S.F. author’s novel tackles death with life-affirming humor

As a fiction writer, Sherril Jaffe never struggles for ideas, thanks to her simple approach. “I write about whatever is obsessing me at the moment,” she says. “I have to follow it, not knowing what it means or where it’s going.”

The obsessions in her latest novel, “Expiration Date,” have to do with aging, mothering and daughtering. All topics she knows well.

“Expiration Date” follows two protagonists: Muriel, a feisty, 80-something former Beverly Hills matron, newly relocated to a Rossmoor-style senior residence in the East Bay; and Flora, her 59-year-old daughter, wife of a San Francisco rabbi and mother of her own two daughters.

Sherril Jaffe

Or, two people awfully like Jaffe — wife of the late Rabbi Alan Lew — and her mother, Vera Jaffe, to whom the book is dedicated. Art didn’t precisely imitate life, but it came close.

The book “had many inspirations,” says the author of six other novels and winner of a PEN award. “My younger daughter was studying ageism at U.C. Santa Cruz, and like a lot of parents, whatever my kids studied, I studied, too.”

Another inspiration was her mother, who moved to Walnut Creek from Beverly Hills after she turned 80. Once that happened, for the first time in Jaffe’s adult life she was living near her mother. “She became a subject of interest to me,” Jaffe says. “I was fascinated by her escapades, so I started to take notes.”

Those escapades — all at age 80 and beyond — included being swept up and nearly drowned by a rogue wave in Oregon; being dragged by a car nearly to death; and running off with a man on a long road trip through the West as part of a bridge tour (as in, the card game).

All those tales made it into the novel.

“I was worried about how my mother would feel about being a character,” Jaffe says. “Right before [the book] came out, she had a minor brain incident and lost a chunk of her memory. She’s still very sharp, but certain memories are gone forever. Now she reads it as a way of reclaiming her memory.”

There is plenty of Jewish content in the novel, too, though Jaffe never worried she was isolating her audience.

“I read books from all different cultures,” the San Francisco resident says. “If you’re not Jewish, how else would you ever hear these stories from the Talmud?”

The main theme of the book is death (hence the title, which refers to a specific date the character Flora believes will be her final day). But it’s about more than death; it’s about living fully before we move on to what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.”

As probing as the novel is on this matter, Jaffe says she does not naturally dwell on death, and had to work hard to imagine how her characters faced mortality.

Not that she hasn’t seen it up close herself.

In January 2009, her husband of 30 years died suddenly while on a rabbinic retreat in Baltimore. Lew, who had been emeritus rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom since retiring in 2004, left behind a devastated congregation and an even more devastated widow.

“The first year and a half I was basically in shock,” Jaffe recalls. “I stopped writing altogether. I lost belief in everything. The relevance of writing, something I’d done my whole life, I lost.”

Though she hadn’t dwelled on death, she says her late husband did, so much so she used to call him “Mr. Death.”

“He worked in hospice,” Jaffe recalls. “He sat by the side of so many dying people. He worked against the death penalty.”

After the shock of losing her husband wore off somewhat, Jaffe resumed teaching creative writing at Sonoma State University. A year later she attended a writing fellowship in New Hampshire, where her passion for writing reawakened.

Recently, she decided to retire from teaching and devote herself full time to writing, though she still teaches one or two classes during the academic year.

She’s not about to go on a spontaneous road trip like her mother, but Jaffe does feel her novel reflects a bedrock sentiment about life: It is meant to be lived, in the here and now.

“There’s great denial of death,” she says. “It’s always a shock when somebody dies, even though everyone dies. Most literature is about carpe diem, seizing the day — waking us up to the fact of mortality, so we can really live.”

“Expiration Date” by Sherril Jaffe ($28, Permanent Press, 200 pages)

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.