I write for a magazine in San Diego. It’s a glossy production with a wide range of topics that attempts to connect with the city’s diversity from holidays and theatrical shows to important political issues of the day. It’s left leaning and I like that. I am pleased to be listed on their roster of writers. And when the major Jewish holidays arise, the editor invites me to produce something on Rosh Hashana, Chanukah and Passover.
For the last four years,I have contributed articles that deal with family, but I actually worried about this year’s request. After scouring my mind, wanting to add something new, cull a deeper memory from my treasure trove of family gatherings, I felt I had reached the end. But as luck would have it, we met with a cousin of Howard’s who commented on the role of water in Passover.In our reunion, she mentioned the role of water at Passover.” Water?”, I query. “ Yes”, she retorted, surprised, amazed I hadn’t considered it before. She enumerated, “Moses was found in the water…the ten plagues where water is turned to blood…the Red Sea parting so we could escape from Egypt…travellers thirsty in the desert, that according to the Midrash, are sated by water from Miriam’s miraculous well…we dip our greens in salt water…and we wash our hands often with water during the Seder…”
I demure at her wealth of examples, for my mind had always fastened on the symbols on the Seder plate, not water. A new perspective refreshes my thoughts, uniting the past, the present and the future . For even now I reflect on the wondrous bounty of water here, especially when we returned from some spots in Africa and Asia: where in most places in North America ,one can turn in a tap, and miraculously water flows and you can drink or bathe without fear. Once you experience water that comes out of a faucet, not gathered in the street or in a rain barrel, you never again take it for granted, marvelling at the luck of feeling it stream over your body or the availability of sippping it when thirsty.
And this new thought did in deed trigger fresh ideas although the old standbys of our family gatherings, freedom, the diaspora, but especially- again- the food set me writing so I found I could in deed build an article for the magazine. Yet rereading my words, I was struck by the absence of the central figure in the holiday: my mother. My mother, dead tired from the preparation and with no help at all, still greeted us with a smile at the door, took the babies from our arms, hugged us with “ Yom Tov”, returned to the kitchen, set the table with the Rosenthal China ( used only only holidays), served, cleaned up, played with the children, mentioned her aching legs, bid us good night and dragged herself to bed. My mother the queenpin, both emotionally and physically, was not mentioned in my piece.
And I wondered why.
It has been more than five years since her passing and most days she is the angel on my shoulder, chatting with her, hearing her views, receiving her insights, both good and bad. But as we move away from the trauma of a beloved’s death in time, the picture becomes more balanced, and we see both the good and the bad of our parents. In deed I marvelled that as my mother grew older she could cast my grandmother, the unyielding matriarch, terrible and repressive to my own mother’s growing up : as a woman herself overwhelmed with caring for every landsman from Poland off the boat whom my grandfather encountered on the street and dragged home for shelter and food.
My mother’s observations of her mother had softened as she herself aged, comprehending the burdens my grandmother must have endured, torn from a position of wealth and esteem in Europe to the place of a servant here in Canada: bereft of parents, cousins, familiar cousins, with no welcoming landscape of home. Arguing to reinstate what I had experienced myself such as choice indictments as “ Send her to commercial” or her harsh disregard of a African violet on (Grand)mother’s Day and my mother’s own longing for an education, a maternal cuddle or simple word of praise, I rejected her kind words of my buby. My mother’s renewed revisionist thoughts perplexed me, but perhaps she had fashioned a vision to sustain herself.
For me, it was the opposite as although my mother had sustained and supported me in so many ways, I felt angered by her casting me as “pretty” to my sister’s “ smart”, polarizing us from our earliest days into enemy camps, both of us hungering even now for the opposite’s description: my deep need to prove I was more than my façade, yet obsessed with my outer appearance. My mother’s words dictating and describing me burned into my sense of self.
And perhaps worse yet, her passing on of humongous fears and paralyzingly worries that went beyond the Jewish stereotype of the Jewish mother. And yet I’m fully aware of her terrible life, first as an abused daughter, then the wife of a polio victim, unaided by family, who like The Little Red Hen, she often quoted, “ did it herself.”.And yes, she did it all herself- and did it incredibly well. A rooster who soothed our feathers and created a world of safety. And as I write this, I feel the guilt of betraying my mother ,for she achieved so much, always lamenting her own lack of education viewed as frivolous and stupid by her mother, considered the family’s ugly duckling, so much taken away in her own life.
And yes, as a mother, I know you never get it right: that the overhanging grapes of your past can shade and sour your soul and just as you rage at your mother, you castigate yourself for the errors, omissions, lost moments you wish you had seized or alternately let go. But as you age, you reflect on, acknowledge your life, regret or embrace, and you realize how central a role your parents, your guardians play and it is so easy to blame or alternately laud them, praising or damning them to the extreme.
And because I loved my mother so deeply and knew the central stabilizing place is not just Passover, but our broken lives, I was amazed that in my piece for the magazine she was no where to be found. This surprised and bothered me immensely. Where was mummy?
Was I finding the balanced picture, locating my resentment, rationalizing, empathizing with her as an older woman? Had I lost her in the swell of tumultuous memories?
Or maybe, more accurately, in the Passover that is coming soon, I knew in my heart of hearts, she would be absent, not present to hold it all together, to bind us by her presence, to reach out at the door and hug me close, kissing the dear heads of the children and grandchildren waiting in a knot for her welcome. And my subconscious knew what my conscious mind this year could not accept.