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On the day her mother was going to give birth to her baby brother, Shirley’s father took her to visit her Bubbi and Zeyde. She adored her Zeyde and felt deeply loved by him as well. That day, however, turned into a nightmare. After they’d visited for a while, her Zeyde left the room; suddenly the bathroom door slammed open, her Zeyde screaming in pain. He had taken some kind of toxic substance to try to kill himself. It slowly did its work while he thrashed in agony. Shirley was stunned into silence, unable to respond. Her father ran to his father-in-law’s rescue, too late. It was all over in minutes.
Shirley was lost in the nightmare of confusion and pain. What did this all mean? What happened to Zeyde? What was she supposed to do?
Papa finally took her aside, bent down next to the four-year-old and began to explain through his sobs. Zeyde was gone. She must forget what she saw. She mustn’t tell anyone, not even her mother. She must promise. Shirley stared back at Papa, eyes wide and filled with tears. But Zeyde couldn’t be gone. She hadn’t seen him leave. Bubbi was over in the corner, quietly sobbing. Papa sat Shirley on the threadbare sofa and eventually took her home.
Mama came home with the new baby two days later and said she wanted to visit her parents to show off their new grandchild, but Papa kept coming up with excuses to delay the visit. Finally, in exasperation, Mama wrapped up the baby, took Shirley’s hand and they went to the bus stop, where they caught the bus to Mama’s parents’ house. Shirley only remembers that after they entered the apartment, there were only screams and tears.
Shirley never gave up her love for her grandfather. She refused to dwell on his suicide, remembering only his kindness and affection. She grew to be a lonely child, in spite of having three brothers and a sister. Even as a child, she masked her fear with a fearless attitude and kept her distance from others.
When she was a teenager she had a difficult time making friends until she met Trudy. One day Trudy asked her if she could treat Shirley to a soda. Shirley was thrilled since she could spend more time with her new friend and had no money to spend. As they sat at the small table at the soda shop, Shirley slowly sipped on her soda, not realizing she was at the bottom of the glass, and finished with one loud Slurp! Her friend looked at her in horror, as if she were insulted by this unimaginable lack of manners. She raised her voice, saying, “Shirley, if you want another soda, just say so!” Shirley looked down at her glass, mortified at the words and tone of her friend. They both got up and left the soda shop. Shirley never spoke to her friend again.
Shirley had other disappointments as she grew into adulthood, incidents that validated her cynicism about the world. She found her place in the business world doing many different jobs, mainly in sales. She was also hired as an office manager, a receptionist, and was thorough and dependable. When she married, she and her husband moved to California. They had big dreams. They had escaped the stultifying burden of family demands. Her first childbirth was a miscarriage; she waited years before deciding she still wanted children. Eventually, she had three children and stayed home to care for them until her oldest was able to babysit the others. Then she went back to work and even started her own business.
I was that oldest child.
In her personal life, Mom had few friends and often shared her criticisms of them with me. Much later, when Dad had passed away and Mom was alone, we talked about friendship. It was one of our most intimate discussions, loving and non-judgmental. She had often talked about how she preferred her own company to having friends. During this discussion, I asked her the reasons she felt that way. She explained that friends would only hurt you. They were a lot of trouble. It was easier to just be on her own. I had to agree: maintaining friendships was hard work and being hurt was always a risk. She said it wasn’t worth it.
* * *
I spent most of my adult life being angry at my mother. I felt she’d spent a lot of her energy being angry at me. But eventually, I reached the point that I didn’t want to be angry with her anymore. I didn’t know if we would ever be friends, but I knew if the relationship was to be mended, I would need to take the initiative.
So, I sent her a handwritten letter, telling her how I had regretted all that I had put her through over the years; how poorly I had treated her; and how I wanted to make amends. I said that I hoped she could forgive me, but I would understand if she refused. And I told her that after mailing the letter, I would give her a couple of days to absorb it, think about it, and I would call her. I was terrified to make that call.
I did call her, briefly reminding her of my purpose which was obvious, but needed to be said. I braced myself for a rant, tears, reproaches—whatever she needed to say to “pay me back” for all the years of tension and rejection. When I finished, she was silent for a moment, and in her straightforward way, simply said, “I figured you’d come around one day.” I laughed and cried. And our healing each other began.
* * *
I feel so blessed that I became friends with my mother. There were times when she still got on my nerves—she had advice for everything. But I would catch myself in the moment, thinking about whom she had become, in spite of a devastating childhood event, difficulties relating to people and assuming that life was something to be conquered rather than celebrated. She had become an Enrolled Agent, been married 60 years, was in pretty good health before she died from a urinary tract infection at 84, and had done a pretty good job of raising three independent children.
* * *
I visited her just before she died. When she was awake, she would smile peacefully. She had moments of lucidity, moments of confusion. As I tearfully prepared to go, knowing I wouldn’t see her alive again, I told her that it was time for me to leave. She smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry: we’ll always be together.”
I’m glad she was my mom, my hero and my friend.