Next week will be my mother’s first memorial, 365 days since that Saturday morning, Shabbat morning, when my sister’s phone rang at 6:30 am to let us know that she had passed away. Today I tuned in by Zoom to a gathering of the family, three generations’ worth, to talk about her in my mother’s favorite Jerusalem synagogue, Yakar. Other guests were there, too, and it was no coincidence that this was happening on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I’ve had her photo on my altar for this entire year. On one side, Bernie. On the other side, her. Others are there, too, hugging the corners, including my father, dead some 7-1/2 years, and a young man I went to high school with by the name of Bruce Mayrock who, in 1969, poured gasoline on himself and set himself afire in front of the United Nations to protest the starvation in Biafra.
We remember the Holocaust, but how many remember Biafra? Other genocides? In 1994 I wrote an article about my first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and brought it to a New York City writing group I was meeting with regularly. One of them, a talented and successful Filipina playwright, said: “I’m sick of articles and movies about the Holocaust. Why does no one remember what happened in the Phillipines under Japanese occupation in World War II?”
“How much is written about it?” I asked her.
She replied: “Nobody writes or does anything about it. I guess that’s the problem.”
So yes, Jews have documented the Holocaust till we’re blue in the face. If you don’t document it, if you don’t build memorials, repeat the stories and put them in the school curricula, people forget. Maybe that’s at the bottom of all the book banning and curriculum changes that are happening in certain states. People want to forget.
I watched the family, heard my sister speak, followed by my brother and two nieces. I had previously made and sent them a video of me talking about my mother. I could hear others speak in the background, too.
I’ve looked at the photo of her every day this past year, and I often ask: So who were you really?
The monologue goes on from there:
“Everybody has powerful memories of you because you were such a strong personality. A woman shared this evening that when people met Shoshana, no one could miss her strength and aliveness.
“So yes, we heard about how you survived the Holocaust and the Israel Independence War.
“We know how important food was to you your entire life, in part because of how little you had of it in your early years. You loved to cook and feed people. Only when you were very old did you learn to appreciate pizza, otherwise you looked down on anything that smacked of snacks or restaurants. Meals had to be healthy, meals had to have substance; meals had to be meals.
“You had strong opinions and didn’t care who you shared them with or how, and once you made up your mind, you wouldn’t change it.
“You loved to get respect and attention, you loved to sing, you loved a good time. You loved to travel with friends.
“You loved being Jewish, you loved your family and tradition and had no patience or understanding for those who didn’t.
“I saw many of those manifestations,” I tell her. “I was your oldest child, and in the early years we were as close as could be. I wore your clothes and people often mistook me for you. When I was 20 people said we looked like sisters. I think that’s because I looked older than my age and you looked younger than yours.
“And after all that, and listening to so much testimony about you and sharing so many recollections with many people over the years, tell me: Who were you really?
“You played role after role after role with intensity and determination, but there was a big piece of yourself that you kept private. In your older years, before the onset of physical ailment and dementia, I’d come over to your apartment after your afternoon nap and there you would be, still in bed surrounded by the Friday newspapers that you liked to read all week. We’d have coffee together and talk.
“Rather, you talked and I listened. You talked about your friends who loved you and savored your cooking, you talked about your grandchildren. I would look for a way in, something real and genuine. You kept doubts to yourself, especially self-doubts. No regrets, no reflections. If He Who Could Not Be Named, my father, came up in conversation you’d purse your lips tightly and mutter a few words, or else shrug as if to say there was nothing important there. Often I asked you about how you really felt about something, and didn’t get an answer. You’d look at the opposing wall and say nothing.”
I don’t think we shared any kind of real intimacy since I was 20. I deeply longed for it, and mourned after it. Now I find myself wondering about how we, in the US, define intimacy and love. I think of the song from Fiddler On the Roof, when Tevye asks his wife if she loves him. She reminds him that she’s cooked and cleaned and had his children, and if that’s not love, what is?
Maybe love and intimacy are existential First World questions. For folks like my mother, if she cooked her European foods for you and helped you out money-wise on certain occasions, that was it. What more could you wish for?
But I wanted to touch her so much. I wanted to know her more deeply than anyone. After 35 years of knowing Bernie, it doesn’t occur to me to ask him who he really was. Does anyone know who another is really? Of course not, but do I have a good sense of him? Am I sure he had a good sense of me? Yes to both questions. And though I lived two oceans away from my father, the same distance as from my mother, I had a good sense of who my father was.
But the woman in the photo alongside Bernie, so young and pretty and happy, I don’t think I ever really knew her.
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