The last time I saw my mother was March 19, when my family congregated for brunch to celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday. As my mother looked around the table at my husband and me, our two children, and my brother, his wife and their two children, she beamed with pride. “Look at all we’ve created,” she spoke softly to my father, her face luminous with pleasure. Although only 65 when she died suddenly two weeks later, my mother had been living her dream. There she was, looking on, as her babies had grown up, gotten married and started families of their own. In a way, her life’s work was complete.
Nothing could have prepared me for this loss. Facing each new day without my mother is much like waking up to a world without a sky – unimaginable. I’ve been looking for ways to articulate the tsunami of emotions – the heartbreak, despair, anger, sorrow, confusion – engulfing my heart in the days following her passing, but I’ve arrived at the realization that words alone cannot give voice to the depth of these feelings.
In the days immediately following my mother’s death, I gazed out the windows bewildered as people walked in and out of restaurants, their lives seemingly unfettered while my world was imploding, rendering me crippled. As a mom of an infant and toddler, there has never been a time in my life when I’ve felt like I needed my own mother more. Although 80 miles separated us, my mother was the first and last phone call of every day and was at the very heart of everything I do. She was the only person who was truly interested in the most mundane minutiae of my daily life. And in the frequent moments of pandemonium that often define motherhood, my mother was my guiding light and penultimate voice of reason. I long to hear the sound of her voice on the other end of the phone, offering guidance, wisdom, and telling me stories about my own childhood. And when my children reach a new milestone or do something to make me laugh, it feels slightly imperfect because I can’t share it with my mom. It is in these bittersweet moments when I miss her most. You see, it doesn’t matter how old you are. As a woman, you never stop needing your mother, and I will never stop needing mine.
My mother put her entire being into raising me and my brother and ensuring that we had every opportunity to learn, grow and achieve our dreams. And although she was a selfless woman who loved her children unconditionally, she was the quintessential Jewish mother who also made sure to remind us of her sacrifices and hold us to the highest of expectations. These expectations and my fear of failing to meet them served as catalyst for academic success and all aspects of personal achievement. In fact, although I’m now a grown woman with a family of my own, I am still very much guided by an inherent desire to make my mother proud.
If I am to make any sense at all out of her death, it is that life is both fleeting and precious. Seasons change, calendar pages flutter in the breeze, and time rapidly accelerates as we get older. As I continue on this surreal odyssey as a motherless mother, there is only one thing about which I am certain – I will take one day at a time and will instill in my children all of the values my mother worked so tirelessly to instill in me.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
Those who knew my mother know that her life was marked by neither glitz nor glamour. She wasn’t at all impressed with worldly possessions and turned away from most material things. She was a minimalist who felt most comfortable wearing a paint-splattered grey hooded sweatshirt. I recall the time when I bought my first pair of Louboutins and she eagerly pointed out to me that the bottoms of my shoes were red, as if I hadn’t known. While Mom had very little appreciation for the finer things in life, she was always amused by my love of all things fashion and indulged me with frequent shopping trips as a child. In fact, some of my favorite childhood memories with her are afternoons spent in a mall dressing room as she tirelessly brought in one outfit after another for me to try on. Although she humored me and my affinity for inanimate objects, my mother also taught me that true happiness can be found only in relationships with people and through acts of kindness. As such, her legacy is not one of material things accumulated in her life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.
Give back to the community.
At any given time, much of my mother’s kitchen counter tops would be concealed by heaping piles of calendars, return address labels and other paraphernalia sent by the charities to which she religiously donated. The Humane Society, Paralyzed Veterans, and Jewish National Fund were just a few of the causes to which she felt so very committed. From a very early age she instilled in me that tzedakah – charity – is the most important of mitzvot. Her unshakable moral compass, righteousness, and fervent belief in donating to those less fortunate exemplified her adherence to the fundamental principles of Jewish life.
Always carry a jacket with you.
It could be an August afternoon with sweltering temperatures and stifling humidity, but my mother would never forget to carry a jacket with her and always reminded me to follow in suit. Any failure to do so would be irresponsibly flirting with the risk of catching a cold. You see, my mother was the embodiment of the universal caricature of Jewish mothers. What if it’s cold in the restaurant? What if they have the air conditioning on? These were real possibilities, and you know what? She was usually right!
Be honest and true to yourself in all of your endeavors.
My mother approached life with an unwavering commitment to brutal honesty. Always eager to voice her opinion and expose any injustice, she was truly a force to be reckoned with. Her incredibly quick wit and unfiltered opinions made her the most perfect sounding-board, and I consulted with her before making the majority of my important decisions. My mom was also not at all skittish when it came to offering unsolicited critiques and suggestions on my clothing choices, and although she couldn’t be bothered with her own wardrobe, she had a keen eye for fashion and meticulous attention to detail. Who needs Fashion Police when you have a Jewish mother?
You can do anything if you put your mind to it.
Anyone who had met my mother could attest to her ferocious determination. There was nothing this woman could not do. A jack-of-all-trades, she regularly mowed her 1.5 acres of grass on a sit-down tractor and took on laborious household projects such as once installing kitchen counter tops, wallpapering, scraping away popcorn ceilings and painting a myriad of rooms in addition to arduously power-washing the exterior of her house. Equal parts Herculean and stubborn, my mother refused my father’s pleadings to hire professionals to perform tasks she felt she could execute better herself. My brother and I would win Halloween costume contests at elementary school every year thanks to my mom’s over-the-top homemade costumes (think 6-foot tall giraffe). She even outdid herself constructing a Tudor dollhouse for me furnished with carpet, linoleum floors and wallpaper in every room. My mother loved projects and her creativity knew no bounds. As a knitter extraordinaire, she would make the most exquisite sweaters for my children and even my dog, whose custom threads turn heads on every street corner.
In her absence, I am left with sadness so profound that sometimes it feels like I’m drowning in grief. While the relationship I have with my mother is one that transcends the limitations of the physical world, I can’t help but feel robbed of her at a juncture when I still so heavily relied on her guidance. If there is a silver lining to be found, it is that the principals and values she so deeply ingrained in me read like a transcript to my ever-present inner voice. My greatest wish is that my kids will always know how much she loved them and how they had made her life complete. If I can be half the mother to them that she was to me, I know I will have succeeded. And if she were here right now, she would most certainly be wondering what all this mishegoss is about. I can practically hear her say, “Enough already, Melissa. Go live your life … and put a coat on – it’s chilly out.”