My mother is telling a story I’ve heard before, but she tells it with such flair, such utter conviction in the truth of her words that, at thirteen, I’m mesmerized. She glances at me as we walk, ensuring my full attention. “This shicker [drunk] staggers out of a bar, squinting in the sunlight like he’s blind. He tugs his coat over his tuchis [ass] and staggers down the block. A shicker, but he’s singing ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ with this gorgeous voice.” She staggers, head wobbling in mock drunkenness. A skilled mimic, she seems to grow taller, broader, mysteriously masculine. Nobody pays attention; this is Brooklyn, in 1958, and there are stranger things to look at.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard the song,” she says. She closes her eyes with pleasure and hums the melody. “I followed him for blocks just to listen.”
“It’s a nice song, Ma,” I say.
She stops walking and grabs my arm, eyes burning with disappointment. I’ve missed her point. “Don’t you see? He was only a drunk, but he loved beauty. Why else would he sing? His soul longed for beauty.”
She’s never added this last bit before, and I’m embarrassed by her melodrama, the passion in her eyes. Then I understand: she’s speaking of her own longing for beauty, a longing that makes her life more difficult than I can know. A flush of sadness spreads over me, and I say, “I do understand, Ma.”
Satisfied, she lets go of my arm. We walk silently beneath the Broadway El, past the projects, past the cramped shops huddled together protectively. I examine everything with new eyes: the bleak windows, the cracked asphalt, the street-corner boys swaddled in cigarette smoke and bravado. I search for beauty.
We lived in a Brooklyn walk-up: three rooms of sunless windows, stained ceilings, hissing radiators, and clanking faucets that expelled an anemic trickle of water each morning. Yet my mother covered the walls with pale, garden-patterned wallpaper, sewed curtains on her old Singer, and filled the apartment with discarded remnants of elegance ferreted from junk shops along Manhattan’s Second Avenue. There was a scuffed but beautifully made oak magazine stand, an oil painting of a woman gazing into her mirror, a crocheted bedspread of delicate lace, four curved maple chairs that she’d refinished herself. She spent hours in those secondhand stores, plowing through old linens and dusty china in search of “treasure.” Success brought a flushed face, shining eyes, and an effervescent mood that lasted for days.
We had no knickknacks of the sort that cluttered other people’s homes; her art objects were selected for both beauty and practicality. Her greatest satisfaction came from discovering a first edition in a used bookstore, even if the book had been remaindered and forgotten. She kept her books on sagging homemade shelves that lined the walls of our narrow foyer. There were titles by Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane, and Agatha Christie, but it was mostly more sophisticated reading: Sholom Aleichem, Lillian Hellman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Steinbeck. My mother, with only a sixth-grade education, had acquired an immense vocabulary through her reading and could complete the New York Times crossword puzzle. She sat at the kitchen table Sunday mornings in the fleeting patch of sunshine, with the newspaper, a cup of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and a pen (the ultimate sign of crossword-puzzle self-confidence). Outside, bells tolled from one of the three churches nearby. My brother and I read at the other end of the table, grinning at each other whenever she shouted a word, followed by the triumphant scribble of her pen.
The foyer was home to my mother’s books but a place of exile for my brother and me. Around the time I was eleven and he seven, my mother began banishing us, singly, to the foyer without dinner in fits of unpredictable, unfathomable rage. Her volcano-like temper erupted on some internal timetable that seemingly had little to do with anything my brother and I did. We submitted quietly, knowing that protestations of innocence were useless.
Though only a few steps from the kitchen, the foyer was a different world, perpetually dark, as though night had laid permanent claim to it. After exiling me, my mother would turn off the kitchen light and read in her bedroom, while my brother read in our room. I’d pull the dangling chain that hung from the bare light bulb and sit with my back against the front door, raging silently at the injustice of it all until my fury subsided into resignation. Then I’d stand and search for something to read.
Over the years, I read every book my mother owned. In that claustrophobic space, where it was impossible to rest comfortably, I perfected reading as a form of temporary self-annihilation. Everything but the words on the page fell away. Eventually I slept.
The Yiddish Theater was another of my mother’s passions and a place of magic for my brother and me. Whenever she could save enough money, she bought three tickets, spreading them across the table on Saturday morning like a feast.
We dressed up: my blue dress that she’d made, my tight curls tamed with a wet comb; dark cotton pants and a white shirt for my brother, his cowlick smoothed with water and my mother’s firm hand. My mother wore high heels (in an effort to look taller) and a red dress with a black velvet collar, also homemade. With her perfect skin and short auburn hair, she always looked glorious. The only makeup she wore was a little scarlet lipstick.
On Second Avenue, we joined the long line outside the theater, its brightly lit marquee displaying the show’s title in Yiddish. Car radios flooded the street with the voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. Vendors hawked everything from knishes to umbrellas. Restaurant doors often stood open, and the pungent smells and assorted languages of Eastern Europe floated out. The weekend was a time when the difficult life of the working poor was concealed by the facade of a carefree existence. The three of us, swept up in the festivities, were suddenly sophisticates. I watched young couples — their clasped hands, excited eyes, and discreet kisses — and wondered if my mother missed having a husband. I decided she didn’t. There was something both deliberate and inevitable about her solitude.
One night we saw Molly Picon, a luminary of the Yiddish Theater, in Sadie Was a Lady. She made her entrance by sliding down a chute and then leaping to her feet. I was thrilled at this tomboy behavior, the rightness of it, because I always wore old jeans and a T-shirt, trying to be accepted by the boys in our mostly Catholic neighborhood, who called me “kike,” “Christ-killer,” and “poodle head.” Picon bounded across the stage and was met by a deafening blast of applause, people rising to their feet in the darkness like shadowy ghosts.
Men and women crowded the lobby at intermission, speaking a dizzying array of languages as they extolled the play, and especially Molly. Some, whose short sleeves exposed numbers tattooed on forearms, were the objects of covert, sympathetic looks. Strangers complimented my mother on her lovely, well-behaved children, and she answered freely in Yiddish. With our neighbors she was reticent, but here she laughed and even dared to touch an occasional arm. “Shain vi der lavone, pretty as the moon, this play,” she exclaimed to a couple who stood beside her. I couldn’t reconcile this lighthearted woman with the one who banished my brother and me to a dark foyer. Both personas seemed strangers to me. I watched her as if from a distance while I waited impatiently for the second act to begin.
Later, as my mother, my brother, and I walked to the subway, she taught us a song from the play. Something hummed inside her, resonating with the song. She, the master storyteller, was telling a story to herself, creating with consummate skill the joyous mother and theatergoer, habitué of this fabulous city. Her eyes danced and fearlessly met the gaze of strangers, who had no choice but to smile at her.
She bought us egg creams at the corner candy stand, with its striped awning. Sticky foam overflowed the glass, and I lapped it off my fingers. The brilliant lights and colorful people on the street seemed like another stage set, and I felt as though we were in a play ourselves. Those moments — the frothy chocolate soda, my brother’s contented sighs, my mother’s love evident in her smiles — were the closest I have ever come to bliss.
My mother had a natural beauty that could make men stare, but, ever practical, she got her hair cut at the corner barbershop rather than at a beauty parlor. She’d gone there as long I could remember. “For me, still the same price,” she announced, “even though everybody else pays a dollar more.”
“The closest you could come to a secondhand haircut,” I joked.
She ignored me and gloried in her common sense. She had no patience for women who spent a “fortune” with hairdressers. “I should pay somebody to fuss with my hair? No thanks, I’ll save my money for better things.” She went every six weeks to keep it neatly trimmed. I cringed whenever I passed the twirling red-white-and-blue pole and saw her in the first chair, in front of the big plate-glass window. I searched the street for schoolmates, whose mothers all went to the beauty parlor. I was already the neighborhood outcast because I was Jewish, had “French-poodle hair,” and didn’t have a father. I feared her stubborn frugality would increase my isolation.
My mother’s tiny body was lost in the big barber’s chair. Her high-heeled shoes twitched impatiently at the bottom of the long white apron. A line of bored men reading newspapers would glance up irritably at this woman who’d invaded their territory. She watched the barber in the mirror as he shaved her neck with his electric shaver. He spoke rapidly and stopped every few minutes to gesture passionately, scissors waving above her head. His blue eyes, shielded by thick glasses, met hers in the mirror whenever he made a point. After her head bobbed to indicate agreement, he pushed it back down, satisfied, and continued cutting.
Back home, she admired herself in the little mirror beside the kitchen sink. “That mamzer [bastard],” she said, “such a bigot. Hates the colored. Doesn’t care about Korea. So I don’t give such a good tip, but he knows haircuts.”
“But, Ma,” I protested, “you nod at everything he says.”
She turned to me in exasperation. “It gets you a better haircut if he thinks you agree with him. So what does it hurt if I nod? Big deal. It’s not like I could change his mind or something.” She assessed my appearance. “He says he’d love to get his scissors on those curls of yours! See how good he cuts.” She turned her head left and right to show me. I shuddered at a vision of my tight blond curls dropping to the floor.
Even with a haircut from her barber, I wouldn’t have had my mother’s striking beauty. I had fair, quick-to-burn skin rather than her exotic olive complexion. I didn’t know whom in my family I resembled. The few photographs of my mother’s parents were mostly blurred, and she maintained a stubborn secrecy about them, perhaps a legacy of the need for being closemouthed in the old country. The only thing she told me was that they came from a shtetl in Eastern Europe. When I asked where, she said, “What does it matter? All shtetls are the same.” Worst of all, she would tell me nothing about my father, despite my persistent questioning. I envied my brother, the product of a brief marriage to a gambler. Although that husband’s habit had left my mother scrambling for rent money, he was a kind man and a presence in my brother’s life two weekends a month.
Once, while searching for a pen in my mother’s drawer, I stumbled across two photographs of her as a young woman. In one she stood beside a tall, long-legged man, his face shadowed by a hat. I held the photograph up to a mirror and examined as best I could the blurred planes and dark hollows of his face, running my finger along the curve of his chin and then my own. The other photograph, her wedding picture, was cut in half: no groom beside the bride. Her face was an impassive shroud, eyes squinting into a hard, bright sun, lips tight, arms pulled protectively around her body. Did the excised groom’s face reveal the same trapped feeling of resignation? I felt the presence of that missing figure the way an amputee feels a phantom limb.
One Saturday, when my brother had gone off with his father, I confronted my mother with the wedding photograph, waving it wildly and demanding, “Who was my father?”
She smiled slyly. “You have no father. See? Only me in that picture.” She turned her back. I stormed out of the house and wandered around the neighborhood, so obviously furious the street-corner punks were afraid to throw kissing noises at me. I returned home to an almost sympathetic silence from my mother. She’d made chicken soup with rice, and we ate in front of the snowy black-and-white TV that she’d recently bought secondhand.
My mother and I got along better during my adolescence than we had during my childhood. I got my first summer job at thirteen and began working full time when I graduated from high school. We often walked together to catch the train for work. Although I didn’t earn enough to move into my own apartment, my meager income created a truce of sorts between us.
This uneasy peace vanished when I got engaged to a Cuban man from the neighborhood. I was twenty. He was twenty-one. I’d sensed in him a determination as strong as my own to make it out of the ghetto. She stopped speaking to me, swearing she’d sit shiva if I married that goy.
I pictured her doing it: dressed in black, the ripped armband, the mirrors covered, mourning her lost daughter.
“Go ahead,” I said.
We were married on Christmas Eve because my office was closed the following week, as was my fiancé’s college. The city was filled with cheer, streetlights decorated with bright holiday ribbons, lopsided pine boughs in windows. Street-corner Santas rang bells and pleaded for money. But the season’s joy was tinged with anti-Semitism. The day before my wedding, a co-worker accused me of “hating the Savior.” I was furious, but as the lone Jew in the office, I could only answer quietly, “Jesus was Jewish, and besides, I never met him. How could I hate him?” She glared and spent the rest of the day “accidentally” bumping into me or knocking papers off my desk. Some of my other co-workers took the sting off, however, with a wedding gift of towels. After work I couldn’t help but be enthused by the general festivity of Manhattan. At home I stood on a chair in front of our tiny mirror and tried to admire myself in my wedding dress: a white princess-style affair with enormous fake-pearl buttons, a secondhand purchase on Second Avenue.
I pinned orange-juice cans in my hair to straighten it, then went to bed and tossed the whole night through. The next morning, I applied mascara, brushed my hair smooth, and prayed for a day with no humidity. My mother had left the house early without a word, and my sixteen-year-old brother, temporarily staying with his father to avoid my mother’s fury, called to say he’d see me at the wedding. I waited in my dress and high heels for my husband-to-be. He picked me up in his cousin’s car and, pale and solemn, told me I looked beautiful.
At City Hall, during the exchange of vows, I looked around for my mother, hoping that she’d changed her mind. My husband, handsome in his dark suit, patted my shoulder. His family tactfully ignored my mother’s absence, instead congratulating us and making honeymoon jokes.
My brother whispered as he hugged me, “I tried to talk her into coming.”
“You never really thought she would, did you?” I whispered back.
He looked at me sadly, with his father’s face, and I longed to have a father of my own to give me away. Then it occurred to me that he already had.
The reception was a potluck dinner at my husband’s aunt’s house. We drank cheap champagne and ate rice and beans, plantains, and pork roast. The little kids danced wildly to old Cuban records, and my brother chatted with my husband’s cousin, on whom he had a crush. My husband and I kissed again and again beneath a sprig of mistletoe while the guests cheered and hooted. Outside, the first major snowstorm of the year had begun.
Just before we cut the wedding cake, there was a firm knock at the door. My husband’s aunt answered it. There stood my mother, a blue coat over her red dress, golden hoops in her ears, snow glistening in her hair like tiny diamonds. Her beauty lit up the dark stoop. She smiled as though missing my wedding had been merely an oversight. As my husband’s aunt ushered her in out of the cold, my mother turned and gestured. Four kosher caterers strode in carrying trays of steaming knishes and kishke, kreplach and tzimmes, meats and relishes. (All of it would be wasted because the food was alien to my husband’s family, and we were already full.)
With an air of aristocracy, she cleared off a table and motioned for the caterers to set the food down. She stared at the trays thoughtfully, then rearranged them, placing a small vase of flowers in the center. It was suddenly an elegant feast.
“Where did she find the money?” I whispered to my brother.
He shrugged, stepped forward, and hugged her. She held him tightly, as if for support. Then she flashed my husband and me a brilliant smile and hugged us too, though she stiffly held her body away from mine. “Mazel tov,” she said loudly. My throat knotted when I glimpsed the steely anger in her eyes. She moved through the small group, telling stories of my childhood and charming everyone, all the while ignoring my husband and me.
When we returned from our brief honeymoon, the refrigerator in our basement apartment in Queens was full. A set of antique silver candlesticks, shined to an elegant gleam, and a cut-crystal vase filled with dahlias adorned the table. The landlady told us that a beautiful woman claiming to be my mother had arrived the previous day with “a surprise for the newlyweds.”
It would be three years before I saw my mother again. She’d played mother of the bride, but refused to be mother of the wife. I often called just to hear her voice: “Hello, so who is this?” she’d say. When I answered, “Hi, Ma,” she grew silent, but she never hung up. The silence stretched across the boroughs, and I clung to the receiver, once again the child exiled to the foyer, surprised by how much I longed for her.
During those three years, the war in Vietnam exploded, and my brother enlisted. I worked so my husband could complete his engineering degree. After he graduated, he got a job as a junior engineer at Grumman Aerospace, and I became pregnant with our first child. I sent my mother a letter telling her I was expecting. She mailed me a batch of spotless second-hand baby clothes, without a note.
We finally saw each other on New Year’s Day. My brother had been killed in Vietnam, and I insisted that we go to his funeral together. My husband and I drove to her apartment. (A friend was watching our three-month-old son.) My mother answered the door already wearing her coat and hat. Her face expressionless and white, she quickly marched down the stairs, leaving no possibility that I might hug her. She was silent during the drive, silent at the cemetery. It was snowing, with a fierce wind that bit our cheeks. I refused to cry in front of the full military guard. I wanted instead to scream the rhetoric I’d used at antiwar demonstrations. The traditional salute of gunfire split the frigid Long Island air. I smelled the gunpowder, pungent and raw, and thought, Guns to commemorate a killing — only in the military. The newly dug brown earth was an ice-crystalled heap beside the deep wound in the ground. Around us, dark trees slumbered beneath the snow. Thick gray clouds dimmed the failing light. My mother’s hands were clenched into fists, her face a chapped red mask with trembling blue lips.
When the last piercing echo of shots had vanished and only weeping could be heard, a marine removed the flag from my brother’s coffin and presented it to my mother. She dropped it to the ground and stepped over it. The dismayed marine said, “The flag,” and knelt to retrieve it. He wiped off the snow and held it out to her again. She shook her head and answered as though spitting, “Shmatte [rag].” He didn’t understand and looked around helplessly, outstretched arms still offering the flag, but my mother left without looking back. She glided between rows of tombstones and disappeared into the back seat of our car.
We were silent as my husband drove, a curtain of snow falling so heavily that the windshield wipers could barely keep it at bay. Although my husband cranked up the heat, I shivered uncontrollably. I relived all the times my mother had refused to feed my brother and me; times when exile to the foyer was too mild a punishment and she locked us out in the tenement hallway, where we huddled together, our backs against the apartment door; times when she moved between us as though we had ceased to exist. I never spoke to her at such times, but my brother would plead, “Ma,” and she would look around the room, her eyes never resting on him, and say, “I hear a ghost.” He would look down at his body as though he doubted his own corporeality.
Now this disastrous war had transformed her words into a kind of prophecy. I was too exhausted to be angry. Glancing at her emotionless face, I felt nothing but pity. I could only imagine what remorse and grief she must have been experiencing.
She refused to stay at our apartment, so I walked her to her door while my husband waited in the car. He hadn’t forgiven her for her disapproval of our marriage, and I felt caught between them. When I tried to hug her, she kept her arms at her sides, but she allowed me to take her hands. I was afraid that she would retreat once again into an angry solitude. She was my only living relative, my last link to my brother. I looked into her eyes and asked, “See you, Ma?”
She nodded. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
After the funeral, she became a part of my life again. She and my husband made an unspoken agreement to ignore each other. With startling attentiveness, she courted the affections of her first grandson and then the second, born a year later and named after my brother.
Now there was a new brittleness to her beauty, a fragility in the sad curve of her lips. The eager light in her eyes was replaced by a somber resignation. Still her temper would flare unpredictably, and I monitored her moods to prevent my children from being caught in her conflagration.
My husband and I bought a house way out on Long Island. I had been opposed to the isolated location, but my husband had insisted it would be better for the children, and I’d finally acquiesced. In between visits, my mother sent her grandsons cards posted with secondhand stamps. She worked in a corporate mailroom and had developed a system of quickly examining each envelope to see if it had any stamps that hadn’t been canceled. If it did, she took that envelope home with her and steamed the stamps off, carefully drying them on frayed terry-cloth towels that covered every available surface. Once they were dry, she’d sort them by face value, then place them into small boxes, also pilfered from the mailroom. Her envelopes were a crazy quilt of mismatched stamps, beautiful in their disarray. The postman looked at me quizzically the first time he delivered one. I smiled and told him, “My mother collects stamps.”
After that, he greeted the boys with “Something from your grandmother” whenever one appeared.
“Here,” she’d say each time we visited, thrusting a box of stamps at me.
“Ma,” I protested, “it takes forever to glue them on. I’d rather buy some.”
She turned my hand palm up and laid a few stamps on it. “I’ll give you the magnifying glass so you can see how beautiful,” she said. “Miniature portraits, bits of world history you can put on your letters and send to friends.” Something in me warmed to her recognition of beauty in everyday, utilitarian objects, and I leaned forward to kiss her cheek. Embarrassed, she stepped back and asked, “You understand now?”
I nodded. “I understand, but I still don’t have the time.”
She lifted them from my palm and dropped them back into the box, tsking at my stubborn refusal. “Use them,” she said. “Poor people can’t afford to waste anything.”
“Nothing except time,” I said, but went home with a couple of boxes in spite of myself.
My mother liked Long Island. She thought the ocean beautiful, the play of trees against sky poetic, the jagged boulders majestic. She wanted me to plant a flower garden, but I was too busy raising children and keeping house. The isolation I felt living there, as well as the vast cultural differences between my husband and me, had taken their toll on our marriage, and we divorced.
I began attending college part time. I hoped that my struggle to make it as a single parent might encourage my mother to have more empathy for me, and that her infatuation with her grandsons and Long Island would forestall her impulsive outbursts of anger. One morning, however, after she had spent the night, she exploded because my older son put his foot on a kitchen chair to tie his shoe. “This is what you teach your children?” she screamed. “No respect for anything!”
At that moment the furious child I’d been, now newly abandoned by her husband, took over. “Get in the damn car!” I yelled at her. My hands shook so badly that I could barely zip my sons’ snowsuits as they wept in terror. My mother was, for once, unresponsive to her grandchildren. I strapped them into their seats and gunned the idling motor, spewing clouds of dark exhaust into the air. My mother threw herself in beside me with her little overnight bag half open. My hair was uncombed, my boots unlaced, my jacket left behind. On the ride to the train station she screamed at me in Yiddish, shouting of my unworthiness, my insensitivity, her words too rapid for me to follow. I screamed back, my voice shrill; nothing remained unsaid. My sons were silent in the back seat. When we arrived at the train station, I threw open the car door and shouted, “Wait here!” at their white, frightened faces.
She ran to one side of the platform, and I ran to the other. We howled at each other across the abyss of the track while embarrassed commuters looked away. Finally the train roared in, its cars hiding her, the screech of the brakes drowning out our screams.
Back in the car, I pulled out, tires slipping in the old snow. We must have looked like mirror images of each other, my mother and I, shouting from opposite sides of the track. I wept at this hysteria I could not eradicate in myself.
After that, I drove to Manhattan once a month so she could see her grandsons. She hugged them with obvious joy, leaving me bitter about how undemonstrative she’d been with my brother and me. The four of us walked the city streets. The boys were thrilled and fascinated by Second Avenue, and eagerly anticipated books, knishes, and cookies. I followed behind as she chatted with them. “Look,” she said, pointing to the curving tops of old buildings, small flower boxes rife with color, or some particularly clever store-window display. “See how beautiful.” They nodded obediently.
Afterward, I drove her back to her apartment, which now resembled a library stocked by a demented librarian. Books had claimed more and more space, tall stacks of them with flower-bright dust jackets, like the columns of an ancient ruin.
“Ma, there isn’t room to put a coffee cup down in here,” I said one afternoon.
She smugly replied, “So, from Second Avenue they cost maybe fifty cents, twenty-five if they’re a little ripped. You need a book for college, smart girl, you come look here, and I’ll bet you I got it. Don’t shake your head; you love a bargain! You’re my daughter, after all.”
Amused by my mother’s triumph at having cheated the great industrialists of the publishing world, I said, “Who’s denying it, Ma? I’m your daughter” — not only in the spectacular overabundance of books I bought myself, but in the moody temper that I now had mostly under control.
Then one day my mother called to tell me she had colon cancer and needed surgery. I gasped and fired off questions faster than she could answer them: “What do you mean, colon cancer? When did you find out you had cancer? What exactly is this surgery? Who’s your doctor?”
Finally she interrupted to ask quietly, “You want to come?” I took a deep breath and lit a cigarette with trembling hands. She heard me inhale and laughed shakily. “Don’t you know smoking causes cancer?”
Her voice quavered, as did mine when I said, “How could you even ask if I’d come? Of course I’ll be there.”
“So you’ll stay in my apartment overnight and leave the boys with their father. It’ll be a little vacation for you.”
Her minimizing of the situation astounded me: “a little vacation.” When I hung up the phone, I wanted to cry but couldn’t. My mother had cancer, and I’d had no idea. What was wrong with us? Other people didn’t live this way.
I sat beside her the night before the surgery. A June heat wave had the hospital air conditioner laboring. The loudspeaker echoed down the corridor as if through a cave. A procession of crutches, wheelchairs, and shuffling feet passed by the door to her room. My head hurt. I was nauseated by the acrid smell of disease.
My mother lay in an enormous hospital bed, swathed in sterile white sheets, head resting on pillows wrapped in crackling plastic beneath their cases. Her dyed auburn hair was gray at the roots, and her skin was sallow, her beauty now almost ethereal. She shifted weakly, glanced at me, then looked out the window. My chest tightened at the sight of how tiny she was, no longer able to disguise her vulnerability. I thought of the tremendous burden she’d borne, raising two children alone in the forties and fifties with only a sixth-grade education. Her determination to survive was a legacy from countless tenacious ancestors. I wanted to tell her it would all be OK, that I loved her, but I couldn’t. She needed her impenetrable wall to get her through this crisis, and were I to be openly emotional, her fragile defenses might collapse. Emotions passed over her face like clouds in a windy sky. She struggled to sit up, pushing carelessly at an intravenous tube. I tried to help, but she waved me away. Her question came out of nowhere.
“Do you remember the whip?” she asked through parched lips.
Something inside me flinched.
“I never hit you,” she whispered.
A buzzing in my head grew louder. You have no idea what she’s talking about, I told myself. But I did. In my mind I could see the cat-o’-nine-tails tacked to the white plaster wall of our Brooklyn apartment. Even as an ancient child-fear swept over me, my adult mind raced through the possibilities. It seemed unlikely that she had ever used it; I had no physical scars. I struggled to remember, but I was a swimmer swept under by a wave of the past, praying to be washed ashore in the present.
Finally the stale hospital smells and the crackling loudspeaker brought me back. I saw the sorrow and regret in my mother’s eyes and recalled her fundamental compassion for others. I decided: no matter where she’d acquired the whip, she’d used it only to frighten us, never to hit.
I took a deep breath and said, “No, Ma, I don’t remember.”
Then, another memory: My mother, enamored of European films, combed the newspapers for cheap weekend matinees. We all loved movies, the soft darkness and the brilliantly lit screen revealing lives to which we could never aspire. Once, when I was twelve, she took us to an Italian film. My brother and I opened our small boxes of candy as the lights went down and the screen came alive with color and motion. “Look how beautiful the countryside,” she whispered to us as the opening credits rolled against a backdrop of magnificent scenery. “How green the trees, and the sun, so bright and gold.”
Ten minutes into the film, my tooth began to ache. I put my hand over my jaw and tried to ignore it, but the pain worsened into a steady, relentless pulse. Desperate, I leaned over and whispered, “My tooth hurts, Ma, but I don’t want to leave.”
She turned to me, the lights from the movie playing over her face, and struggled to decide what to do. Finally, she whispered, “Put your cheek on my shoulder to keep it warm, like a heating pad. See if that helps.” I hesitated, but she patted her shoulder and nodded. I slowly lowered my cheek against her. Almost shyly, she put her arm around me, as though darkness made this contact acceptable. Her starched blouse left a crease in my cheek that I later wished were permanent, a memento of the afternoon.
The scent of Shalimar, warmed by her body, enveloped me. I grew dizzy with the intimacy and settled deeply into the curve of her arm, like a cat. My brother turned at the faint noise, his box of candy rustling. His eyes widened at what he saw. Then her other arm lifted, and he slowly rested his cheek against her shoulder. We sat like that through the whole movie.
The nurse tapped my shoulder. “Time to leave,” she said. She adjusted the tube in my mother’s arm. “You’ve got a big day tomorrow,” she told my mother cheerfully, as though it were a celebration. “You need your rest.”
My mother looked at me. I saw fear beneath her mask of bravado. I took a deep, shaky breath and kissed her forehead, breathing in the lingering scent of the Shalimar she’d dabbed on early that morning. Her eyes filled with gratitude, but she didn’t reach for me. With the nurse around, neither of us seemed able to say what needed to be said.
Finally I told her, “I’ll see you after the surgery. Don’t give them a hard time. They probably all read beautiful books.”
She nodded. “I’ll find out.”
I wandered through the fluorescent labyrinth of hospital corridors to the stairs. At ground level I pushed the door open and walked out. The street was alive with noise. Exhaust fumes mingled with the pungent aroma of Spanish food from a restaurant next door. Throngs of people rushed by: couples holding hands, mothers carrying sleeping babies, small children skipping beside their parents, solitary men and women lost in their own thoughts.
That night I tossed in my mother’s bed until I finally fell asleep at three in the morning. I woke at 5:30 a.m. and called, as the doctors had suggested, before she went into surgery. She was groggy from anesthesia, and I couldn’t tell if she heard me when I said, “Ich hob dir lieb” — I love you.
I showered and walked to the hospital. The streets were mobbed: commuters rushing to work, children with book bags on their way to the last days of school, rumbling sanitation trucks. I dodged automobiles and buses filled with sleepy passengers, passed rumbling subway entrances and the windows of coffee shops, where people waited to buy coffee and buttered rolls. When I arrived at the hospital an hour after I’d set out, the nurse was standing outside my mother’s room. She put her hand on my shoulder. Her voice broke as she told me that my mother hadn’t survived the surgery.
Is there an age at which you are no longer permitted to miss your mother? This longing, it seems, should fade with the years, yet as I’ve grown older, I’ve missed her more. I missed her when I received my master’s degree. I missed her at my second wedding. I missed her at each son’s graduation from college, and at their weddings. When my younger son made a film, and the audience rose up and applauded, I was back at the Yiddish Theater with my mother, with her whispering, “How beautiful,” in my ear. When my older son’s CD reaped good reviews, I saw her close her eyes with pleasure, humming the melody and insisting, “He has neshomeh [beauty in his soul].” I heard her brag at the birth of each of my grandchildren, “Such a shaineh maidel [beautiful little girl].” My throat clenched when I handed my grandchildren back to their mothers, but, ever my mother’s child, I hid my tears.
I once believed it was the dead who were exiled, but now I understand it is the living. We long for what we can never have again. We are exiled from our loved ones, children banished to the foyer. I sit here with a solitary volume of our convoluted past, a story told from a single point of view. I wish the story were happier, the characters’ lives easier, the pages more filled with beauty. I wish the daughter and her mother had gone to the movies one last time before the end. I wish that when the mother asked from her hospital bed, “Do you remember?” the daughter hadn’t denied it, but instead had leaned over and whispered, “It’s OK, Ma. It was such a long time ago.”