A Woman I Know: Bernice

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.

23 thoughts on “A Woman I Know: Bernice”

  1. That was a beautiful story to read Rena! First of all , my condoleance. And don t get me wrong when I say beautiful story. That s it with writing about feelings in a language that is not your own. Its difficult to express what you mean. I mean, it is such a honest ,straight from the hart story. You wrote this so ,,real,,. My grandmother, who was more of a mother to me then my own mother, was also a very closed person. And I regret that she didn t tell me more or that I didn t ask more. My grandmother was of 1928, I believe a lot had to do with being a young girl in war. We are not Jewish but my grandmother looked like a Jewish girl and had many times trouble with that during the war. I believe that had a great inpack in her adult live. But as you say:you are the strong beautiful woman because of how she raised you! I wish you strenght in this difficult time for you.

  2. First, that photo of your mom with the lipstick combined with the comment you made about you and your sister counting her “lipstick dabs” were priceless memories to read. I am sorry you’ve experienced such loss lately. I’m carrying you and your family in the warmest part of my heart with hopes that the thoughts and love I send there are felt by you and brings you comfort.


    1. Thank you for your comforting words, Sherry. And I’m glad that you picked up on the connection with the photo and the story.

  3. Thankyou for sharing these wonderful memories and honest feelings about your dear mother Rena.
    The unconditional love we hope for makes us vulnerable but also gives us reason to be strong.
    Condolences to you and your family. I’m thinking of you and sending good karma as you maneuver several difficult paths.

  4. Rena, as I sit on yet another airplane awaiting takeoff, I read your blog. I find a beautiful reflection on your mother. I really didn’t know her well, but feel I know her, and you, a bit better now. Thank you for sharing and being a part of my life.

  5. Oh, you even made me cry, Rena.
    It is so hard to know our mothers differently. Even though I spend so much more time with her now than ever, there are areas that surprise and confuse me. I realize that how we were raised influences us so deeply, but it’s still amazing.
    Of course, I have to tell you that seeing your mother with her tongue out is my fave! Maybe because mine does that to me quite a bit. Although I’m not sure she’d appreciate including it on my blog, while she’s still alive. But I did include a photo of my mom (you’ll see it on Friday) with a funnier than normal expression. If I’m killed on Saturday, you’ll know who to point the finger to…..

    1. Jodie, you are so right that the relationship we have with our mothers is different from any other we will have. As a mother to a daughter myself, I can now see it from the other perspective as well. Maybe in our mothers’ generation, sticking out your tongue was the closet they could get to swearing? Anyway, I’ll be on the lookout for your post this Friday and I’ll be the first to contact the police if I hear that you’ve been the victim of foul-play.

  6. It must be so hard to lose your Mum. My dad passed away last year but we had never been close so it wasn’t a huge loss for me. My mum on the other hand has stepped up big time over the last few years and I know her loss one day is really going to kill me. A lovely tribute to your mum.
    Leanne | cresting the hill

  7. So sorry for your loss. I like the pic of of her putting on lipstick. She looked so glamorous! Thank you for attending the #WednesdayAIMLinkParty. I shared your post.

    1. Dee, that photo was in my parents’ wedding album and it has always fascinated me. The image seemed fitting for the post. Thank you for the condolences and for sharing.

  8. Rena, first and foremost my condolences again on the loss of your mother. Secondly, I applaud your courage in sharing this tribute to your mother in such a honest way. I find so often we put people on pedestals after their deaths and we are hesitant to remember the not-so-lovely things about them. People always want to memorialize only the good things. For me, that is not real life. Like you, I had many issues with my mother. And upon her death, I found myself angrier than ever at some of the things that she said, did, and thought during her life. Actually (and some may criticize me for saying this), for about 5 years after my mother’s death, I hated her. Like actual hatred. It took me FIVE years after she died to finally find forgiveness for some things. I don’t know if that is sad, cruel, or whatever, but I do know that it is real. And that is more important than anything. Relationships are difficult and all are flawed. We do not choose are parents or siblings or any other family members, so all of the family turmoil that can often happen is just a result of all of us imperfect people trying to make flawed relationships work in the best way that we can. Lessons are probably the best thing we can take from it all. As you have stated, you learned what to do, what not to do, and all sorts of other things from your mother. And that is precious. Flaws and all, she was your mother. The only one you had. And you loved her as she loved you…each in your own way, in the best way that you knew how. And because of that, you will grieve. And you will grieve in your own way and on your own timeline. And all of that is normal. I will continue to keep you in my thoughts and prayers.


    1. Shelbee, thank you for the lovely, touching message and for your understanding and encouragement. You and I are kindred spirits and I wish we lived closer to each other.

  9. So very sorry for your loss.

    Your poignant writing stopped and made me think. I am sure your Mother would have loved to have read this.

    hugs to you and your family

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