Motherless Jewish Mother – Kveller
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Motherless Jewish Mother

I’m in line at Trader Joe’s with my 8-month-old daughter who is snugly nestled in the cart when I hear a loud sing-song voice say, “Awww, there’s anotha cutie in frontah me!” A slim middle-aged woman in a snazzy I’m-not-old-yet outfit was talking on her cell phone and smiling at my daughter. Clearly she was a Jewish grandmother, chatting to her daughter who also had a baby. The store started to swirl.

As she continued to chat and beam at my baby, I heard her say, “Come ovah, whateva, we’ll do dinnah, you tell me.” Then as an aside she said to me, “Oh she’s a-DOR-a-ble. How old?” I thought I was going to throw up. My mother didn’t have the accent. My mother wasn’t thin. But this woman was clearly the kind of Jewish grandmother who knew her grandchild was a genius and would’ve told her daughter, “You want my liveah? A kidney? How about my pancreas? Just call me, lemme know. Oh and I picked up a salad.” And that was my mother, too.

As I swiped my card, I avoided the woman’s loving gazes like the plague. Literally sick with envy, I couldn’t return the smile, and chugged out of the store by telling myself, “Keep it together, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.”

A Great Loss

Last year I lost my beautiful, hilarious, talented mother after an impressive five-year slog with ovarian cancer. Let’s get the part out of the way where you’ll really feel sorry for me: when she died, I was pregnant with my second child in the feeling-horrible-but-can’t-tell-yet stage, working full time for a major media company and caring for her at the same time, all from her home. I’d worked from home for years. But this time, instead of making myself coffee, I would go upstairs and change her IVs.

Mother and daughter.

Now here’s the part I feel immensely lucky for: because she was diagnosed, nearly by accident, my mom managed to write and publish many books while going in and out of different flavors of chemo. She had been widowed for a decade and showed amazing strength. We grew closer; we stopped sweating the small stuff. She lived to see my son and get to know him as a toddler. I got to see the magic of those Jewish grandma hormones pumping through her.

It was a stunning transformation.

Momnesia Strikes

Before my son, if we were in a restaurant and a baby made a peep, she’d loudly exclaim, “None of you were like that!” She’d had three children, and to hear her say we’d never caused a moment’s trouble in public, it became obvious she had momnesia big time. I dreaded knowing how she’d react to her grandchildren.

But when my son was born, her love was boundless. We’d be at a diner trying to talk over the cacophony of clanging silverware, squawking–but he could do no wrong. When an Equal packet was launched towards another table, she complimented his throwing arm and suggested he had a future with the Yankees. It was absurd. It was wonderful.

When her illness took a turn and she began a slide she wouldn’t recover from, we both knew she wouldn’t make it to meet the next baby. We had a conversation about names on her deathbed. She was an award-winning author. She was good at names. She always had multiple baby naming books at arm’s reach for hero and heroine fodder.

My mother suggested, “Delia. It’s old-fashioned, I’ve always liked it.” I liked it. A lot. But I reminded her that, ah, it didn’t start with the first letter of her name–Edith. The tradition of naming the baby after a recently deceased relative was one she had always been a stickler for. She said, “I know. You can give her an E middle name…”

Delia’s all smiles.

Her name. It was early enough that we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but she refused to dish out any boys’ names. I was highly distressed. “Mom, please. In case it’s a boy?” She put her hand on my belly, looked me in the eye and said, “It’s a girl.” I pleaded. She waved her hand in a dismissive way as if I was the one being ridiculous. End of conversation.

She died a week later, in the summer. Delia arrived in the fall. Delia Evelyn.

Inheritance of Friends

Nearly every baby milestone makes me cry even though I know I’m lucky to have had a good mother when so many don’t. To have had her as long as I did. To have been able to care for her. But I’m still not sure what to do on Passover now that I have the good dishes but the one who made the chicken soup and guilted me into coming out for it is gone. I’m figuring it out.

But my mother’s friends who rallied around her during her illness cannot be shaken. Renee has eight grandchildren and a mother she visits daily, but she trekked across state lines to the hospital when Delia was born, lugging a scooter for my son’s birthday. Joan sends birthday cards with a $20 bill tucked inside. Anne knits sweaters and includes us on her Hanukkah party list. And Bobbie, Gillian, Lora, and Jan. More precious than any gifts, they call, write, and ask what the kids are doing to buttress my spirits. I have a tight network of bubbes-in-waiting and they span religions, locations. Screw the Wedgewood, my grandparents’ silver fish forks. Their love is the inheritance I’m most grateful for.

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