A few times a year, my mother would clear off the dining room table and cover it with dozens of blank greeting cards. Then she took out her watercolors and got to work, painting beautiful abstract designs on each card. Just a few flicks of her brush, two or three colors on each card, but the results were dazzling, deceptively simple designs.
When the cards dried she gave them in packs of eight or 10 to our teachers, friends, or anyone celebrating something big or small. I was always disappointed when we received one of the cards in the mail, used as a thank you note for the gift. These are special, and you should save them for something amazing, I thought. Don’t waste them on thank you notes!
My mother’s artwork was all around me—on the walls of our home, and of the homes of our friends. Other than a handful of ketubahs, she rarely made money from her artwork, but it was a big part of her life.
She had other passions. She loved storytelling, and went to storytelling festivals and events. This was mortifying to me for years—there was something deeply uncool about telling stories, I thought, seeing no irony in my reaction, when what I wanted was to be a writer. She became obsessed with Rachel Bella Calof, a Jewish mail order bride who became a homesteader in North Dakota, and wrote a middle grade novel based on Calof’s life. While she was writing the book she joined a writer’s group, and she spent hours reading and writing for the group.
She also had a weekly Torah and Mishnah study group with a handful of other women, and I loved to watch (and sometimes join) them as they gossiped over coffee and then dove into text study. In her 50s my mom became close with a Russian Jewish community in a town called Kineshma, gathering supplies for them, and befriending a woman there named Lucy. After a few years she travelled to Russia to meet Lucy and spend time training Jewish educators in Russia.
Most of my memories of my mother are of her doing things that had nothing to do with me. Her artwork, her stories, her Torah study, and travel. She has been dead for eight years now, and when I think of her, it’s rare that I think of her time with me. Instead, I think of all the things that kept her busy, the times I saw her consumed by her own passions.
My whole childhood, and into adulthood (she died when I was 24), my mother was there, but on the periphery. She was out doing the things she loved.
I was one of the things she loved. She planned special days to spend with me, kept a journal with me, taught me cooking and sewing and algebra. But she was not always around. She was often off, busy, pursuing one of her many passions. I think of it now as low-touch parenting. She worked full-time, and at night she was busy with the other things she loved. She ate dinner with us, and read to us and put us to bed, but we were not the focus of her days. She assumed that we would have our own passions, and gave us space and time to pursue them, largely because she wanted her own space and time for her own passions.
I’ve been a parent now for four years, and I’m still startled by the expectations of parenting, of mothering mostly. In playgrounds and synagogues and at friends’ houses, it seems I’m supposed to follow my child around, giving constant feedback and encouragement. My friends and I often talk about feeling pressure to be home when your child gets home, to supervise each moment of homework, attend each game, give your full attention to your child at all times.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is what some women want. But it’s not what I want. I want to be out in the world, making art, telling stories, being part of movements for social justice, organizing my community, and learning. And I want my step-daughter and foster daughter to see that I’m sometimes distracted by my art, my friends, and the news. I want them to see that sometimes I leave the house just before they go to bed to attend a meeting, go to a Crossfit class, or have a writing date with a friend. When they look out at the world, I want them to know that I’m in it, that they can be in it, too. That I love them, carry them with me wherever I go, and also that I have my own story, a story that is not about them.
At the end of my mother’s life she slipped away from us bit by bit. She lost her hair, and then 50, 60, 70 pounds. Her rings slipped off her fingers. Her voice drifted away, her eyes were glassy, vacant. In those last months, it was not low-touch parenting anymore. I lifted her delicate body out of bed, bathed her, fed her cream of wheat, and held her hand in doctors’ offices and pharmacies as we waited for more bad news, more pills, less time. I rubbed cream into her skin turned raw from radiation, and massaged her feet when her muscles suddenly tensed in pain and her face contorted as she tried not to cry out.
I’m glad I had those months with all of that touch. But what I loved about my mother—what I still love, what still makes me ache for her when I allow myself a few private moments of grief—were the moments of watching her do something that had nothing to do with me.