to wear it ever since.
The service began with the booming voice of our rabbi as he welcomed my brother Ethan to the bema (stage) to begin the service. After months of memorizing Hebrew, he would finally be symbolically indoctrinated into manhood! He worked hard, he sang everything flawlessly and, best of all, he got sent a lot of checks from old family friends he wouldn’t recognize. The beauty of the reform Jewish Bar Mitzvah.
After he finished his Torah portion, Ethan returned to his seat and the rabbi took the lead once again.
“As per the family’s request, we will now recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, in honor of Ethan’s Aunt Liz.”
It was the uncontrollable kind of crying. The tears-silently-streaming-down-your-face-without-having-to-push-them-out kind of crying. The remembering-the-baby-pictures-of-her, sitting-next-to-my-mom-and-wondering-what-could-have-been kind of crying. And it was hitting everyone. This was a wonderful day celebrating familial love and the ascendance into adulthood, yet it was clear that someone was still missing from the equation. And I was wearing that someone’s old dress.
Regardless of the fact that I have no clue how tall she was or what her voice sounded like, I have felt connected to Liz since before I knew what death really was. At age 8, I would bury myself in my parents’ big, cozy bed, sobbing about how much I wanted to meet her. After a long, emotional talk with my parents, the night would conclude with me falling asleep as I hugged one of her old teddy bears as tightly as my little arms could.
Once I more fully understood where Liz was, in the eyes of my family, I developed a habit of talking to her at night on occasion. As if to pray to some sort of higher power, I would look up at the sky and chat with her in my head; tell her about my day, how she would’ve had lots of fun at Thanksgiving, the little things. When I went to sleepaway camp, the same camp she attended 25 years prior, the talks became a weekly occurrence.
Every gleaming summer Friday afternoon, all of camp gathered in the amphitheatre for Shabbat services. Being someone who has never felt religious, these services were an arbitrary part of my otherwise fun, carefree days at camp. Except for silent prayer, where I found my own meaning in the time I was supposed to be praying to and reflecting on God.
I stared deeply into the cloudless blue sky above and caught up with my old pal Liz. Standing on the grass she once stood on, singing from the tattered prayer books she once held, and experiencing probably similar levels of social awkwardness as she did at 15 years old, it felt like she was standing right next to me.
Three years later, sitting in the rickety seats of my childhood synagogue, watching the rabbi recite a prayer in her memory, the pieces finally clicked together.
I still don’t feel like I truly identify with any religion, including Judaism, even though it has been a helpful guide in my life. As a practicing control freak, the possibility of my life being out of my own hands is petrifying. But as I sat wearing Liz’s dress, thinking of all of the ways I have forged a connection with someone I assume is somewhere up in the sky, it seemed I had established my own belief system.
In visiting the climbing wall built in her honor at camp, keeping the rocks my grandma decorated with her name on my nightstand at one of her support groups, and thinking about the moral of The Paper Bag Princess at all times, Liz has become a part of my routine. She reminds me that being a princess is about bravery and strength, not what I look like or who I associate myself with. The kindness, intelligence and bravery I have been told she exuded remind me to continue the legacy she only partially had the chance to build for herself.
Without knowing much about her at all, the stories and mementos I have gathered over the years have pushed me to embody her values to the best of my ability. And isn’t that sort of what religion is all about?
At the core of every denomination of every religion, I believe there is one goal: to create an incentivized system for people to be kind. Whether the reward is ascending to heaven, attaining nirvana or not being eaten by the Flying Spaghetti Monster (I’m not much of an expert on Pastafarianism), religion often exists to coax the good out of people who may have difficulty finding it on their own. It provides a guiding light that leads us to a path of morality and thoughtfulness that we may struggle to follow ourselves in tough situations.
While traditional organized religion can lead to great things, it is imperfect and definitely not for everyone. Violence ignited by arguments over whose higher power is more real than the other has been going on since the dawn of humanity. There are too many anti-this’s and that-phobics to count in the realm of religion. There are religions that literally prohibit certain identities from being a part of them at all. So I feel turned off from practicing religion, and instead discovered a strategy to stay connected to my roots and encourage myself to act morally in my own way.
As I enter new environments and meet new people, I find myself subconsciously seeking out people who share the values I perceive Liz to have had. I want to model myself and my life after her as much as I can, because I have discovered the great impact she had on the people she loved. By remembering someone I never knew, in all of her outspoken, compassionate glory, I have found my path to my own version of salvation.
When I finally had the chance to unzip that black dress and take an unrestrained breath, I felt more of a sense of accomplishment than a sense of relief. A piece of Liz had been there to gather with members of our family that I know she would have adored. She was there with her parents and siblings and nieces and nephews to experience the joy of pure familial love. Carrying on her legacy gives me purpose and keeps her spirit alive.
As I finish writing this piece, comfortably tucked into my childhood bed, my copy of The Paper Bag Princess lies right beside me along with the rocks on my nightstand. The black dress hangs in my cramped closet, squished between my high school graduation gown and my own Bat Mitzvah dress: little remnants of the person I remember every day to remind me to let my boundary be the sky.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.