I was around twenty years old in my parents’ home, in the middle of a sweltering New York summer night. Twisting from side-to-side, I finally gave in to the restlessness and the heat and descended the wooden stairs to the kitchen, with a drink of cold water on my mind. At the base of the stairs, I stopped. A voice was croaking out a song.
It was in a language I heard often, but didn’t understand.
I followed the sound to the doorway of our living room.
There was my mother, sitting perfectly still, surrendering to the softness of our old orange easy chair. A haunting melody, from a distant place rose from the bottom of my mother’s throat. My eyes watched hers as she stared past the paneled walls.
“What are you doing?” I asked, feeling like an intruder, afraid of her answer.
She looked up startled, her eyes still elsewhere. “It’s a lullaby my mother sang to me,” she said with anger, curling up tightly inside her pride.
If I stood there any longer, my discomfort would turn to pain. I retreated to the kitchen. I ran the faucet, filled a glass with ice, and wrapped both hands around it, concentrating hard on the cold. I didn’t want to absorb her anguish this time. Early on in my life, I had taken on that job.
As far back as I can remember, I knew I had a sad mommy. Her eyes were the heaviest part of her body. Her voice thick with a Polish accent and with something else, something awful. I noticed that all the other kids had grandparents. Despite my tender age, I knew that the question I needed to ask was taboo. It would disturb her. I asked anyway.
“Where are my grandparents?” My small heart pounded. Her body went rigid, unprepared for my innocent interrogation.
“They were murdered.” She went back to her housework. I trailed close behind her fast-moving legs. My next question carried the same urgency as her movements.
“Who killed them?” I wondered what they could have done to elicit such violence. A fire raged behind her heavy eyes.
“The Nazis!” And with that she left the room.
I stopped asking my questions. I kept my mother’s sadness a constant companion. It was the only way I knew how to be in the world, and to feel close to her. But, the questions remained, as well as the wanting…more.
Far from the middle of that night, I’m in the middle of my life and at last ready to stop guarding the grief, to engage the joy that was always mine. For decades I didn’t dare betray her or our silent agreement: “Don’t ask anything, but know everything.” I realize now that it is me I can no longer betray.
I don’t blame my sweet mother. Truth is, I probably would do it again, to protect her, to spare her more pain, to save her. No matter how futile or crippling a task, I don’t think I could have done anything else.
I remember a metal sign my mother inconspicuously displayed against a kitchen counter wall. Large metallic black letters on a red background announced, “NOW.” It surprised me then that she desired this message. I am no longer surprised.
Every day, I’m learning to breathe my own air. Like a child reborn, I’m leaving this constricting womb. I’m stretching out my arms and legs, opening my heart, wider and wider, to make room for myself in this world. Life awaits.
Originally published in Sarah Shapiro’s anthology entitled The Mother in Our Lives (Targum/Feldheim).