My mother 80 years ago

“Do you have thoughts about your 90 years?”

“I have lots of thoughts.”

“Then just write them down, mom, write them down.”

I’m sitting with my mother, helping her write what she will say in two big parties commemorating her 90th birthday. The first will take place after Shabbat services in her synagogue. There isn’t much time, but her pencil dawdles in mid-air, not coming down to paper.

“I’m writing, I’m writing,” she says, “just thinking a lot.”

“Thinking too much can kill writing. Put down whatever comes to mind, mom, you’ll organize it later, now just get something down on paper.”

“That’s your job, “my sister told me when I arrived. “We made all the arrangements ahead of time, food, guests, program, we did it all, and your job is to help her write her talks. Just no Holocaust stories. When she goes there she doesn’t stop, so make sure she doesn’t go there.”

As you all know, my mother writes, the early part of my life took place in the Shoah.

“But after that?” I prompt her.

“After that,” she says vaguely, and the pencil comes up in the air again. She’s not sure what to write about after that though there’s lots of it, given that the Holocaust ended when she was 17.

How do you summarize 90 years of life? The early years are clearest and most alive. Now, too, comprising grandchildren and great-grandchildren (I think she sees her three children mostly as caretakers at this point), the wider family, a few friends, trying to keep track of time. These are the two slices of bread that sandwich a 90-year lifetime.

“When you look back, what do you wish?” I ask her.

“I wish I’d studied more. That I didn’t have to leave school when I was 13 when the Nazis came into the city.”

“But you studied years later, mom. You finished your degree, you became a teacher, and you kept on studying for decades.”

“It’s not the same like finishing school in the normal way,” she said, “like they did in America.”

“What else do you wish, mom?”

“That your father didn’t leave me.”

After the Holocaust, that looms second in her mind.

“Why, mom?”

“Because it broke the family.”

“Our family didn’t break,” I say.

“It affected everyone.”

“Affected, yes. But it didn’t break the family.”

She gives that nonsense shrug of her shoulders, accompanied by the short shake of the head. Divorce breaks a family, and that’s fact.

“What else are you going to say?” The pencil hasn’t landed on paper in quite a while.

“Leave it to me,” she says tiredly. Not-writing has exhausted her.

On Saturday, after Shabbat services in her synagogue, she indeed talks from her heart in front of over 80 people, telling them that, after her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they and their prayers and songs are what have meant so much to her. They stand outdoors in tree shade holding small plates of the food we had prepared or bought, and set out ahead of time. And as they put herring on the crackers and help themselves to kugel and vegetables, melons and cake, my brother tells this story:

“Once my mother asked me to assemble all her grandchildren because she wanted to talk to them. We all sat around the table to listen to her, and she said to them: ‘I want you to know that after much reflection, I decided that I don’t believe in God.’ Everyone was shocked. So I asked her: ‘But you go to the synagogue religiously every weekend; why do you do that if you don’t believe in God?’ And she answered, ‘Not because of God, but because of the songs they sing.'”

Shoshana now, writing her talk