28 for 29, #19: Anna Z.

New here? Here’s some background about the 29 interviews I’m conducting for my 29th birthday.

At 28, Anna Zeide is the youngest person to participate in the series so far. Anna’s essay has been resting patiently in my inbox for almost a week, and it’s taken me awhile to post because [unbecoming ego alert?] I wasn’t sure I could write an intro that would do it justice.

Enjoy this beautiful reflection, and I’ll tell you more about Anna after she speaks for herself. 

Anna Z.

On March 1, 2012 (exactly six months from today, when I’m first writing this), my father died. Fifty-three days later, I turned 28. It was the first time I had woken up on a birthday to a world without my Papa. It was the first birthday when Papa didn’t rouse me from sleep with either—when I was living at home—a hurried shuffling to the kitchen first thing in the morning (because you grow taller when you sleep!), where he measured my height with a triangular block of wood, marking it on the door frame with a greasy No. 2 pencil, or—after I’d moved away—an early morning phone call with loving birthday wishes in his deep Russian voice.

It was my first birthday in the “After.”

My life, as my husband so astutely wrote in my 28th birthday card, could now be marked into the “Before” and the “After.” There was a time when I had lived for 27 years without tragedy, when my claims to luck and good fortune had no asterisk, and when my family was complete, with no missing pages or chunks torn out.

And then. And then I found myself in a new world altogether, where my father’s absence was a daily presence, where the certainty of my goals fell to the wayside. How to complete my dissertation without my Papa there to see me become the second Dr. Zeide in the family? How to keep trying to conceive a child when there would be no dedushka to welcome new baby Zeide-Horn into the world? How to ponder finishing graduate school, leaving behind the town and friends who had become home, and moving to some unknown place in the country for some unknown career path, without Papa’s guidance? Tumult was everywhere.

And yet, although uncertainty seemed to be the only certainty, I could also look around me and see support and love on all sides. With my 28th birthday looming, I knew I had to create space to honor that support and love, to recognize its value, to take advantage of it.

I am, and have always been, a birthday person. I love celebration, surprises, thoughtful presents, feeling special—for myself almost as much as for others. So, we rented a house in the country, loaded up some cars with games and food and friends, and retreated for a birthday weekend. There was apple cake and homemade chocolate ice cream, there was front porch yoga and croquet, there was an epic ultimate frisbee game and a trivia night. And there were stories of my Papa. Friends sat close to listen, to find that they could only know me if they knew him.

For these months since, long after the birthday weekend, I have continued to tell and to write stories. All of them—the ones about rice and milk and the ones about ice cream, the ones about foraging and the ones about memory—have ultimately been stories about my father.

This summer, I spent a week in NYC at a food writing workshop at the New York Public Library. During a break from one of the afternoon writing sessions, I was reading one of my favorite blogs (this one!) and came across the idea of Saturn Returns for the first time. Crossing major thresholds?! Entering the next stage of life? Tumultuous times around the 28th year?! Yes, yes, and yes. Astrology or no (and I’ll go with no), there was something here worth mulling over. Later that same week, over bowls of warm congee, two wonderful friends, also writers, began talking about the very same concept, exploring how “Saturn had returned” in their own lives in recent years. We tried to make sense of this trend, of finding ourselves at crossroads and facing transition. Even though my friends had not experienced the recent loss of a father, they were pondering new relationships, cross-country moves, job opportunities. Why all these upheavals now? Was it an issue of delayed adulthood? Were we just dragging our feet about growing up, changing our minds about where we were headed and why?

For the past six years, while I’ve been working on my Ph. D., my mom has tended to see my life as being in a constant state of transition, of feet-dragging. She considers my time in graduate school simply a path to something bigger and better, rather than a valuable experience for its own sake. Perhaps she thinks this because of the contrast with my brother, who—though he is less than two years older than me—already has a stable corporate job, a wife and two [adorable] kids, a big house in the suburbs, and a city where he plans to live permanently.

But what I’ve tried to tell her, and what I ultimately think of the Saturn Returns phenomenon, is that I try to see what I’m doing in every stage of my life as the goal in itself, rather than a pathway toward a goal. To suggest that a given period is one of “transition” is to suggest that other periods will be stable. But life, I think, is ultimately built of transitionary moments. They may be big or they may be small, but I struggle to see the value of these transitions as spaces for growth and reflection, for opportunities to start fresh. To view them, instead, as something to pass through in order to reach the other side creates a sort of tunnel vision that doesn’t allow us to learn from the change itself.

So, last April, even with powerful grief weighing me down, with Papa’s loss at the forefront of my mind, with a sense of being a stranger in this Papa-less world, we rented a house in the country, loaded up cars with games and food and friends, and retreated for a birthday weekend.

I turned 28. I longed for my father. But I worked to accept this transition and to find space for reflection, for stories, and for gratitude.

Anna, thank you so much for sharing all of this. 

Anna Zeide lives in Madison, where she is writing her dissertation on the history of canned foods in the United States. Anna and I met as undergrads, but just barely; it’s thanks to Anuj that I’ve gotten to know her a bit since then. Her blog, Dining and Opining, always makes me wish we’d hung out in person when we had the chance! It’s a great place to go if you need help making sense of the Stanford study about organic food; crave a recipe for slaw that you can tweak to your heart’s desire; or  want to read more poignant memories about her relationships with her family and with food. 

Photo: Anna on her 28th birthday, surrounded by friends.


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