My mother spent so much time in bed that there was a perfect indentation of her body on the mattress. Picture a chalk body image of a victim at a crime scene stuck in one position for all eternity. Now picture this in a completely darkened room, blackout shades drawn but not quite dark enough for her liking as she still found a sleep mask necessary to aid and abet the total darkness.
My mother’s profound manic depression was textbook. The ups and downs were rather dizzying for me to handle as a teenager, but after my parents’ divorce, I was the one left to manage and monitor these rollercoaster moods.
It was very clear that the chemical/biological factors behind my mother’s depression were significantly exacerbated by her experience as a Holocaust survivor. Maybe she was somehow replicating the conditions she experienced for two years in a dark basement as a hidden child in a private home in Belgium. Maybe this was somehow a comfort for her. To me, however, every time I walked into that room, I experienced a slight bracing of myself, a trepidation as I would tiptoe to her side not really knowing how bad it would be this time.
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I’d gently sit myself down in the little nook created by the curve of her knees and ask if she was OK, if she needed anything. Sometimes she would ask for a glass of orange juice or a piece of a large Hershey bar that we always had in our refrigerator. Other times she wouldn’t ask for anything but I knew she was happy that I was there. I have memories of watching Shirley Temple movies with her in bed. Shirley Temple made her very happy, although temporarily. I knew that a switch inside her would eventually be flipped and she’d burrow back into her protective abyss, never knowing when she’d emerge.
My brother would come over on the weekends to help her pay her bills that she always tucked between a pillow and arm of the couch. He too was pulled into the role of caretaker, but like everything my brother does, he did it with patience and a smile. It was hard to witness what I felt to be feigned helplessness. Yes, my father had undoubtedly taken care of everything for her during their 25-year marriage, but at 14, I was already frustrated by her inability, or laziness, in trying to be independent.
As a result, my ensuing independence was fierce. After college and until I got married in my mid-30s I lived blissfully alone, never having to worry about what and who I’d be facing behind my front door. I paid my own bills, bought my own groceries, and made my own decisions (not always good ones), but I relied on no one but myself. I adapted to no one’s moods but my own.
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I now have a daughter of my own. Nothing gives me greater comfort than napping in my king-size memory foam bed. My naps feel more like a reward sometimes and much less an escape. I try to sneak them in while she’s at her father’s house, but when that doesn’t happen, I announce happily that I’ll be reading and then napping. It doesn’t cause her concern, but it does give me a pang of guilt every once in a while, thinking of how much time was lost with my own mother in bed.
But I know what I have with my daughter is so much different. I go out of my way to make memories for my her: We go on special mommy/daughter road trips; stay in a nice hotel and order room service; go to the movies together; and have our favorite TV shows that we watch while my husband is out of the house. I don’t have memories like this of my mother and me.
I am grateful that she is not taking on the role of parent as I was forced to. I was caretaker to an emotionally troubled mother who couldn’t manage to get out of bed even to attend my Sweet Sixteen. I would never dream of missing a chorus performance, soccer game, or any other platform that makes my daughter happy (or a little nervous), and I beam with pride at being her mother.
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I do know that my mother loved me unconditionally, in the best way she knew how. When she died by her own hand when I was 21, I knew that. I will always know that, especially when I see a giant Hershey bar and know how much pleasure I was offering up to her, by her side, when she needed me most.