Today my friend said to me, “You are going to be haunted by your mother”. And she smiled. She meant a good haunting. She recalled how her own mother had left her a treasure of a loving letter and her eyes filled with tears. This woman is a relatively new friend, of say, 5 years or so, so I was touched by her quiet and personal words.
Almost immediately after my mother died, I realized I would feel differently about the loss of each of my parents. With my father, more than twenty years ago, I longed to live among the happy memoires I held of him, but when I did, it made the wound much worse. With my mother, it has been a constant ache, thinking I’ll pick up the phone and tell her something that might make her laugh. I forget that she is no longer here.
That is the problem with being haunted: it hurts. It hurts because you miss someone you have truly loved and there is pain that only through memories you will see or feel close to them. Without the actual presence of a body that will respond or absorb your interactions, your thoughts float, not attaching themselves to the one to whom you have directed them.
In the days after her death I put together a eulogy that might capture her for the sake of her funeral. They were “outside” words because how do you explain what the lift of an eyebrow, a smile or a warming arm around your shoulders really means? The other words are in my heart as I think of her constantly.
Here is the eulogy I gave at my mother’s funeral. It was a difficult speech but one that I believed honoured her and her memory:
I have wrestled with the idea of speaking to you today because if you knew my mother, you would know what a particularly private person she was. She never boasted or pretended an upper hand. She kept her thoughts to herself.
However, Howard has encouraged me to share with you some thoughts and my cousin Elaine Levine wrote “that Eve ( my mother) was the family historian, and the truth teller. So I have decided to tell some of my truths about my mother.
But first, let me say this: these are my truths and every person on earth is sweet, sour, kind, harsh, simple, and complicated –so much more than mere words can impart. It has often been said that words can illuminate as well as obscure.
My mother began her life as Chava. She came from Poland at age 5 with her mother Layal, sister Sura (Toby) and an Aunt, arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She had once described to me an interrupted picnic in Poland that ended with her father scooping her in his arms as he ran from Cossacks on their horses. She adored her father Joe and in my mind’s eye I can see them in our living room waltzing , him humming a song.
Her comfortable life of fur coats and dolls In Poland was transformed when she landed here. Like the displaced writer,Eva Hoffman, in Lost in Translation, she was given a new name she never liked, Eva, She preferred to be called Eve,. She was often chased by children screaming “ Green horn, tin horn, popcorn, five cents apiece”. Yet the buoyancy, the ability to overcome was already evident and she would tell us that she would climb to the highest rooftops on Markham Street and sing – in a voice that caused a radio show producer to go to her mother and ask permission to put her on air. My grandmother said No.
Not only could she sing, she exceled in many areas, but these were not the best of times for girls to be allowed to prove their excellence. Throughout her life, my mother regretted her lost opportunities.
On a moonlit cruise, she met my father and as he laid eyes on this lithe lovely 18 year old, he determined he would marry her and he did. Until the day he died, he adored her.
Their life began well but when he contracted polio, she once again, became the force that had to overcome and subsume her own ambitions. He was in the isolation ward in Riverdale hospital for 9 long months. They did not know if he would survive. Every day, by bus, she would deposit me on Atlas at my grandmother’s and then head out to visit him, admonished by her stern mother not to stop either way.
Her aim was to make our lives as normal as possible. She carried my father’s heavy tools to the car, she a mere 100 or so pounds. She sat alone at night, fearing he had fallen in the snow- and sometimes he had. She was partner, bookkeeper, cleaner, store manager, cook, but always treasured mother… My first words through the store door after school were, “Mummy…?” and she would always appear with a smile to greet me.
My sister once confessed that she thought my mother a princess . My thoughts of her were more utilitarian. I thought of her in neat shirtwaists, as she bounced downtown by bus every Tuesday morning to Eaton’s College. She smoothed out the corners of our life, even ensuring ballet, art, piano, and Hebrew lessons at the cost of a new winter coat for herself. She never complained. And at lunch time, we would fish for nickels and dimes from her worn red wallet that my father had made her in the hospital She held us all together.
I had no complaints, imagining that our home behind our store was equal to any mansion in Forest Hill.
There was little time for her. Her attempts to put a cake in the oven were always interrupted by a customer coming into our store, staying too long: those cakes raw or burnt.
But Fridays even before they moved to Alamosa Drive, she managed to create the perfect fricassee that complimented a perfectly roasted chicken. The smells of those dishes permeated our small living space for days. And before vacations, she would jump from bed before we all rose, make the chicken and wrap it in a blanket to keep it warm. We would stop roadside to devour the carrots and potatoes soaked in Heinz tomatoe sauce, cooked along with the chicken. It was yum. And on my birthdays she insisted on having her entire family over, this time a turkey and a cake from Patisserie Francoise. I resented sharing her-and my special meal-with her relatives that only appeared for suppers. In the evenings, she sank into bed, exhausted.
Life is so much more than chicken and fricassee. With my father, she created a home of love where music mattered, where my parents supported and encouraged my sister’s genius in piano and were so very, very proud of our accomplishments. It was a home where honesty and ethics were the driving force behind every single decision. Above all else, you had to tell the truth and behave like a mensch. I have always wanted to emulate my mother’s child rearing model.
Life changes . My mother told me that when my father passed away she cried so much, there were no tears left. She continued to miss him intensely. She said that in 1996 when she was hit by a car, she had heard his voice telling her to get out of the way, thus, saving her life.
As years passed,my mother’s constant running, moving, bouncing, constant motion was stripped away and she resented her lack of mobility.
But on Saturday at Tim’s ( Horton), I found her an affable companion. As always, I could confide anything to her and she would safeguard my secrets. Most times we were girlfriends, gossiping and sharing stories. She was my support in the worst of times as I drew deeply on her strength and wisdom.
At first, her needs were few: a supportive arm, a smiling face, a welcoming bed. She insisted on staying in her own apartment and controlling her life as much as she could. Even at the very end, as the world became increasingly circumscribed by the inability to walk, her fragility and the need for caregivers, she made her own decisions, not pleased by our objections.
What can you say about a life whose cornerstone is love and caring? Whose husband and children, grandchildren and great children value and understand that you are the tree from which they have sprouted.
Erich Fromm once said of a mother’s love, “The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.”
I believe my beautiful, wise, brave and intelligent mother did that for Wendy and myself.
My truths and memories now belong to all of you along with your own.