Author of Breasts Don't Lie

Posts tagged ‘jewish’

“Now?” “No not yet.”

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When anyone asks me to describe my childhood, I have a stock answer. “We had a childhood written by Stephen King starring Cruella DeVille and Captain Ahab.” That usually shuts them up. It’s painful when you don’t have the All-American-Family portrayed by Norman Rockwell. I have the European-Holocaust-AbsentShipCaptain-family portrayed by Bosch and Dali.

My dislike for my mother, Cruella, swarms like a soul-sucking tornado as Mother’s Day approaches. My mother died in 1998. The whole shebang was surreal. Mom had been dying three times a year for a decade. She had deathbeds in Alabama and California; places I could not get to without long expensive plane flights. But I tried. I really tried for the first couple of years. Then I said, “Fuck it.” With an eye on being the good daughter, I lobbied my husband for Mom to come live with us. He said, “No. I am not having that woman who caused you so much pain live with us. I can’t watch her hurt you.” He left the room, slammed every door in the house before driving off in his rusted out Camaro. I sat in our house still rattling with his anger. Okay, that was a resounding no-go.

So time passed; Mom continued to have near death experiences. My sister went to live with her. I sent money secreted from my own account but a few times from the household account. Ten years passed until one day I received a phone call from my sister. “Mom is dying. She’s not going to make it through the night. Get on a plane.” Uh-huh. My sister rambled while I rolled my eyes. I don’t remember why Mom was “dying.”

The next day, I received another phone call. “Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it … “ I finished the sentence, “Through the night.” My sister yelled until she hung up.

My sister called again on the next day. I looked at the caller ID, answered nonplused, “Don’t tell me. Mom’s dying. She’s not going to make it through the night.” My sister was all kinds of pissed. “Look call me when she’s got one foot through death’s door,” I said and hung up.

The rest of the week passed into the weekend. Monday around a quarter to one, my father called me. We chatted in a weather-report kind of way before he said, “Well she did it.”

“What?”

“Your mother died thirty minutes ago,” he said.

I stood looking at the phone, examining the soft blue hue, feeling the weight of the receiver in my hands, and inside … nothing. Then both of us started laughing. “Oops, I misjudged this,” I said.

“She was dramatic,” he said. We hung up. Big portions of my life began. I felt free. Open to the many different possibilities of living without the specter of her cruelty.

The loss did not hit until ten years later when it was safe to mourn. I was writing a short story based on a fragment of memory – an interaction with Mom where not one character in the story was sympathetic. Mom’s motivations were beyond my understanding but I knew the event happened. I looked for explanations of Mom’s behaviors in books, class notes, newspapers, and family albums. I found them. With that information, her actions, some good but mostly horrific, made sense. Compassion for her battled my history of contempt, grown from the minefield she dug. The confusion caused my gut to knot, my head to pound, and sizzled my dreams to the point of night terrors. When my perceptions of the world have reorganized so I don’t feel like I am peeling off my skin, I’ll tell you.

Mom would say to me, “To know everything is to understand everything.” Maybe she was giving me a way to view her life and behaviors in a larger context.

My therapist would say to me, “All behavior is productive.” Maybe he was asking me to stop with the duality of right and wrong.

They were both right. I weep for my mother, the no-escaping tragic course of her life, the bad turns she took, and the relationships she blew. I weep for myself, the mother I never knew until she died, the things we could not do together, and the long years we spent hating each other. On this Mother’s Day, you can celebrate or feel nothing, mourn or let it go, I will support you either way. Not everyone has a Rockwell family.

Celebrating the Mishaps

happy-hanukkah

I was lighting the candles for the last night of Chanukah, The Festival of Lights, when this memory plunked into my consciousness. Plunked with such Maccabean might that I dropped the candle setting a Chanukah card on fire. Unfortunately for my neighbors, the flaming card set off the smoke detector. A saner head than mine pulled the glass of wine out of my hand before I fully reenacted the family saga of celebratory mishaps.

“Hah, I am my mother’s daughter. There is a genetic memory of Yes you are repeating what your mother did and probably her mother and her mother’s mother before her …

On the remembered Friday night, Mom, beautiful and hard to forget with her bright red hair and twinkling blue eyes, was wearing a powder blue dress, probably highly flammable. It was the seventies. I wore a hair band. The family had been to IHOP for dinner (a Friday night tradition) and we were ready to pray in temple (Jewish synagogue). Mom was lighting the Sabbath candles on the Bimah (synagogue stage) when the event happened.

It had been a good night with minimal fighting among the siblings. No one was expecting what happened next. I was sitting in the last row of seats with my sister and brother. No major faux pas had occurred like the time my sister let one rip in the middle of a sermon or the time my brother fell asleep tumbling out of the row into the center aisle with a soul-shaking clunk or the time I tripped in Mom’s borrowed heels inadvertently performing the Heimlich anti-choking maneuver to hurl scrambled eggs and pancakes over the entire row. You get the idea. Mine is a long line of the etiquette challenged.

Back to my memory, Mom was standing on the Bimah about to light the last candle on the Shabbat menorah (think ornate candelabra) when her sleeve caught fire on an already flaming candle. Trying to pat it out with a certain je ne sais quoi, she knocked the candle out of her hand. The lit candle sailed end over end to pole vault over the waist high gate separating the people on the Bimah from the rabble. The flaming missile arced towards the new burgundy carpet. Not quite shag. Flammable. Near the audience (congregation).

A little curl of smoke started up towards the ceiling. Mom’s eyes got very wide. The periwinkle blue polyester of her dress smoldered. My sister nudged me in the ribs. I sat up straight. Paid attention. My little brother snorted.

The curl ate the nylon carpet in a zigzag pattern turning into a flame zipping around the Bimah. I thought, Ah, a burnt sacrifice. Mom was yelling, “Oops, please somebody do something,” in her perfect British boarding school voice used only in situations of I am in so much shit or You are in so much shit.

The President of the temple rushed down from the Bimah into the fire. He stamped and stamped. The head of the religious school came over to spit on the fire. The fire continued despite the stamping and spitting. My mother threw the ceremonial wine on the spiritual fire. Poof. The President’s tie caught on fire. By my count, two people and one carpet were on fire. One woman was out of spit. I sucked in my gut trying not to laugh too conspicuously. With a unified Oy Vey, people in the front pews hastily moved towards the back of the sanctuary.

At the point when it looked like either the fire department or a miracle was called for, the Rabbi pulled a fire extinguisher from under the podium. With a few oaths unseemly for a spiritual leader, he jumped over the gate and sprayed the fire into submission. The Rabbi turned to the congregation.

“Please be seated. Let us continue with our service on page … “ he said motioning my mother off the Bimah where she was never asked to perform another thing, read another line, or get anywhere near an open flame on synagogue grounds.

Then the sprinklers turned on.

The three of us kids sat in awe, sweat-producing awe, of yet another Young family fuck-up. We were doubled over with laughter. And a little embarrassment as the Jewish community’s wrath rained down upon us.

This year, with all its tragedies, I hope your holidays are full of laughter and light.

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