During the five years that I devotedly cared for my ailing, elderly mother:

  • I daily brought her home a special indulgence of a bit of chocolate, so she wouldn’t feel deprived on her restricted diabetic diet.
  • I daily cajoled her to walk with me in the park, arms linked, to exercise her weak heart, even when my schedule was so hectic that I barely had time to breathe.
  • I did all this as if I loved her, not because I loved her
  • I daily arranged for my children and grandchildren to call her, and send pictures and videos, to alleviate her loneliness.
  • I daily struggled to maintain a balanced life with the remaining unmarried children living at home, gently supporting their place and space. I would remind them to treat Bubby with dignity and respect even when they felt little respect coming from her, with her numerous requests being made at inopportune times.

I did all this as if I loved her, not because I loved her.

This was in addition to the weekly shopping for special foods and clothing to suit her aristocratic taste. I also coordinated the scheduling for her companion, the physical therapy, numerous doctor appointments, her swimming and social events, and her pedicure appointments. Plus the unexpected visits to the emergency room and the many extended hospital stays. Again, I did all this devotedly as if I loved her, not because I loved her.

Why didn’t I love her? I really wanted to. As an only child, I desperately wanted to love my mother and feel her love for me. I longed to bask in the warm, sunny glow, to be cherished and loved. Instead, I spent my childhood years pondering what it was about me that was so unlovable, so unworthy of what I craved most. What was wrong with me that my mother always seemed to be displeased with me? I spent my time plotting ways to please my mother, by setting the table or generally being helpful, so she would be proud of me, or at least not criticize me or minimize my accomplishments. I spent lonely and bored hours in my room, on Sundays or after school, wishing she would play a game with me instead of watching television.

Rather than concentrating on my schoolwork, I would sit in class, almost lost in the lethargy of my thoughts, trying to make sense of it all. I also wished I wouldn’t so often overhear her on the phone enumerating my many faults—real or imagined—to her one friend. I used to feel awful and hopeless. Why couldn’t I be the good daughter I so desperately longed to be? What kind of wicked soul was I born with, that I could never—or so it seemed—make my mother proud of me, smile at me, and rejoice in my existence?

I don’t remember much about my childhood, as it wasn’t particularly memorable, but I remember small, random events that obviously had made a deep impression on me. I remember once, when I was five years old, my mother asked me if I would take care of her in her old age. My innocent response was, “I don’t know, I may have to take care of my own children.” She angrily commented on how selfish I was! I never understood this. At age five, was I supposed to be her parent? This was a story that she often repeated to others to illustrate how selfish and spoiled I was as a child.

At age seven, I remember hiding in the coat closet with one of my friends, confiding in her that I wished that I had a different mother. I remember the sheer shock on her face as I confessed my unhappiness. She later told me that she could not imagine anyone not loving their mother!

She could not imagine anyone not loving their mother!When I was twelve, my mother bought me a ruffled dress. I refused to wear it. I was convinced that if she had bought it for me, it must be because she wanted me to look ugly! I began shopping for my own clothing at the age of thirteen. Such was my level of distrust in her. I wouldn’t ever dream of sharing any of my feelings with her.

I was a lonely child, who sought the company of neighbors and friends. I was very sociable and popular. I was the best babysitter in the city, and I was never homesick at overnight camp. I volunteered for any volunteer project available. Anything was better than being home.

Frankly, I think that I survived only because my father adored me.

Perhaps that was part of the problem. My mother was very jealous of our relationship. I’m not sure what came first, the chicken or the egg. Did he adore me because his wife was so difficult and self-absorbed, or was she so difficult because he adored me? I saw him only on Shabbat, but he made his feelings clear to me and to everyone else.

It seems that I was the “monkey in the middle” in the game between the two of them. At least, that’s how it felt. If I made a kugel, my father would lavishly praise it, and my mother would counterattack with how salty it was. If I washed the dishes, my father would profusely thank me, and my mother would declare how she had to wash them all over again. I could never attain that fleeting prize of a compliment or words of appreciation. It came to the point that, when there was a PTA meeting at school, I would only tell my father, not my mother. Or when I got the lead part in the school play, I was afraid to share the news with her, because of what she might say to hurt me and diminish my pleasure. To be fair, I do, on occasion, remember my father working to improve his relationship with her. Thank G‑d, I was blessed with a positive and resilient personality, and did not even realize the full extent of the dysfunction until I had my own children.

I often pondered in my bed at night what made my mother who she was. Was I the only one who perceived her this way? What did other people think about her? Did they believe the nasty things she said about me or my father? She was beautiful. She could be charming when she chose to be. She had a wrinkle-free face, manicured nails, and smooth, soft hands even into her old age. She could be kind to poor people. I don’t ever remember a tzedakah envelope that was returned without a small donation inside. She claimed that she had learned that from her father, who was a big philanthropist in Europe.

She was a meticulous seamstress. When she chose to leave the comfort of her bed, she would often sew beautiful dresses for me that everyone admired. But I craved adornment for my threadbare heart in the form of kind words. I actually hated those dresses, because they represented the hours I had to be measured and pinned before I could go outside and play.

She was antisocial, rarely participating in community weddings or events. When she did participate, I had to stand with her during the entire wedding so that she would not be alone. She seemed to childishly delight in pointing out other people’s shortcomings, especially if they were overweight. And if I or others were hurt by her declarations, she would accuse us of being too sensitive. She was a mystery to me that I struggled to figure out, Sherlock Holmes–style, by collecting clues to make some sense of the plot of my life.

What made her who she was? Nature or nurture? What was her childhood like? Was it bad character traits or trauma that contributed to her negative personality? I will never know for certain. I always gave her the benefit of the doubt by thinking that the outbreak of World War II contributed to her stunted emotional growth, even though she and her family were spared the camps.

Who am I to judge?Who am I to judge? My mother’s beloved younger sister recently visited from Antwerp before my mother’s final illness. After watching my mother’s actions in our home, and noting how self-centered and self-absorbed she was, my aunt remarked how—even as the eldest daughter—my mother’s behavior had been the same back home in Poland.

At a young age, I became a keen observer of other families and other relationships. At twelve I did my first informal research project, observing what made people happy, and what made some marriages work and others not. I would watch my friends relate to their mothers. I would watch parents interact with each other. My conscious mind would photograph interactions of camaraderie, respect and love, and zoom in on these little tidbits of positive exchanges, storing them in my memory bank to be retrieved later as a template for my future family. I learned a lot that way.

At sixteen, I made a momentous decision. Adolescent children pose difficult challenges for most parents at the best of times; so much more so if the parent/child relationship is complex to begin with. My mother was ill-equipped to deal with my hormonal fluctuations, and I no longer had the same control over my anger that I once had. So I decided to leave home for the remainder of my schooling, to a place where there were dormitory facilities. My father was in agreement and I was off. I never got homesick.

I made another decision. I realized that I had to make a choice. I could either spend the rest of my life trying to be the good daughter my mother desired, and in the process become crazy from the unhealthy demands; or I could give up and concentrate on making a happy, normal life for myself so that I could get married and raise a family. Doing the latter would not make my mother happy in the short term, not that I was tremendously successful at making her happy until then. But in the long term, perhaps after 120 years, my mother would be happy and have true nachat, joy.

I opted for the second choice. Somehow, I intuitively felt that was what G‑d would want of me.

I began to keep my mother at an emotional distance. I would be polite on the phone, but when I felt that she was about to criticize me or say something hurtful, I would hold the phone away from my ear, and say “uh-huh” every once in a while to assure her that I was still listening. It worked for me. I minimized the painful encounters while managing to remain respectful.

I grew emotionally, spiritually and intellectually by leaps and bounds. I was popular and became G.O. president of my new school. I excelled in school and at work, and married a special man with exemplary character traits. All the while, I maintained a distant relationship with my mother. At the age of twenty-two, after the birth of my second son, I began to have pangs of guilt regarding my behavior towards my mother. “Maybe I am just rationalizing that this is the best way? Maybe I’m not fulfilling the commandment of ‘honoring your father and your mother’?” My husband and I sought counsel from an elderly rabbi. His response left me breathless, “Never feel badly for doing a smart thing.” I felt liberated.

I began to have pangs of guilt regarding my behavior towards my motherAfter the death of my father, and my mother’s first heart attack, it became clear that my mother could no longer adequately care for herself. My husband suggested that she come live with us. I was full of trepidation. We hired a Russian companion, who served as a buffer between us so that I would not have to bear the brunt of her bitter and hurtful comments. It was the smartest decision we made. I was able to balance my busy family and social life with the demands of caring for an elderly parent.

At my children’s weddings, people often shared with me how well-cared-for and beautiful my mother looked since she had come to live with us. Others commented on our facial similarities, and I would smile to myself and think, “If you would only know how my life’s goal is to be the exact opposite of my mother!” I know I succeeded in some measure when my first daughter turned to me, during one of our prenuptial, mother-daughter, heart-to-heart talks, and said, “Mommy, you knew automatically how to be a good mother. Bubby was so difficult and selfish, so you knew what not to do. But I had such a wonderful childhood and such wonderful mothering. How will I know how to be a good mother?” What irony!

When my second daughter said to me after her engagement, “Mommy, I can’t believe how difficult your childhood with Bubby must have been, and you never talked about it or complained. How did you manage not to become bitter? How are you able today to run such a fun, happy household?”—I was pleased that she had had such a different experience.

As a teen, my third daughter’s observation as she began to notice the world outside her was, “Mommy, how did you turn out normal? I never knew. You never told us. How could you still be so nice to her, even when she still talks badly about you to others?” It wasn’t easy, let me tell you!

At twelve, my fourth daughter had a similar comment for me after Bubby had just verbally assaulted her new dress. Having escaped to the bathroom in tears, my daughter asked, “Mommy? Did Bubby say mean things to you like that when you were my age?” Little did she know!

As I was reviewing a composition by one of my daughters one evening, and was applauding its virtues, she dismissed my compliments by saying, “Ma, you’re my mother! Of course, you think it’s great. I’m still not sure that teacher will like it.” I’m so glad she was able to assume that a mother has a natural blind spot for her child.

Comments like these were a soothing salve on my bleeding wounds. It was very healing to me, as I was proud of the fact that I was mature enough to not poison my children’s view of their grandmother, even while she habitually told them stories about me as a child that were simply not true. One doozie remark my mother made at my oldest son’s bar mitzvah went like this: “Thank you for telling me how special my daughter is. I give my son-in-law all the credit. My daughter was really a very spoiled child. He changed her.” Can you imagine! This was what she said to my friends at my first simchah! I leave you to imagine the other remarks that were made to the children about me and in front of me. I’m an angel. I was often terribly hurt. Quite regularly, I would respectfully ignore the comments and shoo the children off to another activity. At other times, I would firmly discontinue the discussion by changing the topic. At moments I felt as if I had been brutally kicked in the stomach, and it would take me days to recuperate.

I would become the mother I never hadI was determined to break the cycle. I declared war! I refused to lower myself and reciprocate with knee-jerk negative responses. I had a goal. I would become the mother I never had. I would heal by giving and by being generous. I would heal by being positive, optimistic and uncritical. I would heal by being elevated. I would heal by being respectful, sensitive and empathetic to my children. I would heal by continuing to treat my mother with sensitivity and respect despite it all. And when she came to live in our home after my father’s death, I would treat her with love, as if I loved her. I would become someone I could respect. Maybe it was revenge, but whatever it was, it worked. Taking care of my elderly mother in her last years became a family project of creativity and personal growth. It became a privilege, not a burden.

The battles were long and arduous. The ammunition consisted of my Torah classes and my family’s love and support. And my armor was the guidance of my esteemed rabbi. I have my battle scars. I am the consummate people pleaser. I feel anxious and experience difficulty sleeping when I feel that someone, in some way, is unhappy with me. I sometimes worry over whether or not I unintentionally hurt someone. This is a throwback to my childhood years, all those years spent trying to please my mother, unsuccessfully. I struggle not to need praise from the outside, and to be confident from within. I also sometimes have the tendency to personalize situations. And, in some obscure way, I generally feel responsible or guilty for things that are beyond my control. These are weaknesses that I am well aware of; thankfully, I have improved upon them over the years.

As my mother peacefully returned her soul to her Creator, surrounded by her only daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, I tried to tune in to my feelings. Was I feeling guilty? No way! I clearly knew that I had nothing to feel guilty over. We had treated my mother like a queen, and G‑d extended her life by five years with our meticulous care. Was it anger? No. I had made peace with the reality. My mother parented to the best of her ability. My childhood circumstances had been a challenge from Above, to encourage me to grow and develop, to choose to become better, not bitter. Our children are happy and successful, thank G‑d. I have everything to be grateful for. Was it sadness? A bit, perhaps. The finality of knowing that my lifelong fantasy of a close mother/daughter relationship was now dead forever. Was it a sense of loss? Yes. I was now out of a full-time job. Taking care of my mother had become a family project of creativity and bonding.

But what surprised me most were feelings of love. This connection was the result of unconditional giving. The challenge of whether I could treat my mother with love and devotion as if I loved her, became because I love her. And you know what? I do believe, that in her way, she loved me too.