I’m probably too old to say this but there are times like today when I have such a primal, urgent need for my mother that I want to throw myself on the floor of the supermarket – right there in the Ben and Jerry’s aisle – and shout at the top of my lungs like a three-year-old:
Today was my mom’s birthday.
She died 11 years ago, so she never got to meet my daughters. She never got to meet Fiona, her little lookalike:
Or Ella, her temperamental twin:
The times it hurts the most are not holidays or birthdays – I can brace myself for these because I know they’re coming. They happen when I’m caught by surprise, like at the mall, and I see a mom my age with her kids and her mother. All of them together. Not understanding how lucky they are. That’s when the loss hits me with the shock of its emptiness, all the memories we should have had but don’t. It doesn’t happen too often – but it happens.
In the dressing room I’ll hear a mom discussing something ordinary with her mother – like bra size, or how a certain dress fits. It’s during these ordinary moments that it hurts the most because I’m unprepared. So I’ve learned to go carefully into dressing rooms and malls, and if I’m feeling squirrelly like today, I avoid them.
I don’t go to Grandparents Day at school because the sight of all those grandparents with their children and grandchildren – well, you can imagine.
When I was a kid she spoiled me. She kept bright red German chocolate lady bugs in her pockets and occasionally she’d slip me one – always at the right moment. So for me, a chocolate ladybug isn’t just a chocolate…it’s a feast. Of memory.
As a mother, she was a total marshmallow, an unapologetic pushover who adored children and went overboard for us in any way she possibly could – ridiculous Easter Egg hunts, over-the-top Christmas decorations, birthday surprises, staged pranks, dolls, puppies, private schools they probably couldn’t afford, but somehow did.
She had Marilyn Monroe hair and blue eyes. Sometimes she wore velvet hot pants with go-go boots (and she looked hot in them, too).
Sometimes she played dumb. She was from a generation where women were valued more for being sex kittens with shiny kitchen floors than brainiacs. Despite the go-go boots and an unhealthy love of daytime soaps, she had a Master’s degree from the University of Heidelburg, and a Ph.D from UC Berkeley. She was a babe in go-go boots, yes, and she watched General Hospital, but she was also a college professor who spoke five languages and could slaughter you with her wit.
But she was so much more.
She survived WW II. She escaped from Lithuania and somehow survived in Berlin throughout the war, during her formative years. I once came across a photo of her in braids standing in a line of young girls, in uniform.
I said. “Holy shit, mom. Is that a photo of you doing a Heil Hitler?”
“Oh Shnooky,” she said, “that was just Hitler Youth Camp. It was like the Girl Scouts, only we had to go.”
She kept things to herself. She had never once told me that she had gone to Hitler Youth Camp until I asked her. She hated Hitler. She said he was a swine-hound who only had one testicle.
After the war, she spent five years in the DP camps. She became a Displaced Person.
After the camps she emigrated to Canada and survived the death of her father, of suicide.
She moved to California with my father, and had my sister and I.
Then she survived the death of my little sister, Gail, who was 2 when she died. The same year, she lost her unborn son – in her third trimester.
After that she had to have a hysterectomy.
After that she became an alcoholic.
I tried my whole life to help her. I couldn’t.
Children have a strange way of blaming themselves if something goes terribly wrong in the family, and that’s what I did: I convinced myself it was somehow my fault.
My mother – a beautiful light. Technically she died of alcoholic cirrhosis. But really, she died of grief.
So today is her birthday. I miss her so much that I ache. The sad thing is that even if she were here, I wouldn’t really want her here since she was an alcoholic and things had gotten beyond terrible. So it was a sad relief when she died.
I didn’t have to parent her anymore.
She was no longer in pain.
She became all that she was at her core: beauty and light.
The day before she died I asked if she was afraid (she knew she was going to die). She said, “You’re going to think this is silly but I get these glimpses: fields of green grasses, flowers, and light. I’m not afraid.”
When she died, the hillside near her bedroom window bloomed in the most overt and abundant display of flowers – flowers that were not in bloom the day before. My sister and I knew that the flowers were her, waving good bye.
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