Of Grief and Pain and Love and Loss

I miss my mother. 

Sometimes, when I tell friends about things from my childhood, they say things like “good riddance!” But they don’t have all my memories.

They don’t remember the long nights Mommy and I spent in the kitchen, staying up way past midnight while the rest of the family was fast asleep, talking and debating and excitedly sharing bits and pieces of stories from our days and things we read. There were times we heard my father’s disembodied voice wafting down from the upstairs railing, asking us to keep it down, and we would realize we had gotten so spirited that we forgot about the late hour.

Much of what I know about pedagogy comes from those discussions with my mother. She’s perhaps not the world’s best mother, but she is an excellent teacher. Her talents were wasted in Bais Yaakov. Of course, Rebetzin Kaplan thought her talents were wasted teaching American history when she could have been using her teaching skills in limudei kodesh, and my take on it is somewhat different… 

She would tell me about the goings-on at school, the discussions among teachers and principals, starting from when I was in high school. (Which, in retrospect, was highly inappropriate, for me to be hearing these things about the people who were supposed to have authority over me – like I said, an excellent teacher but not the world’s best mother.) We would discuss the pros and cons of each decision, the pedagogical underpinnings… Sometimes she would tell me about a student who was giving her trouble and what her plan was. 

When I started teaching eighth grade Language Arts after seminary, my mother bought me a book on teaching writing. She read it first and took notes in it, then I read it and added my notes, and then we discussed it all. (Seminary provided virtually no training, despite my having a teaching certificate from them.)

I miss that. 

Often over the past years, when I’ve been teaching college writing and literature, I’ve wanted to share with her something I did in class. Look, I wanted to say, I used that method we talked about, and here’s what happened! Every time I use the “jigsaw activity” – as I will tomorrow when I teach the Second Shepherds’ Play of the Nativity – I think of her and her explanations for why she used it.

To hear my mother tell the story of the deterioration of our intellectual and personal relationship, it’s all my fault. Here, in her own words, from a June 2014 email, sent while I was in Exeter, UK, on a course studying Arthurian legend:

As to your certainty that you are not ever going to make a decision different from the one you made over the last few months – does that mean I need to ask a rav if we should be sitting shiva for you now?  I don’t think such things are irrevocable, but they can become so.

So please don’t ask me not to hurt you when you initiated the actions that may totally change or delete our relationship. Do you think I enjoy contemplating what halacha might demand of me?

At the time, I believed that crap. I blamed myself for the change in our relationship. I berated myself for not being more open, I blamed myself when conversations at the shabbos table bothered me, for when I stayed away because everything I was expected to do when visiting Boro Park was dysphoric and upsetting.

I apparently had enough strength to write these words that I honestly don’t remember writing in response to her email after a few more hurtful emails had been exchanged, in which she asked if I really wanted a relationship that was devoid of meaning, which it would be (according to her) if we only discussed school and our daily lives:

I honestly did not think our conversations about school, yours and mine, were bland and meaningless. We were talking about things that are important to us. Why should that change? Why is that any less meaningful than philosophical conversations about every topic under the sun, usually completely unrelated to yiddishkeit? Its through these seemingly banal conversations that we exchange bits of ourselves with each other. The only difference now is that its no longer abstract and instead concrete and personal. That makes it harder, of course, but also much more meaningful and important. But only if its a conversation where you listen to me as much as I listen to you.

I no longer blame myself.

I was the one who chose to cut off all contact with my parents over three years ago.

And yet they are not blameless. 

True, I initiated the actions that demanded change of the relationship.

But at the time, I had no plan to “delete” the relationship, and reading her words was like a punch to the gut. 

Because when someone you love changes, the response is not “don’t ask me not to hurt you,” is it. The response should be “what can I do so that I keep you close, because I love you and I don’t want to hurt you.” 

Last year, I wrote a quick little poem. Thanks to Facebook Memories, I saw it today. 

I lost my mother when she lost her daughter,

when she thought she had to sit shiva for me.

But I don’t do shiva, I don’t do aveilus –

so how am I supposed to assuage my grief?

When I shared it last year, friends responded with answers. But this isn’t really a question in need of answers: it’s more of a statement – that I am in pain, that I am incredibly grateful not to have rituals that dictate when and how I can feel my grief, that I can feel with a depth of pain that allows me to recognize the tremendous hurt my mother caused me and yet still, at the very same time, acknowledge – I miss you, Mommy.

I know what we had is unrecoverable because neither of us is the same person we were then. But I grieve still.

2 thoughts on “Of Grief and Pain and Love and Loss

  1. You wrote “her talents were wasted in Bais Yaakov”. Nope, she was perhaps the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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