In Memoriam - A Love Letter to 'Ma'
By My Side, In My Genes, At My Back
How do you thank a mother for all she’s done? Impossible, of course. As Billy Collins’ wonderful poem, The Lanyard, recognised.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
But that didn’t stop me trying. Below is a letter I gave to my mother a few weeks before her death. It made her day. She asked to be buried with it, along with her wedding ring. A measure of how important it is to share love - before it’s too late. She died Sunday, and was buried today Monday, like the Queen she was. On her terms, in her time.
Thank you for all the kind support, reaching out and loving thoughts shared - they have been balm to my soul in a challenging time. ❤️
A Love Letter
How do I say goodbye to my own mother? Since the day I was born, some 61 years ago, you’ve been with me. By my side, in my genes, at my back. Always with me, no matter how far I wandered from home - or from convention. Your greatest gift perhaps (a double-edge sword for any mom) has been the fierce freedom you encouraged - and modelled. Proving that love is geographically agnostic. That home really is where the heart is. Especially the heart that loves you.
Since the day I was born, you’ve been with me. By my side, in my genes, at my back.
Watching your gorgeous, tiny 10-month grand-daughter on vacation doing that classic attachment-theory thing reminds me of us. She wandered off to explore, touch and nibble every possible frond, plug or phone in ever-more-distant excursions. But she always glanced back at her mom, making eye contact, checking that she was still loved, still watched, still admired. (She always was). I have always felt the same. Returning regularly to the source of life for another dose. A reassuring repeat. The best drug in the world: a mother’s love. As a lifelong addict, I’m not quite sure how I’ll fare without my fix.
We are lucky with the moms in our family. They come in only one variety: adoring. No wonder. They learn the art of mothering from their mothers. I always remember Uriel’s quote at my (first) wedding. “Our mother enjoys listening to us as much as we enjoy listening to ourselves.” I fear we never really returned the favour.
Our versions of mom are also powerful. I’m not sure you felt anywhere near as strong as everyone else perceived you to be. But you have modelled so many things for the daughter walking in your footsteps. And for the next generation too. My son has chosen one just like us. Here are just a few of the things I have learned from you. And love you for.
Simply the fact of your existence (and that of your great-granddaughter!) is a testament to the human ability to survive even the darkest days. That both you and your mother survived the Nazi Death Camps is a powerful female family line capable of getting through everything and anything. Including seemingly unlimited series of hardships. Loss of childhood, wealth, education and family, a decade of pure hell, followed by emigration, Jewish motherhood in Catholic Quebec, loss of home languages, early widowhood, loss of your eldest child, solitude …
For your daughter, you’ve raised the bar on what I might ever legitimately call a rough day. By these standards, I haven’t faced a single one in my entire life. But I know how to if it ever becomes necessary. I’m ready for whatever life may still throw my way from having watched you survive so much, even thrive. Admired the sheer determination with which you put one foot in front of the other and made it through whatever life threw at you. It threw a lot.
While I don’t think you’d ever claim the label of ‘feminist,’ you’ve certainly defined the term for your daughter. You taught me that a woman could do everything. Not by saying it, but by doing it. Not necessarily by choice, but by letting necessity generate growth. Raise (three!) children on her own, go back to school in midlife to reinvent herself, become a university professor, shoulder the single mother breadwinner role, navigate the academic politics of tenure, wisely manage money while also (miraculously) finding time and years to write books, cook great meals, host inter-faith Passover Seders, fawn over grandchildren, spend summers en famille in Chautauqua. And – always – admire and support your daughter’s own independence and choices.
Like so many Frenchwomen, you did all of the above with style and elegance. Born gorgeous, you always dressed the part and rejoiced in and encouraged your daughter’s fashion habits. The hours and hours and piles and piles at our annual Winner’s excursions were not just a shared joy but a signature commitment to living beautifully. Caring about how we looked carried over into caring how we lived beauty every day. You taught me to love everything humans invented beauty to express -creativity and depth and meaning. From literature and metaphors, to art and democracy. But also home. Homes must be cosy, unpretentious, beautiful and book-filled. Dinners must be delicious and served on colourful tables full of joyous napkins and Christofle silverware. Conversation must be enlightening and engaged, full of intellect and international references. No wonder I ended up spending so much of my adult life in Paris. It was the only place that matched your standards. I felt immediately at home when I first landed there.
I think I must have ingested irony with your milk. You are still, at 97, zinging hilarious one-liners at your doctors, friends and carers. I will always treasure your sardonic wit, ready laugh and the rare and constant combination of tragedy and humour. How uncomprehending your adopted country and countrymen were to this extremely French aspect of your humour. I’m afraid some of your very best lines were met with blank stares. They still are. I suppose it prepared you for the more generalised incomprehension of old age.
You’ve been talking about dying for a long time, ever since your fall in front of the house back in 2003 when daughter and I were visiting. Almost 20 years ago! I’m glad you didn’t decide to leave then. You have had the chance to watch your four delightful grandchildren become rather impressive, accomplished young adults. And they have had the chance to get to know you. It gives them a sense of roots and family that we never had. That three of those grandchildren miraculously share a city (at least for a time) in New York. That they have learned to know and appreciate your strength and bathed in your bienveillance and regular generosity. That you got to know and love my rather exceptional husband Tim, understand your daughter’s initially incomprehensible choice, and enjoy for a time his limitless kindness. While he got to delight in your shared sense of humour. You’ve often said that 97 is ‘too long.’ But in the end, it may have been just right.
Because you even get the final cherry on the cake. Right here at the end, as the summer of ’22 winds its way towards the first hint of fall, we get the next cycle of life and generations turning its inexorable wheel. And delivering the most adorable, long-lashed, bright-eyed great-granddaughter as a final, beautiful, exclamation point to a long and eventful life. The fact that she is such a mash-up of so many global colours, cultures and continents seems so fitting for our family, strewn across history and geography. That she is a ‘she,’ adds another lovely link to several generations of powerful, independent women. So far, she looks right on type. Walking at 10 months, visiting her 4th country before her first birthday, flying in to catch a meeting with her great-grandmother before she departs, smiling in delight at everything and everyone the world throws at her. It’s already thrown her a lot.
As I look at this web of humans that are descended from you, I see patterns and echoes. Imprints and lessons that you have passed on – consciously or not. No matter where you (or I) go next, I’ll keep glancing back. I’ll know exactly what you would say. I always have. I need my fix. You will live on – in me. In all of us.
No matter where you (or I) go next, I’ll keep glancing back. I’ll know exactly what you would say. I always have. I need my fix. You will live on – in me. In all of us.
Go well, and, from the bottom of my swelling heart, know that I will be forever grateful for the mother I was gifted. The mother she made me become. The wo(men) who walk in her wake.
“Heaven,” I read recently, “is being a memory to others.” A beautiful one.