I read this piece 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 prayer,
something that might have been spoken best in Latin,
in the convent, at mass.
Act I, A Beginning. University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975. We discovered that both of us loved to walk…together. I was thirty-two, Catherine was twenty-seven. We had met a year earlier while employed in the same department.
We walked through the numbing winter cold, in the spring when everything bloomed and all seemed possible, and in the early summer when we lingered under catalpa trees late at night as the flower petals fell around us in a soft, white veil. In the hot, mid-summer days and cooler evenings, we walked in the arboretum where, years earlier, Catherine had recorded the habits of Arboretum wildlife, while remaining silent for hours. She had demonstrated this patience early in her life, and nurtured it later, during her years in the convent as an aspirant.
With each walk, we grew more comfortable in our shared silences. I learned from her to honor those times when what is most important is listening to the sounds of the heart. And we held hands. And began to fall in love.
On an early summer morning, before Madison became busy in its way, we set out with no destination in mind. We stopped for breakfast at a diner, then walked until we stopped somewhere else for lunch, and continued walking until we ate dinner at a third place. By then, the sun was setting; we decided our dessert would be a walk in the nearby arboretum at the end of what had been a perfect day.
As twilight faded to early night, our secluded path entered a thick stand of trees that blocked what was left of the dim glow of the summer sky. Alone in the silence and darkness, we felt safe. It was startling the first time we heard the sound of something invisible in the dark, swooping close to our heads. It swooped again. And then again, stopping only as we emerged from the stand of trees and entered a small field where the trail widened. In quiet voices, unsure of what had happened, we acknowledged we had been frightened. Talking in the dark in this intimate way, we realized what had frightened us was nothing else but a large owl, protecting its nest and its young. We imagined it was the mother.
Act II, A Decision. St. Louis, Missouri, fall 1987. Twelve years passed, and we were still a couple, sharing our lives and our household, but not yet married. One morning, we talked again of how vexatious, maybe impossible, it would be to find a rabbi and a priest to officiate at the wedding of this Jewish man and this Catholic woman. And we worried about something more important: what would we teach our children about religion, and could all of this become so overwhelming we might never move forward.
Silent once again, we stood close to each other as the sun streamed through the large window and appeared as a rectangle of sunlight on an unadorned white wall of our bedroom. Catherine was the first to speak. There are times–and this would be one of them–when her words seem to echo a meditation or a prayer, something that might have been spoken best in Latin, in the convent, at mass.
“It’s upon us to understand how God manifests Himself.”
Two small birds flew past the window, revealed only by their fleeting shadows crossing the sunlight on the wall.
“That's how God manifests Himself to me,” I said.
“That’s how He manifests Himself to me, too,” Catherine said. “Let’s go ahead and get married.”
We eloped. Members of our families had wanted us to marry, but the idea of putting together a wedding with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends seemed overwhelming and unnecessary. A Unitarian minister officiated in the chapel of his church. Our only guests were another couple, good friends who fulfilled the requirement of two witnesses. Afterwards, the four of us enjoyed an elegant lunch at their home. The dining room table had been prepared for a wedding celebration: white embroidered table cloth, fine crystal and china, and delectable salads and wine. Their newborn son slept peacefully in the next room.
A cold November rain began as Catherine and I drove toward the airport to leave for a brief honeymoon on Sanibel Island. My father had died two years before, and we decided to stop at the cemetery to tell him we were married, and to imagine his blessing. The cemetery gate was locked. I had forgotten it was one of the Jewish holidays; tradition demands that the cemetery should not be visited during any of those days. We climbed over the low stone wall, told my father we had married, and knew he would be pleased. We placed a small rock on his headstone, and climbed back over the fence. In our car, we laughed about how wet, muddy, and contented we were on our wedding day.
Act III, A Wedding Gift. Sanibel Island. One afternoon of our three days on the island, we purchased a belated wedding cake. In a small park, we shared a slice of key lime pie that we ate with plastic forks from a fine china paper plate, our shoulders touching as we sat on a sun-bleached, wooden bench under a shading palm tree. We took small bites to make the feast last longer, then used our forefingers to capture the last crumbs of graham cracker crust and the last traces of whipping cream. We fed these morsels of treasure to each other in an act of sharing that evoked the words from the Song of Solomon, often recited by brides and grooms: “I am my beloved’s; my beloved is mine.” This moment, on a wooden bench under a palm tree, served to consecrate our commitment.
It was the slow season, and we encountered only small number of people, especially on the beach. The island is known for its abundant array of sea shells, always at their greatest number following a storm like the one that had preceded our visit. We held hands as we walked the long beach a few steps from our door, letting go when either of us spotted a special shell that called for close examination. At the ever-shifting margin of water and sand, new shells were exposed with each soft ebb and flow of a now calm sea.
Our search for shells was interrupted by a dorsal fin emerging from the water fifteen feet from us. A few seconds later, a much smaller fin emerged. Two dolphins surfaced enough for us to see much of their shiny, grey and black, rounded backs, one large and one very small. The mother dolphin–we again imagined–and her baby, began to accompany us as we continued down the beach.
Our new friends disappeared at short intervals of no more than a minute or two, then reappeared next to us. A few times, we stopped to see if they would stop with us. They did. When we resumed, they resumed. Our isolation on a remote part of the beach contributed why we shared a feeling that this was more than just a walk with nearby dolphins.
“Catherine, are you feeling what I’m feeling?”
“Actually, what I’m feeling is like we’re communing with them.”
The four of us continued down the beach, but at an isolated point of land, where the storm had deposited a large pile of driftwood that blocked our path, we decided to turn back. We hoped the dolphins would turn with us, which they did. After another half-hour together, our companions returned to the depths.
Catherine and I slowed our pace for about a quarter mile more, before we accepted they had left us. Our elation became more like serenity. It became the kind of feeling that can happen while witnessing a spectacular sunset and painted sky, and realizing, as the crest of our star slips below the horizon, a wondrous day is gone forever, but more are sure to come.
Curtain call. Milwaukee, 2016. After thirty years, when we reminisce about how we fell in love and married, our experiences on the Sanibel beach and the secluded path in the arboretum are inseparable. Anyone might think, as once we had, that in the arboretum we were given nothing more than a warning not to approach the owl’s nest and its young. But in matters of the heart–our two hearts–thoughts give way to feelings, reality is blurred by imagination and illusion, and ordinary shadows of birds racing across rectangles of sunlight become revelations.
Having given life to our own son and daughter, having reared them in our own nest, we can not help but imagine, perhaps believe, that Mother Owl had offered her beating wings to carry us to Mother Dolphin and the child she would show two lovers, walking hand in hand, listening to the sounds of the heart.