A woman in Brooklyn decided to prepare her will. She told her rabbi she had two final requests. First, she wanted to be cremated. Second, she wanted her ashes scattered over the local shopping mall.
‘Why the shopping mall?’ asked the rabbi.
‘Then I’ll be sure my daughters will visit me twice a week.’
I met my Jewish friend, Laurel, when she came to a meeting at our local meditation center in Northern California where we now live. Laurel and I got on right away. We both like Broadway shows, music and opera, reading, writing, and good meals seasoned with great conversation. She’s from Great Neck, LI in Nassau County. I’m from
the Center of the Universe, Brooklyn. We’re about the same age. So we come from the same time and, essentially, the same place.
Now New York moms get a bad rap, especially Jewish moms – but none of us gets off free. Laurel reminded me of that yesterday with a stereotypical New York joke at the expense of mothers. These jokes usually illustrate moms making caustic remarks or their attempts to foster guilt in adult children. While we do use regional idioms and have a distinct style of delivery, I’m really not sure that mothers from our time and place have the corner on either caustic commentary or the laying on of guilt. New York moms can’t be the only ones who, when distressed by a child’s behavior, say or at least think – despite how treasured the child … and they are treasured – “For this I was in labor thirty-six hours.”
Like all of us, my mother was very much in process and very much a product of her place and time. Among other things, what that means is that modesty was a primary concern. For my Maronite (Eastern Catholic) mother this included modest dress, which in turn included girdles. Now I’ve got to tell you that until I hit forty I was mostly underweight. In fact at Christmas when I was nineteen, I stood 5′ 3 1/2″ and, though I was three months pregnant with my son, I weighed only ninety-three pounds. Nonetheless, from my thirteenth year until her death when I was forty, my mother was adamant that I should wear a girdle so that I wouldn’t “jiggle.” That would be immodest and unseemly. Only my mother, I would think, would put me through this torture for nothing. As my husband said, “What’s to jiggle? If she turned sideways and stuck out her tongue she’d look like a zipper.”
Those old, typically New York jokes at the expense of our mothers were funny because there’s an element of truth in them. Our mothers often did pave the pathways to their homes and hearts with guilt. They could be cruelly caustic. They were as tough as life. They tended to be rigid and narrow on some sensitive subjects. But they were also present. They were idealistic. They worked hard in their homes and at their jobs, where they were grossly underpaid. Many of them worked for hours each week to make the most unbelievably complex old world dinners for traditional Sundays that included religious services and large gatherings of extended family and orphaned friends and neighbors.
No matter how difficult things got, these sturdy immigrant and first-generation American women did not resort to drugs, alcohol, or beatings. They went to bat for us at school. They got us into the best schools they could afford and kept us in school for as long as they could afford to do so. They protected us from old lechers and young men who did not have “honorable” intentions. Kudos and compliments were about as common as Dodo birds in the twenty-first century; but secretly they were pleased and would proudly show photographs of us to their friends and boast of our accomplishments. It took me years to appreciate their insecurities and motivations.
You can tell by the posture in the photo to your right, that moving into my thirties, I was still struggling with mixed feelings. The reason in this particular case: Before I went to work one morning, I left money on the kitchen table for a pizza. I called home at 5:00 p.m. as I was leaving the office and asked my mother if she’d order the pizza right away because I was “starving.” I got home and “binged”: I ate one slice of pizza and left the crust. “I thought you were hungry,” Mom said. “I was.” The fact that I was thirty and still “eating like a bird” and underweight disturbed her. In turn, I was disturbed because she was still trying to tell me how to eat. I do the same sort of thing to my son now, not about food, but about other things.
I miss my mother and am thinking of her even more than usual with Mother’s Day soon to arrive. I wish she was here nagging me to clean my plate. I finally understand. As the saying goes, “We grow too soon old and too late smart.”
– Jamie Dedes
© 2013, feature and all photographs (from our family album, please be respectful), Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved
JAMIE DEDES ~ My worldly tags are poet and writer. For the past five years on medical retirement due to a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, I’ve blogged at The Poet by Day, formerly titled Musing by Moonlight. The gift of illness is more time for poetry. Through the gift of poetry (mine and that of others), I enter sacred space, the common ground that is our true home.