I don’t remember my mother. She died suddenly one Saturday night in March while my parents were at the home of friends. Her name was Edna. She was 40 years old. I was 9.
My dad woke me late that Saturday night—I had been sleeping at Granny’s, my mother’s mother.
His arms tight around me, his face slick with tears, Daddy said, “Ah, sweetheart, Mommy’s gone. She’s left us … she became very sick and left us … we have to be brave.” I had never before seen him cry.
Still half-awake and failing to understand how my mother would have left me, I climbed out of bed and, in my pajamas, began to wander around my grandmother’s small apartment. Aimlessly eavesdropping my way through the relatives that had gathered that night, I soon translated my father’s word gone into the shocking word died.
I don’t recall much about the rest of that night except for the agitated behavior of my mother’s four siblings and their spouses. Clutching soggy, balled-up handkerchiefs, my aunts and uncles carelessly swiped at swollen eyes and inflamed noses. Some clustered together in Granny’s living room, others stood alone in her hallway but all appeared wrapped in pain. Even now I hear their voices thick with tears: “What’s Max going to do? Who’ll take care of the children? He has to work.” “Has anyone called the Rabbi?” “I can’t believe it … a cerebral hemorrhage !” “I spoke to Edna this morning. She sounded fine..” “Can Mom handle the kids?” said one aunt.” “Oh no!” said another. “They’ll be too much for her.”
Their angst generated foreboding far greater than any spoken words conveyed.
In that burst of trauma, most memories of my mother disappeared: our daily interactions were erased, my early childhood years were blotted out and her mothering, for me, ceased to exist.
Before long, my young mind also recognized that something else had changed. I had become unique among my friends. They all had mothers.
No member of my family and no one I knew talked about my mother. Our life seemed to pick up where it had left off before her death and I followed that pattern. I never spoke of her and never told anyone that she had died, that I did not remember her. It was as if my mother’s death were a clandestine event, a secret kept from everyone including me.
But I wondered. Where did those 9½ years go? How did they vanish? Who could I talk to? Did I willfully forget my mother? Was I angry with her for leaving me, abandoning me by dying? Was I somehow at fault? Or was I embarrassed because I was different from my friends.
The hidden questions persisted until I accepted the fact, much later in life, that my loving dad, in awakening me from a child’s sleep on that terrible night with tears of grief streaming down his face, had unwittingly driven the memory loss that so befuddled me over the years. Finally … finally, I got tired of me analyzing me. Finally, I accepted what I could not change.
I have photos of my mother holding me in her arms, a smile on her face and I look at them now and again. They trigger few memories. I don’t remember if she picked out my clothes in the morning or took me shopping or if she told me bedtime stories or kissed me good night. All that time lost, all that living and loving obliterated..
It wasn’t until years later that I started questioning older family members about my mother. I did not question my father; I thought it would be too painful for him.
My aunts, my mother’s sisters, talked of her affectionately. Aunt Bea, my mother’s youngest sister said simply, “She was my best friend.” Aunt Florence said, “When you left for school in the morning, your mother would stand by the living room window, hold back the curtain and peek out, just a little, and she’d watch as you walked down the street till you were gone from sight. She adored you.” Aunt Florence went on, “After your mother’s funeral you sneaked into her closet and pulled off a button from one of her dresses. You clutched it in your hand for most of the seven-day Shiva.” Aunt Sylvia, my mother’s sister-in-law, said, “Your mother was wonderful. I loved her so and miss her to this day.” David, a young cousin on my father’s side of the family, told me that his mother looked up to mine and smiled each time she talked about her.
At any rate, my fact-finding tour was over. I was too late.
There is very little else I know about my mother. Except for two solitary sparks of recall:
It’s summertime. I’m five years old, wearing a white, short-sleeve cotton blouse and navy blue shorts. My mother is at my side in a small curtained-off cubicle at The Emergency Hospital, a freestanding health care facility on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A neighbor’s German Shepherd had bitten me. I lean against her as I stand on a shiny metal examining table, and I feel her arms around me holding tight, her hand gently turning my face away while the doctor swabs out the bite on my right thigh.
End spark one.
Spark two reminds me that my mother did her own more tender form of swabbing when she cared for me after I fell down some concrete stairs and scraped my back.
Again, it’s summertime. I’m seven or eight years old and standing on a chair in my friend Carole’s kitchen. She, too, is standing on a chair. Our two mothers are dabbing at our scratches with clear warm water. Carole and I had tumbled down her front porch steps and landed hard on the concrete sidewalk.
End spark two.
That’s it. The ability to remember the first part of my life, that part anchored by the pivotal role of Mother, had all but vanished except for those two episodes. They are forever in my memory and hint at the loving warmth I received when she was alive.
Yet I consider myself lucky. While the gap created by my mother’s death was never filled, my dad, my big brother Stan and my grandmother took over the essential job of mothering me. They had much love to give and they gave it without pause.
I remember all three of them in radiant detail. Dad, my loving single parent, came to school for all the parent/teacher conferences. He hovered over my brother and me and rushed home from his hardware store in downtown Bridgeport if either one of us became sick. He took us out to dinner to celebrate our birthdays and he cooked our meals when we ate at home—no gender stereotyping here!
Stan, 4½ years my senior, took his position as second-in-command seriously. Based on his personal knowledge, he taught me the relevant information of the times while judiciously amending all to suit the ears of his younger sister including NEVER KISS A BOY ON YOUR FIRST DATE.
And Granny? She was my superb and willing babysitter in-chief during the day while Dad was at work. Granny was wondrously soft, surprisingly strong and invariably at my side or in the background whenever one or the other was needed.
They are unforgettable.
Even so, none was my mother. She was not only stolen from me by death but removed from my memory as well. And I am puzzled: had my mothering been poorer because of that loss? Did my two children receive all the motherlove that they needed and deserved? I don’t know. But I’d like to think so.
In gratitude for what I can recall, once a year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I light a candle in my mother’s name along with all the others I have loved and lost. I recite the prayers and when I come to her name I whisper, year after year, the same several sentences: ‘Mom, I remember your sisters telling me their special stories and talking about you with love. And I remember your hands holding me, touching me, loving me. Those few memories of you empower me.’
As the years pass the good memories continue to move me forward. I keep them close: the two brief vignettes about my mother, a woman I keep missing but don’t quite remember; my dad’s notion that joie de vivre exists even under tragic conditions; Stan, my protective older brother who held my hand all the way; Granny whose love never faltered; and, above all, my two beautiful young daughters, Valerie and Stacy, both lost to cancer years ago, who convinced me that their grandfather’s love of life was, indeed, genetic.
Time races by. My inconstant life urges me to adjust, to connect, to persevere. Though I am anchored to the past, I have learned to savor the present. My loved ones taught me that.