Saturday, March 29, 2014


     What? Like this has never happened to you? Not even once? Fine. Let's try this one: So your 91-year-old mother walks into a bar...  Yeah, I figured that one would work better for you.
     Except that MY 91-year-old mother has probably never been to a bar in her life. And yet, in 8 days from today she actually is moving to another continent. To be more precise: she is moving to the junction between two other continents, Europe and Africa.  To be even more precise: she is moving from the United States to Israel. And I'm not even kidding.
     I can explain. My mother has lived in the U.S. her whole life.  But (1) she's an Orthodox Jew, and to many American Orthodox Jews, Israel is not half a world away, it's sort of around the corner.  Even if, as in my mother's case, it's the only country you've ever visited outside of North America.

 (2)  My brother has lived in Israel for over 30 years.  He, his wife, four of his five children, the three spouses of those children, and the one new baby, all live in Jerusalem.  My mother is moving to a senior facility half a mile from my brother's home. She will be surrounded by attentive Orthodox family members, and will no doubt spend holidays and other important occasions with them.  This move was her idea, and it makes sense for her.  Much more sense than it does for her to stay in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she grew up, but where her only remaining family members are a sister who suffers from Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes her, and a nephew and his wife.  I live two hours away, and see my mother irregularly.  My kids' lives bear no relation to hers, and they love her dutifully but not deeply, and don't feel very connected to her.  So it all makes sense, right?
     To be honest, my mother did a pretty shitty job of parenting me. As an adult, I can understand that it was a byproduct of the pretty shitty parenting she received, her resulting lack of self-esteem, her need to project her enormous stockpiles of shame and self-loathing onto me because I was a girl, like her.  As a child, I lacked such perspective; all I knew was that she apparently derived pleasure from making me miserable, but I didn't know why.  As soon as I could get away, I fled as far as my own terror of the unknown and injured psyche would let me. And I managed to rescue myself, more or less, if you don't count the permanent emotional scars.
     But then when I was 33, I had a baby, and I made a conscious decision to not deprive my son of  a grandmother just because of the havoc she had wreaked in my life.  My father had died when I was 30, and when that happened, my mother gradually began to exhibit an ability I had never suspected she had.  She began, by tiny increments, to grow and change, to be able to accept that my choosing not to lead a life ruled by religion did not equate to my choosing to be a monstrous human being.  Yes, it was a laughable degree of insight, but for her it was an enormous step.  So I decided, despite my deep misgivings, to give her a chance to know her grandson.  And, step by step, she and I began to build a relationship.  It was superficial, which was all she was capable of, and it was intermittent, which was all I could tolerate.  But it was the best we could both do, given our respective limitations, and
we both hung in there with it.  And as a result, my kids know their grandmother. I made the right decision, hard as it was for me. I did it for my kids, and I'm proud that I did.
     Now she's moving far away. I've been trying hard to help her prepare for the move, to clean out her dresser drawers and medicine cabinet and pantry, to sort and throw away and distribute the belongings she's not bringing with her. I've made sure to bring my son to say goodbye, and I'm bringing my daughter tomorrow, and my husband and I will come see her off at the airport next week. And there's no doubt that, once she's safely on the other side of the world, a lot of responsibility will be taken off my shoulders and shifted to my brother's.  Relief definitely has its place in my mixed emotions.
     But so do a lot of other feelings.  Guilt, for not having spent more time with her while she was here.  Resentment that no matter who I am and what I've done with my life, it will never be good enough for her because it will never follow the pattern she chose for me before I was born.  Anger that, even though she's taken lately to telling me over and over how much she loves me and how much she'll miss me, it's too little too late.  Her job was to make me feel she loved me when I was a child, when I needed that, and she failed in every way possible. Anger, too, that I had no model for learning how to be a good mother to my kids.  I had to teach myself from scratch. And resignation that the only way I'll ever see her again after next Sunday is to travel to Israel, a country about which I have extremely mixed feelings, to say the least, and to be an awkward visitor on my brother's turf.
     It's hard, all of this.  So much harder than if my mother had just (after the Sabbath ended, of course) freshened her lipstick and walked into a bar.

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