Tag : mothers

October 3, 2018 by

Sara Berman’s Closet

Sara Berman's Closet


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October 3, 2018 by

Love at Second Sight

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.23 AMWhen I was a child, my mother gave me orange slices to suck when I threw up, to take away the bad taste. She sat on the floor, pincushion in hand, to shorten the hemline of my junior-high graduation dress. Other times, she turned my world upside down by screaming, “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is Mud!” She hit me with a wooden hanger sometimes because, “It hurts me when I hit with my hand.” She also tried, with varying degrees of success, to act as a buffer between my strict father and me. In this, I felt we were allies.

Our relationship was complicated.

One afternoon when I was 15, I was shopping on Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred. All at once, she clutched my arm and said, “Doesn’t that man look exactly like your mother’s first husband?” 

Mildred had always been a little off. “My mother was never married before,” I said. 

“You didn’t know?” 

An hour later, my mother confirmed Mildred’s story with a simple, “Yes, I was.” My initial shock turned to joy at the implication. Only days before, I’d asked why she tolerated all my father’s raging and irrational rules. “I’m surviving,” she’d said, “I’m coping.” She spoke as if she had met her goal. She didn’t realize I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just herself.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked, “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy. I didn’t have children in my first marriage.”

That ended my interest.

We didn’t discuss it again for 45 years.

When I was 30 and my mother was in her late 50s she retired from a career as an educator. Listening to the PTA president’s speech at her party, I gained a new respect for her. “When Mrs. Conan came to this school, our children could not read. Now our children read!” she said.

My mother soon started a new career, as an interviewer with the Social Security Administration. She also embarked on what would become a decades-long quest for personhood, reading self-help books and filling index cards with sayings like, “We expect from each other only what we are able to give of ourselves.” Over the years, I had felt alternately angry and cordial toward my mother, though never really close. Now I sensed she longed for a deeper relationship. While I understood what she was doing, I wasn’t ready for more intimacy. She didn’t push it.

Little changed until my mother’s early 80s, when she visited me for a sleepover in my summer bungalow. It was three years after my father’s death. As I was drying the dishes, she said, “On Yom Kippur, before you ask God for forgiveness, you’re supposed to ask the person you wronged. So I’m asking, do you forgive me for all the bad things I did when you were growing up?”

This took me by surprise. Our conversations usually consisted of news exchanges, telling each other about places we had been or errands we had run. I didn’t want a give-and-take beyond that.

“Yeah, I forgive you,” I said, dabbing a stray drop on a cup.

“That doesn’t sound like forgiveness.”

Her voice was one I’d never heard before. It was vulnerable. Looking up, I saw an earnest face that scared me. I wanted to bolt. 

“I forgive you,” I repeated, meeting her eyes. 

“That still doesn’t sound like forgiveness.” 

Suddenly, I realized what a risk my mother was taking, and that she was in pain. I had the power to take it away or make it worse. I put down the towel, hugged her, and said, “I forgive you.”

She hugged me back, saying, “Now I know you mean it.”

I wasn’t sure how much I did mean it, though I was glad she thought I did, because I felt I ought to mean it. But in the months that followed, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. My mother had given me a gift. She had acknowledged that the things she’d said and done had really happened, and she knew that they were hurtful.

Until then, I had never wondered what made her the way she was. I’d been too busy surviving myself. Now I began to be curious about what had shaped her, and asked whether she would share her recollections. She was very willing to answer questions. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. Our exchanges, a few minutes here, a few there, added emotional depth to what I already knew.

My mother was the sixth of nine children born to the doting Greek-Jewish grandparents I called Nona and Papoo. I’d never imagined they might not have been that way as parents, being so preoccupied with paying the mortgage they couldn’t give much attention to any one child. My mother didn’t start school until she was seven, because Nona kept her home to care for her brother, four years younger. When she graduated from elementary school, Nona and Papoo came to the ceremony. Afterward, the three of them walked home together, the first time my mother was alone with both parents. She told me how proud she felt making her way down the block between them, for all the world to see.

Nona’s greatest wish for each of her daughters was a husband. My mother craved Nona’s approval, so, at 21, she married her college boyfriend. But Nona wasn’t pleased, because he didn’t have a job. The marriage lasted three years.

Two years later, my mother met my father. She was captivated because he spoke several languages, played chess, and listened to classical music, and because his attentions were a balm after her divorce. Nona was satisfied with my mother’s second match: he was a postal clerk. They were married in four months.

Things deteriorated quickly. When my mother bought an inexpensive dress without first asking my father, he took her name off the bank account. A sewing-machine operator in a factory, she had to turn over her salary to him, and he gave her an allowance for household expenses.

Then came World War II. My father left for Europe when I was two and my brother just days old. Within weeks, my mother got a job as a substitute teacher and opened her own bank account. When my father returned a year later, he resumed his role as the boss at home, but my mother kept her bank account and her career.

I asked why she had never divorced him. “I didn’t want to be unmarried,” she said.

In her late 80s, my mother requested my help managing her paperwork. Once a week, I drove from Manhattan to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. We sat at a bridge table in my brother’s old room and reviewed bills and bank statements, then went out to eat. She always insisted on paying, and on giving me a little extra for myself, because “It shouldn’t cost you anything to visit your mother.”

I looked forward to these visits. My mother felt our togetherness, too. “It’s love at second sight,” she said.

One day, in the course of a meandering conversation, she mentioned her first husband. I asked how the marriage had ended. “He left me for my best friend,” she said.

I visualized my mother as a young woman feeling the pain of abandonment and lost love. “How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. 

“I never got over it,” she said.

I was stunned. The marriage had ended over 60 years ago. I asked what her husband’s name was. 
“Sam Langbert,” she said.

After dinner, as I began my drive back to Manhattan, I saw my mother in my rear-view mirror, waving from the top of the stoop. When I got to my apartment, there was her usual message on my answering machine. “Vivian, this is your mother. You just left. I hope you have a safe trip home. I had a wonderful time with you. And Vivian, I love you. Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou. Bye-bye, Vivian.” 

That night, I did an Internet search for Sam Langbert. After I determined he was still living—he wasn’t in the Social Security Death Index—I looked through directories and found a listing in Florida. I called my mother and told her I had an address for a man who might be the Sam Langbert she married. “Do you want it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but don’t throw it out.”

A week later, she called. “Viv, if you still have that address, I’ll take it.” She wrote a letter that began, “If you are the Sam Langbert whose mother lived on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn and whose father had a shoe-repair shop on 34th Street in Manhattan, near Macy’s, then I was your wife.”

Sam’s reply arrived in eight days. He wrote that he had thought of her often, she was a fine person, and he felt bad about what he had done. Her friend left him after a few years, and he had been married several times since. “So you see, I don’t have a very good track record as a husband.”

My mother answered, telling him she had been married 52 years, her daughter was a librarian, her son a psychologist, and she had three grandsons. She wrote that she had been a school principal.

“I wanted him to know I was successful,” she told me.

I asked how she felt having gotten in touch with him after all these years.

“I finally have closure,” she said, looking more peaceful than I had ever seen her.

Two years later, just before her 90th birthday, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood. “I have a picture of my mother in my bedroom,” she said. “And I look at her, and I thank her. I thank her for being my mother. I enjoy her more now, I think, than I did when she was alive.”

I was enjoying my own mother now, and glad she was alive to know it. 

Vivian Conan has written for the New York Times and New York magazine. She has just completed her memoir, Losing the Atmosphere.



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The Lilith Blog

July 31, 2018 by

I Couldn’t Divorce My Mother-in-Law

3_elephants_topiaryThe Lilith blog presents original short fiction: “The Elephant in the Bush” by Penny Jackson

 “Look,” my mother-in-law tells me. “There’s an elephant in the bushes.”

I turn to look where she is pointing. We are sitting on white deck chairs in a very suburban backyard in New Jersey.

“Do you see it?” She presses my hand. My mother-in-law, whose name is Ida, starts bobbing her head in the agitated way I know now so well.

“Of course,” I tell her, taking off my sunglasses and peering at the shrubbery.

“How funny.  Not only an elephant. But a baby elephant!”

Ida is in stage five of Alzheimer’s disease. She is either a late five or early six. I’ve read the books her daughter has loaned me. The 36-Hour Day is the most popular book that is passed around from family member to family member. 

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The Lilith Blog

June 12, 2018 by

Isolated Mothers, Searching for Miracles

The reader knows by page one of Queen for a Day that Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son is autistic, but if anyone told her, she wouldn’t listen, because she doesn’t want to know—until at last Danny’s behavior becomes so strange even she can’t ignore it. After her son’s diagnosis, Mimi finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, she and her fellow mothers exist in a state of perpetual crisis, “normal” life always just out of reach. In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, we meet these women, each a conflicted, complex character dreaming of the day she can just walk away.

Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants, housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering, competed with each other for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women living under enormous pressure. Maxine Rosaler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the true-life experiences that led her to write this book. (more…)

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April 17, 2018 by

Silences Between Mothers & Daughters

WHEN MY MOTHER had her first episode of congestive heart failure, I was 46. The doctors prescribed various medicines and told her to exercise, and after a few days in the hospital the crisis seemed to be over. She took up swimming, which she didn’t like, and lived another 12 years.

I never knew how my mother felt about this experience, even though I was there with her through it all. It was some-thing to be handled, not discussed, and she seemed to adjust to her new condition without difficulty. I wonder now about the fear and anxiety she must have felt, and what it was like to be a divorced, aging woman, facing the prospect of living alone with a diseased heart. I wish I knew. But she was of a generation that didn’t talk directly about these things, and she was more interested in controlling her feelings than exploring them.

Still, I could have asked more questions. I could have gone beyond her proper, contained surface and encouraged her to open up. Having worked over a dozen years as a psychotherapist, I had the skill to do this, but I didn’t take the time. I told myself I was too busy. I had just moved to the West Coast, a half hour from her, and was transitioning into a new marriage and a new career as a publisher. My schedule was crowded with things to do and people to meet, and I was in a speeded-up state.

I settled into the role of the dutiful daughter, watching over my mother from a distance, making sure she had what she needed. Every so often I took her out for lunch or dropped by, and we spoke about family matters and the trips she sometimes took. I didn’t talk much about myself. Bruised by her rejection in the past, I was careful not to reveal any-thing about the disturbing issues I was facing in my new life.

Now that I am the age my mother was when she first became ill, I realize she must have sensed my emotional unavailability and known she couldn’t share intimate parts of herself with me. There was no space in our conversations for her sorrows and insecurities or her worries about the future, and in return, I didn’t seek her advice or solicit her wisdom. Perhaps she could see in my face that I was having difficulties, but we continued as though this wasn’t happening. Did words sometimes well up within her and get stuck in her throat, as they did for me?

I’m sorry my mother and I couldn’t speak openly during that time. We could have been of solace to each other. I look back at my middle-aged self and see how much I’ve learned since then about the importance of connection. With two middle-aged daughters of my own, I now know how it feels to be in my mother’s position. My relationships with them are more satisfying than ours had been and we speak with much more candor, but I too have experienced awkward silences and censored topics, wanting to say something but holding back, fearing that I’ll disrupt our connection or cause offense or somehow knock us off course. I’ve learned that it is some-times easier to listen to what they have to say than to reveal my thoughts or feelings. But there’s a price I pay when I hide in this way: I’m less known by them.

It took me a long time to realize that I silence myself with my daughters, but I’ve discovered I’m not unique in this way. My colleague Sandra Butler and I recently wrote a book about older mothers mothering middle-aged daughters, and in the process, we spoke in depth with dozens of women aged 65–85. To my surprise, most of them said they often feel unknown or unseen by their daughters.

They tell us about the reasons why this happens. Some fear their daughters’ anger, disapproval, or withdrawal, and say they are “walking on eggshells.” Others carefully circumvent the past so that old wounds are not reopened, or they’re ashamed of the mistakes they’ve made. We spoke with mothers who minimize their own success and accomplishments, fearing they might intimidate or overshadow daughters who are having difficulties, while others silence themselves because their daughters aren’t particularly interested in them, relating to them only as “Mom” or “Grandma.” And there are those who remain silent because they’re afraid of being seen as bossy and judgmental.

Mother-daughter relationships can be deeply satisfying and fulfilling, but often they are troubled because of the existence of their shared history. It’s hard for a daughter to ignore her mother’s pursed lips in the present moment when this reminds her of how her mother looked before punishing her as a child, and it’s hard for a mother to accept her daughter canceling a dinner together when it reminds her of the pain she felt when her offspring chose to live with their father and not with her after the divorce.

Mothers and daughters are deeply connected by a complex history. It’s assumed or at least hoped they will be able to talk to each other in an intimate way. It is all the more disturbing when they don’t.

Mothers often look back fondly to when their daughters were young and they felt they had fewer constraints on speech. As one told us, “I could say whatever I wanted in those days because I was her mother and she was dependent on me. I taught her Jewish values and the importance of family life, but unfortunately that didn’t stick. She hardly ever sees her relatives and doesn’t ask about them, and she works for a company that exploits its workers. I love her—I always will—and there’s a bond between us, but I have to be so much more careful about what I say to her now. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll lose her.”

At the heart of mothers’ concern is the fear of loss. As their lives begin to contract and their daughters move fully into their own with partners, children, careers, and community involvements, mothers sometimes feel left behind. This happens at a time when they’re more vulnerable, adjusting to the demands of their aging bodies and their changing circumstances. Contact with their daughters becomes increasingly precious and infused with meaning, and it matters more to them because they understand in a way they didn’t before that it won’t last forever. They don’t want to lose this most-important connection because of saying the  wrong thing.

I’ve focused on mothers silencing themselves since it’s most familiar to me. But mothers are just half of a relation-ship’s equation, as I learned when my own fell ill, and daughters have a multitude of reasons for being silent. I, for one, carried a lot of resentment and distrust from the past, and that made me hold back on revealing myself to my mother.

Failure in communication is not inevitable because of shared history, however. Some relationships grow deeper as mothers reach the last decades of their lives and look within themselves and acknowledge their mistakes. No one is perfect, and when they are able to see the missteps they made through the years and apologize to their daughters, the door to forgiveness is opened. And then silence—the kind that feels like hiding or negating the self or avoiding saying the hard things—is no longer an issue.

I know about this because of talking with so many mothers, and I also experienced it myself. My mother softened as she aged and approached death, and began to express words of regrets. Once she told me she was sorry she hadn’t been a better mother, and another time said she knew mine had been a hard childhood. I didn’t need her to spell out the details. Her intention was enough; I began to trust her more and my love deepened, and I was able to apologize to her, too. And in so doing, I let go of being the stubborn, silent daughter I had been for years and forgave her and myself for all that had gone before. With that, we moved into a state of closeness we had never known. 

Nan Fink Gefen is the publisher of Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Her most recent book is It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters (She Writes Press, 2017) . 


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