The Yiddish Words I Missed After My Mother Died
Several years after my mother died, I had a startling—yet so obvious—realization. Never again would I hear anyone murmur those sweet endearments that she reserved for me. And there were many, all in Yiddish: *Bossinca, Bossa Golda, mamala minus, mamashana, neshumela, mein kind. Curious that she chose Yiddish, as Hebrew was her mother tongue and English, her hard-won second language. But Yiddish formed the blocks of the secret language of mother and daughter in our home.
The more I thought about this loss, the worse it made me feel. Another never. As time passes, I continue to uncover more wounds and each time think: Surely, I’m done now.
The currency of a loving relationship is the small intimate moments that bond us. Sometimes expressions of love are non-verbal: gently tucking a strand of hair behind your daughter’s ear, tenderly pressing cool lips to her feverish forehead, the symphony of flipping a blanket in the air until it corrects itself and softly falls in perfect rhythm around her. Other times, we use language as verbal hugs, forging and reinforcing our connections.
A language is about communication, and with my mother gone, isn’t our language dead? Whispering her sweet words of love to myself seems childish, at best, and somewhat pathetic, at worst. It would be akin to showing great delight in encountering myself when I see my reflection in the mirror. When I attempted to use some of these endearments with my own daughter, they sounded less authentic in my voice, so I created my own pet names for her.
Certain possessions, photographs, anecdotes, and knowledge can be passed along, admired, and used—all pieces of the legacy we leave behind. My children have their grandmother’s hand-made afghans and Shabbat candlesticks. I have shared my mother’s recipes (only gleaned through my following her around the kitchen and making notes) and taught my children how Grandma made them. When her sweet and sour meatballs are simmering on my stove, their intoxicating aroma propels me on a magic carpet ride to my mother’s kitchen—my childhood actually—and that is precisely why I make them.
Am I bringing the past into the present or the present into the past? No matter—the intermingling is where I feel comfortable. But some experiences can’t be recreated; they are firmly rooted in my youth and there they stay. I might not like it, but I need to accept it.
Memories, sad or happy, can be painful—one kind tinged with regret and recrimination, the other with yearning and loss. Yet, no one would—or should—burn that bridge to the past. Retrieving memories is like diving for gold coins that glitter in murky depths; recovering these precious nuggets can involve scraping up against the coral and injuring ourselves, but we do it. We just need to apply a balm.
For me, the balm is feeling grateful. My practice of gratitude is inconsistent; it is not my default mode, but I have improved through practice. When I think about what I was given, I feel humbled and joyful. I was blessed to have a mother who loved life, family, and, most certainly, me…all unconditionally. Some of these memories can be shared, and others remain mine alone—and I treasure them all.
*Bossinca and Bossa Golda – I was named after my maternal grandmother, Batya Zahava. Her name in Yiddish is Bossa Golda. Bossinca is a diminutive.
mamala minus and mamashana – The literal translation is my little mother and pretty mother respectively. These endearments are commonly used for girls in one’s family.
neshumela – means little soul.
mein kind – means my child.