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.