Old photo of my mother and me

I’m on board a flight from Europe to the US, on my way home. As I look out the window at the white clouds over Austria, I can feel so much movement in my body and mind.

I don’t like the phrase, I’m processing something, as if it’s something I’m doing. Inside, stories collide and smash against long-held assumptions, but the process, if that’s what it is, is not up to me. It’s like a rushing river changing the coastline of my psyche and carving it anew, converting my mind into something unknown, not the same old-same old country I’ve known for years.

These times are to be treasured.

Two exchanges come to mind; I’ll write about one of them.

Our first two days of the shiva, the mourning period for my mother, Shoshana (Hebrew for lily), are taken up by stories of Holocaust and lost childhood, stories I’d heard from her over many years.

But on the third evening, a woman comes in, her husband walking slowly behind her with the assistance of a cane. I stare, and immeiately recognize a close friend of my mother whom I haven’t seen in several decades. I’ll call her Sara. She, too, recognizes me. Her eyes light up and she makes a beeline for me.

“You look just like Shoshana, you always did!”

I haven’t looked like my mother in many years, but now, in her absence, I hear this from many people.

Then Sara proceeds to tell me tales of Shoshana. Not the grim ones of strength and survival, but of what rollicking good times they had together:

“The three of us were in Toledo, in Spain, and your mother drove the car—she always insisted on driving! A policeman flagged her down, she claimed she didn’t see him, and she went on. Before we know it, a few police cars are chasing us through the streets and Shoshana finally stops the car. They say that she didn’t stop as she was supposed to so they’re fining her 300 EU. Your mother flatly refuses to pay, says she never saw them. They say it’s either pay up or they’ll confiscate the car. Shoshana refuses to pay. We plead with her: We’ll share the fine, pay two-thirds of it, otherwise we have no car and can’t continue on our tour. Shoshana refuses to pay. She did nothing wrong and won’t pay a penny. We practically have to threaten to leave her there and go on without her before she relents and agrees to pay one-third of the fine and not a penny more.”

“What a stubborn woman,” I say.

“And then there was the time when seven of us were in China together. We were going up a hill and paused on a platform in the middle, and Shoshana left her jacket on a ledge because it got hot. At the top she realized she didn’t have her jacket, but when we came back down, naturally the jacket wasn’t there. Shoshana wouldn’t budge till she got her jacket back. We said that obviously someone took it, it was no big deal, let’s go home. Not Shoshana. To make a long story short, she talked to somebody, who talked to somebody else, and eventually we visited a family in their home and Shoshana started negotiating for her jacket, which she finally got back after paying them the equivalent of $5.”

“She was a stubborn woman,” I say again.

“Yes, but she was so much fun! She wasn’t afraid of anything and anybody. She talked with strangers, always wanted to learn new things, and got us into all kinds of scrapes! We had more fun with her than with anybody.”

Sara, in her 80s, laughs so hard that she’s almost crying. Her cheeks are flushed, and her bright eyes remind me of my mother’s eyes whenever she talked of mischief she caused.  I laugh, too, and we both hold hands shaking our heads at a woman who was not just a survivor, but also loved coffee, trips, friends, bridge, food, new clothes—loved life.

The tenor of the shiva changes for me at that point. I think back to how I introduced her to Bernie for the first time in Las Vegas, the end of a trip I’d taken her on through New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. She was sure he headed a cult and was ready to give this Zen teacher a piece of her mind, only he sat her down and immediately proceeded to teach her to play blackjack. He himself had been a famous card-counter in his early years of blackjack, even kicked out of a few casinos. They got along swimmingly after that.

Over time, stories can lose their edge. She was so stubborn! He could never let anything go! She never came on time! He was always so intellectual, no feelings, just brain! She wanted to party all day long! He was always silent, with no friends!

We have strong feelings about these characteristics, swear by them. With time and distance, they might become flavors: She was like a pungent taste of paprika, he the bland, comforting vanilla, she a mysterious blend of chocolate and cinnamon, he unafraid saffron. Aspects that once bothered me turn into a meadow’s wildflowers and grasses, with bugs, birds, butterflies, and moles all doing their thing, dancing the dance of life.

Finally, if you live long enough, you might look at it all and say: I see now, it was always a garden. I preferred the lilac trees to the ferns, loved the gold finches but not the snakes—and still, it was and is always a garden.


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