My mother would be 93 today, hard to believe. Seems like only yesterday she was a new mother overwhelmed by her two young children, me and my younger sister. Time has got to be one of the most mysterious forces out there — the more I think about it, the less sense it makes to me. We often think it flows in a straight line, from past to present to future, but there is plenty of reason to doubt the simplicity of that conception. In a blink it is fifty years ago.
My mother loved to read, appreciated good writing and was a pretty good writer herself. When she was in college she carried a notebook in which, when inspiration struck, she stopped and wrote poetry. I remember a blue, leather-bound journal that she told me contained her poems. I recall seeing it as a kid. I imagined her rushing to a bench at Hunter College, shortly after World War Two, excited to jot down a phrase or idea before it was lost, the way I will sometimes do (increasingly into my very smart phone) when I’m out for a walk.
At some point my mother stopped writing poetry, except for the occasional birthday card, and I never found the blue journal of her poems after she died. I searched every corner of the apartment as I cleaned it out, went through every box, feeling hopeful at every turn, but nada.
What happened to that poetry is probably what happens to everything else that lives and breathes. Comes a time when it fades to black. You can call it what you like, the impenetrable black is the same. It’s like what happened to that plump little solid gold heart my mother wore on a thin gold necklace when my sister and I were little. I remember it swaying over us in our beds. Now? It is nowhere.
I look over at the box where my mother’s “cremains” have sat quietly since they emerged from a Florida crematorium almost exactly eleven years ago. A religious friend called my mother’s apartment on May 20, 2010, to wish her a happy birthday. I told him she’d been taken to the hospice and had been in a coma for several hours.
“That’s a sign of righteousness,” he told me “when God really loves you he lets you die on your birthday.”
My mother, who was quite hostile to religion, had fought with this guy over and over when she was alive and kicking. She thought religion was a foolish, often destructive, lens to look at the world through and was disgusted that so many religious people were loophole surfing hypocrites.
God (and don’t get her started on that one) says you can’t eat “chumaytz” on Passover? That is, a Jew is not allowed to eat anything containing leaven during the week commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. We eat flat, unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction,” to remind us how our enslaved ancestors suffered as they fled tyranny and bondage.
Except that they’ve developed perfectly fluffy cakes and other foods to eat during this time, delicious items that taste and feel very much like the real thing, but do not contain “leavening”. They found a perfectly kosher way to observe the letter of the law while gracefully skirting its spirit. Nu, why should we have to suffer? My mother had no patience for that kind of pious hypocrisy.
And so it was that she refused to breathe her last on May 20, she waited until the following day. It was as if her last act, even in a coma, was a middle finger to orthodox Jewish religious belief.
At her memorial I told the group assembled there that it was highly ironic for us to be gathered in a synagogue, a place my mother avoided. Particularly ironic for the synagogue to be in Peekskill, a town my father immediately fled at the end of his horrific childhood there, a place he almost never visited, but where he was now buried.
The Jewish group that ran the cemetery, by the way, First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill (in whose chapel we’d gathered), had decreed that no cremated ashes could be buried in the cemetery, even if the member had paid for the grave site for 50 years, as my parents had. I pointed to the bag containing the box of my mother’s ashes, seated in the front row. She had no comment, but everyone in the room could imagine it.
“There’s no Jewish law against burying ashes,” my parents’ religious friend had told me on her final birthday “which means you can go to the cemetery and quietly bury them in her grave yourself.”
I told the friends and family assembled in that synagogue that my mother admired a Florida rabbi who wrote a weekly column my mother loved. This rabbi was fiercely liberal and wrote scathing and witty denunciations of the radical Republican party under Cheney and Dubya. Reading his weekly column was a great relief to my mother, living among Floridians, many of whom believed that Dubya was working directly for Jesus Christ, and she often mentioned this rabbi to me in our daily chats, sometimes reading me bits she particularly liked.
Her neighbor told her that the rabbi would be speaking at their local temple the following Friday night. She was very excited at the prospect of hearing him speak and went to synagogue, in spite of her lifelong reluctance to attend a religious service if she could avoid it (she almost always could.) Oddly, when we spoke after the service she didn’t mention the rabbi, or the service. I asked her how it was.
“Oh, it was awful, very disappointing. He was up there on the bima the whole time, but he didn’t open his mouth, he didn’t say a word. Not one word! He just sat there. They introduced him and he sat there and waved.”
Then, reliving the worst part of the nightmare, she said “and they read every goddamn prayer in that fucking prayer book! ”
It was my mother in a nutshell and everyone there immediately recognized her, and her influence on me in telling this particular anecdote in the solemn sanctuary, in front of the fancy ark that held the Torah scrolls.
Anyone observing the ease between my mother and me, and how carefully I protected her during the last years of her life, would have no doubt of the love between us. I owe a great deal to her, including my love of reading and writing. When I wrote something that moved her, she smiled with the deepest possible delight. “It’s wonderful,” she would say.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that we write for an imagined audience of one reader. In his case it was his older sister he always wrote for. He’d imagine her reaction, and that was his guide for how to write, what would make her nod, or laugh, or think, what would displease her, make her demand better. I suppose my imagined audience is my mother. It certainly is right now, as I remember her on her birthday and try to conjure just a little of her spirit for others today.
The beauty of writing is the chance, every time we sit down, to make our meaning absolutely clear. With the luxury of time, which is all we really have (ask my mother), we’re able to reread and weigh every phrase we’ve written, think further, remove any word that distracts, say what we mean to say as clear and true as possible.
Through this daily practice of writing we can learn to communicate exactly what we mean to say. That is far more than we mortals can often do in real time, especially in the heat of those moments when it is almost impossible to say exactly what we mean. Writing, for those of us who love it, is a great way to clarify what we feel and what we think.
If this practice of daily writing hasn’t helped me, necessarily (no matter how clearly you write there are always those who’ll insist you haven’t made yourself clear, or, on another level, that you’re a chump for not getting paid to write, if you think your writing is worth anything), it certainly hasn’t hurt me. In fact, it has helped a great deal, I know this every time I sit down to spend time combing through my thoughts and feelings.
I once bought my mother a blank journal for her birthday. “I have nothing to write,” she said, after thanking me for the book. I reminded her that she used to love to write, and told her if she started to do it again she’d probably find it worthwhile.
“You’re the writer, not me,” she said. “You have a million ideas, I don’t have any ideas. I have nothing to say. It’s a very nice journal, but the thought of a blank page fills me with dread.”
Nothing I could say helped her recall that once familiar moment, when she thought of something she wanted to say, and set everything else aside to work out the best way to say it. It had been so many years since this bright, opinionated woman had thought to take the extra time to more elegantly express what she’d already said that she no longer had any memory of her need to do it. She must have stopped believing it mattered what she wrote, at a certain point. Which is a whole other story, now that I think of it.
Happy 93rd birthday, mom.
She may have said “every fucking prayer in that goddamned prayer book” but even someone known for an excellent memory, as I am, can never be sure.