I read this piece as a member of the Milwaukee cast for the 2017 Listen to Your Mother program.
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.”