Mom’s Place, Part I
My mother died in 1945, stricken by a massive cerebral hemorrhage. It was an unacceptably vague diagnosis by today’s standards but the only one given to me at the time. I was not quite ten years old. She was forty-two, and her absence poked a hole in my life that has never been filled. Day after day I miss a woman I don’t quite remember.
My stock of childhood memories springs mostly from the moment my father touched me awake one Saturday night in March. I sat up rigidly in bed as he held me tight, his face slippery with tears.
“Mommy’s gone. Ah, sweetheart, she’s left us . . . she became very sick and left us. We have to be brave.”
My memory fails as I try to recall what else he said or how that shocking night passed. Not forgotten, though, was the agitated behavior of my parents’ siblings and their spouses. They hovered nearby, and clutching soggy, balled-up handkerchiefs carelessly swiped at swollen eyes and inflamed noses. Some clustered together, others stood alone, but all were 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.” “Can Mom handle the kids?” “They’ll be too much for her.” “I spoke to Edna this morning. She sounded fine.”
Their angst generated foreboding far greater than any spoken words conveyed. It was hard to be brave.
My parents were at a friend’s home playing bridge that night. At some point, my mother collapsed and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. She died several hours later.
I had been sleeping at Granny’s, our much beloved and frequent babysitter. Granny, my mother’s mother, had now lost two loved ones in a bitterly concentrated four-month period. Her husband, my grandfather, died in November 1944. In March, my mother, her oldest child, passed away. How does one endure that?
My mother’s funeral was on Monday morning in a small, drab Jewish funeral home, its narrow chapel crowded with family and friends as well as others unfamiliar to me. Everyone dressed in somber colors: the men in dark suits and ties, yarmulkes and tallithim (four-cornered, fringed, prayer shawls worn draped over the shoulders), and the women in black dresses and hats. I imagine I was surrounded by loved ones but I don’t remember speaking to any of them.
I do remember the seating arrangement. Spaced in exact formation the rows of pale brown folding chairs marched all the way from the front of the chapel to its back wall. Their precise order warned against comfort of any sort.
My father, my older brother Stanley, my grandmother, and I sat in the first row facing my mother’s open casket. Aunts, uncles, and cousins sat close by.
I glance around. Daddy is sitting next to me. He is crying, bent-over. Head in hands, his body speaks his sadness. I’m frightened and see only him. Finally, he straightens up, turns, finds my grandmother’s eyes, and nods. I hear his hoarse voice,“It’s time, Fanny.” Someone, I don’t know who, nudges me to stand and join the tiny group walking toward the casket but I shake my head and mutter, “No.” I am stubbornly reluctant to move from my chair. That ‘someone’ grabs my hand and gives it a tug. I get up and take my place with my newly-downsized family: Daddy, Stan, and Granny. My eyes don’t leave the floor (Do I quickly peek at my mother and just as quickly block what I see? Perhaps.).
Once back in our seats, we watched as Rabbi Jacabovitz mounted the few steps to the podium. He held his prayer book in one hand. With the other he adjusted his yarmulke and rearranged his tallith. Then, the Rabbi began the Orthodox Jewish funeral service.
He was a short, thin, heavily-bearded man who did a lot of ritualized swaying. Well-known to our family, his singsong chanting seemed filled with heartbreak. Muffled crying, whispers, and the soft movement of people fidgeting in their seats characterized the rest of the morning.
When the service was over we drove to the cemetery for the burial but those details are lost to me. I do know that, afterwards, we went back to Granny’s small one-bedroom apartment. It was bursting with people who shared our grief. Shiva had begun and would last for seven days and six nights.
Later that same afternoon some compassionate woman sent my brother and me to the corner grocery store for a quart of milk – most probably to remove us, at least briefly, from that place of sorrow. For typically noisy, energetic children, the one-block walk to the store was unnaturally quiet and overlong. Although my brother was four and one-half years older than I, we were close if not always openly affectionate. On this day, Stan held my hand.
Secure within our togetherness, I waited for him to end our misery, to somehow magically rub away the past hours. But he could not. My fun-loving, attentive brother had become withdrawn and oddly flat in spirit.
I searched for words of relief, but a profound stillness had settled over us. In the end, buffeted by fear and confusion, I said, “Stan? We’re just having a bad dream. You’ll see. When we wake up, everything’ll be okay again.” It was a childish, well-worn idea but the best that I could do. To tell the truth, I believed it. But while I was an immediate convert to my own artless words, my brother was not. He remained mute, not cheered by my prediction.
And my Mother? Stan had his memories of her, his “Mom’s Place.” Mine? They continue to linger beyond my reach.
See Mom’s Place, Part II, 7/1/2010 post
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Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein