It’s been a year now since my mother passed away at the age of 98. In my writings, I try to focus on better ways to understand family dynamics, how to deal with our children and become better parents, spouses and friends. I believe most every event we experience in our lives gives us something to learn from. Even more so, I have come to believe that events we cannot make any sense of when they happen have some potential to make us better people – including those we deal with on a regular basis: our friends, children, parents, etc.
In this two-part article, I would like to share some of my memories of my mother, and to connect those memories to learning about better relationships.
I hesitate to say that my mother was a very special woman. Not that it isn’t true, but rather I don’t want to minimize the millions of other mothers who are, or were, special to their children. Thank G-d my mother had a very full life – a life of giving to others and caring about everyone. As this year of aveilus (mourning) comes to an end, I can’t help but reminisce about the good and bad times, the happy and the sad.
My mother was born and raised in the state of Georgia and my father in Germany. I remember growing up in Georgia during the days of segregation and learning from my parents to look beyond the popular beliefs of the time and see the good in all people. I remember our nanny who practically raised us and how my brothers and I loved her as much as she loved us.
I remember my maternal grandparents (and the impact of never knowing my paternal grandparents who were slaughtered in the Holocaust). They were extraordinary. For as long as I could remember my grandmother was an invalid. In those days they weren’t sure why she couldn’t walk, but I remember hearing that maybe she had multiple sclerosis. I remember how my mother used to go over to my grandparent’s home on a daily basis to assist my grandfather and the caregivers. I remember being in the third grade and moving in with my grandparents for almost six months while our house was being built. Years later my parents had added to our home and my grandparents and my mother’s aunt came to live with us. As a child, I never realized how much of a strain this was on my parents.
The love between my grandparents was something rarely seen, even today. My fondest memory is seeing them sitting together in front of the television, my grandfather in a large comfortable chair and my grandmother in her wheelchair, holding hands. It still amazes me that I can’t remember them ever arguing or raising their voices to one another. Every day my grandfather would put my grandmother in their old Studebaker and they would go out for a ride. And their love encompassed others – I always felt special when I would go with them.
When we were very young my father managed an abattoir (slaughter house) for a Jewish family in the small city we lived. After the plant closed, my father began working as a traveling salesman. My mother was always busy with us boys, and shopping and taking care of her parents and aunt. She never complained, and even found time to volunteer in our small Jewish community. Life in a small southern city wasn’t easy. My parents always struggled. Yet, somehow, I remember them always being there for others. Whether it was my grandparents, our extended family, my father’s employees, colleagues or family friends, everyone seemed to come to my parents if they needed help.
As a teen, I was always curious and searching, though I didn’t know what I was searching for. At some point I told my parents I wanted to go to military school. Though they couldn’t afford it, they borrowed the money and I went to military school for my last three years of high school. It was there that I became very curious about my yiddishkeit. My parents identified strongly with Judaism, but we had very little real knowledge. My early life was surrounded by prejudice and racism, yet my parents always stressed the importance of equality. With the help of my religious paternal aunt and uncle who lived in New York, I enrolled in one of the only yeshivas for boys without a background in Judaism on the day I graduated from high school.
I remember calling to tell my parents after I met my eishes chayil, and how they totally accepted her and her family before even meeting them. They insisted on making a vort (engagement party) for us in Georgia. Oh, what memories. Until her final day, my mother took great pride in calling my wife “her daughter” – as she used to say, she loved her as if she had given birth to her.