Sunday, December 25, 2011

Small Blessings

I have mentioned in earlier blog post that I don't have big love for the month of December.

One of the reasons is that December is the month that my mother died.

My mom and I had a pretty tumultuous relationship over the years and to this day I am not sure I ever really understood who she was.  My mother didn't share a lot with people, and even less with those people closest to her.  Even though my mom and I talked a lot, I know that the things that were the hardest for her to say were still buried deep inside her.  She did tell me some things about her youth, some of those things were indeed awful but then other family members remembered different things and unlike my dad, it was tough for me to get a full picture of my mom.

My mom was born during the Great Depression and those were not easy years for her family.  My mom was the 3rd child of 5 and the oldest girl.  Her two older brothers didn't live with her, at least most of the time.  Her mother, my grandmother, also had a difficult time in her youth.  The child of strictly Orthodox Jewish parents in a small Jewish community in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, my grandmother brought shame unto her family by becoming pregnant out of wedlock.  This caused her parents to declare her dead and sit shiva and mourn her.  I don't know much more about this story as no one really talked about it, I know there had to have been some kind of reconciliation as my mom, as a youngster spent a lot of time with her bubbe, her maternal grandmother and ironically I think it was this which kept my mom connected to her Jewish roots, as she is the only one of her brothers and sisters who practiced Judaism.

I don't know much about my mom's father either, as my mother didn't see him very much, he left when she was a toddler, once my mom told me he was an alcoholic but I also remember whispers from my great Aunts that he spent quite some time in a mental hospital and at some point he and my grandmother divorced.  When my mom was about 3 my grandmother married the man I knew as my grandfather and I think things even became worse for my mom after that. I do know some things but I will not divulge them here because my mom was immensely private about her youth, but let's suffice it to say that a youth where your mom is cut off by her own family, your two older brothers live much of the time in foster homes and a cruel mother and step father do not really build a lot of confidence or a sense of security in a young girl and she brought all that pain and insecurity into her adult life.

My mom became very close with her mom's younger sister, Aunt Naomi, who I think in a lot of ways was a kind of substitute mother for her.  My mom loved her own mother dearly and they did share a close relationship at different times in their lives, but my grandmother was distant and often judgmental.  My Aunt Naomi was more generous with her love and approval and my mom naturally navigated toward her.  She became close to her children as well.  I actually saw more of my mom's first cousins than I did of my aunts and uncles as a kid.  I saw my aunts and uncles too but they lived farther away so they were not a regular presence in our lives.  By the time I was born my grandmother and grandfather had moved to Florida so we only saw them once or twice a year.  Aunt Naomi and her husband Uncle Joe lived in Pittsburgh and we spent holidays, family birthdays and lots of weekends together.  On Saturdays we would often drive to Squirrel Hill and my dad would pick up deli and we would head over to Aunt Naomi's.  When I was 9 Aunt Naomi moved to Florida, near where her two sons had moved.  The next year we followed and two years later Aunt Naomi's daughter, with whom I was especially close and worshipped moved there too.  My grandmother Sylvia died the year after we moved to Miami so again Aunt Naomi and her family were the center of our familial unit.  They seemed to be everything my mom's own parents were not.  They were warm and affectionate while my grandparents were mostly formal and reserved.  Unlike Aunt Naomi and Uncle Joe, I never actually spent much time alone with my grandparents.  They were nice but you had to be on your guard at their house, you were not allowed to mess anything up and you had to sit, be quiet and not cause trouble.  A pretty tall order for a kid.  My grandparents lived in a high rise apartment in Ft. Lauderdale, FL across the street from the beach, which was one of the main attractions of going there.  When we came from the beach we had to go straight to the apartment's pool and shower off, trying to remove every possible grain of sand before entering the apartment.  When we did come in we had to head straight to the shower and after the shower, we had to use our towel to dry off the tiles, so that my grandmother wouldn't get mold.  One time I forgot and my grandmother made me spend the rest of the afternoon in the bedroom by myself.  At, Aunt Naomi's, where we could run around with reckless abandon, Aunt Naomi would play hide and go seek (in between making chicken soup and kishke of course) with us and let us play dress up in her closet or with her jewelry and where we were smothered with hugs and kisses was way more preferable than my grandmother's house, where I basically had to sit, read a book and be a good little girl.

My mother was very much a product of her times, you didn't talk about things, particularly painful things and you solved problems by working on the outer self rather than the inner self.  I think my mom thought if she could just get out and find a good life everything would be okay.  And that is what she did.  My mom went to nursing school at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh and she met my dad, then an engineering student at Carnegie Tech at one of his fraternity parties.  She fell in love with my dad almost instantly.  He was young, handsome, charming, intelligent and from a good family.   My mother was beautiful, athletic and smart.  They began to date one another and eventually after meeting each other's families they got pinned.  My mom told me many times of the first time she met my grandparents.  They had only been in America about 7 years by that time and they were still living in Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, a few doors down from our furniture store.  My mom said that they were very quiet people but they were very kind to her.  My mom was almost speechless seeing that my grandmother served steak for dinner.  My mother almost couldn't believe her eyes when she saw that each person got their own steak.  That was just unheard of in her house.  Although my mom's parents were financially secure by that time, my grandfather a successful civil engineer, they lived in a very nice house and were one of the few families at the time to have a built in swimming pool, still my mother's mother would never be so flagrant as to serve steak.  My mom immediately saw that my father's parents were generous, particularly to their children, and not just in the steak department but that they were interested in their children, they wanted to hear about everything, about school, what they were studying and what was going on in their lives, which was in stark contrast to her own house.  She was drawn to them immediately and it wasn't long before she and my dad became engaged and got married.

I don't really remember my parents being in love when I was a kid, but maybe that is just because I saw them through the eyes of a child and that kind of thing was not even on my radar.  When I was young my parents did spend a lot of time together and did things, they played bridge with friends, went to the movies, parties and other things.  They were active in the Jewish community, my mom was President of Sisterhood and was the Principal of the Sunday School for many years and she led loads of different fundraising drives for the synagogue.

There were problems in the marriage sure, but even now they didn't seem out of the ordinary and they seemed way less than what I saw of my friends and neighbors.

I think things really started to change for them when my dad went back to school for his Ph.D. in the early 1970's.  He was away a lot, he took classes in the evening and would spend very late nights in the school library and then he would come home and sleep most of the day, get up and head back to school.  My mom later told me that she felt my dad had entered a whole new world in academia and that my mom felt she couldn't compete with that.  She went to a few parties with him but always hated going and she told me much later it was because she felt like the most uninteresting person there.

My parents didn't know how to communicate, maybe they could have dealt with their problems, but although their youths were very different, they learned the same lesson.  Deny-push it away-don't-talk-about-it-everything-can-be-solved-with-a-3-bedroom-2-bath-ranch-house-and-membership-to-the-pool.  I think by the time they started talking about their problems, they were both so angry at each other and neither one of them had the tools to really work it through.  I think they didn't understand that marriage requires work and is not just something that rotates on an axis like the earth.

When my dad decided he wanted to divorce my mom fell apart completely.   The last 3 years had been visibly tougher for them, they were growing apart and the last year in our house was like living in the middle of a snowstorm, they were either fighting or not talking to each other, except in public.  Around Aunt Naomi or their friends they pretended like everything was okay.  And in retrospect, that was even more hurtful than the fighting or not talking.  Divorce was a lot more prevalent than in Washington, PA and in the neighborhood we lived in my parents were one of maybe 2 or 3 in the whole neighborhood that were not divorced.  Actually before we moved to Miami I had never even heard of divorce.  But most of my friends spent weekends with their dad's going to the beach or going to Disney World or other fun places while I spent a lot of weekends alone, escaping by day to the swimming pool and most evenings I spent at home hoping that night there would be silence and not fighting.  On good weekends I went to Aunt Naomi's (in retrospect I am pretty sure my parents sent me there so I wouldn't have to listen to them fight) where there were always one or more of her grandchildren in tow, and we would swim or Aunt Naomi and Uncle Joe would take us to the petting zoo or to the pool or out for Chinese food.  It was always just happy chaos at her house, where I didn't have to worry about existing in a world of fighting or silence.

To be honest, when my parents decided to separate at first, I was happy.  I think I even hoped that they would divorce.  I wanted to have happy weekends at Disney World and go to the beach, anything to be rid of the fighting and the silence.  It didn't take long before I learned that separation and divorce is anything but happy and my parents weren't able to even put that phony happiness into place.  There were no weekends at Disney World or at the zoo.  What there was were tense, silent dinners, where I tried to find something to talk about with my mom and dad.  My dad was able to put on a good face most of the time for me although he was angry at my mom and talked freely about it to me.  My mom just fell apart completely.  She alternated between anger and misery.  We ended up back in Washington, PA because I wanted to be near my dad and his family and that was probably the worst place for my mother.  She had no family there anymore and although she had a lot of friends in Washington, divorce was ugly and she was both ashamed and afraid that people wouldn't treat her the same anymore if she wasn't Mrs. Michael Gross.  I think that was probably true to some extent but also I think a lot of her friends would have supported her more if she would have let them.  But she turned away, feeling totally isolated and alone.  She was financially dependent on my dad for everything and he used that in order to control her.  She didn't want the divorce and for months he told her they would get back together but as she sadly found out, he used that time to put all his ducks in a row to get her to agree to a divorce or to fight to have enough money just to survive.

When they told me they would divorce they told me that I could choose who I wanted to live with.  My mom told me that she couldn't stay in Washington anymore and that she would go back to Miami.  I couldn't bear the thought of being away from my dad and grandparents.  In Miami, I had Aunt Naomi and Uncle Joe but my mom was just so miserable all the time.  So I chose my dad.

My mom left and the divorce went through and by that summer my dad had bought a new house for us in California, PA, about 25 minutes from my grandparents and about 15 minutes from our store.

During high school I saw my mom during the summers, where I would go visit her usually for about two weeks.  I wanted to spend lots of time with Aunt Naomi, Uncle Joe and the rest of the family as I did miss them very much, but in 1981 my mom remarried and they didn't spend much time with mom's family.  In hindsight, my stepfather who was only 28 at the time they married was young and  and was too afraid of the power of my mom's "old life" to really develop a relationship with her family.  My mom, ashamed of the divorce because my mom's family all were nuts about my dad, was afraid that they wouldn't accept her or her new husband, so she withdrew.  She stopped coming for holidays, stopped calling, stopped doing anything with them.  So when I came to visit mom she would tell me how the family wasn't interested in her, but if I wanted to see them I should call and arrange it.  And most of the time I was too afraid to make the call, too afraid my mom was right and that they only reason they would want to see me was because they felt sorry for me.  And when I did see them I felt so sad most of the time because they were still this happy, all encompassing, loud, brash but intensely loving family and now I felt like an outsider since I wasn't there for the birthdays, the holidays or the weekend dinners.  So while I wanted to desperately be one of them again, every time I was with them it just reminded me more of how I wasn't one of them.  After a while it just got easier not to call.

The time I spent with my mom was okay, we went to the movies, out to dinner and shopping and she tried to make the time pleasant.  My stepfather was nice but I didn't feel all that comfortable around him and of course I resented my mother having another man in her life. Mostly I just tried to get through the weeks in Miami and then get back to life with dad.

My mom's and my contact throughout the year was sporadic.  We went through periods where we talked on the phone every couple of days but there would also be months where we didn't talk at all.  My parents had no contact at all with one another and my dad just let things happen as they did and when there was no contact he would fault her as a mother and tell me not to let it get me down.  My dad and his family gave me a lot of love and support in those years, they really tried to give me everything I had lost but of course they couldn't.  My grandparents were not big fans of my mother but they never ever said a negative word about her and my grandfather especially told me that I should not cut off contact with her.  When summer rolled around after not talking to her for months a few times I said I didn't want to go visit her in Miami, my dad said it was my choice and it was fine with him.  It was my grandfather, though, my Pepe who told me I should go.  I remember sitting in his office at the store and he told me that yes, it was my own choice to go but that he wanted me to choose to go.  When I asked him why he wanted me to go, when I knew that he didn't like my mother, he told me it didn't matter whether he liked her or not.  She was my mother and the only mother I would ever have.  I protested, I told him how I didn't like being around my stepfather.  He said that he knew it must be hard, but that she was still my mother, the only mother I would ever have and that I wouldn't ever be able to get this time back with her.  He asked me to try and go.  He told me that if it was terrible or I wasn't happy, all I had to do was call him collect and he would get me on a plane back home the next day, no matter what.  I had an out if I wanted it, but he wanted me to make the effort and go.  So, I agreed.  I never made that collect call, but just knowing I could made it easier.

After I turned 18 and went to college I didn't see my mother much.  Summers were busy catching up with friends and our contact was more few and far between.  There would be times she would drop off the radar for months at a time, where there was nothing but her answering machine and after a while I would give up.  Then she would reappear as suddenly as she would disappear.  In hindsight I know that she was not happy in her life and there were just times where it was too hard for her to go through the motions and honestly for me it was often easier not to be in contact with her.  Then I didn't have to have those uncomfortable feelings and to be honest I was going through my own stuff and that combined with the selfishness and self-absorption of youth didn't help to keep my mother on my radar.

I think from her end (as I learned later) she was unhappy but she was also racked with guilt for leaving me even though she knew I would be better off with my dad and his family.  Still though as a mother she felt like she had abandoned her children, particularly me who at 12 still really needed a mother.  My brothers who were older when they separated were already on the way to their adult lives and she rationalized it all by saying that she had not been much of a mother to them or me in the last years we were all under one roof.  Her angers and sorrows led her to make some lousy choices as a mother, she was blinded by her own sorrows and was not strong enough or wise enough to rise above that to be a mother that built her children up.  She often made the choice to tear us down, because I think that was how she was parented and she was always reacting in her life instead of understanding and moving forward.

I saw her a few times in my twenties and while they were always enjoyable visits, they always centered around things we did well together.  Movies, shopping, books, gossiping, going out for dinner.  We never touched on the hard subjects, I wasn't ready to face it all yet and she couldn't.  She did try to be supportive in her way, she always tried to respect where I was in my life and she did little things like sending me books she thought I would like or cutting out interesting things she read in magazines or newspapers and sending them to me every month or so.

When I was 30 I moved to Israel and then we emailed pretty regularly, at least a few times a week.  She enjoyed hearing about my life there, especially since nearly 30 years before she and my dad took us and we moved to Israel.  She loved hearing how much Israel had changed since that time.  When they moved with us there my mom really went from a life of suburban comfort to a life of depravity, not even able to buy a mop or a lot of things which were taken for granted in the US at that time.   She really suffered during that 6 month period they lived in Israel and even though she couldn't hack living there, she loved that I did and that I could embrace it in a way she never could.

She was also a great support to me in a time when things had gone sour with my dad.  My dad and I were not in contact and I was alone and scared, on my own for the first time in my life and petrified by the loss of my moral, emotional and financial anchor.  She was great then, she understood what I was going through as she actually went through something similar after the divorce, she knew how hard it was, what a force in someone's life my father was, and how hard it was to live in the aftermath of that.  More than anyone else she really understood what I was going through.  She also told me to forgive myself for the stupid mistakes I had made with my dad.  She told me that the only way things would get any better is to forgive myself, that we all make mistakes, some of them big ones.  She told me not to be like her, paralyzed with sadness and fears, making choices out of fear instead of what she wanted.  She begged me to have the courage that she never had.

When I met Leo and got married she was very happy for me.  I think like the rest of the family they had sort of given up on me finding someone and getting married.  It had been many years since I had a serious relationship and even I said that I thought it just might not be in the cards for me.  But out of nowhere Leo showed up and things changed quickly.  Getting engaged after just 5 weeks and packing up the life that I loved in Israel to be with a man I loved in the Netherlands.  My family, including my mom thought I was a little nuts (of course they thought I was nuts when I wanted to move to Israel on my own too) but they knew I had to march to the beat of my own drum and they loved Leo.

We continued to be in close contact throughout my pregnancy with Maya which was very difficult, with me having to have my gallbladder removed at 14 weeks after a month-long hospital stay for dehydration.  I basically didn't eat for a month and I felt terrible.  And after Maya was born my mom was a godsend.  I was your typical hormonal new mother, elated on the one hand, wondering what the hell I had done on the other.  I was insecure, I had a rough pregnancy and a rougher birth and on top of that Leo had to get his gallbladder removed when Maya was 3 weeks old.  I was worried about Leo but also petrified to be alone with Maya.  I literally felt like I was alone on an island with her.  She wasn't sleeping, she was colicky and she screamed half the night.  I was hormonal, over tired, breast feeding, and shut up all by myself 24-7 with an infant.  Pretty much your typical new mother.  Poor Leo who had post operative fever which kept him in the hospital for 5 extra days was more worried about me than about himself.  I would call my mom when Maya woke up in the night and I couldn't get her back to sleep, usually around 2 AM, I'd put her on speaker and she would just stay up with me while Maya screamed, telling me, it's okay, all babies do this, try putting her on her belly, try putting her on her side, wrap her in a blanket, put her in the stroller, you're doing fine Dana, it just takes a while to get to know what your baby needs, she'll sleep.  And she wouldn't get off the phone until Maya slept, sometimes it happened just as the sun was coming up, but she never complained about it.  She just encouraged me.

We took Maya to visit my mom when she was about 6 weeks old which I think made my mom's year.  Maya was my mom's 4th grandchild but the only one she had seen as an infant and my mom was so grateful to me but mostly to Leo for taking the trip to bring Maya to her.  Leo, who has one of the most pure hearts out there told me that what happened in the past didn't matter, that we owed it to Maya to let her grandmother be in her life, that maybe my mom could right the past through Maya somehow and we had to at last give her the opportunity to try.

And Maya was the center of my mom's existence until the day she died.  My mother was not a happy woman but when she laid eyes on Maya that all went away from her.  Somehow with Maya she was free from her sorrows and her demons and was able to show the joy and love which was locked away deep in her heart.  Every time we visited she literally took Maya from me and wanted to do everything for her, I saw much more Aunt Naomi's style in her than grandma's and it was so nice to see my mom happy.

I spoke to my mom every single day and every day she wanted to know everything, how Maya slept, what she ate, what she did all day, she would ask me to put the phone in bed and listen to her sleep, and she would sing to her.  We took loads of little movies on our digital camera and emailed them through every day.  My mom took all the zillions of photos and busied herself making scrapbooks for Maya to have when she is older.

It took me a long time to forgive my mother for the past, to let all that go.  I did, when I finally came to realize that not forgiving her wasn't hurting anyone but me.  That living in fear and risking nothing emotionally would do nothing but make my deepest fears live and that the only chance I had was in letting it all go.

People have their limitations, I have mine, my dad had his and my mom had hers.

Some people are able to take the crap that life hands them and turn it into something good, sometimes even something great.  My mother was not one of those people.  Her pain and her sorrows lived with her and in her, her entire life.  She tried to escape them by escaping them.  She was not strong enough to reach for the only escape possible which is to face them and let them go.

Which is why when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a little more than 5 years ago, there was not even a question about fighting it.  The doctors told her with chemo she could try to prolong her life for a year or two but it was iffy.  She didn't hesitate for a second and she said, just keep me out of pain and send me home.  My mom was a nurse, she knew what chemo would do to her and she knew it wasn't worth it only to maybe live a year being very very sick.  But I also think dying was a relief for her, it was a release from a life which was largely sorrowful and a disappointment for her.  She understood that life was of her own making but she also knew she wasn't able to break free of it and she had been in pain for so many years.  She saw this as a way out of pain and she took it.

I think it is hard for many people to understand this but I think the thought of dying was a comfort to her and there was just no way she was going to fight the cancer.   It is also hard for me to understand but I tried to respect her decision.  I think it was the only way for her to finally let go all the sadness and disappointment of her own life.  The only conversation I had about it with her, I asked her if she was sure that this was the path she wanted to take, that if she wanted to try and fight it, I would do it with her.  She told me that the only reason to fight would be if she could live to see Maya grow up and she knew with this kind of cancer that couldn't happen.  So I told her that I would support her in her decision and do whatever she wanted.  She asked me to come with Maya one last time so she could enjoy being with us, but she asked me then to leave as she didn't want us to watch her die.  So I agreed and we went to her and spent 10 days with her there.  My brothers came too and we realized it was the first time since 1978 that all 4 of us had been together in one room.   My mother never attended any of our weddings or other family events, she just couldn't face my dad or his family or the mother she had been.  When we sat in the living room, which had been turned into her bedroom so she wouldn't have to climb the stairs, watching our old super 8 movies which had been turned into video, my brother Gary mentioned that the last time we had been together was in our apartment in Washington, PA during the separation, 28 years before, the last time our family had dinner together before my mom left for Florida.  We all got quiet for a moment, I realized how stupid it all was, how much time we had wasted and then my mom smiled and started laughing and we all started laughing uncontrollably, giggling like little kids until we couldn't breathe anymore.  When I caught my breath, I looked over at my mom and she was happy.  

She died 6 weeks later on December 30, 2006.

I miss her.  I miss talking to her every day.  Even now 5 years later, my evenings have a little void in them, that hour or so after Maya has had her bath and we would chat, while I folded laundry and snuggled with my girl.  Maya has grown up so much since my mom died.  I often think of how much she has missed and how much she would have loved seeing Maya at 4 at 6 and now at 8 years old.

As there are two sides to every coin, there is a blessing that she is not here as well.

My mom died before Maya was diagnosed with autism, actually before we ever started to put together that Maya had problems.  When my mom was alive Maya was a typical toddler, hitting her milestones with the whole world of possibilities wide open.  I am grateful that is the Maya she knew, that the rest of it is something she doesn't know.  I don't know how she would have reacted to Maya's diagnosis and while I really try to look for the positives in her development and try to be realistic while keeping doors open, I know that my mother was not that sort of person.  She would have viewed it as another sorrow, something to be sad or despondent about.

It wouldn't have changed her love for Maya one bit but I am grateful that Maya's autism is not another sorrow in her life.

You have to take your blessings where ever you can find them.

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