The world glimmered with a weird sheen as I stepped past my door that morning. Sounds reached my ears as if underwater. Horns honking, children laughing, it all seemed surreal, almost sacrilegious. I had almost expected it all to stop, for the world to cease turning, and for everyone just to focus on me, on us.
Strapping my children into the car I heard my own voice from somewhere far away, fielding curious questions as they bounced around in childish oblivion.
My childhood home was filling up with people, both familiar and strangers. all were crying, many sobbing out loud like children. All that is, besides me of course. The sobbing made me uncomfortable, so I quickly exited the room where they had congregated and walked out into the street.
There was a line of women forming next to the car that held the coffin. One by one they were instructed to tear their outermost garment and put a safety pin in to hold it together. While they waited they screamed for her to forgive them. They said they should have done more for her. I looked at the coffin and imagined her inside, white and still, unable to come out. I couldn’t fathom how she can just stay there, ignoring the children who were calling her name. How she could have just left them, she who would always say they can’t even eat dinner without her. Who would feed them until they were teens, dress them when they were well old enough to do so themselves, and cater to their every whim.
I just stared at the box until it was my turn. Mechanically I ripped the sweater in half. I had chosen it at the last minute over something else I had in mind. Dutifully, I put the safety pin on and stepped away.
Dazed from two nights without sleep and a morning without food, I leaned on a parked car for support. Someone came to take my kids away, although I didn’t mind their presence at all. they were solemn and still as grownups, looking wide-eyed at the proceedings. Still, I didn’t resist.
I allowed friends to put their arms round my shoulder, though it didn’t really feel like the comfort it was meant to be. One moment the sun beat down on me, and the next one I was suddenly cold. The speeches seemed to go on forever. Something about her being modest and virtuous, a lot of tears about how she was a communal sacrifice for our sins, and a promise that her offspring will perpetuate her legacy. The boys each got their turn at the mike. The crowd wailed loudly as the nine-year-old stepped up and repeated what the man with the white beard, crouching next to him, told him to say.
Then it was over. Her brothers lifted the coffin on their shoulders, and carried it a couple feet trailing the car. Then they put it back into the trunk, and the men all got onto the bus for the two-hour drive to the cemetery. I trailed after the women, washed my hands in the basin outside, then went inside to eat some eggs and ash, sit on a low chair, and listen to a lot of clueless speeches from strangers who know nothing, nothing at all, about me, and about my relationship with the woman who had given birth to me, and who is now gone forever.
From when I had my first conscious memory at the tender age of two, until the day I watched her on her last journey, I alternated between pretending she was the mother I needed her to be, and viewing her as the wicked witch in my life story. The truth is that she was neither. Like most people in this world, she had her shortcomings, her blind spots, her scars, and her coping mechanisms. Like many she was damaged, and therefore could only parent with the shattered pieces that remained.
In the beginning, she struggled to have children. So she embarked on a regimen of treatments. Then I was born, all of 5 pounds and I became her world. Suddenly she was someone. She had something to show for herself. She was a mother.
It was when I learned to speak that she realized I wasn’t an ordinary child. I was gifted, precocious, and had a comeback for every word spoken to me. I both frightened, and fascinated her. I was a source of angst, as well as pride. On the one hand, she was afraid I would best her, as so many others had done, and on the other hand she knew I was an opportunity for her to shine. For the first time in her life, there was something that would make her stand out among the rest. She was no longer just plain old her, always in the shadows, overlooked. Now she was the mother of the young prodigy, the little girl who spoke like an adult, and grasped concepts that should have been way beyond her age.
She knew I was special, and therefore by extension so was she. So she found a way to both ease her fear and make the most of my unique abilities. She complained about me, and spoke about my talents in the same breath. She vented about how I was just so obstinate and won’t listen, and then she’d go on to repeat some brilliant thing I said.
She got what she craved. Sympathy and admiration, but most of all recognition. She was finally someone, in the eyes of the world, but more importantly her family. As more children joined the family, I continued to be her dual source of pride and mock pain. None of my siblings ever quite filled the niche like I did. Sure, she’d complain about how this one nagged, and that one won’t eat, and the other was just so attached to her apron strings, but there was no need to up her game to that extent when she had me.
She made sure there was always something going on with me, something to report. there were specialist appointments and school meetings, new discipline tactics, and parenting books. If there was nothing actually going on then she would “suspect” something was going on so she could sigh in pain and frustration at this huge challenge God had given her.
When I think back to my early years, they are marked by confusion. I had so many questions. Who am I? What is wrong with me? What made me so different? What made me bad? Am I bad because I’m smart?
I wished to be like the other children, my cousins and classmates, who ran wild and free, who weren’t so busy thinking all the time, and who didn’t constantly have to show off to the grownups. See, while my cousins played, I was called to the adult table again and again. They asked me lots of questions and chuckled at my responses. Then, when I would demand food from the adult table, or I would talk back to them when they reprimanded me, they would get angry and call me a smart-aleck.
It was all so baffling. After all, I was only in preschool. As smart as I was, how was I to understand these conflicting rules of the grownup world? That children were supposed to show off how smart they were and yet they had to obey the adults without question.
I remember the moment it entered my conscious mind, that she may not be the kind of mother I can share myself with. I was thirteen years old, at the age when our brains begin to mature rapidly and our hormones are on fire. It was my first summer at sleepaway camp, and I was beginning to discover my emotional depth. What I now can see as a gift felt like a curse. While my contemporaries were having fun, cheering and playing sports, I was awash in an existential crisis. Every day felt like purgatory, and I longed for a savior, someone who would understand, who would share the way I view the world. It wouldn’t be her. It could never be her. But I was yet to realize that.
In those days of handwritten letters, I wrote her one describing some of my pain. On the surface, she responded like any mother would, with loving concern and care packages. It was only a week later that she casually mentioned in a phone conversation that she had shown the letter to several people.
I can still feel the shock of betrayal that coursed through me in that moment. When I realized that I cannot even tell her how she had hurt me since she saw nothing wrong in her actions. After all I, and by extension anything I expressed, belonged to her. Isn’t that what children are for?
That letter wouldn’t be the last of my writing that she would get to glimpse. I would go on to show my pieces to her in desperate hope for approval, or later on she would rifle through my things when I wasn’t present. Nevertheless, it was on that day that the first bricks were laid. Bricks that turned into a wall, and then, a fortress. The fortress would keep her, and most other people out. more importantly, it kept me safe from the relentless onslaught of attacks that followed throughout my teen years.
The best way to describe my life between the ages of 13 to 19, would be one continuous battle. Those years shaped the rest of my life. They turned me into a warrior, someone who doesn’t back down when faced with a challenge, both circumstantial and man-made. Given the choice, I never would have opted to gain strength in this way. Alas, this is the way it had to be. I was left with both deficits, and tremendous gifts from those battle scars.
Of course, while the war raged on, I didn’t know any of this. I was in survival mode, trying to get through another day. To do that, I often had to numb myself to the pain. I had to turn into someone cold, and heartless on the outside. I could not afford to show weakness.
In those years I barely cried. I tried to. I so needed to let the pain out, to release some of the tension inside, but I was frozen. I couldn’t let go.
This hard facade of mine only served to further my mother’s agenda. She reveled in the misery her cruel daughter was inflicting on her. She wasn’t particularly discreet about it either. Masochistically I would eavesdrop on her conversations, as she lamented to all who would listen to her. That included not only her family and friends, but my younger siblings as well. To this day I cannot break down the barrier that separates me from them. I cannot comfort them in their time of grief. For in that moment, they joined her on the other side. I know it isn’t fair. I know they were but children, pawns in a game they didn’t know she was playing. But our protective instincts can be really strong sometimes, and I haven’t yet found a way to bridge the divide.
Salvation came in the form of engagement to my dear husband. As with everything else where she was involved, my engagement period was fraught with tension. I ended up doing most wedding preparations on my own, whether it was because as the bad daughter I didn’t deserve more than the minimum, or because I didn’t want her input. When I found my apartment I knew I wanted it to be a safe space, all my own. So I didn’t request her help in setting it up. I did whatever I could by myself. The results were far from the dreamy new bride perfection most kallahs desire. I, however, was still way too busy surviving to even entertain such dreams.
All throughout my engagement she would tell her audience how she is so afraid that I will not be able to sustain a marriage. She would ask my father over and again how it is possible for me to run a decent home.
I allowed her to call all the shots where the wedding itself was concerned. My parents tried to save money in whichever ways they could, and, since I didn’t protest it ended up being a very basic affair. I tried to be a good girl on my wedding day. I even asked her for forgiveness while she was getting me ready for the chuppa. “If you give me nachas, all will be forgiven” she replied in a tear-choked voice. My own eyes were dry. They stayed that way as I encircled my chassan seven times, and then allowed myself to be placed at his side. I stuck out my finger, felt the ring slip on, and the recitation of harei at. Various kibbudim were given to my grandfather and other distinguished guests. I was then instructed to step on the glass, and joyous shouts of mazel tov broke out.
Soon I found myself alone with a man I barely knew. He did strange things, like compliment me, and pour me a glass of soda. We talked a little bit. He smiled at me. Then they were knocking on the door, calling us to take pictures.
Before long, we entered the hall for dancing. I dutifully danced with my mother, and every first, second, and third cousin who approached me. I responded appropriately to all the well-wishing, and kept the smile on all evening. Finally it was over, and it was just the two of us, in our very own home.
For the first time in my life, I could lay down my weapons. Yet, as every soldier knows, the aftermath of war can be grueling. I didn’t know about trust, about love. I had no idea what it felt like to be safe, to let my guard down. I couldn’t respond to his praise. Innocent requests felt like attacks. I lived in fear that my mother was right, that I could not succeed at having a healthy marriage.
She was over the moon when I got pregnant. To me, it felt like I had finally done something right. I would give her a grandchild. She would be so proud and happy, and I would finally be the daughter she wanted. Indeed, at my daughter’s birth she was the proudest grandmother around. She bought a ton of clothes, and it was a given that I recuperate at her house. I didn’t protest. I was so overwhelmed by the birth, and all my new responsibilities, that I allowed her to run the show. At the kiddush that we paid for, she invited all her friends and basked in the glow of the multitude of well-wishers.
We seemed to reach somewhat of a truce over the next three years. I visited often, and we spoke on the phone almost daily. I asked for her advice on childcare, and household management, and she gladly shared. We even slept over on occasion. In those days I would hear back through the grapevine that she was really surprised at how well I was managing in life. I tried not to dwell on how that made me feel.
Then one day, completely by accident, I stumbled across an online support group for adult children of emotionally abusive parents. I didn’t think I belonged. Emotional abuse seemed such a harsh term. My mother wasn’t one of those crazed women I had read about in novels. She didn’t go on rampages, have severe mood swings, or lock me in a closet when I misbehaved. She was, in fact, a doting mother by any standard. She custom decorated my room, and always had my lunches prepared the night before.
Still, as I read the testimonials of others on the group, it was uncanny how much I had in common with them. My conflicting feelings of loyalty and hatred towards her. My feelings of worthlessness growing up. My difficulties in forming healthy relationships. As much as I didn’t want it to, it all made too much sense.
So I stayed, and eventually began to share. The effects were not long in coming. Everything I thought to be true was unraveling. Once, I realized why I had always thought I was so bad and defective, once I was able to trace those assumptions back to where they belonged, they fell apart on their own. I was suddenly free to explore who I was as a person. The world became a brighter place, full of possibilities. I was also filled with helpless rage, at the woman who had me fooled all these years, convincing me I was the one at fault, when I was but an innocent child. Without consciously realizing it, I began to pull away. My visits and phone calls became more sporadic, and the sleepovers ceased altogether. The repercussions were not long in coming.
One look at my husband’s face and I knew that something was very, very wrong. At first he wanted to protect me from the truth, but eventually the story spilled out. She had called up a relative with a vicious lie about me. My heart stopped. I could not wrap my head around it. He made her call and rescind, which she did through a proxy, but the damage was done. I didn’t hold my breath waiting for an apology. I knew none would be coming. I abruptly ceased contact of any sort.
It was brutally hard at first. So many times I wanted to pick up the phone and ask her for help or advice but couldn’t. I was now truly on my own. I went through all the stages of grief, sometimes going back and forth between one and the other. Eventually I reached an uneasy acceptance. I tried to push her to the very back of my mind and pretend she didn’t exist. It worked for a time. Until cancer struck.
Once again, my world was upended. I was in shock, then I was angry, then I cried. It was so unfair that she got to be the victim. again. I needed her to be healthy so I could keep her at a distance, so I could continue doing what had worked until then. What kind of vicious monster stays angry at a terminally ill parent? Apparently a monster like me. The next two years were a rollercoaster of calm periods where things seemed almost normal, and tests with devastating results. The cancer grew resistant to every type of treatment that was attempted.
One day, she called my husband crying hysterically. She said she couldn’t bear the fact that her own daughter wasn’t speaking to her. She wanted us to resume our relationship. He told her she needed to apologize. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me she had agreed, on condition we met personally.
With my heart pounding in my ears, I allowed my mother into my home, after more than three years of almost no direct contact. We sat down to talk. I was reticent at first. I figured I would just accept her apology and be done with it. But she pressed on for more. So I talked, and while she tried to protest at first, she then conceded and said she had been wrong. To this day I’ll never know if she was sincere or just really desperate to resume contact. Nevertheless, it was a huge step, one that I didn’t know how to swallow. After she left, I allowed the tears to flow, not really knowing what I was crying about, but it felt good.
Over the following weeks it became clear that while she was making a sincere effort, she would never fully grasp how her actions had impacted my life. It was simply beyond her. I knew she didn’t have much time left, and so I resolved to just let it go. In my heart, I forgave her, and let the anger seep out of me slowly, like a deflating balloon.
While I still couldn’t bring myself to speak with her on the phone much, I texted her often and we visited frequently. There were family get togethers that I allowed myself to enjoy for the first time. Overall, I allowed her to think that all was amazing between us, the epic reconciliation she longed for. She was overjoyed and let the entire world know. I no longer cared.
On a balmy spring morning, I decided to do what I hadn’t done in six years, pay her a visit on my own, without the buffer of my husband and children. She was mostly bedridden at that point. I sat near her bed and we discussed her various symptoms, the weather, and my childrens’ wardrobe for the summer season. I offered her the salad I had bought special for her. After three hours I had to go home to wait for the children’s’ buses. I bid her farewell, resolving to come back the following week.
One that day, on the following week, I sat on a low cushioned chair, eating eggs sprinkled with ash, and listening to the ramblings of well-meaning strangers. I remained mostly silent throughout. Later in the afternoon, as I was discussing something with my husband, just the two of us in a room downstairs, I grew frustrated at some inane detail that escapes my mind. I began to cry then, a deluge of sobs sweeping through my body and leaving me spent. Still they would not abate for quite some time.
I cried for the little girl of so many years ago, who thought she had a mommy to protect and nurture her, but was then abruptly left out in the cold. I cried for her innocence that was snatched away much too soon, leaving in its place dark cynicism and gaping wounds. The moment I realized she would never be a mother to me in the true sense of the word, was the moment I had first lost my mommy. Now, more than fifteen years later, I was officially an orphan.