As a child I lived next door to a calendar, but not the kind mother always hung on the wall next to the refrigerator, two, one for school events and the obligations attendant on parenthood and the other for holidays, and adult social events, the important one she’d say when she thought we couldn’t hear. My calendar was Mrs. Kanutsu, the woman next door, or more accurately the aromas that would waft from her kitchen foretelling the Greek Orthodox holiday about to arrive, only a few hours after she insured that I approved of her latest creations, all of which were replete, redolent with spices my mothers would never dare use. I liked Christmas most of all, even though I was wholly Jewish then, for it meant she would let me help make the phyllo, knowing I would soon enough be rewarded with a large piece of baklava that strangely never seemed to make it all the way next door
The hardest age by far is the one where you are stuck in the middle, children below, parents above, and utterly no hope of escape from the vise. Things your mother could do effortlessly now seem impossible for her, and those things now need doing immediately. Your children, ever wise at creating novel approaches to anything they want in life regardless of your opinion, suddenly cannot perform the simple tasks they once could, more so if the task takes them away from whatever is their pleasure of the moment. It is this middle period where you cease to live, at least to live fully, taken with tasks above and below, and only in the rare spare moment can you contemplate the tasks you will no longer be able to do as soon as your children cease to be a burden and can be one
It’s difficult enough, Mom, that I never got to meet you, to see your face save in a college yearbook, to have only a few relatives acknowledge my existence despite the DNA test that clearly links us, one to the other. What makes it more difficult is trying to figure out my heritage, my geographic roots before our family arrived in West Virginia, back in the old country which for most was Lithuania, but for some Poland and still others Russia, as though their village was loaded onto a horsecart and dragged around Eastern Europe always heading to the next pogrom. Couldn’t our place have settled on a country, rather than riding the tides of the insanity the leaders then?
I always imagined it would somehow be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way, but in an idyllic, picturesque manner, even if that denied basic reality. Reality, when it comes to origins discovered is overrated, for the normal percolation time is denied, and the impact is sudden with no restraints to temper the blow. Way back when, you learned by stories told by the elders, who know, or led you to believe they did without question, who painted word pictures, drew out fading photographs that barely seemed real. You believed them because they knew, knowledge directly proportional to their age. For me it was the inside of my cheek, a wait, and an email, and then news, place names barren of detail, Lithuania. Later, village names, and only then visions of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search for freedom and West Virginia. Details were added, but the picture was monochrome, a barren, wordless palette and no brush to be found.
It’s Sunday, so I know, before long
I will have the nagging thought
that I should call my mother.
I’ve had this thought for years,
once acted upon it with regularity,
listened patiently for her weekly
list of things I needed to help her with,
since I never visited to do the work
with her standing over my shoulder.
I stopped the calls four years ago
because the dead make few demands,
and she didn’t bother to answer
except in the darkest hour
of my dreams.
Hell is a place where what you least desire becomes eternally yours, or so we were told as children, well not us, not the Jewish kids, for us Hell was our mothers’ finding that copy of Playboy we stole from our father’s stash our mother didn’t know about, and which he would deny, throwing us under the bus or any large vehicle she found
If we buy into Hell, and given that ours is an aging population, many of whom have landed in Florida and Arizona to avoid the winters that are hell on the ubiquitous arthritis, and all those who have joyously consumed the evangelical Kool-Aid, when the final bell rings, they may be surprised to discover there is far, far more of a chance of a snowball in Hell.
He expects that she will stop by and visit. This is a perfectly reasonable expectation though he knows she behaves as she chooses and that is not always in accordance with any standards of reason. Nevertheless, he waits for her visit which doesn’t happen. He will later get the courage to ask her why, she will say I had friends I had to see, and when he says “you were three miles away,” she will say, “but I had limited time to be there.” Months later she will ask him to come visit. He will say it’s a two hour, expensive flight and he can’t take the time away from work. She will remind him in her harshest voice that she won’t be around forever, that a visit even a short one, is the least a son can do for a mother, and when he reminds her that she couldn’t visit when she was there three miles away, she’ll say, “that was different I had friends I simply had to see”