Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27, 1945, the largest Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27th as the day we remember the six million lives that were cruelly ended because of intolerance and hate gone wild.
On January 27, 1930, my Mama was born on a kitchen table in The Bronx to her parents who fled Jewish persecution in Russia, years before the rise of the Third Reich. She did not practice Judaism but always identified herself as a Jew and proudly shared the culture with me as she raised me. She told me of the horrors of persecution through the ages but she always focused on the fact that we come from a long line of survivors who for thousands of years not only beat all odds by merely existing, but who found joy in life.
In 2005, my Mama left this world. In her coffin I placed in her hand her favorite earthly delights: a pack of Pall Mall red, no filters (which was the culprit behind Mama leaving me so soon), chocolate covered cherries with all liquid centers, Joyva marble halvah and song sheets for all the good old songs she’d sing with her brother. I kept the memories here…in my heart. Since 2005, I remember my Yiddisha Mama.
I find the coincidence of International Holocaust Remembrance Day occurring on her birthday and it being declared the year she died, strange…but very fitting.
Today, remember to be kind to one another. Honor this day.
During the last conversation I ever had with my Mama eight years ago, she mouthed the words “I’m sorry” over and over again. She had a trach tube as the COPD from the Pall Mall reds, no filter she smoked since she was 13 caught up with her and she could no longer speak. I’ll never forget the look of absolute desperation in her eyes as she repeated herself. I smiled, looked her straight in the eye and told her, “You were the best Mama I could ever have. There’s nothing to be sorry about.” We both knew that was only partially true. She was the best Mama I could ever have. But, as in all families, mistakes are made…and in our family of dysfunction, some of these mistakes were more severe than in other families. My Mama owned some of these mistakes that were never admitted to but it that moment…but it didn’t matter. Uttering those words as much as she was able to, we were both released at that moment, Mama of her flaws and me, letting go of all she asked forgiveness for. When I came home from the hospital that night, I told my husband that I had the last visit I would ever have with my Mama. He asked how it went. I told him that we watched Everybody Loves Raymond and that she told me she was sorry. “For what?” he asked. I said I didn’t ask. I just forgave her. “Isn’t not knowing going to bother you the rest of your life?” No, I don’t think so.
Eight years later, it still hasn’t bothered me, the not knowing. Events over the past few years, culminating in strange visitors giving credence to recent revelations helped me realize why; I believe I’ve always known…I just didn’t realize I knew.
Throughout my life, I’ve been haunted by demons, some external, some internal, some known and some buried in my unconscious mind. I’m a fighter. A survivor. Always have been. Most of the time, I see it as a point of pride. Sometimes, it’s lonely because people just assume that I’ll “figure it out and be just fine.” This year I made a scary but important decision regarding my career. I decided to change real estate offices. I went from a well-known, long established boutique office to a Canadian-based franchise whose name is very new to my local marketplace. Weighing everything out, this was the best possible decision I could make for my family. I stand by this decision even though success isn’t coming as rapidly as I had hoped (but when does it ever). Like so many others, the end of the year finds me in a time of reflection. What can I do differently to improve? What is holding me back? Also like so many others, my biggest obstacle is myself. Those damn demons. So as I set my goals and wrote my business plan, last week I prayed to my Mama. I prayed for her to help set me free from those demons that are weighing me down like anchors tied around my ankles so I can finally be free and focused on realizing my full potential for myself and my family.
On Friday night, those three strange visitors came knocking at my door. An ugly truth about my childhood was revealed. Even though it was too late to do anything about it, the visitors gave me acknowledgement. And with that, the chains that tied an anchor to my ankle became a little looser. I can feel my foot wriggling out already. It amazes me that learning something so horrific that occurred over 30 years ago can be simultaneously nauseating and liberating.
Then at 1:10 a.m. this morning, I received a message from someone I never met that has priceless information for me. Answers, at least in part, that I have been seeking since I was a child. And with that, the chain that tied the anchor to my other ankle became loose enough for me to start wriggling out.
In what was an eventful year, I do believe the impact of these last few days is what I will remember most. They are significant not only in that they represent freedom but that they illustrate that when you allow yourself to be truly vulnerable and ask for help, it is surprising who answers the call…and how.
I love you Mama. As the years go on without you, I am understanding you more and more and feel your loss deeper and deeper. I wish I had a little more time with you. But now you are protecting me in ways you were never able to before. I promise you, as we embark upon a brand new year, I will honor that gift by living to my potential and beyond.
I was raised by my grandmother. I always called her Mama. She had a heavy hand that was calloused with housework, smelled of cigarettes (Pall Mall red, no filters) and fingernails yellowed by nicotine. Pall Mall red, no filters robbed me of her in 2005.
She was never one for hugs and kisses but through her toughness, I always knew that she loved me and was devoted to me. She sang to me, spoke some yiddish to me (everyone thought she was Italian, too) and taught me how to cook. But the most important thing she ever gave me was her unconditional love. Sometimes it meant discipline but even when that was the case, it was because she believed in me and wanted me to be the best person I could be.
It’s Mother’s Day. Today I got to see my gorgeous-but-growing-up-way-too-quickly little girl play soccer. I love her unconditionally and I hope she knows it even though I’m not all that great with hugs and kisses either. Whenever I am in the kitchen, she helps me cook. I tell her “this is the way Mama taught me.” Oftentimes now she’s the one cooking for me — and she’s really good at it — and she does a lot of things “Mama’s” way. I miss you, Mama. I think your Pall Mall red, no filters short-changed us a lot of Mother’s Days together. But that’s OK. Now more than ever I treasure the time we had when you were on this earth with me and I know you are here with me always.