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The Mother in Our Lives
The Mother in Our Lives is a stunning anthology that examines the many facets of the mother-daughter relationship, so complex and yet at the same time so simple. More than seventy women share their memories, thoughts, and wisdom on being a mother and being mothered, on wanting to be a mother and learning to be a mother-in-law. The interactions are often poignant, sometimes funny, and always honest and engaging. We read of childhoods spent in Kansas City, in the English countryside, and in Jerusalem; we see how mothers and daughters interact in the suburbs, during a pogrom, and in a hospital room. We are entertained and we are enlightened.
As in the other Our Lives anthologies, The Mother in Our Lives brings together many of today's most illustrious writers and introduces many new and exciting voices as well. As mothers, as daughters, and as women, The Mother in Our Lives will resonate within us and change our lives.
Copyright 2005 by Sarah Shapiro
For my father and mother
With reverence, gratitude, and love
Our world is a place of constant change.... As part of this world, we must learn to accept the basic terms of Creation - at times to be up and at times down. A person who denies this truth, who desires a life that is always up, is denying the very basis of Creation.
just as our souls descend into this world to fulfill a unique and exalted purpose, so, too, every "descent" we experience, such as apathy or despair, serves a unique and exalted purpose. A person must encounter just such a difficulty, at just such a time, yet continue to affirm his faith in God....
The greatest potential for good lies hidden in the most overwhelming proclivity for evil.... [Let a person] examine his basest desires and make use of them. It is precisely this that elevates a person in the service of God.
Only when we have been chafed and worn away by the trials of this world do our unique strengths become revealed. Ultimately, the difficulties are for our eternal benefit.
Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter,
In All Your Ways
(Jerusalem: Yesod Publications, 1994)
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who gave the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.
Flossie and Bossie, a children's book my mother gave me when I was six years old, is the story of two hens. The two are as different from each other as day is from night, but one thing they have in common: they both long to be mothers.
Flossie is homely and humble, her plumage a dull black. Untidy, ungainly, awkward and shy, as a newly-hatched chick she'd gotten separated from the brood, somehow, and mother and baby were never reunited. (Something tells me this wasn't in the story. An imperfect memory could be making up for lost data, or merging this book's plot-line with others.) Flossie's formative weeks were marked by several traumatic experiences, of which the most debilitating was getting caught one time in a chain-link fence. Admittedly, looks weren't her strong suit even before this happened, but Flossie's neck feathers never grew back after the accident, accentuating her scrawniness. Her eyes are bleary and small, her comb lopsided. And in unguarded moments (just to make matters worse) one of her wings droops down inelegantly into the dust.
Rumor has it that her grandmother was a crow. Flossie is spared the ignominy of lowest spot in the pecking order by only one other hen, The Lunatic, who lost her mind years ago after being chased by a fox.
Bossie, meanwhile, is #2 up on top, just one-down from The King. A petite and dainty Bantam her lustrous feathers displaying a rainbow array of blue and emerald green, of orange and of crimson she's regal and graceful, arrogant and self-assured. Those in the know say her mastery of proper grooming and etiquette was inherited from her mother (a beauty in her own day) and she has a lovely singing voice she simply refuses to gobble. Her posture's superb she wouldn't waddle if her life depended on it.
She gets her way in Bossie's presence, almost nobody makes a peep. Even the housecats give her space. Only The Tea Cozy, who's been around long enough to see numerous generations come and go, remembers Bossie as a chick and is not intimidated. Glossy feathers don't faze her anymore.. .nor all the strutting and striving, clucking and pecking, the preening and the posturing.... Sic transit gloria mundi. As far as she's concerned, it's a wonder dawn ever breaks over the henhouse. Whenever His Royal Highness strides majestically out onto center stage to issue The Daily Wake-up Call to the Universe, this jaded old dame, off roosting somewhere by herself, cackles cynically that it's not for the benefit of the sun he's crowing, but his self-important little Queen.
The Hands (in charge of food, shelter, and egg collection) recognize the distinctive signs of the maternal instinct, and decide to grant both hens a stab at motherhood. On their daily morning rounds through the henhouse, The Hands gather up everyone else's eggs, as usual, but leave Flossie's and Bossie's alone.
A few days go by before the two of them fully grasp the meaning of this.
Our heroines joyfully make their nests, and wait.
Whenever my mother read me Flossie and Bossie, she seemed to be enjoying some sort of private joke.
Only now does it occur to me that for one thing, she had a lifelong familiarity with the subject matter. In the small Midwestern town where she was born, her mother Fanny (nee Faigel) a young, Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Russia raised chickens to feed her family. (She had her own milk cow, too, and the cow had a name. I was just now trying to remember it when an obsolete reflex prompted me to think, "I can ask Mommy," whereupon my recalcitrant brain caught off guard, as usual was stopped short.)
A few generations later, standing among the apple trees out behind our house in Connecticut, loomed the ramshackle old barn (originally designed for horses) that my mother converted into a chicken coop with her own two hands. Throughout my childhood in a polished middle-class suburb, when all the other mothers were gliding around in pearls and tennis whites, she single-handedly raised a rotating population of fifty hens in order to give her family fresh, organic eggs. (Outsiders laughed her off condescendingly, at times scornfully. It would be decades before "natural food" became American sophisticates' stylish cause celebre, and words such as "artificial additives" and "unrefined" entered common parlance.) I can close my eyes at this moment and conjure up the indistinct image (as glimpsed from my window, if I happened to wake before the alarm went off) of my mother in her maroon plaid lumber jacket on her way out to the barn, lugging in either hand an overloaded pail of scraps (one for the chickens, one for the compost heap). In the dark and smelly henhouse, she'd feed the hens and collect the eggs, dash over to the garden for some vegetables, rush home to make everyone's breakfast, then drive my father to his commuter train before racing back to get us all off to school.
From my mother's lips was often heard the refrain, "Hard work never hurt anybody," and throughout the time I was growing up (though I had only the most passing acquaintance with "work," much less "hard work") the echo of that line stayed with me, like a north star whose light I wouldn't need until years later, when my third child was born.
It wasn't just her familiarity with chickens, of course, that evinced my mother's pleasure (I wanted to hear the story over and over again) but her familiarity with humans, and human nature...and the nature of human mothers. Like most females (including me, who at that point was playing with dolls, not babies) my mother was well acquainted with the instinctive desire for children. And having experienced a long, hard wait after getting married, she'd gotten a taste of what it's like when the desire is not fulfilled.
Flossie, the story goes, feels "inferior," and Bossie "superior" - mirror images in reverse of one and the same blindness but it didn't take literary analysis sessions for me to know it was down-trodden Flossie with whom my mother identified, as would any reader, adult or child, of this long-forgotten book. As did I. In fact, it was Flossie the hen who started me dreaming of becoming a mother in an unimaginably distant future. She resonated with me - her sense of insignificance in a big, cruel, busy barnyard, and the idlyllic vision of a sweet, chirping brood to love and be loved by. (I member my mother tucking me in one time and exclaiming, How can you sleep with so many dolls!" I lay there, tense, as she started to count, but when the verdict came, "There are twelve dolls in there with you!" she kissed me good night and turned off the light, and didn't take any away.)
It speaks well of human nature that whoever wrote Flossie and Bossie could count on the fact that it would be the ugly one kind, onerous, and humble whom the audience would be rooting for. No matter how self-confident and accomplished a reader might be, The author (my mother said she had once been a famous actress, but her name has migrated, I suppose, to the same general lost-and-found depot where the cow's name is patiently waiting) could trust virtually any reader to be vulnerable and needy at the core. The soul remains unarmored.
So it was Flossie who stole the show, with her hesitant gait and her beady little eyes, her half-open beak and discouraged heart, deemed by her creator to personify our universal human tendency to think too little of ourselves, to grossly underestimate our importance in the world. But poor Flossie, she wasn't designed by her Creator the way we humans are: with the ability to seek her true importance, her true identity and thus find her way out of the void.
My mother learned to think little of herself, in both senses of the word. Some would say, learned too well raised in an age when children were to be seen and not heard, under circumstances of poverty and hardship whereby self-deprivation and self-denial were givens, no questions asked.
Is this to say that such a childhood, and the training it imparts, have little to recommend them?
On the contrary. If it was because at the age of ten, her suffering over the death of her father had to be stifled so life could go on...and because she did the housework (standing on a stool to wash dishes, until she was tall enough to reach the sink) and took care of her four younger siblings so my grandmother could work as a seamstress... If it was because she learned very young very, very young to think of others first, and shouldn't ask (and certainly not expect) anything for herself... If this is what made her into the person she was.. .the unbelievably giving, un-self-centered, humble, truthful, loyal, self-disciplined, open-hearted, idealistic person she was, a person whose awed appreciation for the wonders of the world never departed from her, even on the verge of death then who's to say that a culture which teaches children the value of self-fulfillment produces better human beings?
But I do have a complaint against the era and culture in which it was her fate to be born, and it's this: In spite of nullifying herself for the sake of her family, my mother somehow emerged from childhood without ever knowing that she was a good girl. Adults didn't tell her, so she didn't know. Life was hard, everyone had to help; parents in those days weren't inclined to give praise. So my mother knew she was nothing this truth she absorbed completely but there was no one around to inform her that she was a good Jew, doing mitzvahs and walking in the ways of God.
She was given half the truth. She fulfilled the Torah's teaching to be as dust towards all, but no one ever told her she was precious in the Creator's eyes.
To be more specific, my complaint is against Mrs. Lovelace.
Mrs. Lovelace didn't know that creativity also comes from God, a fragment of the Divine creativity that's implanted in us all. At first, I thought Mommy was saying "Miss Loveless." It wouldn't have been inappropriate.
A few years before she died, I was visiting my mother in L.A. and we'd been talking about the Our Lives series, of which this book is volume III.
My sisters and I had always known, from the time we were little girls, that writing was one of the best ways to make Mommy and Daddy happy. So if it was still my mother's approval I was after and it was - it didn't escape my notice that I seemed to get a lot of mileage out of Our Lives. Whenever I'd catch sight of her reading it, there'd be a certain light of interest in her eyes that I'd never quite won from her before. It was like hitting the jackpot.
She'd mentioned a few times how wonderful it was that all these women were writing, and my heart (and head) swelled. One day, to my surprise, she added, "I would have liked to write, too."
"You would have, Mommy? Really?" This took me aback. "You mean when we were little?"
"You wanted to write when we were little?"
"You did, Mommy?" It was as if a window had suddenly blown open. "That's amazing."
"What's so amazing about it?"
"Because I...just didn't know. I never would have guessed."
"Well, Daddy was the writer. He was writing about important things. Important for the world."
"But Mommy...you did write. And it was important to the world. It helped people." In 1988, her book about nursing my father back to health after his heart attack, Caring for the Healing Heart, was put out by Norton, a major American publisher, to excellent reviews.
"Oh. But that was about food."
I was shocked. "But that's your favorite subject!!"
"Well.. I wanted to write about other things."
This was like being told that we'd been living all along over a secret underground tunnel. "About what?"
For a long moment she was quiet. Then she said, shyly: "My life."
Then she told the story of Mrs. Lovelace.
It was the 1920s, and her sixth-grade teacher, Miss Loveless, gave the class an assignment, to write a story. Most of the kids sat around at their desks clueless, but my mother got busy, finished a story, and raised her hand. Miss Loveless called on her. Mommy stood up, read it aloud, and sat down.
Miss Loveless said, "Class, do you hear? That's how to write a story. That's just the way you should do it. When you come back from recess I want all of you to write a story like Eleanor's."
Out on the playground, one of her classmates approached my mother and asked if she'd help her write a story.
My mother said, "Sure! What kind of a story do you want?"
The child said, "I don't know."
"Do you want a story about a bird? Or a dog?"
"All right!" And my mother took out paper and wrote a story about a bird.
When she was finished, another child came up and asked for a story. Again my mother asked what it should be about. Lickity-split, the job was done.
Soon one kid after another was asking my mother to write a story, and by the time the bell rang to go in, she'd written around five of them.
Back in class, everyone spent time writing.
Then Miss Loveless asked who was ready to read aloud. She listened attentively as one eager volunteer after another (around five of them) read their stories. When all had taken their seats, Miss Loveless got up from her seat, rose to her full height, cleared her throat, and declared: "If there is a person in the class who wrote the stories we have just heard, would that person please raise his or her hand."
My mother froze.
Miss Loveless waited a few moments, then said: "I repeat: If there is a person in the class who wrote those stories, that person should raise his hand. Right now!"
My mother had started trembling.
"If the person who wrote those stories does not stand and identify herself right now, she has done a very bad thing - she lied! - and I'll call the police and they'll take her to the police station!"
"So then what happened?"
"I'm not sure."
"Did you stand up?"
"I don't know."
"You don't remember?"
She shook her head.
"You can't remember if you said anything?"
She shook her head. If Miss Loveless had been in the room, I would have.. .1 don't know what I would have done. Lucky for her that she wasn't around. "So then what happened?"
"I just told you. Nothing happened. I felt I'd done something criminal. So I never wrote anything again."
"Well, Miss Loveless was my teacher for two more years, at Girls' High School." She sat for a long moment, thinking. "I was scared stiff."
To return now to Flossie and Bossie, who when we last saw them were joyfully waiting.
After twenty-one days, both hens, each in her own nest (the Hands knew enough not to endanger Flossie's well-being by placing her within Bossie's daled amos), are alerted by small little sounds of peck-peck-peckings, and peep-peep-peepings.
Bossie's the first to see a wet little head poking its way out of the shell and she hops up onto the rim of her nest to see what kind of chick she's gotten. When all four or five have hatched (no flaws that she can see; she'll take a closer look later on), she congratulates herself on her excellent genes and figures that after this great accomplishment, she deserves a break. She tells her brood to stop all the cheeping for a minute and pay attention: she's been sitting and waiting for them for three whole weeks, and must go stretch her legs and get a bite to eat. They are to wait for her quietly and not mess up the nest while she's gone. She'll be right back, then they will have their first lesson in parade formation and the correct way to drink from a trough, after which they will get into line behind her and march in an orderly fashion, to be presented to the barnyard.
Meanwhile, over in the other nest, it's all celebration and exultation, as each little creature pecks its way out of the shell and finds he's looking into the overjoyed face of a tearful, blissful mommy, welcoming him kindly into the wide and wonderful world.
Bossie's children end up lonely and sad, thanks to their excellent education. Their mother is determined to prove her worth to one and all, and sees it as her chicks' mission in life to serve as feathers in her cap.
And Flossie's chicks? As you can imagine, they literally climb all over her. If she'd had any borders in the first place, she could forget about them now. Her loneliness is being extinguished, to her indescribable gratitude and endless delight.
But Bossie's children get wind of the fact that there's another way to live a parallel universe of kindness rather than fear and they start sneaking over to play with Flossie's children.
This enrages their mother, whereupon something else happens (here my memory of the plot starts to fade) things suddenly turn around, and before you know it, the author (this is where I as a reader became abruptly aware that someone wrote this, devising events from behind the scenes) has Bossie becoming humble, and apologetic! And patient and loving! And even worse, Flossie somehow becomes.. .good looking! I even remember the exact caption underneath an illustration showing Flossie and Bossie roosting smilingly side-by-side: '
'Flossie,' said Bossie, 'You're becoming positively handsome.'''
I realize now that the reason my memory of the ending is full of gaps is that I didn't like it. It bothered me. So although I reread Flossie and Bossie countless times, I usually skipped that part. It didn't satisfy my childish wish for everything to turn out happily ever after. I didn't think about what could satisfy that wish, but it wasn't this.
And what happened in my own story, when my third child was born?
Our first were twins, and my husband and I were overjoyed. Filled with gratitude for children (we were in our thirties), ecstatic to have twins...joy, joy, in every direction. We didn't care about borders, or going without sleep. We lived in a seamless world of babies and (cloth) diapers and crying and rocking. Nothing else mattered. It was obvious that the most important thing in the whole wide world were these two tiny babes.
We were Flossie. No time to brush our teeth? We laughed. Then the third came along, not long thereafter, and though my love for the three of them was a phenomenon bigger and more all-consuming than I'd ever known was possible, suddenly...love was not enough, and tiredness was no joke. No longer was night the opposite of day. There was no difference. Night became day and day became night and.. .then another came along. This was work. This was hard work. Hard work never hurt anybody?
I was becoming Bossie. Being a good mother didn't just happen naturally anymore. To do right by these children, I could no longer rely on my good instincts. I was forced to work not only in the physical realm, taking care of the babies but at the much harder job of controlling myself. The good mother and the bad mother were not separate, after all, but merged within me, as one. I'd been endowed with a volatile combination of godliness and animal self-interest, the impulse to take and the impulse to give. I was forced to join the universal struggle which distinguishes us from all other created beings, and separates us from the animal kingdom.
Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt"I, used to say that the most precious thing in all Creation is the yetzer hara (bad inclination), because without it, our lives would have no meaning. It's the unending, ceaseless struggle into which each and every one of us is thrown, and which in this vast and unknowable cosmos lends infinite significance to our evanescent lives. Whether or not we become parents, biologically speaking, it's this difficult, never-ending choice we must make day by day, minute by minute, between giving and taking, between transcending our egotistical borders or staying within the cag which defines and redefines our lives on earth, over and over again.
As my mother became increasingly ill, my sisters and I took turns staying with her in Los Angeles. One morning while making her breakfast, my mind was elsewhere, on something I wanted to write about her. I have no recollection now what that was only that I couldn't wait to get it down on paper. It seemed so important to me at the time.
She liked her eggs soft-boiled but when I started peeling off the hot shells, the eggs were hard, almost rubbery.
"Mommy, I'm so sorry! I overcooked the eggs!"
Lying quietly on the couch in the small room adjacent to the kitchen, once robust Mommy was so frail, by this point, that from where I stood, her form looked somewhat like a child's. I was the big, busy mother now, cooking.
By this time, even in summer her feet tended to get cold, so folded softly over them in a neat rectangle rested one of her favorite light-weight throw blankets, given her by my sister Andrea. (That same rectangle of brown plaid is here now, in our Jerusalem living room, folded over the back of my mother's rocking chair.)
She lifted her head an inch or two from the pillow, and with some effort murmured, "It's all right. Don't worry about it. Don't waste them."
I might have contested this, but really wanted to go write. I could have eaten them for breakfast myself. (I like them hard-boiled.) That way she wouldn't have worried about wasting them. Then I could have made her more.
Instead, I served her the hard-boiled eggs.
One of women's classic frustrations about housework is that it never lasts. You wash a floor, it gets dirty. Cook a meal and it disappears.
Whatever it was that I was so intent upon writing, and whether or not I got it down, those words could not have been more important in the grand scheme of things, nor proven to be longer-lasting, than the persistent memory of those hard-boiled eggs.
If, on the other hand, I'd taken three minutes to make them the way she liked them, the soft-boiled eggs would have been a joy forever.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes in Alei Shur:
Every person is obligated to know that he has importance. Not illusory importance that he himself creates, but rather, an importance with deep meaning.
Each person is a complete world. There has never been a person like him, nor will there ever be anyone like him. Me with my particular combination of qualities, and my particular forebears, and born in this particular era, in this particular environment. Certainly I have a unique avodah to perform, my own portion in the Torah, and all Creation is waiting for me to metaken my portion.
My avodah, that I cannot exchange with any other person in the world.
I was just speaking to my Uncle Bobby in Sacramento, my mother's adorable baby brother, and in the course of conversation asked if he remembered the name of Mom's cow.
"The name of her cow?"
"The one she had in Utah. Do you remember it, Bobby?"
"My mother's cow... Let's see..." I could hear him chuckling pleasantly. His voice carries just a hint of southern drawl. "You know, that was a little while ago. I'm eighty-eight, going on eighty-nine."
"Wasn't it something like Beula? Or Bertha?"
"Was that it, Bobby? Bertha?"
There was silence for a moment, then: "Martha."
"Yes. It was Martha." He was laughing that easy laugh of his. "Martha, the cow."
Judy Belsky says in her bio at the back of this volume that writers live twice: once in the living and once in the telling. So now we can say that the same goes for cows. In her wildest dreams, did Martha ever imagine that in the year 2004, Faigel's son and grandaughter would be recalling her name, and thinking of her fondly? The stories of our lives will echo through time, whether or not we ourselves recognize their significance, and whether or not we preserve some of their fleeting moments with words. To record stories of our mothers, and of ourselves, and our children — the children we have and the ones we haven't yet been given - is to forgive us our weaknesses, thank HaKadosh Baruch Hu for our strengths, and recognize the nobility of all the never-ending struggles. To write is to affirm that life is important...that my life is important, though its significance is far greater than our minds can ever grasp.
May we metaken our portions. All Creation is waiting.
SARA YOHEVED RIGLER
Victories of the Heart
My mother was an astounding woman of great accomplishments. She never went to college. She never earned more than a meager salary. She never dressed fashionably nor lost the weight she wanted to, despite a lifetime of dieting. She never served as the head of any organization. After marrying my father, she never worked outside the home. All her victories were victories of the heart.
Highly intelligent, my mother graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. She should have gone to college. She wanted to go to college. But the year before her graduation, her father Izzy, an immigrant from Poland who owned a dry goods store in Baltimore, suffered a major heart attack. He had to stop working. They sold the store, lived for a year off the proceeds, and waited for their daughter Leah to graduate high school so she could go to work and support the family.
College could wait, Izzy and Feiga told her. First her younger brother Marvin had to go to college, then medical school, then he would support the family, with a doctor's lucrative salary, much more than any girl even one with a college degree could earn.
She did it. She did it happily. She loved her parents. She adored her brother Marvin. She went to secretarial school with all the girls who couldn't get into college and quickly got a job.
Lucky thing she did. A year later the Depression hit. As bread lines formed, my mother brought home her salary, paid in "script not cash, which was used to buy food and necessities and pay her brother's college tuition. A temporary arrangement. In a few years Marvin would support the family.
Anyway, she would be married by then. In those days, women did not pursue careers for their personal fulfillment. Only women who needed the money worked. She dreamed of getting married, resigning her job, staying home and decorating a living room and icing bobka and cooking blintzes and kreplach, just like her mother.
She dreamed of having children, pushing baby carriages, knitting little caps and sweaters, just like all her cousins.
The Great Depression, however, was a spoiler of dreams. No one could afford to get married. At least not the dutiful, family-oriented Jewish boys Leah was interested in. They lived at home, worked, and handed their whole salary over to Mama, who dispensed it frugally to feed and clothe the entire family, and they stayed single, just like Leah. To get married meant setting up a new household, which entailed buying another stove, another icebox, a double bed, and squeezing a second rental payment out of a skin-and-bones salary. Or it meant, God forbid, to stop contributing to the family coffers altogether, which was unthinkable.
Except to Marvin. Shortly before his medical school graduation, he announced that he was in love and would be getting married soon. He brought his fiance home to meet his family.
Margaret was beautiful, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She came from a family of German Jews, three generations in America. They were not at all like the Rabinowitzes. They didn't speak Yiddish, didn't keep kosher, didn't usher in Shabbos with lighting candles and making Kiddush, didn't keep a separate set of Passover dishes and pots in a large barrel in the basement, didn't belong to a synagogue, and didn't drop pennies into a blue-and-white pushka in the kitchen for the sake of purchasing land in Palestine.
Margaret's family was American, and proud of it. Margaret graduated from Vassar. The Rabinowitzes had never heard of Vassar. Margaret adored the poetry of Yeats. The Rabinowitzes had never heard of Yeats. Margaret dreamed of travel, of culture, of a life of privilege and wealth. For Margaret, Europe meant the Louvre and Venetian canals. For Izzy and Feiga, Europe meant pogroms, from which Feiga had fled at the age of fourteen, never to see her parents again. Why would any Jew want to go back there?
It is not that Izzy and Feiga did not give their approval to their only son's match. They were never asked.
A month before the wedding, Izzy had a heart attack and died. Leah and her mother were left alone in an apartment in a poor section of Baltimore. Marvin and Margaret bought their first house in a town far away. Leah took a second secretarial job to support herself and her mother.
How did my mother feel about her sister-in-law? Surely she must have felt some resentment at the interloper who usurped her brother's future and diverted his income, which should have supported their widowed mother, into trips to Paris. Surely she must have felt a tinge of regret for the education she had relinquished in Marvin's favor, only to be regarded condescendingly by her pretentious sister-in-law. Surely she must have felt disappointment that she and her mother could not even eat a cooked meal in Marvin's house, for Margaret believed that kashrus was a medieval superstition, a primitive vestige of an outdated religion.
I can only conjecture about the inner battles my mother waged against a battery of natural, destructive emotions. The outcome of the battle, however, was clear even to my juvenile eyes. Who she was by the time I was old enough to notice, was a woman with no bitterness, no envy, no acrimonious regrets. Moreover, I never in my life heard my mother make any pejorative statement about Aunt Margaret. Nor let on, by her tone of voice or expression that she disapproved of her sister-in-law in any way. For me, to whom every petty insult is a casus belli my mother's victory on this front was nothing less than remarkable.
Decades later, when my parents, in their old age, moved from their suburban split-level house to an apartment and I helped then clear out the junk in the basement, I came across a carton of newspapers, carefully kept. They were a series from the Philadelphia Enquirer of 1941- I read them with curiosity, but could not understand why my mother had kept them.
The series started with a front-page Section B letter by a woman named Mary Jones. The letter eloquently, plaintively, described the plight of an apparently vast population of single women who had come of age during the Depression. By the time the Depression ended a decade later and people could afford to get married, the men in their thirties were marrying women in their twenties. This left the women in their thirties stranded on an island of singlehood, waiting to be rescued, but by whom?
Mary Jones's letter sparked a lively debate. For the succeeding several Sundays, the Inquirer printed dozens of responses, supporting or refuting Mary's claim.
I understood why my mother related to this topic. By 1941, she was thirty-one years old, past the respectable age for a girl to get married. She was pretty, with short black hair and dark eyes, a good conversationalist, a committed Zionist who had served as the National Secretary of Junior Hadassah, and a skilled amateur photographer. She was also I discovered by asking Mary Jones.
Not until three long, lonely years later did her cousin Zundel's mother-in-law set up Leah on a blind date with a forty-year-old pharmacist, never married. They met in April and married in August. "He is the most wonderful man in the world," my mother exulted in a letter to her cousin in Palestine, a carbon copy of which she kept for posterity.
In forty-four years of marriage, she never changed that opinion.
No one had ever told my mother that she should live for herself, so she lived for my father and for me and for her mother, who became disabled with Parkinson's disease. No one ever told her that domestic work was drudgery, so she reveled in it, cooking and baking and sewing and embroidering tablecloths that I, her liberated daughter, scorned as a mindless pastime, until she died, and I inherited the precious, every-stitch-laden-with-her-love keepsakes, my most treasured possessions.
My father, it turned out, was the only person who never disappointed her. I went off and did my own thing, searched for myself, found myself far away from home, pursued a career, did not provide her with grandchildren, nor call her to ask for recipes for her delicious but cardiological unhealthy dishes. Her brother Marvin, for whom she had sacrificed college, rarely called, never came to visit, and never contributed to their mother's upkeep But as for my father - the knight who had rescued her from the workplace and the scourge of singlehood - his armor never tarnished. Even when he was old and arthritic and hard of hearing, the sight of him entering a room lit up my mother's face.
In truth, she got very little of his attention. He worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, to support our family, his mother, and his mother-in-law, and to send his daughter to an expensive private college. He would leave the house at 7 a.m., armed with his lunch, lovingly prepared, in a brown bag, and return after 7 p.m., to find his dinner hot on the table. No instant foods, no TV dinners, no cake mixes ever trespassed into my mother's kitchen. She made every dish from scratch, flavored with love.
When I was a baby, my maternal grandmother Feiga, whom we called Nana, moved in with us. Parkinson's disease, in that era before wonder drugs, left its victims shaking and paranoid. Nana needed constant care, and could not so much as get up from a chair without help. My mother bathed her, combed her hair, dressed her every morning and undressed her every night. A few times a year, when the Pharmaceutical Association had an evening event, my mother would ask me to take care of Nana. I did it, albeit grudgingly, and the next morning would let my mother know that I didnt like the smell of decrepitude in Nana's room.
When nursing homes became popular repositories for elderly parents, friends kept suggesting to my mother that she put Nana in a nursing home. My mother would not hear of it. She did not consider her mother a burden. Her love was like a pool of water, making heavy weights buoyant and easy to bear.
When I was fifteen, Nana fell and broke her hip. Now it was impossible to get Nana into or out of bed without the muscles of a strong orderly. My mother, defeated, put her into a nursing home, visited every day for hours, although my grandmother, senile, was long beyond the point of recognizing her daughter.
After just one month in the nursing home, Nana died. I, an impudent fifteen, who did not learn the meaning of filial love until it was too late, thought that, after all the years of labor and care, my mother would be relieved. Instead, she was shattered, inconsolable. At the funeral, she could not stop crying, until the rabbi, in his eulogy, mentioned the gallant way my father had supported his mother-in-law throughout the years. At that point, my mother told me afterwards, she felt like standing up and applauding.
Somewhere toward the beginning of the feminist movement, I got it into my head that my mother was an oppressed woman, whose intellect and talents had been stifled, and for what? A husband who never took her out to dinner and an ungrateful child! I started a campaign to get my mother to enroll in college courses, to earn a degree, to produce something significant with her life.
My mother strenuously resisted my campaign; she knew what her life was about. Although my mother did not articulate it, she believed that the purpose of life was relationship. To her way of thinking, devoting one's life to acquiring anything money, degrees, status, "professional fulfillment" was to miss the golden opportunity life provides: to be in relationship. Relationships, my mother felt, provided all that a human being needs in both challenge and fulfillment; succeeding in each relationship was its own unique feat. Becoming a good daughter demanded different skills than becoming a good sister or a good mother or a good wife or a good sister-in-law.
When I was twenty-five, I thought my mother had wasted her brains on being just a wife and mother.
Now that I'm fifty, I wish I had devoted my younger years to marriage and children, as she did.
When I was twenty-five, I thought my mother was a sucker for giving so much to so many while receiving so little in return.
Now that I'm fifty, I see that unconditional giving is godly. I wish I had trained myself for such true altruism.
When I was twenty-five, I wanted to be like those who wielded political power.
Now that I'm fifty, I wish I was more like my mother, who wielded power over her own impulses and reactions.
When I was twenty-five, I thought I was superior to my old-fashioned mother.
Now that I'm fifty, I wish she were alive to read this.
L'illui nishmas imi morasi Leah has Yisrael.
Envy was really never one of the big ones. I've fought great battles against selfishness, laziness and greed. I have had my share of bouts with stinginess, moodiness, and, most often, a bad tongue. But envy never placed itself at the forefront of my battlefield. Rarely have I felt the tenacious grip of jealousy overtake me so, so that I could not and would not pull my mind and heart away from the joy I might have by owning someone else's possessions. Until yesterday evening Shabbos came flying into our house this week as it does every week, calling out to us, "Ready or not, here I come!" And as was the case last week, and the week before, and for many weeks before that, we acted with the same surprise (and screams) when we heard the siren. Thank God, for that last minute in which we stuffed the toys behind the couch, set up the Shabbos clocks and did a quick sweep. Trying to catch my breath, I lit the candles and then collapsed onto the couch. "Good Shabbos," I announced. "We made it (just barely) once again." Although I really wanted to lie down and fall into a deep and cozy sleep, my one-and-a-half-year-old had plans. So we went to visit our neighbor, Leah, whom we've become quite friendly with.
Leah greeted us warmly. We sat down on the couch and began chatting about this and that, and then suddenly I noticed, there on the table, two beautiful silver candlesticks. I studied them carefully, every now and then glancing back at Leah and nodding as she was talking about I'm not sure what. They were so detailed! So exquisitely designed. So, so, so shiny. My gosh I suddenly realized, an identical set of candlesticks are standing' table at home! Could it be? But they don't look the same. But they are...! Look, the same square bottoms, the same flow stems...but those are so, just so shiny. How does she get the shine like that?
Leah was asking me something about feeding cereal to her baby...but I was in another world. Could it be they're new? No, She's already married two and a half years. "Maybe you should switch to cornflakes," I answered. I mean I do polish my silver. But it never shines like that. You think she had her cleaning lady do it?
I was still in my trance when I realized my son had wandered into the bedrooms. "Oh sorry, Leah. Eli! Come back here, sweetie!" I went to retrieve Eli, passing the candlesticks on my way, hoping to get a closer look. Wow, I could see my own reflection! And then it all began to stir up within me. I have the same candlesticks...why don't mine look like that? How come...?
I came back to the couch and took another look around. Everything was perfect! Her table was perfect, her floor was perfect, the smell of her food was perfect, even her sheitel was perfect. She must be one of those....
I wouldn't want to be such a perfectionist, I tried to convince myself. Who would want everything to be perfect anyway, so rigid, so - just so? (Me?) But I knew I couldn't hide from my own feelings. I was jealous. I was jealous. Yes I really was. It was terrible. And then Leah began telling me how relaxing her day was. She and her husband had gone to the Kosel, then they took a long afternoon nap.... It kept rising. I thought I was going to explode. A relaxing Friday afternoon? A nap? Never. "This week I decided to get the kugels out of the way early, so I did them on Tuesday," she said with a giggle. Can I smack her? I probably shouldn't. Tuesday? Making kugels? I'm still cleaning up from Shabbos on Tuesday.
And then I looked back at the candlesticks, seeing my green face reflect back at me. They glistened and gleamed as did Leahs perfect white teeth. I couldn't handle it. I scooped up my son a mumbled something about my husband coming home, turned around quickly to thank her for the visit, looked past her with an envious gaze, then fled for my life.
We returned home for the meal and I couldn't have been in a worse mood to greet my husband and our guests. There were my candlesticks (they're brown!) on my table, their flames dancing wildly because of the breeze coming in from under the door that we never managed to fix. Leah would never have a breeze coming in under her door. I felt small and inadequate. I felt like a last-minute, absentminded, disorganized housewife with a brown pair of candlesticks.
I tried to behave pleasantly to our company, but my mind couldn't abandon the envious thoughts of Leah, her perfect home, her perfect candlesticks. I was ashamed of my candlesticks and even more ashamed at myself for feeling the way I did.
Later that night my husband asked if something was wrong, but I couldn't tell him. I suffered deeply from my own feelings of inadequacy; I didn't need him feeling that way about me, too. And plus, he would've tried to understand, but I knew he couldn't really. It was too much a woman's thing. I told him I had a headache and then felt terrible for lying.
After everyone had gone to bed, I sat by the table, trying to make sense of the mess I was feeling within me. Was I really that incompetent? Maybe I could ask Leah where she got the silver polish?
I watched as the last flame of the candlesticks flickered out. I closed my eyes and somehow, somehow, started feeling a little better, and then a little better.
I thanked Hashem for lifting me out of my worm-like state and allowing me to feel human again.
from The Mothers in Our Lives - online book sample chapters
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