There are certain milestones in life that pack an existential punch. When I turned 18, my father shook his head in disbelief at the idea that he had an 18-year-old daughter because, in his mind, he could remember being 18 years old and it didn’t seem like nearly enough time passed to have raised a child to that age.
He told me that he could remember details of being 18 like it was yesterday — the feelings he had, the friends, the music he loved, the family he lived with, and the conversations they had.
How had so much time passed? How did he live so much life in the interim but keep those memories so vivid in his mind?
Is he still the same person he was at 18 or is he different because of the different life experiences that molded him into a more nuanced person, more established than his 18-year-old self?
Is a person able to capture that snapshot of a moment in their life and keep it pure and beautifully innocent for when it’s needed? For when life is anything but simple?
Can someone call on that memory and bring up the thoughts and feelings they had at that time, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years prior? What a beautifully complex system our minds are. And what a masterful artist G-d is creating us this way.
I got my answer only 22 years after he posed this question to me, in the form of a beautiful book I was completely unable to put down. In one chapter of the book, the author was looking through a photo album with her 82-year-old grandmother and reminiscing about the times in her past.
The pictures of herself as a young child, as a bride, as a mother, and now as a grandmother are a collection of memories of the person she once was and eventually the person she became along the way. But she’ll always remember the details of her days as a 13-year-old.
She’ll be able to recall the feelings of excitement she had on her wedding day, the love, happiness, and joy that come along with embarking on your new life with someone you love.
The anticipation of having her first child, the nervous energy and feelings of anxiety, not knowing what to expect. The fear, the pain, the element of the unknown. The increasingly familiar feeling of sadness or disappointment as more life is lived.
These are life’s defining moments and they look different on each person. The life-defining moments are like those hand-painted Russian dolls (Matryoshka) that come as a collection and stack neatly, one within the other, smaller and smaller, until you have the smallest Russian doll buried in the center.
It’s all the same face, the same person, with layers of experience, building sequentially and cumulatively. You can move outward, collecting more knowledge, more life, more volume, and you can be traced down to the smallest essence, the same “you” who you are at your core — the purest form of you, the unedited version, the beauty and potential at the root of who you are.
Each doll signifies a different life experience, and while it shapes you into someone you might have been at a different point in your life, it doesn’t have to change your essence.
The dolls can represent generational growth, as my father looks at me, or intrinsic, within an individual lifetime, embodying the different generations and perspectives we span.
I remember playing with these Russian dolls as a child. My grandmother had a set in her house and I’d delight in opening the biggest doll to reveal the smaller ones inside. Just as I thought I had unearthed the smallest figurine, there’d be another surprise, and this would keep me entranced for hours. I’d never get bored of opening each doll up and putting the head and body together, side by side along with the other dolls.
As I look back at the feeling I had as a child and why that occupied my time for hours then, as well as the journeys traveled in my life from my childhood, I marvel at the amount of life we live — the experiences that shape us into the people we become and the lessons we’re able to learn along the way.
I reminisce back to the child I was and those feelings I had at different times in my life. I think about the amount of joy I’ve been lucky enough to experience and how that could signify a doll.
I think about the depths of sadness I’ve lived through and powered through that could signify another doll. The layers of experiences, the happiness and the sadness. The mazal and the hard times. All the separate selves that have made me who I am.
Some I might have chosen to live without (if presented with a choice, which I’m not), but, regardless, they’ve contributed to the multifaceted layers of who I am as a person.
Every so often, we grow a new layer of self, not negating the former ones, but encompassing, expanding, and integrating the many selves we inhabit as our soul journeys through and fulfills the stages of our destiny.
Malkie’s husband, Moshe, a’h, passed away at the age of 40. She has been sharing her thoughts and emotions with readers on her Instagram page @Kissthekoshercook. We are privileged to share her writings and reflections with our readership. May Moshe’s memory be a blessing for Malkie and her beautiful family.