We parked in front of Jean’s Place, a shelter for homeless women.
My 12-year-old son, Sage, had his size 12 feet up on the dashboard, his arms were crossed and he was yelling, “Mom, I don’t want to do this! I hate this. This is all your idea. This is stupid. I. Don’t. Care. About. Homeless. Women. That’s the last thing I care about. Why are you doing this to me?!” Tears sprang from his eyes.
When Sage was six, he started a collection for Jean’s Place out of a giant cardboard box painted with pink and blue tempera paint. On it he wrote: “If you care about homeless women put money here,” with a long loping arrow leading to a slot in the top of the box. He used the money he collected to buy house plants for the shelter when it opened.
When Sage turned twelve, I thought I should at least offer the idea of a Bar Mitzvah, although I am only ¾ Jewish. So with as much authority as I could muster, I said, “Sage, here’s your choice: you can have a traditional Bar Mitzvah and learn Hebrew; you can have a Rite of Passage Ceremony and do a year-long service project; or you can do nothing.” He replied vaguely, “I guess I’ll do the passage thing.”
So here we were at Jean’s place, tears flying out of his eyes, arms tightly crossed, long legs kicking the dashboard, refusing to go in. “But honey, we made an appointment.” I said, “They are waiting for us.”
Reluctanty Sage wiped his blue eyes, said, “I’m not promising anything, but I’ll go in,” and unfolded his nearly six-foot frame out of the car.
We were buzzed in and waited by the office door. Then through the door came Beth, curly hair, young, bubbly, and enthusiastic. “I’m so honored to meet you!” She said to Sage, he smiled shyly. She led us up to the second floor where each woman had their own bedroom, a shared a kitchen and living room.
Before entering the floor, she yelled, “Man on the floor!” Rite of passage begun.
After the tour, Beth brought us into her office which was overflowing with strange donations: old burnt pots and pans, a distinctly filthy waffle iron, sample deodorants, used curlers. Beth asked, “have you thought about what you want to do, Sage?”
“What is the one thing that you really need but you can’t get anyone to donate?” Sage asked.
“The thing that we are always short on is new things for their new apartments when they get ready to move out on their own.” Said Beth.
That’s when Sage’s eyes lit up. “Why don’t I get them everything they need for their apartments, move-out kits!”
Back in the car, Sage was transformed. No longer kicking the dashboard, he sat up straight in his black baggie pants with extra zippers and ties that he begged for in Hot Topic, “I’m practically famous at this shelter! I want to do more for Jean’s Place!”
Between raising the money and personalizing the kits Sage’s project took a year to complete.
We decided to call the Rite of Passage ceremony a Sage Mitzvah.
We made up invitations, rented a space, and planned an elaborate ceremony that began with an “honoring of the people who could not be with us today,” moved through, a “casting off of youth,” and ended with a “welcoming adulthood.”
Eleven days before friends and family were to gather in a small independent theatre space, we went to visit our neighbor George’s house. He was our honorary grandfather and had just come home from the hospital. Our back yards butted up against each other and he would lean over the fence and pontificate about how badly I was doing my yard work. It was time to tie up the raspberries! It was time to top the walnut tree! It was time to plant root vegetables by the full moon! It was time to harvest the honey! George and our family raised bees together. He had done it as a young man in the twenties and was sure I was doing everything wrong. He was invincible to stings and I’d pluck the stingers out of his face and neck for him after our particularly bungled maneuver of the hives. He had been a hobo in the depression and had settled down in Portland, Oregon, making a living hauling 100lb. sacks for a ship building company on the Willamette River. I was single and struggling. George was 93, widowed and lived alone. Over the fence, we supplied a missing generation for each other.
Sage was at George’s for a long time. After about 40 minutes, I called George’s son Allen to see if Sage was “making a pest of himself.” Allen replied that it was quite the contrary; George had perked up while telling all his stories to this eager boy listener. After another 10 minutes Sage finally came home. He was full of George stories – had gotten George to tell all, about hitting the rails as a hobo, about working as a farm hand for a hot meal, about settling in Portland, Oregon. We sat down to our dinner and to watch TV. An hour later, Allen called, “You’re not going to believe this. I just tried to wake George up. He’s died. I just had given him his dinner. Chicken dinner. He had a beer. He just finished telling your son his life story and I thought he had fallen asleep.”
Some rites of passage you work to create and some come and find you.
We did gather.
Loved ones came to a little rented theatre with potluck dishes.
Candles were lit, Jewish prayers were roughly recited, 50 move-out kits were shown off, heaps of praise were offered on Sage for his splendid growing up, and a Jewish prayer shawl decorated with Sharpie wishes for his future was laid on his shoulders by my father.
This year my father passed away. And so instead of my father it was Sage, now age 25, who walked me down the aisle when I married my beloved wife Peggy after decades of searching for a soul mate. Peggy and I didn’t want any wedding gifts because we already had two of everything with our two households. The idea came to me to ask for donations for another batch of Move-out kits in lieu of gifts. And maybe even have the boxes line the isle we processed down. Sage gave us a beautiful wedding toast welcoming Peggy into the family. We raised $3,000 to make 50 kits. I called the shelter to tell them we wanted to give them 50 kits in honor of our new life together and in honor of my little boy Sage’s generosity twelve years ago. The Director of Development said, “Oh we still make those kits…but now we call them move-in kits and we put them in a laundry basket. I had no idea a kid thought of the idea.” Man on the floor indeed!
(Wedding photo by the author’s brother, Christopher Rauschenberg)
Sara Kirschenbaum works in clay, on paper, and with photography, as well as with the written word. She has been published in Calyx, Fiction International, J Journal, Kalliope, Mothering Magazine, The Oregonian, Poetica, Portland Parent, the Portland Tribune, Salon.com and the Tin House Blog. She has also been a guest commentator for NPR’s Marketplace. She has written a memoir about postpartum OCD. She can be reached through her website: sarakirschenbaum.com or at email@example.com. She is based in Portland, OR.