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The Things My Mother Loved

The Things My Mother Loved

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Driving up the long, steep driveway, I see the gray, L-shaped ranch. The black shutters offer a poor attempt at color contrast in an attempt to brighten things up. Inside the house, the gray continues. Dark, dreary, almost lifeless. My mother’s antiques line the walls, fill the breakfront, occupy shelf space. Testimony to her love of collecting, they sit and collect dust as they hold prime space in our house.

On the kitchen counter, my mother’s prized possession sits. A set of ceramic containers. Each labeled with their purpose. Tea, sugar, coffee, flour, etc, all lined up, like twenty-five soldiers in a row. Milky white, with flecks of gold and green all over, stamped in gold with their intended ingredient. Found once at an antique show, we all knew how precious these dishes were to her.

My nervousness would be palpable Whenever I would help my mother cook, or attempt my own personal foray in the kitchen, my mother’s constant refrain would echo in my ear. “Watch out for the canisters! Be careful, I don’t want them to break!” My nervousness would be palpable as I would work around these ceramic idols.

Inevitably, one day, one broke. Thankfully, it wasn’t by me. A wayward ball lightly tossed in the wrong direction hit a canister. Over twenty-five years later, the cries and anger that came from my mother still ring in my ears. At the time, what struck me most was how inconsolable she was. Looking back, however, I see that it was the distinctiveness of her behavior that strikes me the most now.

Emotion and life were not part of the gray house on Andrew Avenue. Yes, there were four people living there, ostensibly a family. In reality, just four people sharing two bathrooms. A devotee of the eighties “Super Mom” philosophy, she wanted to succeed. As a career woman, long-time student, wife and part-time mother, she focused on the external goals the most. Locking herself away in her den for hours every night, she tirelessly corrected her nursing students’ papers, then seamlessly moved on to her own Ph.D. coursework.

My father, one of the early computer programmers, would spend similar hours in the basement with his beloved PC, a monstrous machine compared to today’s notebook-thin laptops. My father would lose himself in pages of program code flickering green-on-black on the computer screen.

My brother and I found our own ways to escape. He became a fencing prodigy. Traveling all over the country winning competitions, or spending hours at practice, striving to be one of the “Great American Competitors.” This was an area of which my mother allowed herself to take notice, holding off some of her other personal responsibilities in order to watch him succeed. It became some of the basic material to talk about about during her social outings. As for me, I played in my room with my dolls. Long after the appropriate age to stop playing with dolls, I would spend hours in my room playing house. As the mommy in this pretend world, there was never a greater goal that to take care of my Cabbage Patch Doll babies. Their misproportioned plastic heads and unblinking eyes provided sure signs of the unconditional love that I so wanted.

I grew up believing that mothers took care of “things” instead of taking care of children. I grew up believing that a mother polished silver, taking care to bring out the shine in the cups rather than the shine in her children. Tears over boyfriends, friends or teachers’ injustice were not acceptable, as they were too much for my mother to bear. The energy that I had remained trapped inside me, needing to shine forth, begging for a place to express who I was.

Only years later do I think I have begun to realize that my mother’s emotional capacity was already full. The cancer that was growing inside her took up whatever space she had. Shunning sympathy, it was kept a secret from all but a few for years. Moving forward, fighting for normalness, was all she wanted. For ten years she was able to live her life the way that she wanted, focusing on the external, palpable goals. Only in the last three years of her life, when she had to make it public, did her focus shift inward to survival.

I grew up believing that mothers took care of “things” instead of taking care of childrenFor years after she died, my father continued to live in that house on Andrew Avenue. Her antiques were left in their place, as if waiting for her to come and take care of them. Whenever I would enter the kitchen and look at those canisters, I always felt an odd sense of relief that none had cracked or broken. The canisters faithfully remained on the kitchen counter as a testament to the woman who had once lived there. When the time finally came for my father to leave the house, I was left with the formidable task of packing everything up. Now, my tears finally had their chance to flow. Almost sacrilegious in feeling, I handled all of these once forbidden, sacred objects. With my brother far away in Florida and my father rehabilitating from a stroke, I spent hours rifling through everything, having been given full discretionary power over their fate.

An estate sale was arranged. Meeting with the manager days before the sale, I was instructed to go through the house and label each item with a different color sticker. Green for sale, yellow for trash, and red for not for sale. Walking through the house, I was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. Though it has been ten years since she died, my fingers shook with each green sticker that I placed on an object. And then I came to the canisters. Those stupid, beloved canisters. Neither my father nor brother had any need or desire for them. Their fate was now left to me. Seeing at them on the counter, I stopped. Suddenly, my long-buried disdain for those canisters came streaming out of me. Was I obligated to keep this set of canisters, this shrine to my mother’s existence? I felt completely at a loss at what to do. Logically, I knew that living in Israel, with my standard Israeli kitchen, I had no proper place to keep these things. And, emotionally, I was afraid that if I kept these canisters, I would begin to revere them as a way to honor my mother. They could so easily become a focus that I was not willing to create.

I had fought my mother’s demons for years in my struggle to create the home that I had always wanted: a place for emotion and spirit to reign supreme. A haven for my children to cry over battles lost and laugh over victories won, and a refuge for the struggle in between. These canisters were a symbol of all that I had changed. With tears stinging my eyes, I reached for the green sticker. I took a pen. I wrote, “Includes the entire set.”

By Anonymous
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Mari Rachel Wodonga, Australia May 12, 2012

It's Ok It is hard to write articles like this one...

Some people want you to add "good aspects" about your Mom. But, it is hard. When you don't know the reality, it is hard.

Maybe the "good" stuff is another article? But this one -- right now -- was not. This was about guilt and "letting go" and acknowledging the feelings towards your Mom. They weren't good ones, some of them -- and this is OK.

Yes, Judaism asks us to "elevate," but it also asks us to think critically, to reflect, to be honest....

I hope your issues with your mom soften over time, and I hope you find time to reflect and write a piece in which you find her goodness. :) It would be lovely... as it would be hard.

Shalom! Reply

Gila Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel August 10, 2011

Beautiful! You can feel the author's depth of emotion in this article, particularly as relates to her ambivalence about certain aspects of her relationship to her mother, while at the same time describing her overarching desire to honor her mother's memory, (and her fear that the cannisters would take on too much significance as a result). Please write more! Reply

Rishe Deitsch BROOKLYN, us August 6, 2011

chabad.org has done it again! Yasher koach (good for you!) to you for thinking, for understanding, for facing painful truths, and for writing about it all, so that we can all learn from you.

Yasher koach to chabad.org for publishing this.

I just want to hug that little girl, playing with her dolls...

GOOD FOR YOU that you are a different kind of mother, and good for you that with adulthood and over time you came to understand your own mother's challenges (cancer, etc.). Reply

Anonymous USA August 3, 2011

Do not feel badly about some of these comments No one can adequately express everything that happens in some families and only those who have lived the life can truly grasp this. You did not show anything but just factual acceptance of what happened from my perspective reading this article. You are very wise in this computer age to stay anonymous too...it does not take a very smart person to learn things online!!
I am so VERY thankful that HE who knows ALL, is the judge of what happens in life...it is HaShem that we need to please...people we will never be able to please anyway.
Blessings on your journey and thank you for being brave enough to share here. Reply

yonah monsey, ny August 3, 2011

powerful and poignant i was deeply moved by your essay. it is beautifully written. thank you for the clarity and courage it took to share it. Reply

Teri Modelevsky Jonesboro, AR August 3, 2011

This is such a touching story. Sometimes, we are taught the greatest lessons through difficulty. I have a feeling that you give intense effort to being emotionally available to your children. Reply

Zionist Modi''in August 3, 2011

Issues with this article I empathize with the author's childhood pain and understand many of the things she wrote. I admire her for making Aliyah and trying to be a devoted parent.

However, I have several problems with the article. There is a concept in Judaism of elevating the souls of the deceased by focusing on their good deeds. The author doesn't recount a single positive thing they did for her! She at least benefited from their material support. Also, calling her mother's cannisters "idols" is a super-strong accusation in the Jewish religion. Lastly, the author doesn't admit that pretty much everyone these days struggles with the work-life balance, especially in today's tough economy. I don't feel any sympathy for her parents in her writing. Reply

Batya S. Zohar Tel Aviv, Israel August 3, 2011

Anon What a wonderful and inspiring article. It should not be signed "anonymous" but rather with a name, satisfied to have been the author, knowing that you opened a window for your thoughts to flow and heal not only yourself but those reading your story. Reply

Jolie Greiff Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel August 2, 2011

Cannisters Away Thank you for a beautiful essay. I so disagree with "Anonymous" from Texas. I think you did just the right thing selling those canisters. Do not feel bad for not passing the burden of breakable, cumbersome items to your children - especially items fraught with unpleasant memories. I too, live in Israel, and I think that possibly the commentor from Texas is not familiar with the space limitations here. I suggest passing on to your children the legacy of whatever good you can think of relating to your mother. Someone else suggested taking photos. That helped me going through my parents' house, as I just couldn't hold on to everything that my wonderful mother held dear. (A child of the Depression, she had difficulty tossing just about anything.) Sounds like your children are very lucky they have you. Reply

Jolie Greiff Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel August 2, 2011

Cannisters Away Thank you for a beautiful essay. I so disagree with "Anonymous" from Texas. I think you did just the right thing selling those canisters. Do not feel bad for not passing the burden of breakable, cumbersome items to your children - especially items fraught with unpleasant memories. I too, live in Israel, and I think that possibly the commentor from Texas is not familiar with the space limitations here. I suggest passing on to your children the legacy of whatever good you can think of relating to your mother. Someone else suggested taking photos. That helped me going through my parents' house, as I just couldn't hold on to everything that my wonderful mother held dear. (A child of the Depression, she had difficulty tossing just about anything.) Sounds like your children are very lucky they have you. Reply

Anonymous NC, USA August 2, 2011

Well written I believe it is impossible for people to understand parents like this, unless they have lived it too. I had one fabulous parent, but the other....and I have learned that it does help to dispense with items that might bring back sad or bad memories, whatever they might be. I do think you were so wise to sell off what brought pain. Sounds like you have done well with your life. I tried very hard to have a different home than the one I was raised in. In some areas I succeeded, in others not. And too, however one's spouse is also has an effect. Tho' my children are all raised, I was not able to have the deep relationship with them that I desired. They also have a choice. I believe at this time that the DNA probably plays a greater part than I ever thought anyway. Well, HaShem will be the judge, for which I am glad. We each one can only do our best and that is all. I wish you the very best with your children!! Reply

Chana@JewishMom.com Jerusalem, Alabama August 2, 2011

beautiful Thanks for sharing this beautiful and touching story...You are an amazing writer, and I hope to read more articles by you on the jewish woman.
I think often when people are very anxious then they become obsessive about physical objects and their physical environment and keeping them just right. I had a relative like this, and I also found it very challenging. It's such a sad way to live. Reply

Janna Gosnell Glasgow, KY via chabadnashville.com August 2, 2011

Impressed with your story Your mom probably did the best she knew how. So many of her generation showed their love by giving their children things and a nice place to live, safety and food. Maybe she was never shown affection growing up. Each generation has the choice to change, and I am so proud of you for loving your children out loud. One last thing, the reason your mother cried over that broken container may have been misplaced emotion. Perhaps all the held in feelings she really had all those years broke loose when she let herself become upset over a material object. Pent up emotion has to go somewhere. Just a thought. I am so happy you have a loving life now! Reply

Anonymous Tzfat, No US State August 2, 2011

Your sharing helps many other people That's a lot of things to sift through and decide what to keep, sell or throw out. I'm glad that you understood what you had missed in growing up. Thank G-d you had healed somewhat. I have a situation with my children - their father's emotional capacity is also full. And I worry about their being able to express feelings and about their being able to nurture others. But, I have to trust in Hashem, Who is also their Father in Heaven, that he will help them to grow and heal. life brings to us is not in our hands. Only our responses to life is in our hands. We have to daven for clarity of thinking and for wisdom. Thank you for sharing. It's encouraging to hear of someone in a similar circumstance who was able to pull herself out by her bootstraps. I'm happy for you. Reply

Myra Netanya, Israel August 2, 2011

Great story Sometimes we hold on to material things and we add an emotional element to them that is not necessarily of interest to the next generation. Good for you for being able to rid yourself of sentemental feelings and get rid of the canisters! Reply

Chao Mombasa, Kenya August 2, 2011

Wise Decision. Thank you for this beautiful and touching story. Reply

Anonymous Weatherford, Texas August 1, 2011

What a difficult choice! Have you considered what that "those stupid, beloved canisters" meant to your Mother? Maybe her Mother had the same? Maybe her Grand Mother? Maybe having the canisters reminded your Mother of better days? Were they full of memories for your mother? Maybe your daughter's would have liked to have had them someday?

I wish something could have been passed along to me from years previous that my grandmother's had owned, but there was nothing to pass along. I did not even know one grandmother as she was gone before I was born.

Too bad you had to sell them. It must have been a difficult choice for you.

It makes me very sad to look into antique stores, knowing items were once beloved or well used by someone's Mother or Grandmother and the family decided to sell the "things". To me they are treasures from the past.

On the other hand, I am very thankful that my still living Mother (who is 80) has passed along her "things" to me now, while she is living to give to my children. Reply

Leah Rosenstein Oak Park, MI August 1, 2011

take a picture and then sell the object Too many hoarders leave an overwhelming amount of stuff to their children to sort out. Usually it is not useful to the next generation, nor is it of interest. Some people inherit a hoard and feel guilty for parting with it and cause another generation to suffer. I applaud this author both for selling the canisters and writing this well written article. Reply

Hinda Bayla Baltimore, MD August 1, 2011

Letting go I grew up in a similiar home, lots of family warmth though, just no space for healthy emotions, emotional needs or spirituality. vulnerability. To this day I still suffer fom these losses and am awed and inspired by your strength. Reply

Donna Mobile, Alabama August 1, 2011

Your Story Touched My Heart You are a real special Lady, I know this for a fact. When I lost my Mother from cancer, I was in the Hospital holding her hand. Our relationship was different than yours, she was my Mother and my Best Friend, we would laugh, cry, talk all the time. I can understand why you sold the canisters. In my case, everything that was real special to her that my Mother gave me, I cherish with all my heart. As she was batteling for her life, I was there for her, but also there for my Father, I did not want to lose them both. My Father and I were very close, I was always there to inspire him and show him my Love, and support. Losing my Mother was so hard on me, I still miss her everyday, a piece of my Heart is broken. I put my Father first in my life, I lost him in 2004, it was even worse losing a second parent. You have to realize that G-D gave your Parents to you and they were both a Blessing in my Life. Now my Heart is broken, but I am a strong person and know that they are still me forever. Reply





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