For much of my adolescence and adult life, I mostly dismissed my mother as irrelevant. It was my charismatic, larger-than-life father upon whom I focused, a gifted Yiddish writer and editor who constantly stirred things up in our parochial neighborhood with the contentious articles he wrote, a Polish Holocaust survivor who -- he was very proud to point out -- had once been Elie Wiesel's editor on the underground Irgun newspaper in Paris. My soft-spoken mother was eclipsed by my father's magnetic presence. While he was warm and effusive, she was reserved, almost withholding. .
When I wrote my first puerile poem at the age of eight, I found myself whisked away from my mother's kitchen to my father's study, from shopping expeditions to library and bookstore forays instead, metamorphosing quickly into my father's daughter.
My father took charge of my upbringing. It was my father who tutored me in Jewish subjects, who brought me home stacks of instructive books to read, who edited my callow writing attempts.
When my mother hit 40, an amazing transformation took place. She began devouring endless volumes of spiritual literature and signed up for a plethora of courses that today would be consigned to the "self-growth" category -- anything that could give her a handle on a life she now regarded as poorly spent, and could provide her with the key to fulfill her personal aspirations.
I did not -- I am sorry to say -- applaud my mother's struggle to break out of the cocoon.
I did not -- I am sorry to say -- applaud my mother's struggle to break out of the cocoon in which she had hung in limbo for so many decades and evolve into a butterfly.
During my adolescence, I had brooded over what I perceived as her limitations as a parent. My mother had given me little emotionally, but at least there had been dinner on the table, freshly laundered clothes, food in the cupboard, physical manifestations that she was performing her maternal role. Now those amenities were gone. At midlife, she had probably begun to count her days with more precision, realizing that the sands of time were rapidly falling away, grasping at things that had previously eluded her and would soon disappear altogether. As my mother threw herself fully into all her various activities, she became increasingly absent from our lives.
This deep-felt hurt became more deeply entrenched over the passage of time.
And when my father died, too young at 62, leaving my mother a widow at 56, she suddenly began to need all kinds of assistance.
My generous husband agreed that we would pay my mother's monthly rent and other expenses. A non-driver, whenever my mother needed to visit the doctor, go shopping, or run other errands, it was I who played chauffeur. I acceded to all her demands, reminding myself that she was now a poor widow, but I did so with stony eyes flecked with fury.
A few years before my mother died, she started seeing a psychologist who had a profound effect on her. Slowly, she set about making little gestures that I knew were amends. When I went on book tours across the country, my mother prepared healthy meals for me to take along to replace "toxic" airplane fare. She suddenly offered to baby sit, although my youngest son was practically a teenager now, and the need was now moot. She volunteered to cook special holiday delicacies that I had never learned to master.
But what touched me most of all was a little thing that happened when I took her on a vacation to Florida, just the two of us, and we shared a hotel suite. I opened my eyes one night to find her tenderly tucking a blanket around me that had fallen to the floor. That small act of maternal kindness almost took my breath away.
She had a sudden and massive heart attack two weeks after Passover, only three months after the Florida trip. We had spent a beautiful Passover together, our frozen relations almost completely thawed. I had recently begun to reflect on the irony that now that things were getting better, she was getting older, and time was slipping away. And since I was approaching menopause myself, I had new understanding of the dynamics that had probably driven her so many years before. In retrospect, I viewed her mid-life crisis as an act of desperation, a flailing for freedom and personal choice. I softened towards her considerably, taking her to an endless round of lectures, concerts and movies and surprised to find myself actually enjoying her company. But our time together became tinged with poignant hues. There wasn't that much time left, I knew. Still, she was 72, so I thought she had more.
I said the words I had withheld for decades: "Ma, I love you. I love you so much. Please, please get better."
When the call came that she was in the hospital, I vomited. At her side in the ICU, I cried endlessly, huge sobs of deep anguish. It was then that I said the words I had withheld for decades: "Ma, I love you. I love you so much. Please, please get better." To which she suddenly opened one eye and faintly said, "Don't you worry, I'm not going yet!" I felt cheered by her statement. She had always been a fighter, and surely she could keep death at bay even now.
The last 12 days of her life in the hospital were a revelation. A mask seemed to have been stripped off her persona, unveiling an entirely different human being than the one I had previously known. Her essence seemed so pure, so sweet now. Each time I walked into the hospital room, she stretched her arms out in almost childlike delight, embracing me with a warmth I had never experienced before, heaping constant praise upon me, plying endless compliments. "I am so lucky to have such great children!" she proclaimed over and over again. I bombarded her with all the kinds of presents she typically enjoyed -- flowers, books, nightgowns, scarves, jewelry, but the only thing she wanted from me now was strawberry ice cream -- her favorite -- so I indulged her with a pint every day. She savored every mouthful as I fed her with a spoon.
On the last day of her life, I brought her a CD player along with tapes from the legendary Jewish singer, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whom she adored. As his music played in her ear, she tried to sing along. It was then that I began to get alarmed.
A social worker had already interviewed her and was preparing discharge papers. Plans had been made to hire full time companions to assist her (she didn't want to move in with me) and we were gearing up to take her home. But when she tried to sing along with Shlomo Carlebach, her clear, beautiful, melodious voice -- the toast of Squirrel Hill High School where she had sung solo in the school choir -- cracked and faltered. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
"Such a beautiful song!" she cried. "Shlomo Carlebach composed such beautiful songs!"
Then she did something remarkable. She had been confined to the bed all week -- unable to walk despite the incessant cajoling of the physical therapists -- but she suddenly lifted herself off from it and stumbled over to the window. Her sudden movements made it impossible for me to intervene and my mouth dropped at this unexpected surge of activity. But I understood what had compelled her to leave her bed. She loved nature and it was a beautiful spring day. The leaves on the trees had blossomed, the sun shone brightly and the morning was full of promise.
My mother turned to me, her face radiant with light and said: "God's world is sooo beautiful!" With this exuberant statement I thought she was validating life in general and her own life in particular. I didn't realize that what she was actually saying was goodbye.
Cleaning Mother's Apartment
After the shiva, my sister and I forced ourselves to visit our mother's apartment. I could not believe that she was gone. I kept waiting for her voice to cheerily call out, for her still-lithe figure to emerge from another room.
"I can't do this," I sobbed to my sister. "How is it that inanimate objects survive, but the person who owned them doesn't?" My sister cried too, and then pulling herself together, gently told me that my mother's landlord wanted to rent the apartment as soon as possible and we simply had to clean it out.
My mother's bedroom contained very little. My sister and I stared at each other in dismay, trying for black comedy: "Do you want mommy's $1.99 costume jewelry, or should I take it?"
I felt tremendous pain to see how pinched her life had become. The closets were stuffed with all the clothes that I had bought her over the years, but save the extensive wardrobe, there was nothing of real material value that she had left behind. No precious pieces of jewelry or silver or china anywhere, not a single treasure to take away as a memento of her existence, a living memorial. Even her candlesticks (the original silver ones had been stolen long ago) were sterling plate. I felt guilty that with all that I had given her, I hadn't given her more. I hadn't known. I hadn't known how much her material world had shrunk so pitifully since my father's death.
That's when we found them. Four checks in my mother's handwriting, each one made out for $100,000.
"Well, at least we won't be like other siblings...fighting over mommy's inheritance," my sister said. We both felt so sad. We wished there was something we could take away with us, not because we needed anything, but because we wanted some assurance that our mother hadn't needed anything. We tackled the first box.
That's when we found them. Four checks written out in my mother's handwriting, made payable to each of her three children and one to her new age psychologist.
"One hundred thousand dollars," was the sum of each check. My sister and I stared at each other in shocked silence. We knew that our mother didn't have any money in her bank account; it had in all probability been closed long ago. This was likely an exercise in "visualization." Decades before "The Secret" climbed onto the best-seller charts, my mother was already practicing sending out "energy" to the universe in the hope that her thoughts would create her reality, and that she could receive from the world's abundance anything she wanted. (It didn't quite work out that way.)
What stunned my sister and I most was that our mother wanted to gift us with $100,000 each, and that she had apparently spent time and energy immersed in visualization exercises to make it happen. Even more surprisingly, we found no check made out to her. There were only the checks to us. We sat down on her bed and cried again.
And then my sister made another startling discovery: "Look, Yitty!" she shouted. "Here's a box filled with all your old newspaper and magazine articles."
"What?" I asked in disbelief. "What are you talking about?"
"Look for yourself."
I reached for the large box and found articles that I had written spanning four decades. Over the years, I had been careless about saving my published work and possessed few clippings of my own. As I grew older, I became remorseful that such important pieces of my past were lost to me forever. Several of the publications in which my articles had once appeared had ceased to exist and others simply didn't have archives.
Everything I had ever believed about my mother and the role she played in my life was suddenly turned upside down.
I was thunderstruck that it was my mother who had cared enough to collect these clips so painstakingly and preserve them all these years. What did it imply -- this vigilant and conscientious assembling of practically every article that I had ever written? Everything I had ever believed about my mother and the role she played in my life was suddenly challenged, turned upside down. For there it was: from the old, yellowing, brittle newspapers of 40 years ago to the newer shinier glossy pages of just a few months before: proof that I had been wrong about my mother all this time.
I buried my face in my hands and wept in contrition. Ultimately, the articles I had once thought irrevocably gone were now resurrected, but the years lost between my mother and myself could never be.
I had misinterpreted the narrative of our relationship and so, all these years, I missed the greatest gift of all.
I thought there would be no inheritance from her; I knew she was poor. But the clippings that she had saved were more precious to me than any financial bequest. This then was her legacy to me. A box of withered articles that told me clearly that my mother, all along, loved me.
BIO: Yitta Halberstam is the co-author of the best-selling "Small Miracles" series and author of "Holy Brother:Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach."