My Mother's Purse
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My Mother's Purse

My Mother's Purse

We'd lost Mommy and Daddy; we didn't want to lose each other.

by

( I )

In light of the fact that approximately 3,000 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center, I've rarely dared to complain out loud about the loss it caused me personally. But when my mother died a month later, in October 2001, a deep and bitter resentment, laced with grief, lodged itself within me like a leaky vial of acid. Evil terrorists, they robbed me of our last time together.

I'd been on the waiting list for a direct flight from Israel to LA, and time was of the essence -- her oncologist had predicted she had four to six months. At last the travel agent uttered the magic words (which I'd regret forever): "Okay, you're on for the eleventh."

I called my mother and told her I was coming. There were so many things I had in mind for this visit. I'd massage her feet, the way my sisters did, and read to her aloud during chemo sessions. I'd encourage her to reminisce about Daddy, as a friend of mine who's an occupational therapist had advised, and cook her meals properly, this time around -- to make soft-boiled eggs the way she liked them, and not overcook her salmon.

I'd tell her how much I loved and revered her, and thanked God for having her as my mother.

High over the Atlantic on that lovely September afternoon, unprecedented good fortune had come my way: they'd bumped me from coach to first-class. With feet up, seat tipped back, I was gazing out luxuriously from my wide and plushy throne upon the shining blue ocean far, far below, when midway between Tel Aviv and Loss Angeles (my fingers typed that misspelling just now, but it's accurate as is) the captain made an announcement. Ladies and gentlemen, due to an unexpected security situation...At first I didn't pay attention. My mouth was stuffed with large, cold grapes, my ears plugged-up with music ...we're being diverted to London and will be arriving at London's Gatwick Airport in approximately twenty-five minutes. Please move your seats to the upright position and place all carry-ons under the seat in front of you. On behalf of the entire Delta crew, I'd like to apologize for any inconvenience and to thank you for flying Del...

"A security situation?" I asked a passing stewardess "Has somebody made a threat on the plane?"

"No, it's nothing to do with us," she said with a tight grin. "It's something in America."

* * *

On all the TVs suspended overhead in the airport, the Twin Towers just kept falling and falling. It was incomprehensible.

Thus was I stranded in London for six days with no incoming or outgoing flights, experiencing a frantic, desperate kind of loneliness unlike anything I could remember. Over the years, I'd become inured to the idea of Israel being a dangerous place, but as long as I'd lived there, America had served as the great vacation getaway, the unreal escape. You didn't even have to actually go there for it to fill that need, psychologically speaking. Now there was no safety anywhere on earth, and nothing I wanted more than just to touch base, even for a minute, with my husband and children in Jerusalem and my family in America. But all the phone lines had crashed. In this mass paroxysm of fear, and the instant global paralysis which followed, the security restrictions suddenly leveled on international travelers were akin to a police state's unyielding clampdown on political prisoners. News was scanty, confused, horrifying. On all the TVs suspended overhead in the airport -- where I'd go by bus each day trying to get a flight, any flight, out of Britain - the Twin Towers just kept falling and falling. It was incomprehensible. The crowds of stunned, lost passengers, each one of us a stranger stuck in his own isolation, stood dumbly watching. No one – no one anywhere - knew what would happen next in the world.

I finally got the last available seat on one of the only outgoing flights: a one-way ticket back to Tel Aviv.

From Jerusalem, I called LA.

"Mommy! Isn't it amazing? Isn't it terrible? What do you think?"

"Yes...," she murmured. "It's amazing. Amazing and terrible."

In Israel, the intifada of 2001 had just exploded into our lives. Rosh HaShanah came and went, then Yom Kippur. Leaving my family was too frightening ....just the thought of them on buses....How could I leave? You'd better come soon, said my sister on the phone from LA.

"How soon?"

"As soon as possible."

By the time I made it back there in October, my mother had had a stroke, and could no longer communicate. The day after my arrival, she fell into a coma from which she never emerged.

I was haunted by our last time together, which we'd never had, and was pursued by an all-enveloping feeling of incompleteness.

* * *

The year of mourning was almost up. My sisters and I couldn't put it off any longer. We had to return to our parents' house, now uninhabited, and decide what to do with her clothes, and all their things.

Could it be -- an ugly possibility, but by no means an unusual occurrence in the history of mankind -- that we'd stoop to arguing over their possessions?

How we shrank from this chore. It wasn't only the unimaginable emptiness in our parents' house that we dreaded, now that neither of them was there; but something else: Would we start vying with each other over the division of the property? Could it be -- an ugly possibility, but by no means an unusual occurrence in the history of mankind -- that we'd stoop to arguing over their possessions? We'd heard of such things, of course – children fighting, so to speak, over their parents' graves - and sensed that maybe we weren't immune to the powerful undertows of emotion. Just the thought of it was so ugly, the potential for disaster so ripe, that we were determined to avoid it by any means.

We'd lost Mommy and Daddy; we didn't want to lose each other.

So we asked a neutral party for help, and one day that spring, there we were, walking separately, steno pads and pencils in hand, through Mommy and Daddy's kitchen and living room and bedrooms. Voicing nary a sound to each other from morning till night, nor coming up for air until the sun my parents had loved was setting over the Los Angeles hills, we went silently through the closets, the drawers, the bookshelves. Each of us made a numbered list of the things we wanted, in order of priority, and addressed any thoughts and questions not to each other but to the referee on site, who was recording our choices on his laptop.

Then we sisters went out to dinner, and he stayed behind, to compute the results.

What did I want? Above all, her wooden rocking chair. The Tiffany lamp handmade by my Uncle Bobby, in the living room. The black wrought iron candelabra. My mother's throw blanket. Her purse. What if it turned out my sisters wanted the same things? What would we do? I had to have them. Naturally, I wanted the old piano, too, and the big oaken coffee table from our house in Connecticut. I wanted the ping pong table, and the lawn chairs we'd played on as children, and my mother's tool box, for my husband. But the piano was half the size of our Jerusalem living room! We'd have to throw out our dinner table to make room for any one of these things! There was nowhere in our apartment for a ping-pong table ...and no lawn for lawn chairs. Not to mention the cost of shipping anything at all from California to the Middle East.

My sisters were lucky, I thought secretly, with envy. They had houses, and room to spare, and lived relatively close by. Their shipping costs wouldn't be prohibitive. But none of this did I say aloud, and whatever was on their minds, also, went blessedly unexpressed. At dinner we breathed not a word about chairs we'd known our whole lives, or beloved end-tables. Our need for each other's love was too great.

* * *

Back home in Israel, the intifada was reaching impossible heights. The timing was such that my mother probably never even heard about it, which was obviously for the best. How she would have lost sleep worrying! How she would have suffered over her New York Times!

But in relation to this, there was a particular sense of loss on my part which was embarrassing to acknowledge, even to myself. Who would worry about us now from afar, the way she always had? I'd never realized what her sleepless nights were doing for me. They permitted me to be brave - and at least on some level – to feel a childlike sense of underlying security. Anchored by my mother's powerful, unconditional love for me and my family, all was basically right in the world.

My sisters' favorite news source was National Public Radio, famously pro-Palestinian. Who knew what they might be hearing these days? In what I can see now was a half-conscious hope of filling the motherless void, I began sending them articles written from Israel's perspective.

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Haifa and Ashkelon, in Judea and Samaria and Petach Tikvah and Gush Katif and Kfar Saba, we Jews were struggling to master the ancient art of living amidst anti-Jewish violence, madness, mercilessness. It was almost how I'd imagined the Holocaust: shooting in the streets, people leaving for work or school in the morning and never coming back. Daily headlines of who had been killed in the last twenty-four hours, and getting accustomed to the news.

I'd never dreamed we'd be living through such things ourselves. Death was becoming a common occurrence, as close to us as our own next breath.

* * *

As my brethren were being murdered, I waited for my ship to come in. In our family lottery I'd won the rocking chair (which had been high on every daughter's list) and Uncle Bobby's lamp (also highly coveted) and the black candelabra (ditto). When the final computer tally was drawn up, we compensated for our assorted disappointments by making trades and mutual compromises, and in the end, everyone was basically happy. The sister who'd gotten the throw-blanket saw my face crumble when it was awarded to her, and graciously handed it over. The other sister surrendered our grandmother's antique teapot from Russia. I, too, behaved nobly.

I didn't get the tool-box. It was too far down on my list. How could I have known it would be somebody else's number one? My sister who lived on the West Coast got the piano, and the coffee table; the one on the East Coast got our mother's antique bureau, and the old framed photograph of our maternal grandparents. I got my mother's purse, and her gray sweater, that I'm wearing right now. Almost everything I really desired, I got, as did they, and we did it the only way our parents would have wanted, without violating the happiness they'd built in that house.

My lucky sister in northern California -- she received her haul that very week, but called to say she didn't know where she was going to put it all. "So much stuff, I don't know what I was thinking," she told me. "I think I just had this feeling of wanting to get as much as I could, as if...." The thought remained unfinished. "But now that it's here, I see a lot of it's just junk. In their house, it looked so beautiful, didn't it?"

It was almost as if those objects were going to bring Mommy and Daddy into our lives again.

Her confession gladdened me, as she'd known it would. Perhaps, after all, it was my good fortune to be living so far away that my choices had been necessarily limited. Though it annoyed and worried me, as the weeks went by, that the shipment was taking so long, I fantasized with increasing pleasure about each item in turn: where we'd put it, how it would look...I couldn't wait. It was almost as if those objects ...in a way... were going to bring Mommy and Daddy into our lives again.

Meanwhile, terrorism raged. The flames had encircled us now; we were prisoners in our own homes. The screaming of ambulances...how we despised that sound. I found myself harboring a wicked sort of satisfaction that, because of 9/11, at least Americans could understand us now. They'd gotten a taste of what we'd been going through all these years. A particularly good piece on the Aish.com website, entitled, "What Are We Dying For?" by Sara Rigler, eloquently articulated Israel's position and set our present situation in historical context. I sent it off to both sisters. It could speak for me.

One sister -- a psychologist -- responded quickly with the sibling empathy I'd been angling for, but the other, to my surprise, did not immediately reply. Maybe I'd gone too far. A psychologist also -- yes, two of them in the family -- but maybe she was too sensitive for this. Maybe I was just causing her futile anguish -- and to what end? Was I thinking she'd turn into Mommy?

Finally, after a few days, her email address appeared in my Inbox.

For two whole days, while the police did nothing, rampaging gentiles attacked the city's Jews. They threw children out of upper-story windows...

It took a few seconds to figure this out: my sister had copied a passage from Sara Rigler's article about the twentieth century's first pogrom, which took place in 1903.

...gouged out their victims' eyes, and drove nails into their heads. By the time the order came from St. Petersburg to stop the pogrom, sixty Jews had been murdered and many more were maimed for life.

Below that paragraph, my sister's letter appeared:

Dear Sarah, One who has been traumatized in childhood and suppresses the memory is compelled unconsciously to relive the experience by reenacting the same trauma in relation to his own children.

Surely she couldn't be saying...

Israel cannot acknowledge or comprehend the suffering she is inflicting upon the Palestinian people until she comes to understand herself. You shouldn't be asking what you're dying for, but rather, what you're...

No!

... killing for.

The fury was instantaneous. I typed a reply, my words flowing towards her in a wave of fire.

Then I deleted it. Not persuasive. I typed another.

Deleted again.

The memory of sitting at my desk that night, typing one unsent letter after another, is associated in my mind with the sound of sirens. It could be that there were indeed real sirens screaming outside that night, as I sat there at my desk, but not necessarily. It was an inner emergency that was wailing. I felt indignant on behalf of our people. On behalf of her people.

Way into the wee hours of the morning, I kept trying to compose a sophisticated letter - a cool, calm and collected letter – one that would decimate her words magnificently and bring her argument to its knees. She'd apologize, apologize to all of us, all her brethren in Israel.

One letter after another, furiously typed out, then deleted.

I just couldn't find the words.

And from that time on, apparently, neither could she.

Our war of silence had begun.

( II )

One day during Pesach cleaning, a few weeks after Uncle's Bobby's fragile Tiffany lamp had arrived unharmed -- amazingly enough -- from its ocean crossing; and the large wooden rocker, in all its quiet grace, had settled into its new quarters next to our living room couch; and the black wrought iron candelabra, for lack of any other spot, was standing stiffly at attention, unused, between a bed and a wall; I was climbing up onto a tall stool to reach a closet's upper shelf.

Moving aside a stack of old scarves, I saw a dark heap of something towards the back. What was it? Oh! My heart swelled painfully. Daddy! It was his navy blue bathrobe, that Mommy had given me when he died.

Then, partly hidden behind the blue folds: the thing I was seeking, right where I'd put it, which surprised me somehow.

What did I expect, that it would have migrated?

I reached inside, and then, before I knew it, was holding the slight weight of my mother's purse in my hands, and was momentarily turned to stone by the sight of its utterly familiar dark green leather, the smooth matte finish of it, and the tarnished clasp of dull gold.

Her long, capable fingers had opened and shut this clasp so many thousands of times. It was as if I was seeing her fingers now.

A so-called Coach Bag, my mother had liked this purse so much, she'd used it for about ten years, the last decade of her life. Such an elegant purse, and though it bothered me to think of this, the purse was a birthday present to Mommy from my sister. That sister. The one with whom I hadn't exchanged a word in...how many weeks? Or months? Who knew? The anger was burning below ground now, and had spread – exacerbating everything else that was going on. I'll interject here that now, with the intifada of 2001 basically behind us, I find it difficult to conjure up, or even recall, my own state of mind during that period. I used to feel anger at people -- especially my sisters -- who didn't seem to understand what it was like to be in mortal danger, but I must admit that oddly enough, it's now equally foreign to me. To be in such a situation is to become an unfamiliar version of yourself, and even I can't really understand my mentality during that period. Sometimes it seemed as if I'd never known, till then, what it was to be alive. Terror was everywhere -- there was no safety anywhere, even in your own home - but all the lovely things of life were lovelier, too, in a primal, bizarre way. The air, the breeze, the sight of the moon....When you're in immediate and unrelenting physical danger, the survival instinct reigns supreme, and a part of the personality kicks in which is qualitatively different from other mental states. You're in a certain frame of mind and no outside observer, even an empathetic one, can join you in that realm. Even if the observer is you yourself, looking back.

But at this point I was still in the thick of it.

I got down off the stool. Where to go? Where should I go, to open it?

The rocking chair.

* * *

First of all, I'm struck by how neat and organized it is.

A white paper -- I unfold it. It's a form, incompletely filled out, from Felix R. Canout Rehabilitation Services, Inc. Under PATIENT NAME, in handwriting I don't recognize, someone has filled in Mommy's name, along with her DOB: 2/1/14, MEDICARE #: 074-10-3783D, PHYSICIAN: Hadley I fold the paper back up.

A black Pilot pen.

Her wallet...I hesitate, then go ahead. In one of the compartments, a small pocket address book. I open it at random. In my mother's rhythmic, energetic handwriting:

Adelman, Norman and Louise
1035 Summit Dr.
272 2825

Roberta Alpert
161 Greenfield
477 6977

Flipping through, I find my cousins and my niece, in Jerusalem, and my father's cardiologist. I look for us, too, and find us, though I don't know what that's supposed to prove.

How much time is going by? I know this is some kind of wild goose chase I'm on, I know I'm looking irrationally for some kind of clue -- a clue to I know not what. An answer to some question I can't even articulate. Here's a receipt from Andy's Vacuum Center for $23.90. A business card from Healthy Discount, "Your One Stop Natural Health Food Supermarket." A plastic credit card from Mrs. Gooch's Supermarket. A Visa card.

I'm just beginning to chide myself for all the time I'm spending, and am getting ready to get up off this rocking chair and return her purse to its rightful hiding place, when in a zippered compartment I find two white cards, each one folded in half.

I open the first. There's something written in her handwriting, but not the handwriting I've always known. The words are shaky, almost illegibly so. It must have been when her hands trembled uncontrollably, near the end.

It says: Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.

I open the second. In the same wobbling hand.

Nothing is more whole than a broken heart. -- The Torah

Suddenly, out of the blue, it's my sister I'm thinking of. Please God, help us! It seemed crazy even to ask, we were so far from such a thing, but I was saying it anyway. Hashem! Please! Make us love each other again.

* * *

It was later the same day when the final episode of this story took place, about one thirty or two in the afternoon. (I remember thinking I had about an hour before my youngest got home from school, at three.) I suddenly felt very tired in the middle of the day, and went to take a nap.

As soon as my eyes closed, I started dreaming.

It was an uncommonly vivid dream. In it, my mother was looking right at me with her face very close to mine. I was looking directly into her eyes, her green eyes I knew so well, and her eyes, alive and shining, were smiling deeply into mine. She was singing a song to me, an old song from the 1950s that I remember from my childhood, "Hey There, You with the Stars in Your Eyes."

The music woke me with a jolt, and it took several seconds before I understood that it was just a dream, and that Mommy wasn't here anymore. This realization struck me an almost physical blow, and I was pierced by the keenest, most exquisite sorrow, as if my heart had been penetrated by an arrow.

Until this moment, I hadn't comprehended that she was really gone.

After a while, I got myself up and went back to Pesach cleaning.

That evening, I got an email from my sister, the first time she'd contacted me in all those months.

I read:

Something made me think of you today. I was on my way to work this morning, listening to Morning Edition on NPR, when an old song came on the radio. It was probably from before your time but I wonder if you know it - "Hey There, You With the Stars in Your Eyes." For some reason it made me think of you, and miss you.

So that's how it came to an end, our long cold war. And when I asked, "What time were you driving to work?" she said, "Oh, around six thirty or seven."

Which would have made it one thirty or two, over here in the Promised Land.

Published: December 23, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 14

(14) Anonymous, December 27, 2006 2:36 PM

great story



I have had a similar experience

(13) MollyDevonick, December 26, 2006 4:05 PM

Very Poignant and heartwarming.

I never had daughters, but my sister has three, who are like my own. Now that she is nearing the end of her life
at age 98, I thought they would get much from reading this story.

(12) Anonymous, December 25, 2006 2:59 PM

Please reprint the Sarah Shapiro book that is out of print

(11) Laurie, December 25, 2006 1:25 PM

a masterpiece

the release that a good cry gives is priceless whether its from sadness, joy or a bittersweet mixture of both

maybe sisters can't understand the emes as we see it (i'm also one of three; the middle) but we all understand sister-love

(10) Rivka, December 25, 2006 4:31 AM

moving, inspiring,insightful

Sarah Shapiro has done it again -- taking me back to re-examine my own experiences and gain new insights & aspire to be better, to live more awarely. And with such a gentle touch -- she always makes me eager to imbibe her masterpiece. Somehow her vignettes are always both soothing and revitalizing. Thanks!

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