Her loveliness grew to encompass her gentleness as the span of Heaven is multiplied by the depth of its city of souls.
Leah Hardin was a woman who treasured her family above all else. Long after desire and ambition had become vicarious, and thoughts of her physical beauty had grown ever more nostalgic, and the trajectory of her life had reached its resting point, she still focused continually on us, her consanguineous mutts. No matter how far from her our paths meandered, she kept our vigil. Her home was testament to whatever she loved, and its rooms were shrines to us. Though her prodigious talents were evident everywhere, she chose to express them in the disposition of nineteenth-century objects around her – in gorgeously grotesque whirlpools of figures and musical instruments – and continually reworked our photos into her collages. These grew as crowded with tangents as the B-trees of memory’s archives.
In her final decades, she gradually became hard of hearing. As with all elderly people, it happened because she’d heard so much. She was deafened by the depth of the noises and voices of time.
I picture her always awaiting her family’s return – not only our return, but also that of her Beloved. She could never remarry despite her husband’s scalding betrayal. For her, the man had become family long ago; he returned to her whenever she thought of him. Other men were outsiders. He now lived in her.
Some of us find our way to intensified states of awareness through the joy of composing music, or casting our insights into stanzas, whether in prose or verse; through painting and sculpture; through revivifying the world around us; by depicting the worlds in our heads and, in so doing, standing outside ourselves.
Leah Hardin was different. Even though she had gifts in abundance, she was awakened by the presence of family in her life. Honoring her loved ones allowed her to relax the constraints of selfhood. Our presence became her aura, our victories, her nimbus. That sense of connection was the anima and animism that enlivened her critter collection. Confined to the mantelpiece at first, it, too, became her familiar. Its friendship spilled everywhere, populating once-empty rooms with faces and fragile gestures.
The shimmer of kinship that kept her alive now ensures she survives in us.
She strove to be selfless, though she was not, and learned to ignore her own vanity. The point was not whether she always succeeded (a woman of that time, born to the era of the Cupid’s bow; fine-featured and a former homecoming queen; made so conspicuously shapely that she was never given the chance to see herself objectively, nor to learn to be free of the control of practiced flatterers). The obstacle of narcissism meant nothing compared to her mission: to offer her family everything she had.
Selfhood meant so little to her that even the fates of strangers seemed to matter more than her own.
She could never bear to hear anyone insulted in her presence. The slightest ill word about a pet caused her to produce a list of the animal’s virtues. Would that we could be as charitable to our own enemies as she was to virtually every flesh, feather and fur-bearer in the world.
“She has a nice face,” Leah would say whenever my sister insisted the cat was getting hefty. “The old girl is still pretty. She has a good figure for a cat her age.”
If Olam ha-Neshamot exists, and the light is kind to us, may Leah be praised now and always by the souls she defended so stubbornly – defended even though she knew that others might laugh.
As she kept our vigil with her painstaking collections, so we must keep the secret of that achievement alive.
Endlessly empathetic and cursed with creativity; eccentrically prolific in an era of forced female conformity; always gathering the creatures around her – living or little – into fireside rebuses to forge an alchemy of sweetness – that was Leah’s lifelong vocation, her kindness’s call.
Having interacted with her at least from birth, having been formed within the forests of her body, I will always be able to conjure the sanctuaries she created for me – to evoke fetal Edens – simply by uttering her name.
Whenever I resurrect her in the memory; describe and demarcate the person who loved me so tacitly – who stayed loyal despite my decades of miserable distance – Leah’s kindness will always rise to oppose the world’s indifference. Even when it hurts to return, knowing – as Proust lamented – that every paradise is lost, I will bring home my mother’s memory until it transforms my surroundings. I’ll visualize her final house, the intricate castle of my childhood, until the disposition of objects around me becomes her menagerie again. She’ll lie on the couch by the piano and gaze at the view of the mountain. I’ll play for her – however briefly – and promise to return.
There to be nourished by her flourishes of empathy and invention.
Sancta mater existere,
atque ex terra emergere.
– November 8, 2010