I tried to explain myself to my mother a couple of years ago when she said, "You sound more and more like you’re thinking about staying in Israel. Are you staying in Israel?”
“Staying? Like, what am I doing with the rest of my life? Ima, I don’t even know what I’m making for dinner tonight.”
“Make tuna patties and mashed potatoes.”
“I love that, but my kids hate it.”
“D, are you planning on staying?”
I tried to explain how I felt about living here, but it came out in a jumbled mess, a tangle of words. Halfway through living the life that I love to live, the ideals of lower happiness thresholds and not living in a fashion parade, I petered off. "Um, how does that sound to you, Ima?"
"Like you're a little confused." She laughed a little.
I laughed, too. "I am. A little confused."
"That's okay. You'll work it through."
The thought of not living near my mother, of not raising my kids close by, is hard. It used to be harder. It used to make me cry. I guess a lot of it has to do with the mother-daughter relationship in general, but it also has a lot to do with our mother-daughter relationship in particular.
I will not mince words when it comes to describing my mother. My mother is superwoman. She is a small trim howling force of nature, but instead of knocking trees over, she will probably just polish them and trim their leaves properly. Then she’ll ask them about their problems, and if there is anything that she can do to help.
My mother raised the ten of us while caring for a sick husband and being sole breadwinner. We had foster siblings, and sometimes she invited into our home whole families who needed her help. She could write a book about the people who walked through our door for a shabbas meal and ended up staying for months, or years. Maybe I’ll write it for her. And all the while, during her ten-hour daily working shifts and trying another radical diet for my rapidly deteriorating father, and feeding, clothing and listening to all of us, she had time to become my best friend. She is disciplined but flexible, organized but spontaneous, regal but sometimes hysterically inappropriate.
“I figured it out, how you do it,” I said to her once over the long distance phone line while trying to rock the baby with one hand and clean the stove with the other. I don’t remember where the phone was. Maybe it hung midair.
“How I do what?” I pictured her, as she was in the morning, putting on makeup while keeping an eye on the latest in my father’s never ending stream of new home attendants and the phone held to her ear by lifting up her shoulder.
“You know, how you do everything. You’re an android.”
When people ask me how I have it altogether, I answer, first of all, I don’t, but if I seem to, it’s a gift from my mother. I know what it looks like to have a full plate, to have more than your share to deal with. And what I have is not a full plate.
I have made different choices than my mother has. I live in Israel, a country she was born in but left at age ten, I did not finish my master’s program while she has a successful career, and I am still desperately trying to figure how to make love “multiply” as she often claims it does, but I like to think that we are most alike in our differences. Sometimes, though, like with a puzzle done wrong, I have to squeeze a few of the pieces to make it fit, and I know that at the heart of it I am like the little girl who doesn’t think jumping into the pool is worth it if her mother is not watching. So she yells, “Ima, look at me! Look at me! Look at me!” until her mother looks up and smiles. Then she can jump.
Princess and I once sat together on the couch while she went through everything part of her body and said to me, “It’s just like yours, right?” And I assured her, yes, sweet girl, your toes are like mine and so are your teeth. So are your freckles and so are your knees. She beamed, and her joy was almost audible, at the thought of our alikeness. We are not alike. She is just like her father, but just then she needed to be me, so I let her be me.
Who are we to fight it, this strange dependence on the approval of our mothers, our need to, at times, be our mothers? I thought of this once at three o’clock in the morning, (if one can call what pops into one’s brain at that hour “thoughts,”) as I fed my newborn. A minute ago, this brand new human being had been screaming, confused, maybe even frightened, in pain. Will it ever stop? Then, suddenly—there is food, there is warmth, there is the blessed relief of the yawning hunger, and there is the blurred face of mother gazing down at her.
As for me—my mother is an android supermom with a slightly inappropriate sense of humor. I didn’t have a chance.
* * *
I once played a character in a musical who turns out to be going through life in the shadow of her mother's approval, and isn't quite sure who she herself really is. The director asked me to improv a short resolution for my character. I thought for a moment, and then said, “Sometimes late at night when I couldn’t sleep I would allow myself to feel the pain of being split in two. There was what I wanted for myself, and there was what my mother needed me to be. I became what she needed me to be. I gave her the greatest gift I could give to her; myself.” I said a couple more lines about needing to also find my own way and do chessed for myself. The director said that wrapped it up nicely, but I felt a little hollow.
Life is not a two hour musical. Nothing is wrapped up nicely, and no ribbon is long enough, especially for something as unwrap able as a relationship, and especially one as complex, as beautiful and as horrible as a mother and daughter’s relationship can be.
* * *
The other day, Outdoorsman was greeted by the sight of a mountain of clean laundry piled on the couch first thing in the morning. It had not been there the night before. “Did you do this in your sleep?” He asked me as I poured him a cup of coffee.
“No, just every time the baby woke up I threw in a load.”
He shook his head. “You’re becoming more and more like your mother, you know.”
I felt a warm flush of pleasure before suspicion set in. My mother is his mother-in-law, after all. “You mean that in a good way, right?”
When I light the candles every week on the windowsill overlooking the Jerusalem forest, I daven to be the mother that my daughter needs me to be and the daughter than my mother deserves, and to be the sum of those parts and yet uniquely me.
I know that life is not a musical, but sometimes the little girl waiting for her mother’s smile can have a mini perfect ending. My mother is not overly demonstrative, but on our sixth anniversary, my mother sent a card. She wrote, "I want you to know that I'm so proud of you. You're living the life that I would love to live."