BY SHARON LEDER
The deep and painful rift between Mother and me began in the 1960s when I started college.
The road had been rocky before then. Members of my immediate and extended family needed to accuse someone for the crippling effects of my father’s heroin addiction. In a Jewish family like mine, the shame of my father’s addiction was just too difficult to face. Often the family turned on Mother as the target of attack. In turn, Mother called upon me, her eldest, for emotional support. Mostly I served as her loyal advocate. But when Father died of his illness, such grief overcame me, I too caved in to the blame game. Because Mother was the remaining parent in the lives of me and my two siblings, she bore the brunt of our discontents. If the three of us were miserable, Mother was the cause. I have heard psychologists explain why this happens.
The wonderful, expansive worlds I encountered in college were my refuge from what felt like entrapment. I was like Emily Dickinson I thought, expected to stay at home to assist an ailing mother. Often I saw my mother peer longingly through our large living room window where she watched planes fly overhead taking off to far-away places from La Guardia and JFK. The first lines of Dickinson’s poem #632 came to mind, offering a way out of aloneness and emptiness. “The Brain– is wider than the Sky.” How true these visionary lines rang for me, as I composed my interpretation of the 1862 poem for Comp 101 sitting and typing in the make-shift space in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister.
To my mother, the courses I took in literature, sociology, French, and creative writing were like forbidden fruit, accompanied by the dangerous consequences of too much knowledge.
A woman, for better or worse, had to know her place. Studying to extreme could ruin a young woman’s chances. One of Mother’s bibles was The Settlement Cookbook: The Way to a Man’s Heart.
During the Great Depression, when Mother’s father, an electrician, was hospitalized, she had to drop out of Walton High School, a special school for gifted girls. “Wasn’t education frivolous for a girl anyway?” my grandparents thought. “Wasn’t it, in a sense, a waste?” Although Mother attended a school for intelligent young women for a while, her parents’ attitudes dimmed her ambitions. Mother worked as a salesgirl in Macy’s and Barraccini’s, until she married my father. But when Father died young of his terrible affliction, Mother was unqualified –without a diploma– to earn a decent salary. I was seventeen then and needed to work as much as I could to bolster the family income. Mother didn’t ask me to drop out of high school, but my going to college was totally new territory for her. No one in our extended family had ever gone to college. I was the first one.
Mother and I did drift apart.
I remember Mother used to enjoy my reading my papers aloud to her before submitting them to my high school teachers. When I attended college, she declined to listen. She worried when I was up late at night studying for exams. She feared I would get what she called “brainstorms.” She objected to my passion for social causes, like Civil Rights and the Anti-Viet Nam War movement, demanding that “charity begins at home.” And she complained I didn’t relax enough, which meant I didn’t go shopping with her for new clothes, go to the movies, or watch enough television.
The distance between us seemed an impossible hurdle when I became an academic, spoke English that sounded like a different language to her, and taught classes on campuses away from home. She was insulted when I planned to visit her and placed the date in my calendar. “You need a reservation to see your own mother?” she said sarcastically. When I took a job in Buffalo, she wrote me some lines to express her loss.
Once upon a time there was a little girl
I loved and raised.
She grew to be a young lady and then she strayed.
I hope the time will come when she finds her way,
so that she comes back to stay.
Before we fully reconciled, when I married and lived on Cape Cod, I wanted more insight into the continuing friction between us.
I asked two of my knowledgeable colleagues to present a lecture at the Wellfleet Library on their research on The Mother Connection: Fathers, Daughters and Mothers in Changing Families. My academic friends had researched many sets of issues parents and their adult children faced in the twentieth century. They considered families from different faith backgrounds. Within Jewish mother/daughter ties, they found dramatic contradictions—intimate, yet guilt-inducing, supportive yet domineering, caring yet resentful. Hearing their talk, I felt naked, exposed. Yet I could see that although my conflicts with my mother were unique, they were part of much larger socio-economic patterns and trends. I felt less guilty, more ready to understand the lenses through which Mother viewed me.
Now that Mother is gone and I live in a community for seniors in the last stage of my life, I’ve reflected on how we did finally repair the complicated and agonizing gulf between us. Ironically, I now live in the very community I suggested Mother join twenty years ago, when all she desired was to live with me and my husband. We showed her Floral Gardens instead, and she put up her nose– “So you want to put me out to pasture.” She decided to move closer to my younger sister, hundreds of miles away.
I am now poised to write– in a down-to-earth way Mother could appreciate if she were still alive– the story of our reconciliation, sometimes in my voice, sometimes in hers. It will be a story of how we came to find admiration for one another with bold and willing hearts. Love had always been there, though too often it was hidden behind flames of radical disappointment.
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