Born on October 7, 1929 in New York, Bernice is my mother. Or should I say was. She passed about almost two weeks ago. Earlier in the year, I’d started to think about featuring my mother in one of upcoming the A Woman I Know that I publish on 5th Saturdays of the month. The timing seemed right to do so this month and the woman who had originally been slated graciously agreed to being bumped when I told her of my change in plans. Previously featured women have been Amy, Joya, and Cathy.
For obvious reasons, the format of this post will be a bit different that those previous three. What you’ll be reading is from the viewpoint of my history and experience as her daughter. I think that I’ve shared in another post that my mother had Alzheimer’s. At the time of the testing about three years ago, her cognitive abilities had already been in decline for a few years and the diagnosis was just a confirmation of the severity of it. Earlier that year my father had passed and after, it became apparent to my sister and me just how much he had been covering for her lapses and how much he likely had been in denial of her true condition.
And so in effect, I also lost my mother with the passing of my father. She could no longer function on her own. My sister and I had promised our father to look out for and take care of our mother in his absence. As we lived up to this promise over the course of the last three years, we were also witness to the slow slipping away of the remaining essences of our mother.
My mother wasn’t always an easy person to live with but I’ve have come to realize that you can learn from both the good as well as the bad. She had been born just weeks before the stock market crashed in 1929 and was nine years younger than her brother. From all accounts, she was an “oops” baby, if you know what I mean, and she was the youngest among her cousins on both sides of the family. Her parents moved upstate to a town near Albany when she was about 3 years old and she lived there until she was about 16 years old.
My mother’s father died when she was 15. Encouraged by a sister and brother-in-law who owned a business in downtown Los Angeles, our grandmother made the decision to move west the following year and our mother attended Fairfax HS for her senior year. My grandmother had grieved deeply for her husband and I think that, along with her own loss and the move away from the family and friends she had known most of her life, had had a profound effect on my mother’s outlook on life.
In her obituary, I wrote that my mother would always be remembered for her devotion to her family, for her larger than life personality, and for her sense of style and taste. I think that who knew her for a long time would agree that my mother was a no-nonsense type of person who stood up for herself when she felt that she had been wronged. My mother believed that there was a set of social norms that should be followed and she seemed to not understand when others didn’t act accordingly.
As much as my sister and I as well as the rest of the family might rehash and dwell on some of the less pleasant influences and episodes with our mother, the strong women she and I are today is a product of those influences and episodes. From her, we learned how to be independent people who could both think and act for ourselves. We also learned from her to be an equal partner in our marriages and in parenting. She may not have realized it then, but my mother was a woman ahead of her time.
I could write about how she died which would be a lot easier that to write about how she lived. Those that knew her can understand how I might be a bit challenged with the prospect of extolling her virtues. She did do good things but there was a negative energy about her. Compliments were never just compliments, there was always a “but”. During dessert at a large family dinner, her comment on a homemade cake I had baked was “it’s a little dry”. There were angry outbursts that confused me as a child as did her passive-aggressive tendencies.
On the other hand, my mother had been an eager grandmother and along with my father, was available to babysit on a regular basis and would agree with little if any hesitation to help my sister or me by caring for a sick child who could not go to daycare while its parents went to work. She was always delighted by family gatherings and we all looked forward to her latkes during Hanukkah and her matzah brie during Passover.
By my mother’s example, I understand the importance of good grooming and attention to one’s appearance even though she and I may have disagreed on style and preferences. My mother would say that she felt naked if she had forgotten her to put on earrings or necklace before she left her house. Lipstick was also very important to the point that I often was asked why I wasn’t wearing any. Many years ago, I remember once when my sister and I were sitting across from our parents in a booth at a restaurant. We were finished with our meals and our mother went to retrieve her lipstick from her purse. She always reapplied her lipstick after she ate. My sister leaned over to me and in a whispering voice but loud enough for our parents to hear, she said “have you ever noticed how Mom puts on her lipstick? Watch … see, she does three short downward strokes on one side of her upper lip, swipes across on that side and then repeats it on the other side”. So we proceeded to watch her and count, all the while she was protesting being made fun of and telling us to stop. We often repeated this in the years since.
There is so much more that I wish to tell you about my mother but much of who she was is a mystery to me. As larger than life as she was, my mother was very private about her feelings and many personal matters. A long time ago, there had been a rift between my parents and my mother’s brother and his wife that for the pretty much separated us from that part of the family. I do know that at one time she had attempted to reach out to her brother but when the response was less than inviting, my mother was convinced that he had thought her to be a fool and had dismissed at her efforts. Here to was a lesson to be learned but one of how not to live my life.
I know that my mother worked hard to provide for her family, that she liked being social, that she volunteered to serve on the board of her temple, that she could be sassy at times, and that she loved chocolate. She was smart, had hobbies that interested her, and enjoyed traveling. I regret not knowing more.
No matter the circumstances, it seems that the loss of one’s mother is like no other and I’ve experienced other losses. I cried when I got the call that she had died. I cried at the cemetery when my sister and I were taken to the gravesite to verify the location and saw the staked outline of her grave next to our father’s grave. I thought that I would be able to read my eulogy for her at the funeral but I couldn’t get passed the first sentence. The Rabbi took over while I cried yet again. I cried as much for the loss of the mother I had as for the loss of the mother I never had.
And, I can tell you that for all of the reasons above and more, my mother was the inspiration behind my starting this blog. Thanks, Mom.