She was hard to know. When I was younger, I viewed my mother’s contradictions through the lens of her astrological sign, Scorpio; in that way I could both simplify and dismiss her independence, which merged so weirdly into her complicated fusion with my dad. She lived, veiled in a hidden emotionality. As I got older (and sober—that clearly helped, what a surprise), I realized it wasn’t that simple. She wasn’t that simple.
She was beautiful, dark-haired, quiet, the most hard-working person I have, in my almost 68 years, known. Her commitment to my father, in all his hypochondriac wackiness, was total. He was her life. My sister and I, even her grandchildren, were beloved to her but they, but we, were not her focus. My father’s endless needs truly were the focal point of her world.
As a child and a young woman, I railed against her distance, unable to absorb the ways she held me dearly and protected me with her distant and silent strength. I struggled and yearned for that which she couldn’t give me—emotionality and soft warmth. Although I had that in spades from my dad, Mr. Emotionality, I nevertheless wanted it from the One who could not offer it, my mom, creating a paradigm for future, maddeningly unsatisfying relationships with the women who became my lovers. Someday, damn it, I would get Her to love me. Of course, that never worked, with her or anyone. Not that way.
She was an enigma.
Bigger than competence itself, she appeared to be beyond-able to do everything that had to be done. I fumbled through my early life, wracked with self-consciousness and insecurities, measuring myself against her seeming super-human capacity; she worked in my dad’s grocery store daily, kept our house beyond-perfect, fed and clothed us, put in the storm windows, made chopped liver, and, as a full time job, managed my father’s every medication, every meal, and every need, of which there were a multitude.
Theirs was a high school romance that never seemed to lessen in passion or commitment. He was her job. When he passed in 2000, my sister and I had no idea what might happen. Would she crawl into the casket with him? Would she be dead in a month? What would she be, if she didn’t have him as the planet around which to orbit? Sitting at my sister’s kitchen table after his death, my mom asked no one in particular, “What will I eat for breakfast now?” Her breakfast was determined, of course, by his.
At the age of eighty, she moved from Florida to New Jersey, to be nearer to my sister. She, with help from us, yet with her own almost super-human strength and against all odds, created a life of her own. She made an apartment into her beautiful home. She became a voracious reader, once reporting, “Daddy didn’t like it when I read”. Making up for lost time, she befriended the librarian who would afterhours drop off books. After her death, we scoured the apartment, collecting library books. She started a crafts club in her senior center, launching an ongoing project of knitting hats for the Ronald MacDonald House.
After his death, she wrote to my father almost daily, until her illness and death six years later. Her letters were factual renditions of her life, the non-emotional milestones of our family. In scribing and sharing her life with him, she was somehow able to become separate. By keeping him close, she was able to live without him. Five spiral bound notebooks, filled with her distinctive script, letters to my dead father, are her legacy.
We became friends those last years. I practiced relaxing into her reticence. We hung out. We checked in daily on the phone and, when together, shared quiet things. We had many a game of Scrabble in which she consistently “beat the pants off of me”, sharing simple meals of Melba toast, cottage cheese and tomato.
From enigma to hero, my mother’s strength became my hope for myself. When she took her last breath and I took the next one without her, my life changed in ways that I could not imagine, my relationship to the earth forever altered.
To imagine that her resilience lives in me, to see myself as her daughter, on this night, the night of Kol Nidre, as I turn back to God, in that turning I awaken to that which does matter most, the blessings of my mother’s life.
May her memory always be a blessing.
And dear readers, what about you and your mom? Did you rail against her? Did you discover ways to separate, in order to connect more authentically? Does your mom live inside of you? What do you need to say?