“I need to talk to you,” my 90-year-old mother announced in a stern tone usually reserved for reprimanding a child.
Visiting her in Florida, I noticed increasing balance problems and short-term memory lapses, early signs of Lewy body dementia. She perched on the bench of the organ my father had learned to play in retirement.
And she began to recite, like someone eager to have her past documented by an oral historian:
“I grew up in an orphanage. My mother didn’t want me.”
I froze — eager to listen, afraid of what she’d reveal.
“My father had tuberculosis and went to a sanitarium,” she continued. “After he died, my mother couldn’t afford to keep me at home. I went into the orphanage when I was 18 months old. I stayed until I was 15. Then I moved back home, where I lived until I married Daddy. I resented my mother.”
I was incredulous. At 53, I was hearing details of her past for the first time. She was a widow, recently surviving a heart attack. I was married with a teenage daughter. Mom had always been private, lapsing into Yiddish whenever she didn’t want me to understand. She’d dribbled out a few facts over the years: My grandmother left Russia after a broken love affair, fleeing to Ellis Island at the age of 17 — alone and penniless. My mother was raised in poverty in Jersey City. Occasionally I overheard the word “orphanage” in hushed tones. I didn’t dare to pry. She didn’t invite questions. Until now.
“When I was 7 they brought me into a room in the orphanage and said, ‘These are your older brothers.’ I didn’t even know I had brothers.”
Mother swallowed, took a breath. “My mother was supposed to visit once a month. But months would pass and she wouldn’t show up.” Her lips quivered. “I never had a mother. Never even had a doll.”
Suddenly I realized why she criticized me for buying my daughter too many toys. “Did your mother work?” I asked.
“She was so poor, she made and sold gin during Prohibition.”
No wonder Mother never drank. I started to tremble. As anxious as I felt diving deeper into her past, I knew this might be the only opportunity to discover why she’d been so distant, running away from friendships and intimacy. Her failing health compelled her to share memories of institutionalization with someone who’d remember.
“I’m stronger than you are,” she had often boasted when I was growing up, proud that she never even took a Tylenol. I was a sensitive child. She called my outbursts “crocodile tears.”
Now I watched real tears stream down the cheeks of the stoic stranger who’d never invited me to sit in her lap. Suddenly she hugged me. I could feel her shoulder blades in her diminutive frame. I fell into a back-and-forth rocking rhythm. I’d cradled my daughter — but never the woman who’d given birth to me.
Together we cried, for ourselves and for each other. Our embrace ended awkwardly, as if we’d been caught misbehaving.
“I once told my mother she didn’t love me,” Mother blurted. “She was shocked.”
Avoiding her gaze, I didn’t admit I’d wanted to accuse her of the same thing. As a child I’d often felt neglected, left alone at the age of 8, not understanding why Mom ran off to art classes rather than spend time with me. Chiseling sculptures eased her anxieties. My father called it “nervous energy,” but she was trying to keep the trauma she held inside from exploding. If I disagreed with her, she washed my mouth out with soap. Once she hit my face so hard for speaking back to her, my gums bled. When I wanted to major in journalism, she said, “You don’t have any talent.”
We spent our lives disappointing each other. I yearned for someone to praise and inspire me, but so did she. We both needed a good mother. She was always protecting herself from the scars of her early abandonment.
Now she confessed, “When I put my mother in a home, it was on the same grounds as my orphanage. Imagine how I felt each time I visited.”
I couldn’t. All I remembered was taking my grandmother out for ice cream on Sundays. How could my mother have kept such an anguished secret from me all those years? Not a word during the car ride from Brooklyn to Jersey City and back. As if we were any mother and daughter visiting an octogenarian in any nursing home. My mother had kept her secret from me all these years — until she suspected that soon it might be too late.
“Don’t ever put me in a home,” she said, sounding desperate.
“I won’t,” I promised, suggesting that she might live with me someday. Even though my city apartment couldn’t house all of us.
“My mother said two women should never share the same kitchen,” Mom insisted.
My secret: I was relieved. But now that I knew who she really was, I hoped my anger would become tempered with compassion.
Her outpouring was over as quickly as it began. Neither of us brought it up again. As she became frailer, I flew to Florida more often. I escorted her to the movies, where she’d fall asleep, mouth agape, waking up during the credits, remarking, “What a great film!” In a dressing room in Bloomingdale’s, I helped her find a brassiere, trying to fasten the hooks with the finesse of a lingerie saleswoman. Hiding her embarrassment, she stared at us in the mirror and said, “You’ve become my mother.”
One night as I made her favorite dinner of salmon, broccoli and sweet potatoes, she asked, “Did I ever hit you?”
“You never hit me,” I lied. What was the point of rehashing that now?
“Was I a bad mother? No one taught me how.”
“You weren’t a bad mother.”
I did my best to appear strong in front of her. I’d soak a package of tissues with tears in the airport every time I left.
She grew to depend on me, becoming less harsh and critical the more I consulted with her doctors and monitored her medications. I was her caretaker. My older brother was unavailable, and my other brother had died at the age of 46 from lung cancer. Fortunately, Mom had a long-term insurance policy to cover the cost of having round-the-clock aides. I borrowed money to make up for my lost income as a freelancer. I brushed her hair. Played Go Fish with oversize cards designed for a child. Sang “Happy Birthday” when she no longer knew me.
For the last two years of her life, she was bedridden with advanced Lewy body dementia and a broken hip. Her eyes were closed most of the time, her body shuddering from jerky, involuntary movements. At least she wasn’t aware that her hands were sheathed in gloves to calm her, or how she was sedated to allow caretakers to bathe her and change her diapers.
She never even knew I kept my promise and didn’t put her in a nursing home. But I knew. It had been a challenge, yet her death left me with few regrets and no guilt. I hadn’t abandoned her as she’d feared, the way her mother had so long ago. The decision to move a parent into a nursing home is always excruciatingly difficult, but it was out of the question for me. I understood how essential it was for my mother to die at home. In her house. On her terms.
Condolence cards from friends kept emphasizing that after the initial grief subsides, memories of a dying parent become softened with earlier, less painful images. After the funeral, I kept reliving the conversation my mother had initiated six years before.
At the time I feared that my promise not to put her in a home would be a burden full of old resentments. Yet if she hadn’t revealed who she was and why, I would have missed the unexpected pleasure of getting closer to her.
A month after she died, I faced the emotional task of cleaning out her apartment. In an envelope titled “to be opened only after my death,” I found a tape she’d recorded.
“I grew up in an orphanage,” my mother’s voice began, and once again I listened.
I made copies of the tape to distribute to her eight grandchildren, grateful that they could finally hear her story in her own words. Just as Mom had chosen how to die, she had determined how to share her legacy.”
Original post: The Opinion Pages of The New York Times