The following story is what I read as a member of the Milwaukee cast for the 2017 Listen to Your Mother program.
Five Memories of My Mother
I. In an alley, 1951. A neighborhood kid pounds on our screen door. “Myles, your mom fell down in the alley.”
I am eight…and frightened. We rush into the alley where my mother picks up the last of the scattered groceries.
“I tripped, but I'm all right,” she says, looking weary, even vulnerable.
We eight year-old boys carry the grocery bags, and walk her home.
When memories like this one appear, it’s like opening a wallet and seeing the worn edges of an almost-forgotten photograph. I slip the memory of my mother out of the wallet, study it for a moment, then put it away, yet again.
II. As a widow, 1986. A year after my father’s death, over one hundred people have gathered for a lecture in honor of his work with The Anti-Defamation League. I am to introduce the speaker, and as I near the end of my remarks, my mother interrupts from her table of six.
“Then sit down already and let him talk!”
Several at her table begin to examine the tablecloth as if it were the Shroud of Turin, while I, mortified, stifle the impulse to descend from the dais, gently throttle my surviving parent…and become an orphan.
III. In her final days, 1999. My Jewish mother lies on her deathbed in St. Mary's Hospital. She tells us a priest inquired if he could pray with her. When my Catholic wife, Catherine, asks if the priest was intrusive, my mother replies, “No he wasn’t. I appreciate all prayer.”
Her comment opens the wallet again. In this memory, I am four years old, and my mother holds my hand so I will not fall from the low retaining wall where I balance.
“What is God, Mommy?”
She touches a leaf on a shrub next to the wall and tells me, “God is everything that is green and grows.”
Fifty-two years later, at my mother’s death bed, I hold her hand, and cry for her and for the little boy I have just remembered. She gives me an “It’s okay, baby” smile. Two days later, she dies. For the next fourteen years, I will not cry again over her death.
IV. In a name, 2013. A dear friend, a Hassidic rabbi, invites me to visit the burial place of his movement’s spiritual leader. Visitors write notes asking for his blessing, and drop their requests at the foot of his grave. Out of respect for my friend, I do the same.
The rabbi says to me, “You remember…through the mother is Jewishness recognized. So, write your name that way, then your request.”
I write, “My name is מא׳ר בן שרה, Meir ben Sarah, Meir Son of Sarah…Son of Sarah…An intense feeling of loss overcomes me, as it had at my mother’s deathbed. Long-repressed sorrow breaks through to the surface and, finally, I am able to cry.
I take the narrow path to the spiritual leader’s grave, where I add my blessing request to a blanket of hundreds of other pieces of folded white paper. Mine looks as lonely there as I feel.
V. On a birthday, 2016. On my mother’s one-hundredth birthday, seventeen years after her death, Catherine and I light a memorial candle. We recall how maddening my mother could be, but also her deathbed blessing: “Cathy, every day I asked God to send someone to watch over my son. He sent you, and every day I thank Him.”
“Your mother opened her heart and mind,” Catherine says. “She expanded her faith to make room for my own, because she understood how important my Catholicism and years in the convent are to me…And there’s the embroidered tablecloth.”
I’m dismayed I don’t remember. “What tablecloth?” I ask.
This time, Catherine opens the wallet.
“The one she used on Jewish holidays. She gave it to me and said, “Put this on your table at Christmas, Cathy,’ and when I asked her, ‘Don’t you mean Chanukah?’ she said, ‘Listen to my words, baby. Put it on your table at Christmas.’”
In the warm light of the memorial candle, I study this photograph of my mother, then slip it, yet again, into its resting place…right next to “God is everything that is green and grows.”
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
Seventy years later, some still insist it couldn’t have happened. It did…and I should know. After all, it’s my own pants we’re talking about here.
The year it happened was 1947 C.E., more or less. I’m four years old, or a bit to one side or the other of it, and I walk up the flight of black metal stairs with raised dimples on the treads for traction, and hand rails fashioned from black pipe. The exterior, exposed staircases are on the outside rear of every two or three story apartment building in the neighborhood. Kitchens are entered from the landings on each floor.
I enter ours, and am not surprised to see my mother–she lives here and was home a half hour earlier–though she’s surprised to see my pants; i.e., the front of them, a bit below the waist.
“How did your pants get wet, Sweetheart?” she says to me, beginning the sort of inquiry that mothers must have engaged in since Homo sapiens first began wearing clothing that included something like pants.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them,” I say.
I wouldn’t have said anything else. Two things to keep in mind: Josh Lester was a neighborhood kid my older brother’s age, seven, or a bit to one side of it or the other; and “tee-cee” (best translated as “pee”) was used, in our family’s oral and written English, as a verb or noun.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in your pants? Sweetheart…how did your pants get wet?”
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them.”
“I have a lot of practice,” he said, flashing that great smile.
I noticed his heavily muscled forearms, and the callouses on his knuckles
and other parts of his hands.
“And you’re really good at it,” I said.
1988. I was one of those forty-five year old guys, in a nice suit and tie, on my way to one of those “really important trips” to New York. Upgraded to first class and assigned the seat I had requested–aisle, bulkhead, with maximum legroom–I knew I’d be comfortable and wouldn’t have to climb over anyone in order to use the restroom.
Along with the other first class passengers, I boarded the plane early, stowed my suitcase, and thanked the flight attendant who handed me a cup of coffee as soon as I took my seat. I could not have been more content, considering I was drinking TWA coffee, and not an espresso in an outdoor café.
When the flight attendant approached me, she said, “We have a problem, sir, and you can help us solve it. We need you to change your seat, and I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“So am I. Why do I have to move? There are other seats open in first class.”
“We specifically need yours.”
“I did everything I could to reserve this seat, and now you’re saying you need it for one of your special customers?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
As I began to say something more, I noticed what was happening behind her, by the entry door. A man my age, mid-forties, was in the aisle. He was several feet tall, and his read reached not far above the arm rests of the passenger seats on either side of him. His body began, or ended, at the few inches that remained of what once had been his legs. He propelled himself by pressing his fists against the floor, boosting his torso about six inches, swinging forward as far as his arms and momentum would permit, landing on the floor, and then repeating the series of well-practiced, moves, all the while smiling at anyone he saw watching him, myself included. Ashamed of my self-absorbed interaction with the flight attendant, I moved to the window seat.
Circa 1950, six years old, maybe seven, St. Louis. I loved Mrs. Iris Banks, and she loved me. While my parents were at work, she helped raise my brothers and me in our all-white neighborhood. In her mid-thirties, her face had a delicate beauty; her brown skin was luminous, her cheeks tinged with light pink. She was thin, even slight, and wore simple cotton dresses with pads in the shoulders. Her black hair was parted in the middle, and gathered in a loose bun.
Iris was, in a way, part of our family, and one special effort was made for me to be part of hers.
I was a little boy on a summer day when my mother was home, and Iris Banks brought her niece to our apartment. We were the same six or seven years old, and our two families had decided we would play together. She wore a pretty, white dress, and her black hair pulled back in braids. Her Auntie Iris and my mother told us to walk to the drugstore, sit at the counter, and have something cold to drink, in circa 1950 St. Louis, when people the skin-color of my playmate and her Auntie Iris were permitted to sit only in top balconies of those “white” movie theatres that admitted them.
To get to the drugstore, Iris Banks’s niece and I had to walk down the alley behind our apartment building. The alley was a favorite hangout for neighborhood kids, none of whom were around that day. There were ash pits for bonfires, dark garages for hideouts during Cops and Robbers, and tons of rocks which became golf balls to smack with a bent, left-handed club we had found near a trash can. The alleys were linear playgrounds, pathways to safe places where, on ordinary days, no harm was done to anyone.
In the Galilee, Winter, 1964, sixteen years after what Israelis call the War of Independence, and Palestinians call the Nakba (The Catastrophe.) Four of us from our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley drove for an hour in our jeep each morning for three days to work in our commune’s large wheat field in the Galilee. We said we were driving to “Lajjun,” close to the Jordanian border; but what is left of Lajjun are remains of the former Palestinian village. There was a cluster of adobe and stone dwellings near the field, but the village, for all intents and purposes, was depopulated of Palestinians during the 1948 war.
Though my knowledge of Lajjun was limited, I was uncomfortable knowing we were working on what must have been Palestinian land before 1948. But, we had work to do, and I was one of the people who did it. Step by step, back and forth, dunam after dunam of the wheat field, we walked, four abreast, in the cold and damp Galilee winter. Each of us in the foursome carried a gallon tin can filled with kernels of wheat, not for human consumption. Each kernel had been coated in poison, a beautiful shade of fuscia. As my co-workers did, I stopped every few steps, dipped a little spoon into my own gallon can, removed a few of the kernels of wheat, bent from my knees and waist, and dropped the colorful and tasty snacks into the tiny entrances and exits of field mouse tunnels. After only two hours of the first day of this repetitive and boring work, I craved relief from the ache in my knees, back, and what was left of my brain. My initial feelings of compassion toward the little field mice, had transitioned to, “Kill the little shits if they insist on decimating our wheat field.”
Having lived in two countries with national health care programs, Canada and Israel, and having lived in the United States with its “best health care system in the world” that permits, if not encourages, private health insurance companies to profit on human suffering, I remember with fondness the real socialized medicine. I was lucky enough to have experienced it while living in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley in 1963-64, and again for several months in 1966.
While there, I worked in our orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate orchards, in our extensive fields of bananas, and in our elaborate complex of fish ponds where we raised and harvested tilapia. During the only three days I spent assisting in our communal kitchen and dining room–washing dishes and performing various other cleaning and food preparation tasks–I discovered I had fifteen different "mothers and grandmothers" I never had known were mine.
And then there were the chicken coops.
"There are times when her words seem to echo a meditation or a prayer,
Act I, A Beginning. University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975.