On Thursday I turned 65. And today marks the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death. Two milestones linked by memory and blooms.
Last week, in a burst of warmth and wet, all the trees unfurled their chartreuse buds, crabapples and weeping cherries blushed, forsythias gleamed. This is often nature’s gift near my birthday, the sudden, welcome spray of pastels. Winter’s subtle grays are forgotten, and the earth smells sweet.
I spent much of my birthday cooking, with Al as sous chef, for our Passover seder Friday night. The prospect had felt daunting, and less than welcome as a way to mark my 65th, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. I was simply in a good mood. We enjoyed each other’s company, preparing each course at a relaxed pace. Midday, we broke for lunch out, and Al—always the master of surprise—wrapped up our meal with a trip to a wonderful jewelry store, with an invitation to pick out whatever I wanted. Later, when all the cooking was done and the kitchen cleaned, we went out again for a birthday dinner. Throughout the day, I received calls from family and best wishes from friends. I felt thoroughly celebrated and well prepared for the holiday, renewed.
On my 45th birthday, days before my mother’s death in 1999, we spoke on the phone. She was in good spirits because my sister and her family were visiting. A rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer had appeared suddenly in December, when she brushed a hair from her neck and first noticed a lump. The disease took her life in four months. I had visited numerous times during that winter and early spring and was with her when she passed. In those last moments, as she sipped her final breaths, I had the distinct feeling that she was simply slipping out of her body to somewhere unknown.
In many ways, there was much I did not know about her and have only learned since her death. For a woman of her generation and German heritage, motherhood was a mix of compassion and authority. We had many long talks during my childhood and adolescence, and I learned to be a good listener from her example. But she always maintained privacy about her innermost thoughts and feelings, and revealed little of her own formative years, beyond certain familiar stories of life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis and her transition to embracing her American citizenship. With twenty years’ perspective, I now understand that the past was simply a place she wanted to leave behind.
Since Al and I traveled to Prague and Berlin as part of our summer vacation, to honor the memory of my great grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust, I have been thinking of her more, wondering what she really felt during that time, wishing I could ask her. Miraculously, last fall, out of the blue, I heard from a cousin I have never met, whose nonagenarian mother is still alive and able. At the end of May, I am going to visit them in Florida. And so, I may get some answers from the woman who is my mother’s first cousin and the last living link to her generation. This is a great, unexpected blessing.
When we laid my mother to rest, a white cherry sapling had recently been planted in that section of the cemetery, in ground softened by spring’s thaw. It was too young to blossom, then, but casts ample shade near her and my father’s grave today. Its size always surprises me when I visit, a marker of how much time has passed. I like to think, even as she tried to bury her past, that my mother would be pleased that I am reclaiming it, not only for myself through my travels and studying German, but also for my daughters who barely knew her as children.
How much do we ever know our parents, let alone ourselves? I will give the last word to Rainer Maria Rilke, from Requiem for a Friend (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans Stephen Mitchell):
I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputations. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something; so that the sound
reveals your presence. . . .
Ich habe Tote, und ich ließ sie hin
und war erstaunt, sie so getrost zu sehn,
so rasch zuhaus im Totsein, so gerecht,
so anders als ihr Ruf. Nur du, du kehrst
zurück; du streifst mich, du gehst um, du willst
an etwas stoßen, daß es klingt von dir
und dich verrät. . . .
Image: Paul Herwitz