I’ve been motherless since June 10, 1998. I was 49 years old when my mother died, just short of my fiftieth birthday six months later. She had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer that had metastasized just about everywhere. She refused treatment and was dead six months later. My daughter was nine so she has vivid memories of her Nana. For that I am grateful.
Most of my life I didn’t think I had been born to the right mother. When I thought of her then, especially when I was a sneering teenager, all I saw was her reticence, her timidity, and my father’s devotion to keeping her protected, almost naïve. She was shy, undereducated although she spoke German and Yiddish, and could finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle within a day, mostly. She insisted on purchasing the Encyclopedia Brittanica when all of our neighbors had bought the easier and more pictured World Book, so that she had the references she needed to complete the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday puzzles. Neither my sister nor I were allowed to touch the puzzle, so neither of us learned the tricks although she would call out to me: What’s a five letter Spanish word for ________?
My mother met my father just a year after her father died and my father had just lost his best friend to pneumonia. They were eleven and twelve years old, both sad, forever changed by death, and became grammar school sweethearts. My father went off to college in the middle of the Depression. Years later when my parents were getting ready to move from my childhood home, we found the letters he had written to her then. My mother remembered them as love letters, however, my sister and I laughed reading his accounts of flirtations with a beautiful older woman on the train back down to West Virginia, or how he played cards all night and won a car in a hand of Texas Hold’em.
My mother followed all of the rules, no matter how stunting and repressive. She was a virgin on her wedding night, already 23 years old, having known my father for all of those years. She worried about what other people thought. Cross your legs at the ankles not at the knees. “They” were always passing judgment and she was terrified of what “they” thought. Yet as a child whenever my mother told me to do something, I would resist, put my hands on my hips, and ask: What’s the law that says so? I negotiated everything with her, and years later when I had a daughter, I let her negotiate everything with me, too.
My mother didn’t think she had taught me anything about standing up to authority, but of course, she had allowed me to stand up to her. I understand now that she allowed me risk and challenge because she had always wanted to live out her wilder instincts, instincts that I surely inherited from her although my mother had spent a lifetime suppressing them inside herself. She stood up to my father, a lawyer himself, when it came to me, but never for herself. At home she was mush.
And when she was dying, when she lay in my arms, drifting in and out of morphine dreams, I realized that throughout my life, she had allowed me to show her how strong I could be, playing out to her who I wanted to be. But strength alone is nothing; she also taught me the value of kindness, rooted always in compassion and forgiveness. And it is that strength and kindness, now, in the middle of Midtown Manhattan during the novel corona pandemic, that is getting me through the confinement, the anxiety, the responsibility for caring for an ill husband who is disappearing before my eyes from Parkinson’s Disease. Our marriage had fractured before he took ill. We had often lived separate lives. Now when I have to manage the finances, pay the bills, coordinate the complexity of grocery deliveries, cook all of the meals and clean up, wash the clothes in the communal laundry, clean the apartment, always disinfecting, take out the garbage and recyclables, sort the mail, arrange for his virtual physical and speech therapy, set up his telemedicine appointments, deliver his cane or walker when his legs are weak, find the words when he cannot finish a sentence, now that combination of strength and kindness, gifts from my mother, are keeping me strong and kind.