FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story–Chapter One

Posted By on April 3, 2017

FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story

by

Suzann B. Goldstein

 

PART ONE

THE SECRET SITS

 We dance round in a ring and suppose,

  But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

                                                ( Robert Frost, 1942)

 

I don’t remember my mother. She collapsed and died one Saturday night in March while my parents were playing bridge at the home of friends. Her name was Edna. She was 40 years old. I was 9 ½.

Sue's Mother

Sue’s Mother

My dad woke me late that Saturday night—I had been  sleeping at Granny’s, my mother’s mother.

His arms tight around me, his face slick with tears, Daddy said, “Ah, sweetheart, Mommy’s gone. She’s left us … she became very sick and left us … we have to be brave.” I had never seen him cry before.

Still half-awake and failing to understand how my mother would have left me, I climbed out of bed and, in my pajamas, began to wander around my grandmother’s small apartment. Aimlessly eavesdropping my way through the people that had gathered that night, I soon translated my father’s word gone into the shocking word died.

I don’t recall much about the rest of that night except for the agitated behavior of my parents’ siblings and their spouses. Clutching soggy,  balled-up handkerchiefs, my aunts and uncles carelessly swiped at swollen eyes and inflamed noses. Some clustered together in Granny’s living room, others stood alone in her hallway, but all appeared wrapped in pain. Even now, I hear their voices thick with tears: “I spoke to Edna this morning. She sounded fine.” “What’s Max going to do? Who’ll take care of the children? He has to work.” “Has anyone called the Rabbi?” “I can’t believe it … a cerebral hemorrhage!” “Can Mom handle the kids?” “Oh no! They’ll be too much for her.”

Their angst generated foreboding far greater than any spoken words conveyed.

In that burst of trauma, most memories of my mother disappeared: our daily interactions were erased, my early childhood years were blotted out and my mother’s mothering, for me, ceased to exist. Before long, my young mind also recognized that something else had changed. I had become unique among my friends. They all had mothers.

Sue’s Grandmother,
Granny

No member of my family and no one I knew talked about my mother. Our life seemed to pick up where it had left off before her death. I never             spoke to anyone about her and never told anyone that she had died and that I did not remember her. It was as if my mother’s death was a clandestine event, a secret kept from everyone including me.

And over the years I wondered. Where did those 9½ years go? How did they vanish? Who could I talk to? Did I willfully forget my mother? Was I angry with her for leaving me, abandoning me by dying? Had I been abused; was it my fault? Or was I embarrassed because I was different from my friends.

The hidden questions persisted until I accepted the fact, much later in life, that my loving dad, in awakening me from a child’s sleep on that terrible night, tears of grief streaming down his face, had unwittingly driven the shock and subsequent memory loss of my mother from my mind.

Finally … finally … I got tired of me analyzing me. Finally, I accepted what I could not change.

I have photos of my mother holding me in her arms, a smile on her face and I look at them now and again. They trigger few memories. I don’t remember if she picked out my clothes in the morning or took me shopping or if she told me bedtime stories or kissed me good night. All that time lost, all that living and loving obliterated.

It wasn’t until years later that I started questioning older family members about my mother. I did not question my father; I thought it would be too painful for him.

My aunts, my mother’s younger sisters, talked of her affectionately. Aunt Bea said, “She was my best friend.” Aunt Florence said, “When you left for school in the morning, your mother would stand by the living room window, hold back the curtain and peek out, just a little, and she’d watch as you walked down the street till you were gone from sight. She adored you.”

Aunt Florence went on, “After your mother’s funeral, you sneaked into her closet and pulled off a button from one of her dresses. You clutched it in your hand for most of the seven-day Shivah, the Jewish mourning period for our lost loved ones.”

Sue’s Father

Aunt Sylvia, my mother’s sister-in-law, said, “Your mother was a rare one. I loved her so much and miss her to this day.” David, a cousin on my father’s side of the family, told me that his mother looked up to mine and always smiled when she talked about her.

I never asked Aunt Anna Bresler, uncle Ben’s wife, about my mom. Uncle Ben was Dad’s brother; he and Aunt Anna were quite a bit older than my father who was the youngest in his family. I’m not sure why I didn’t ask Aunt Anna; she must have known my mother well. I do remember what she said about me: that I was standoffish, even cold. I thought, in turn, that she was much too old for me. Was that the source of my apparent indifference? That particular complaint has always disturbed me. If I was ‘standoffish’ maybe it was because I was young and embedded within my immediate family of three: Dad, Stan and Granny. Or maybe Aunt Anna, who had three sons, just didn’t know what to do with me. Was I being defensive, here? Maybe.

At any rate, my fact-finding tour was over. I was too late.

There is very little else I know about my mother. Except for two solitary sparks of recall:

It’s summertime. I’m five years old, wearing a white, short-sleeve cotton blouse and dark blue shorts. My mother is at my side in a small curtained-off cubicle at The Emergency Hospital, a freestanding health care facility on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A neighbor’s German shepherd had bitten me. I lean against her as I stand on a shiny metal examining table and I feel her arms around me holding tight, her hand gently turning my face away while the doctor swabs the bite on my right thigh. End spark one.

Spark two reminds me that my mother did her own more tender form of swabbing when she cared for me after I fell down some concrete stairs and scraped my back.

 It’s summertime. I’m seven or eight years old and standing on a chair in my friend Carole’s kitchen. She too is standing on a chair. Our two mothers are dabbing at our scratches with clear cool water. Carole and I had tumbled down her front porch steps and landed hard on the concrete sidewalk. End spark two.

Sue’s Brother, Stan

That’s it. The ability to remember the first part of my life, that part anchored by the pivotal role of Mother, had all but vanished except for those two episodes. They are forever locked in my memory and hint at the loving warmth I received when she was alive.

Yet I consider myself lucky. While the gap created by my mother’s death was never filled, my dad, my big brother Stan and my grandmother took over the essential job of mothering me. They had much love to give and they gave it without pause.

I remember all three of them in radiant detail. Dad, my loving single parent, came to school for all the parent/teacher conferences. He hovered over my brother and me and rushed home from his hardware store in downtown Bridgeport if either one of us became sick. He took us out to dinner to celebrate our birthdays and he cooked our meals when we ate at home—no gender stereotyping here!

Stan, 4½ years my senior, took his position as second-in-command seriously. Based on his personal knowledge, he taught me the relevant information of the times while judiciously amending all to suit the ears of his younger sister including, NEVER KISS A BOY ON YOUR FIRST DATE.

And Granny? She was my superb and willing babysitter in-chief during the day while Dad was at work. Granny was wondrously soft, surprisingly strong and invariably at my side or in the background, whenever one or the other was needed.

They are unforgettable.

Even so, none was my mother. She was not only stolen from me by death but removed from my memory as well. And I am puzzled: had my mothering been poorer because of that loss?  Did my children receive all the mother’s love that they needed and deserved? I don’t know. But I’d like to think they did.

I do know that I keep missing a woman I don’t quite remember.

In gratitude for what I can recall, once a year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I light a candle in my mother’s name along with all the others I have loved and lost. I recite the prayers and when I come to her name I whisper, year after year, the same several sentences, “Mom, I remember your sisters telling me their special stories and talking about you with love. And I remember your hands holding me, touching me gently, pouring clean water over my scrapes and soothing me, loving me. The two memories of you empower me. They add bounce to my life, and I smile.”

As the years pass the good memories, what I call my nourishing ‘moments-in-between’ continue to move me forward. I keep them close: the two brief vignettes about my mother; my dad’s notion that joie de vivre exists even under tragic conditions; Stan, my protective brother who held my hand all the way; Granny whose love never faltered; my wonderful husband Ed, my lodestar; and my two beautiful daughters, Valerie and Stacy, who convinced me that their grandfather’s love of life was, indeed, genetic.

Time races by. My inconstant life urges me to adjust, to connect, to persevere. Though I am anchored to the past, I have learned to savor the present. My loved ones taught me that. They keep me on my toes.

###

About the author

When not at her desk writing, Suzann can be found walking the hills of her neighborhood, working for her charities and lunching with friends. She is rarely found in the kitchen.

Comments

26 Responses to “FIGHTING BACK: One Mother’s Story–Chapter One”

  1. Debbie Margolis says:

    Although I have heard your story, in far less detail, I never cease to be amazed by your ability to transform tragedy through words. Your story…all of it…must be published and shared by the world!

  2. Cathy Cerutti says:

    Sue,
    The first sentence had me hooked. Your journey is palpable. We now know and recognize so much more about grief in children and that is a good thing. Adults want to protect the children from the anguish and pain, however it just gets suppressed to the preconscious and unconscious and creeps in with many of life’s triggers. I wonder if Aunt Bresler was projecting on to you? Maybe she was standoffish and did not know how to manage the grief of a 9 year-old. I relish in your writing and word usage. Love the pictures that match their names, makes your journey much more real to the reader.
    Warm regards,
    Cathy Cerutti

  3. Sigrid says:

    Your first chapter is stunning, Sue. I feel it in my heart.

  4. Nancy Gross says:

    I don’t read every post, But I did want to read Fighting Back’s first chapter. Poignant. I look forward to reading the whole book. Truly, a life’s work. Warmly, Nancy

  5. Carol Beaugard says:

    Sue, Thank you. You are a beautiful writer and a beautiful person. So much loss , but such love and good have come out of it from you and Ed. I look forward to the next chapters.
    Hugs to you both, Carol

  6. Hilda Pressman says:

    Sue this is beautiful Although I know much of the story I was totally pulled into into it. I understand not having early memories. It was not related to a death but other issues in my childhood.

    I can also relate to the fact that no one talked about your mother. Our niece was killed in a car crash leaving her husband and 3 children ages 12, 10 and 6 ( i may be a year or so off). The oldest was in the car with her and spent many months in intensive care and rehab. The oldest and youngest are boys and the middle child is a girl. Once or twice a year I would bring her up for the weekend and we usually went to a show on Broadway. I would sprinkle tidbits about her mom throughout our time together. Sometimes she did not add to it but sometimes she really did. One visit was during Passover We were out for dinner. She asked if I was having desert I said no because it was Passover. She said that she could have desert because she was only half Jewish. Somehow matzah brie came into the conversation. I told her that I was going to ask in the morning if she wanted matzah bri She said yes. She remembered her mom making it I said scrambled or like a pancake She said oh yes it had to be scrambled
    Looking forward to the next chapter

  7. Jane Hillman says:

    Sue, this powerful and honest description of losing your mom creates images so vivid and feelings so stirring that I cannot find words. Although we’ve talked many times about losing your mom and the uniquely loving support around you, this retelling helped me rekindle personal feelings about love, loss, moving forward, perseverance and “savoring” every moment. I love you and our special relationship!
    J

  8. Janet Keating says:

    Sue
    Beautiful written word of the memories of your childhood. Looking forward to the next Chapter. Hope you and Ed are well.
    Janet

  9. Pat Sebold says:

    How absolutely beautiful. So beautiful and so much a part of my memory, especially of my father, who died when I was sixteen. Life is difficult, but what can we do? We must go on….

  10. Lois Kluberdanz says:

    Incredible as always. What a joy to read. Of course I teared up. Sue is a fabulous writer and there is so much to learn from her.

  11. Diane says:

    Sue, Thank you for pulling these beautiful feelings and thoughts out of your heart and putting them out here in cyberspace where so many of us can read and benefit from them. I am so moved by this story, my first chance to learn about these things in your own words. My family history, told by my brave and beautiful cousin, Sue. I know that the words “Thank you for sharing” have been maligned by over-use and insincerity. So I will say instead: “Thank you for daring.” Your life and your willingness to explore it, are inspirational.

  12. michael says:

    So very, very beautiful – a story of love.

  13. Chuck Ruggiero says:

    Sue,
    Very heartfelt and beautifully written.
    Chuck

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