My mother had a hard life.
She was born in India in 1908 into a prominent aristocratic Baghdadian Jewish family, but she was brought up in large part by servants. Having never been allowed to enter the kitchen, never having bought her own clothes, she was ill-prepared at the age of 24 to be introduced, and married off, within a space of ten days to a man 15 years her senior who would take her half way around the world—certainly not to a man as strong willed, self-motivated and eccentric as my father. He had grown up in Baghdad, a hotbed even now of patriarchalism, which only enhanced the extremism of his tendencies.
Fifty years ahead of his time in attitudes towards food and health, he was adamant, for instance, that he could not drink milk that had been commercially pasteurized. It was my mother, however, who would have to take the empty bottles to the farmer to fill up, it was her legs at which the chickens pecked on her way to the door to fetch the farmer’s wife. No slouch himself, he boiled the gallons of milk in big heavy copper pots over a wooden fire in a fireplace in our basement. But it was she who found a way to pour it from those pots into narrow goose-necked gallon bottles, having already painstakingly struggled past those same narrow necks to wash out any milk residues which would make the new batch sour.
My first taste of how onerous my father could be without the interventions of my mother came in the form of that very same milk when she went back to India for her first visit, in 1948, when I was eight. I was not allowed to leave the house each morning before I finished a large glass of smoky boiled milk, untouched by flavoring or even by straining, nauseatingly alert for a mouthful of slimy skin that was circulating all through it. I was late for school every day.
And that was only the milk.
Buffeted from country to country in the chaos of world war, my parents had made their way to Westchester, New York; but my father’s heart was always in Israel, where he could buy his curative biblical spices grown in their native soil, and where he said he felt healthier. He would go at least once a year, often leaving on a whim for months at a time in the days when the crossing was made by ocean liner. And then just as abruptly turning up again, sometimes with just a knock on the door that signaled the end of our more carefree lifestyle, the abrupt resumption of the restrictive food and family dynamics that pertained before he left.
He would sit down at the dining table: “You give me my dinner.” And my mother, with superior lineage, physical loveliness, social cachet, and even height, would serve him his dinner. She had been indoctrinated from childhood into the value of submission, whether to religious or social mores, but it is little wonder that from the beginning, she looked to her three children, her first-born son and the two girls, as the source of her solace and support.
Perhaps because a great deal had always been expected of us, as our parents grew older, all three of us proved significantly willing to contribute quite generously to their care. It certainly was not always smooth. My mother and I had a difficult relationship. However, starting in 1969, when the first of my two daughters was born, we entered a 16-year honeymoon period. She gave to me through them, and I, in turn, looked out for her, particularly when my father was away. I called her daily and, other than business matters, which were shared exclusively between herself and my brother, I was there when she needed something.
I was there in 1976 when my father began significantly extending his annual visits to Israel. He bought a house and informed us that he wasn’t coming back. He wanted my mother to stay with him, but she made a choice. She would stay for the summer but she didn’t want, she said, to be separated from “the children.” He began transferring large sums of money from his New York account, investing in what my mother correctly suspected were bogus real estate scams. If you want him to stop, I told her finally, you have to go. But I will not abandon you there.
It seemed at the time the logical solution. My father in 1981 was 88 years old; my mother at 73 still seemed young and in good health. I didn’t know then that she had less time left than he did. In retrospect, once again he dominated her with his will, and I was the instrument that helped him to do so.
As I had promised, I went to Israel with him every summer with my two children for the next five years, leaving my husband at home, as soon as school was out at the end of June. It was a time when I learned to spend time doing nothing, struggling through endless observant Saturdays, only to be scolded for minor infractions. I kept a calendar, and each morning circled the day, each evening crossed it out. Still, there were also many moments of enjoyment and special experiences. My mother would spend the fall and winter with him, and they would return to New Jersey together each March for Passover, remaining until the end of June, when I was ready to go again.
I have no doubt it was something I did because of the special relationship I had at the time with my mother. But that relationship was to fall apart. My brother had married late in life and his wife was pregnant. My parents announced from Israel that they would come back for a boy baby, not for a girl. Despite my objections, my mother said only that ‘Pa,’ as we called him, wanted it that way.
Perhaps my fragile honeymoon with my mother would have been threatened by the birth of any new grandchild. But the ‘girls’ had had girls and my brother had a boy. In that atmosphere, it was ripe for me to note that there had been no celebration when my children were born, no party when I got engaged, that my brother always sat at the tail—the other head—of the table. I was well aware of the traditional sexism of my family. But after all my years of building a place for myself inside the family, I fully expected to receive acknowledgement, even a certain sympathy, when I stated the obvious.
It was not forthcoming. To this day, my brother refers to my distress during that period as ‘a chip on my shoulder.’ Trapped in my anger, I was both isolated and heartbroken. The words I wrote at the time to my mother came from the heart, and still resonate: “I won’t say that what I gave to you I didn’t give for my own reasons, but I gave considerable, and what did it gain me, not even the right to say when I suffer. It is time for me to loosen the bonds.” Words of anger that were braver than I was. Far more often, I was consumed with guilt, heartbroken also for her, that the daughter she had said had been like a mother to her, that had been at least a friend, turned out in her eyes not to be so.
In 1988, at the height of our rift, my mother was stricken with an uncommon and deadly autoimmune disease. She came back for Passover already showing as yet undiagnosed symptoms of illness. Her body, as if unable to express its distress sufficiently against foreign agents, turned against itself. My resolve to be angry had already begun to break up. I would come to feel, whatever science may have to say, that it was my defection, within the context of her isolation in at the end of a lifetime burdened by conformity to external standards, that tipped the balance of her emotional, and physical, ability to cope. When she went to the hospital, she came to my house to recuperate. I was the only one who had never moved away.
My mother returned to Israel that summer, but the symptoms of illness intensified. By that time, the participation in caregiving was much more equal. My sister had begun taking a yearly tum. My brother also went, albeit on his schedule. For two years, I had not gone at all. This time, my brother and I went together to get my mother medical attention, and to set up someone to care for her in the house. There was some relief in me when she refused our requests to bring her back.
My sister finally brought my mother back in September with kidney failure. Despite a driving phobia, I went almost daily from Westchester to the hospital in New Jersey. My sister, who was working, regularly came in from Boston for the weekend. My brother would come from Montreal for weeks at a time. He was the one who wanted to continue on with tests when to the rest of us tests had become a pointless ordeal. But such disagreements were offset by the fact that he was willing to contribute to a significant extent.
My mother lived only until the middle of December, one week past her 80th birthday. For the five years that my father lived after her death, we continued to share the burden. He was happy in his house in Israel and he had a loyal housekeeper. I, at least, preferred to commute to Israel than to bring him as a permanent resident to my home. We tried to adhere to a schedule in which each of us went for six weeks twice a year, which would leave him alone with his housekeeper and a friend who visited daily for just six weeks following each visit. When he broke his hip, we all ended up there together. I spent a couple of months with him in England at a cousin’s house during the Gulf War, after which my own marriage temporarily broke up. My sister took a six month leave from work to stay with him. My brother went with his family for a year.
My father’s last year was spent in my brother’s home in Montreal. Although my sister and I went for visits, in the end it was my brother who took responsibility. In my cynical perception, it seemed he took control of my father as he had taken control of the business. And as with my mother, he couldn’t let go. He became obsessed with the idea of inserting a feeding tube into this man who had scoffed for 100 years at medical intensiveness. But whatever divisiveness there was was offset once again by the fact that my brother was carrying such a large part of the burden.
And yet in the end, for all the family loyalty that was not only expected but freely given, and for all that I believe in the sincerity of my parents’ love and appreciation for myself and my children, I continued to be faced with the moments of bitterness that surfaced with the birth of my nephew. I never did manage to loosen the bonds, but staying continued to corrode my heart.
Although there was a will dividing things pretty much equally here in the U.S., my father was not one to be impressed with such legal technicalities. There came a moment when he thought that death was imminent. I, the youngest, for a long time had been considered to be his favorite, but in the crisis of the moment, the drift of his true feelings emerged. “Call the broker in New York,” he instructed a family friend. “Tell him to write out a check for all my stocks, tell him to put it in the name of my son.” Til the end of his life, my father would complain that his own father had preferred his brother, giving him all his money. When I pointed out the parallel, “But we had only one son,” he said to me.
Much more painful was the moment, the day in Israel, when I discovered the letter of instructions in my mother’s handwriting, drawing up the Israeli will giving all my father’s Israeli assets, which were in truth a small part of his overall estate, to my brother. I don’t begrudge that she did it, but that she did it even as she was ensuring the futility of all my attempts to have her acknowledge my brother’s special status. And that she did it at the same time as my sister and I were sharing the bulk of the burden of relieving her in Israel. In fact, my sister unknowingly was the courier delivering the necessary papers from her to the lawyer. Though my mother suffered all her life from biased gender roles, she did not try to protect her daughters from the same. On the contrary, she became the ruthless guardian of them.
Ten years after her death, I still puzzle over the question of the Israeli assets. Never one to be cornered as the target of criticism, my mother would have said that it was my father who wanted those assets to go to my brother—and that she just facilitated him. Or it may have been my brother, who never thought he received adequate monetary recognition for his contribution to the business, who had asked for it. Then again, maybe it was my mother herself who wanted to make this last gesture to her first born and only son. Or maybe—just maybe—it was my unwanted complaints that pushed her into it.
In the end, the discovery of that will added to, but did not basically change, the nature of my disconnection from my mother, that for all my imploring of her, time and again she walked metaphorically tight-lipped away from me, never giving me the satisfaction of the simple acknowledgement that I asked from her; a fact now frozen in time ever since she entered the vortex that whooshed her altogether out of my life—dizzyingly increasing in the last moments the velocity and intensity but really only widening the gap that already divided us.
Despite my greedy anticipation for relief as her end neared, I mourned for her far longer and more bitterly than I would mourn for my father.
Jane Blum is a pseudonym for a writer living in the New York area.