Sunday, May 9, 2021

My Many Mothers

 My mom has been gone for six years now and Mother's Day now seems like a holiday with no significance to me anymore. I have a folder with all of the Mother’s Day cards I gave my mom over the years that she saved and I retrieved after her death. She especially liked the ones that spoke to the genuine friendship between us. I would have chosen my mother as my mother if I had a choice. Who knows, perhaps in some universe I did. I hadn’t planned to write anything, but then I read Heather Cox Richardson’s column on the many mothers we have in a lifetime and began to reflect on some of mine. 

I have often considered what I learned from my mother’s example. One of the most important take-aways was evident. From our own relationship, I learned how to have rich cross-generational friendships with women. That is something that she and I did amazingly well. When I was in my 30s I began to take her on trips to Europe and our relationship matured into a friendship that lost some of the hierarchy imposed by a parent-child relationship. We became two people who enjoyed each other’s company and shared many interests. I began to have some understanding of her life and who she was.

As I get older, I often wonder about how she viewed aging. I would love to be able to have that conversation with her. I know she was happy with her life through all its stages, but I now have an appreciation of how hard-won some of that happiness can be. She made choices along the way to create her path and I am certain it was not always clear sailing. She had a visceral understanding of my wiring because she shared much of it, but the one thing she never understood was my certainty that raising children was not for me. Despite that, she was able to see me not as a clone of her needs and desires, but as someone unique, but also connected. She was able to give me room to be me, the best gift a parent can give a child. And she cheered me on as I confronted both challenges that we shared, and ones unique to me, as I carved out a life of my own making.


Because I chose not to have children, I had the luxury of control over my life and my time. I don’t take that for granted. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I began to understand something about the bond that is created by giving to another person, something most mothers realize much earlier even as they bemoan the loss of control over their life and time. I also learned that with the act of empathy and that very commitment of our precious time, we in turn create a rich connection.

When I met my current husband, his mother was in her mid-80s. She lived to 95 and we developed a special relationship in those intervening years. She was an intelligent woman, a reader and a lover of words. I am convinced much of what I appreciate in my husband came from her. She also had a difficult life without much control over her choices. We began to go over each week and do her grocery shopping, laundry and perhaps most importantly, bring things of interest into her life. I thought of our visits as an opportunity to make our time together meaningful and something to look forward to. 

Kitchen Competition 2002 by Susan Weinberg
We began to play Scrabble on each visit and I realized that she loved words more than strategy. If she read a word that would work well in Scrabble, she hung onto it until the next game. One day she put down a seven letter word and got scads of points. I commemorated it with a painting of us together, my first self-portrait and a portrait of us engaged in something we both loved. I hung it on the wall in my home when she came over for her birthday celebration and waited for her to recognize it. 

When I got into genealogy, I gathered information on those long-gone people who had once been significant in her world. She was intrigued with the trail of documents that captured her as a young girl. I interviewed her as my husband painted her.

I had a rather unique role. My husband was expected to show up. I did by choice and that made it a special commitment that she understood as coming not from expectation, but because I genuinely enjoyed her. Out of that giving grew a mutual love and appreciation of each other that felt familiar to me. I had learned it from my mother.

Another mother who has touched my life is my friend Dora. I met Dora in 2010 when she was in her late 80s. I was doing the website for the ancestral town in Poland that my grandfather had come from. Dora had grown up there and was fifteen years old when the Nazis invaded in 1939.  I began to ask her about the town and her story. I also began to forge an unexpected connection, both recognizing some of myself in her and finding a deep admiration for how she navigated her world. 


She is a very accomplished woman in life and intellect. After she survived the Holocaust she carved out a life in the United States, becoming fluent in yet one more language. She got a graduate degree in economics, became an accountant and a Holocaust educator. What I found most admirable was how she adapted to challenges within her life. When her vision deteriorated she shifted to books on tape listening to the Economist each week and studying the Talmud by telephone. 


Three months after I met her we began to plan a trip to Poland where I was invited to show my artwork. She joined me and shared photos from before the war and during the time of the ghetto. We did several shows in our own community pairing these materials. Over the past ten years we have gotten together most every week. I take her out to lunch and we go to events or work on projects. I’ve interviewed her and created artwork on her stories. Sometimes I assist her with talks to classes and we’ve used the artwork in some of them as a jumping off point for her experiences. During quarantine, we changed our get togethers to several hours on the phone each week recording her personal story. We celebrated her 97th birthday on Zoom and now we’ve begun to get together again in person. We talk about books and life, politics and religion. It has become a friendship with a long history and a model for me in how to face life’s challenges while staying actively engaged in the world and living a life of purpose.


When you live well into your 90s, many of your friends are no longer around. Dora has mastered the art of establishing long-standing friendships with younger people. Someday if I am fortunate, I will be on the other side of that equation. So on this Mother’s Day, I am grateful for my mother who modeled that special friendship and all the mothers who have followed in my life.

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