“I’m going, Mama.”
She looks up from the stove where my favorite food is cooking. Lamb chops and mashed potatoes. I wonder what Miriam’s mother will make for supper.
That familiar crease deepens between Mama’s eyes. “Are you sure you know where to get off the bus?”
“Come on Mama, you know how many times I have gone to Miriam’s house.”
“I know, darling, but you’ve never gone alone.”
I shrug off the feeling creeping into my stomach and pick up my over-night case.
“Call me when you get there, you know how I am.”
“Mama. It’s six o’clock.”
“This is New York, Sarah.” She wipes her hands on the towel, and comes over to give me a hug. My body goes limp. She steps back, that crease deepening again, as she looks at me. Then she shrugs.
“Did you remember all your books for tomorrow?”
I bite my lip, and walk back into my bed-room to collect my books. I can feel her shaking her head at my back.
“What would you do without me, Sarah?”
I jam the math notebook, into my bag. I’ve been hearing her repeat that question since forever. Suddenly my hand stops in mid-air. The thought jumps into my mind. She needs me to forget things. And she needs me to be weak, so that I will need her. I stand there a moment, weighed down by the intensity of the realization. Then I shrug. If it makes her happy, I’ll keep playing the game. Anything to get me out of here.
She is standing by the open door. I walk right past her.”Bye,” I call over my shoulder.
“Don’t forget to call. I won’t sleep until I hear from you.”
That scared feeling creeps in again. What if something happens to me? What if something happens to her while I’m gone? I stop walking and give her a smile. “Yes, Mama, I know how you are.”
“We have to go now, Mama. Our bus leaves in half an hour.”
Mama folds my eldest’s sleeves neatly to his elbow, and then looks around at the others, that crease forming between her eyes.
“Are you sure you’ll manage, Sarah? All these packages…”
I don’t remind her that most of the stuff wasn’t with me when we arrived. “The kids can carry a lot. Right boys?”
They nod, smiling at the boxes of toys and clothes Bubby has bought them. Her eyes caress each child, one more time. “Well if you’re sure.”
I pick up my baby girl, Ayala, from the floor. I wonder if Mama will still be worrying over my maternal abilities when I am a grandmother.
But when she comes over to hug me hard, I hug her back. I have finally come to understand that she has sacrificed a lot for all her children, and she needs to feel that it was truly needed.
Still, I think looking over my brood, I will make sure that I don’t pass on these messages to my children.
But what about other ones I am not conscious of?
“It always seems so short.” Mama is saying. “We never get to really talk.”
I glance at her. Lately these are always her parting words. Her face is filled with lines. Suddenly she seems so old.
But what is it she wants to talk about? What is it we never get to?
My sister has come to visit from the States. I sit at Mama’s dining room table drinking coffee as I wait for my sister to come out of the kitchen where she is talking with Mama as she cooks.
My coffee cup is drained and I am trying to stop picking at the corner of the chocolate cake.
Why is my sister spending so much time in the kitchen? I strain to hear what they are talking about… It sounds like the same old things…Health issues, proper food, kids.
Wouldn’t she rather be out here with me? We’re closer in age, don’t we have more to talk about?
I nibble on another crumb, and try to remember the last time I sat in the kitchen…sat anywhere… and just chatted on and on with Mama.
I can’t remember
Usually when I come for a visit from my home town, Ashdod, Mama babysits for my youngest, and I go out with Cheryl. Cheryl is my good friend with the car, who takes me shopping. Usually with the money Mama has given me.
Cheryl and I always have so much to talk about.
Why don’t I want to talk to Mama, to sit and chat with her, the way I would do with a friend? But I know the answer, really. There is that part of me that I had to keep for myself, because I gave her everything else.
A long time ago, I must have made the decision to let her think I could not live without her care, her worrying. And somehow, eventually, I began to believe it myself. I became the role.
And so all I had left for myself were my thoughts, my feelings… my inner world.
I stuff another piece of cake into my mouth.
She stands a bit apart from us. She is smiling with that shy smile of hers, and in her hand she holds, relentlessly, on to the broom handle.
My brother took these pictures right before he left. Was she busy sweeping all through the visit? Mama’s little helper, I mutter, but it does not make me smile.
I put the pictures back into the envelope, and stick them in a drawer.
The next day, when Ayala comes home from school, I sit down beside her as she was does her homework.
“How was school, darling?
Ayala shrugs. “Okay.”
“Did anything interesting happen today?”
Another shrug. More silence.
“Is everything okay, Ayala? Is there anything bothering you that you want to talk over with me?”
Ayala looks up from her homework for a moment. There is a crease forming between her eyes. “No,” she says perplexedly. Then she goes back to writing.
This time I get up and walk away. And I wonder, when was the last time the two of us sat together and just chatted?
Ayala and I are standing at the ‘meat’ sink. It is the end of a long day, and the sink is full of dishes. Ayala has just finished tidying up the dining room. I look at the sink, and start muttering.
“I am so tired. I wish one of your brothers would do this for a change. But you think anyone cares that I am exhausted. It’s fine to eat the food I cook, but when it comes to helping out, it’s like talking to a wall…”
“It’s okay, Ema,” Ayala says, “I’ll do them. You go rest.”
I turn towards my daughter, and smile. I knew she would say that… Ayala does not smile back. Instead she looks at me, with that crease in her forehead that so reminds me of my mother.
I can feel the smile drop off my face. The realization hits me in my center. Of course I knew she would offer to help. As the only girl, that’s the role I have forced on her. Not consciously of course.
Not any more consciously then the one my mother forced on to me.
I had promised myself that I would be different. I wouldn’t give so much to my children that they would feel weak. I wouldn’t make them feel guilty by passing down indirect messages of how much they needed me.
Instead, I was always indirectly telling my daughter how much I needed her. And in doing so, I had forced her into her own role.
“It’s okay.” I tell Ayala. “I just like complaining sometimes. Just to let off steam.” I struggle with the words. “It doesn’t mean you have to take over.”
Ayala shrugs, and walks away, but inside I have made a decision. I will stop guilt tripping. When I need her help, I will ask my daughter directly.
And I will try to give her more space to just be herself.
I pour some dish soap onto the sponge and I start scrubbing the soup pot. And I wonder.
How many generations of mothers and daughter have been passing down messages in the same guilt forming ways?
“Ema,” I’m going over to Shira for a break.’ Ayala says. “Would you mind babysitting the boys? They’re fast asleep.”
I look up from my comfortable chair. Ayala and I have been sitting together in the living room reading, but for me this is quality time. Each in our own worlds, but together
“You always have so much to talk about with Shira,” I blurt out.
Ayala looks away. She shrugs.
“You know we go way back, Shira and me. Since high school days.”
You and I go back way longer, I think. But this time I keep my mouth shut. I had spent a long time working on not ‘guilting’ my daughter into a role of Mother’s little savior. But there were all those years before she turned ten, before I realized what I was doing. I couldn’t go back, but I wasn’t going to ‘guilt’ her into becoming Mother’s little confidante now.
“Don’t be too late.” I tell her instead.
Ayala escapes to her friend, and I look around the empty living room, listening to the breathing of my grandchildren in the little guest room. And suddenly I am sitting in my mother’s living room, with my own little children asleep in the guest room, and I am waiting for Cheryl to pick me up.
I lean my head against the railing of the bed and close my eyes. It will never be the same again. I will never have my Mama back.
My forehead is getting cold from the metal, but I do not move it until an image fills that hole in my center.
I am around five, six years old lying in my bed at night. Mama sits beside me, holding my head in her lap. I can’t sleep. Mama strokes the side of my temples as I close my eyes. It is the most delicious feeling in the world. I feel totally surrounded with her love. When she thinks I am asleep, she walks quietly out of the room. And I fall into a slumber.
I wake up a while later, and notice that everything is quiet. But then I hear Mama’s voice coming from the living room, then Daddy’s voice answering her. I cannot hear what they are saying, but I know they are just sitting and talking about their day, as they do every evening. I listen to the sounds, rhythmic, like the sounds of a car shushing by, or the humming of the fan.
Everything is in its place, everything is as it should be.
A simple child’s moment, gone forever.
I lean close to her and whisper. “Thank you, Mama.” But she does not open her eyes.
The longing cuts through me.
I scrape my chair as I pull it over to the phone, and stare at it. When was the last time my newly married daughter called me? If I don’t call her, sometimes a week or ten days go by before she remembers me.
Oh what’s the difference, I think, picking up the receiver. I want to talk to her, I need to talk to her, so I might as well be the one to call. But every time I start pushing her number, I make a different mistake. After three times I bang the phone down.
Inside, I know. I have to give her the chance to take the initiative. To miss me.
And when she calls I won’t ‘guilt’ her for keeping me waiting.
Ayala phones me one morning, which is unusual in itself, because she usually waits until the children are home from school, so that I can talk to them.
“What’s new?” I ask.
And she tells me about her dilemma. She has been looking for part time work for ages, longs to get out and work again, and now she was offered a job that is exactly in her field of choice.
“That’s great!” I say wondering why she doesn’t sound excited.
“But I will have to be out of the house eight hours a day, which means not only will Yossi have to be put into a nursery for five hours, he’ll have to be picked up by a babysitter and spend another two, three hours alone with her.
We are both silent. Yossi is not even two years old and very attached to his mother.
We go back and forth about it, and finally I ask.”Did you talk to any of your friends about what they think?”
No, my daughter admits, “You and Baruch are the only ones I’ve talked with.” She pauses. “It’s okay, Ema, I don’t really expect you to give me an answer, I only wanted to get your input.”
Before we hang up, I tell her that whatever she decides, she should not base it on the fear that Hashem would never send her an opportunity like this again. “Especially if you do what you think He wants you to….”
I sit looking at the phone, feeling totally torn. On the one hand I feel so bad for my daughter. It is a truly difficult choice.
On the other, hand, I am thrilled. It is the first time she chose to ask for my input on so important and personal an issue.
And I think; It is never too late to get out of a cycle. Even if it takes generations to make that tiny step.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.