What was she really like? It’s a paradox for me. She read Anais Nin, but believed that not wearing lipstick was a crime against nature. My mother was a Canadian-born woman of immensely sophisticated tastes in music and theater, literature and painting, ideas and dress. Despite all this, upon hearing of any potential disaster, she would plead under her breath in Yiddish, “Zol Der Ebershter oys-heetn,” “May the One Above guard against this.” When comparing a living person she loved (me, for instance) to someone dead, she unfailingly added, “Deehr tzu langeh yoor,” “May you have long life.” Similarly with discussing illness; in any narrative about a sick friend she always inserted,”Nisht fahr deehr gedakht,” “May such a thing not be intended for you.”
But how did these phrases come to turn up in my speech? I hear her voice in me more times than I ever could have predicted. Hardly a pair of days goes by that I don’t find myself quoting my mother, if not with a Yiddish line then with a funny, self-disparaging anecdote or a little rule-to-live by; for example, that you have to be attentive to achieve good results; “You can not cook soup by proxy, dear.” She meant it literally. Or that unless you feel a little nervous (“tight as a drum”) before a speech or a performance you will not do your best. It wasn’t until I lost her bit by bit over the years that I came to recognize how much of this advice was actually valuable, and how much of her, thank heavens, I had incorporated in memory over the years even as I struggled to be “myself.”
My mother, Zora Zagrabelna Weidman, died in November at age 92. Until Alzheimer’s Disease confiscated first her memory and then her words, she was (at least to her family and community) extraordinary. She was physically strong, prodigiously energetic, smart and fun and great to look at. She loved language, and was an easy, entertaining raconteur, a talented writer and translator, avid Scrabble player and enthusiastic talker. She loved languages (English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian), ran (never strolled) to a dictionary to check a definition or to a book of poetry to get a line just right. She acted, sang cabaret, directed and produced plays in her native Winnipeg, and always believed that it was possible to enjoy at least five plays on any three-day visit to New York. Needless to say, she also drove me crazy, visiting me and uttering lines like, “Dear, if you only took one hour each morning to straighten up. . .”
My mother, lover of words, born Sarah, decided to become Zora at the age of 13. Unlike girls who were forced by teachers to Anglicize themselves, my mother’s name change was self-induced by a desire to become more exotic, and it says something about how free my mother felt to create her own persona, even before she hit high school. Later, she drank rye whiskey, appreciated atonal music, knew the words and tunes to a zillion popular songs in many languages, had those spectacularly wonderful clothes and her own weekly radio program of Yiddish music. And also: cooked dinner every single night, served it on a starched and ironed tablecloth (even when we ate in the kitchen), ran a very orderly household, and shocked me, when I was 15, by going into rehearsal for a play she was directing and leaving my Dad and me to fend for ourselves for three whole evenings.
My mother’s pals formed the “Vible Bible” Society (translation: “Women’s Bible Society”), which met every Monday afternoon for about 40 years as a serious study group. These lifelong buddies (several were my mother’s unknowing companions in the nursing home) read all through the Bible, then all of Shakespeare, then Joyce, then Anais Nin, then whatever else struck their fancy, correcting each other every step of the way. Last week we got a note from the daughter of one of these women: “The group still meets on Monday afternoons. Just not on this earth,”
So what about the clothes? My mother loved all things aesthetic, but especially color and form. She was a passable painter, had a terrific eye for a “vista” (which made automobile travel with her when I was a teenager an especially trying experience). She was, however, indisputably masterful in sartorial matters.
Her tidy and thrilling closets and drawers were a recurrent source of pleasure to me, both as a child and as a grown woman. Paying a shiva call, my childhood friend asked me, “Where are her gold kid t-strap pumps?” She’d remembered from 1953, and I had too, of course. If I try, I can probably retrieve from active memory at least 30 of her outfits. Here’s what I unpack when I think of her clothes: the emerald green angora dress with batwing sleeves and 4-inch wide purple suede belt (I think she considered this one an identity error, though I sure loved it, and loved seeing her in it), the elegant taupe suit with mink collar (worn with a mannish hat which embarrassed me), the starched and ironed house dresses and white nurses’ shoes she donned every morning to do housework, before transforming herself at noon into a woman-about-town. The paradoxes continue—English literature and Yiddish superstitions, housedresses and the taupe suit. There was also the black moire silk long-sleeved dress (mink cuffs added later) for funerals, black slinky cocktail dress with rhinestone trim and laced-up-the-front plunging neckline, still remembered by the guys who saw it (and her) in my teen years.
I think I am so obsessed with recalling all the details of my mother’s exquisite but in no way extravagant wardrobe because she did her dressing so well, paradigm for her general m.o. She always looked fabulous, even in a housedress. God in the details, the dress was bandbox-crisp. Yes, she did things well, including making sandwiches, komish bread, crabapple jelly and conversation. She sang and knit and acted, and was a terrific teacher of all these disciplines. To sing, breathing had to come from here, she would say, digging her hand into her torso at a point halfway between the navel and breastbone. Great sandwiches needed mayonnaise on the tomato side and a bit of her homemade hot mustard on the roast beef side. Clothing should always be a little loose (except of course for that black slinky dress).
Some of the messages of comfort I’ve received since my mother died—especially from people who didn’t know her—mention that she must have had characteristics which shaped my work. I think so. She had the time to be a perfectionist where I do not (or at least that’s my excuse). But she was impressively liberal in her thinking (except for her intolerance of bad manners or bad grammar). She really believed, and said, that “Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it has to be wrong,” an adage that I think has enabled me to tolerate, even encourage, social change. She was very accepting of the unconventional choices people made, even if those people were her own children. And the rule about loose clothing extended into other aspects of life. As a tenet of faith she believed that “You must always leave a little room,” whether for disagreements or dessert. She never closed the door on relationships, had no lifelong enemies, and hated opinions too tightly held. She also hated tight schedules, imploring me, “Dear, always leave yourself a little room in the day. Try to overestimate how long it will take you to get there.” Though she was patently right, that lesson didn’t stick.
The whole family had an extraordinary opportunity to reminisce about Zora as we tried to prepare the rabbi to deliver a eulogy for a woman he’d never met. My brother talked about Mother’s voice, and I recalled her translation of the I.L. Peretz story “A Woman’s Wrath” for Lilith’s premier issue. And her two older granddaughters informed us that Nana had ripped out their knitting by the foot, not unkindly but with the absolute certainty that no one would leave in stitches that were less than perfect.
It was good to have this very lively, sometimes funny conversation the night before the funeral, about the person she had been for 80 years, our talk a necessary, celebratory counterweight to the vigil I’d been keeping over her quiet and diminished self. In her last days, I sat at her bedside in Winnipeg’s Jewish nursing home, trying to do what the compassionate nurses told me to: hold her hand and talk to her of pleasant things. I smiled and talked and tried to sing on key, so as not to offend her perfect pitch. All while I was weeping silently into her bed sheet.
I’ll miss her immensely, and I think it will take me years to forgive the person who spoke unintentionally hateful words to me at her funeral. “Her death was a blessing,” he said. It wasn’t, except in the sense that as far as we know she didn’t suffer. It was her life that was the blessing, and I shall miss her, of course, forever.