Revealing Memories of My Mother

Last month was the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long since I became motherless.  I was just 25 when she died, and while it didn’t feel that young to lose a parent (after all, I’d lost my father at the age of 8), I now realize that it was.  There was so much more I needed to learn from her, and so much I wanted her to see in me as I grew into an adult.  I guess that’s a common lament of children whose parents die before their time (my mother was 63), and it’s one that was recently brought to mind, again.   We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, though:  after all these years, I’ve pretty much gotten used to the fact that I have no mother.  Not to say I don’t miss her.  For the first ten years or so after she died, I’d find myself becoming envious when friends talked about their mothers, even if they were complaining about them.  I’d wish that I could speak with and be with mine, just like they could.  And, I’d get indignant (silently) when they said negative things about their moms.  They should be happy to have a mother at all!  I’m pretty much over those feelings, but I still wish she were here.  I want her to tell me more about our family history, what I was like as a child, and what she thinks of me.  And, there are still times when I long for a hug and words of comfort and understanding that only a mother, who’s known me all my life, can give.  (No offense to Eileen here.)

In lieu of all this, and to honor her memory, my three older brothers and I, along with our spouses, a nephew and a niece, got together recently to reminisce about Mommy.  We convened over bagels and lox (don’t forget, we’re Jewish!) in my oldest brother’s sun-filled living room near Boston.  It must have felt ceremonious in spite of our informality, because Eileen asked if this – this talking about one’s parents on big anniversaries of their passing – was a Jewish tradition.  A good question – as Jews do have a strong sense of family and emphasize the importance of remembrance, and we honor Yahrzeits (the yearly anniversary of someone’s death) by saying the mourner’s Kaddish (prayer) and lighting a candle.  But the answer was no.  This purposeful reuniting of the siblings to reminisce about our parents is something that my brother devised.  Thank you, Nathan, for initiating what could easily become a tradition for others, too.

Our gathering was bittersweet, with many tears shed – even by those who had never met Mommy.  We had a difficult time getting started, not knowing where to begin.  I (and the spouses present) wanted to hear what she was like, how she acted in particular situations, and what her views were on family, life and the world.  But, those stories didn’t come easily.  We spent the first half hour talking about her death and the illnesses leading up to it.  The six-year period – from when she was diagnosed with leukemia, underwent treatments, experienced a healthy remission, and then the last few months of suffering from a variety of complications – was obviously a memorable and worrisome time for us all.  But remembering her demise did not shed much light on who and how she was while alive.

Indeed, my mother was not an easy person to get to know.  She was reserved, quiet in large groups, and didn’t share her stories easily.  I remember her lamenting that, unlike many Americans (she was born and lived in Germany until her early teens), she did not know how to make small talk.  I think only a few of her closest women friends really knew what she was thinking and feeling, at least in their common realms of life and family.  We children, even when grown, were rarely party to her opinions or her concerns.

As a child and then a young adult, I wanted to know what my mother thought of my actions, my choices and my decisions.  But, she was reticent to provide feedback of this sort.  She had domineering parents and knew the negative impacts of that sort of upbringing.   When she was a teenager, her father disapproved of her boyfriends, and (twice) sent her off to America on her own – to get her away from them.  He stifled her independence and creativity.  So, in response to this heavy-hand approach, Mommy did the opposite, withholding her views so that I could blossom in my own way.   While there is merit to that approach, it often left me guessing about what she really wanted.  Hence, my continuing wish to know her better.

Of course, there are many things we know about her.  She had strong opinions about what the world should be like, and she had strongly held values – such as the importance of a close, loving family.  But she did not tout them.  Instead, she was a doer, responding to issues and challenges that she believed in deeply.  Education was one of her primary interests – she taught underprivileged children to read and helped them gain access to a good education.  She also provided emotional and financial support to women in need and to the emerging women’s movement.  And, in the 1970s, as editor and then president of our family’s book publishing company, she pioneered the creation of a line of books on women’s studies, as well as one on early childhood education.  These are just a few examples…

But, to return to our family gathering:  To get us on track after our conversation about Mommy’s last days, my sister-in-law asked us to talk about the mother we knew growing up.  We tried, but still had trouble.  Maybe we all felt we didn’t know her well enough…  Instead, we spoke about the men she chose as husbands (our father and stepfather).  Both had a great sense of humor, clearly a feature that she appreciated, though maybe felt she lacked in herself.   We talked about the individuals she helped by providing educational opportunity.  And, about how her brother in Israel died within a couple of days of her own death, and that neither of them knew about the other’s passing.  Then, in remembering how she woke us for school each morning, a small and telling window opened.  She’d come into our bedrooms, pull up the shades and then, before coming to our beds to gently awaken us, she’d spend a moment looking over whatever she found on our desks, hoping to learn something about us that we hadn’t told her.  Maybe she felt she didn’t know us well enough either…

We turned to some of the letters we dug up from old files, and read them aloud.  Some were letters of condolence sent to our stepfather after she died.  They revealed how others – family friends and work colleagues – viewed her:  strong and silent, compassionate and dignified, appearing aloof at first but always devoted and concerned.  Others were ones that she sent to my oldest brother.  And, for me, they were the most revealing and heart-wrenching.  Finally, some of my questions were to be answered.

In the two letters – the first written two years after our father died (at age 50) and the second for my brother’s 25th birthday, two years later – she expressed her loneliness and her misgivings, emotions which (I fear) prevailed throughout much of her life.  She regretted not reaching out more to her children for mutual support over our common loss, and for not offering us more of the love and wisdom she kept bottled within.  These two missives, so artfully written, told me a lot.  And, the tears and sniffles heard throughout the room told me that I wasn’t the only one touched by her admissions.  Even now, 30 years later, she continues to teach all of us within her reach.

Postscript:  Our gathering clearly demonstrated that Mommy’s ideal of creating a close and loving family has not been diminished through the passage of generations.  And, it turned out to be a timely moment to reaffirm that fact.  In the room with us, just two weeks away from taking its first breath, was her first great grandchild.  She would have been thrilled, just as the rest of us are.  The prospect of a new generation delights us, even as we hold our sadness.

About abitravel

I'm a lucky person since I've combined my two major passions, conservation and travel, into a profession of sorts. When I'm not organizing or leading an ecotour to Latin America or beyond, I engage in freelance writing and enjoy outdoor activities with my wife. That's the nutshell version!
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6 Responses to Revealing Memories of My Mother

  1. Holly Hartley says:

    Hi Abi,

    I love the beautiful picture of your Mother. I loved her. Here is a small memory of your Mother (I think I shared it with one or two of your brothers). Your Mother told my Mother that when she was missing Cranberry Island in the winter, she would call the Cranberry number and imagine the phone ringing in the house. My Mother told this to her friend Vesle Fenstermaker who wrote a poem about it, published in a book called “Depth of Field.” Love, Holly

    January Thaw

    In New York I dial the numbers
    that will make the blue telephone
    in the empty summer place
    ring for me.

    I hold the sound to my ear
    shut out the city’s sirens, honkings,
    next-door quarrels.

    Ring-and-pause, ring-and-pause
    give me the dust-sheeted wicker, driftwood lamps,
    beach glass on the mantel,

  2. abitravel says:

    Holly – thanks so much for this. I did know that my mother occasionally called our phone on the Island in the winter to hear our long-short-long ring of the party line, and that she admitted it to your Mother. I didn’t know about the poem, though. It’s a lovely rendition of what Vesle imagined her experience to be like. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Abi,

    This is a beautiful piece, filled with so much love and honesty. I love the image of her looking at your school work before waking you up, I bet she loved you more than you can imagine. Her letter is beautiful too as is the poem above. Something tells me this is just the tip of the iceberg on what you (and maybe other relatives too) could write about her.


    • abitravel says:

      Tanya – thanks for your compliments, and for sharing my blog post on your own blog site. I know you have a special interest in my mother, and what I wrote reveals aspects of her that you’d not find elsewhere. As for her love, yes. As with her other feelings, she was hesitant to show it too outwardly. But it was there, for sure.

  4. Pingback: Sharing a Friend’s Post | On the Lettuce Edge

  5. t.on.air says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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