CAN I MOURN MY SURVIVOR MUM?
My 98-year-old mother died last week and I'm waiting to feel something.
I watched family and friends cry at her funeral and I listened to the love and accolades for a remarkable woman. They spoke of how loving and generous and talented she was - and, yes, that she was also forceful and insistent - and the impact she made on them, their awe of how she survived Auschwitz, and how she rebuilt her life multiple times with flair, energy, and optimism.
I sat there quietly, gripped by cognitive dissonance. The woman everyone knew was all those things they described. She was a resilient survivor, a gifted dressmaker and teacher, a devoted friend. But, with me, her other side overshadowed it all.
on, as a Jewish child in postwar Hungary, I knew my job was to take
care of her emotionally, to mitigate the suffering that happened to her
before I was born.
I rarely cried when she would mercilessly pick on me. Depression was more my style. I knew she had to win and I had to surrender in what always felt like a life-and-death struggle for her no matter the issue. From my room, I heard my father pleading with her, "Ilona! She's almost 50 years old! When are you going to stop dictating what she should do?!"
"I am so sorry she treats you like this," he came in to comfort me, adding his perpetual advice:"Don't pay attention to her and do what you think is best."
Shortly after Dad passed away, Mum and I came to blows again, and she retorted: "Your father said I should be nice to you since you are so sensitive."
Being sensitive was of no value for her. Being sensitive was a luxury she could not afford if she was going to survive as a young woman in Auschwitz. Once, when we were talking about Auschwitz, she looked at me and stated matter-of-factly, "You would never survive." Perhaps she was right, yet we don't really know until we're tested. At least I can say that, thus far, I have survived her, albeit with scars.
There was a period of two blessed weeks, six years ago, the summer I turned 60, when I had the mother I wished for: kind, calm, appreciative, going with the flow. She had fallen in her doctor's office after getting a clean bill of health, and broken her hip, then suffered a cascade of complications. My brother and I took turns staying round-the-clock with her in the hospital and then in rehab, to be her advocate and translator, as she often reverted to her native Hungarian.
It was painful to watch her suffer and I did everything I could to alleviate it. But it was also a period of relief, for she was too sick to do battle with me. Once she started recovering, she was back to her true self, which, for all of us, was ironically a good sign.
I did learn a lot from my mother and inherited her creativity and resourcefulness, for which I'm grateful. I do feel good about having been the consummate dutiful daughter despite her wrath, and perhaps I did a public service being her emotional caretaker that may have enabled her to shine in the world making such a positive impact on others.
Whatever I inherit from her, though, mostly feels like reparation payments. For I, like many children of Holocaust survivors, remain an example of collateral damage.
Remarkably, despite our battles, my mother and I never stopped loving each other, and fortunately I could always summon enough amnesia to begin each visit anew.
As I stare at the dwindling light in the tall, blue shiva candle graced with a simple star of David, I am coming to accept that it's OK that I am not filled with the same sorrow and boundless reservoir of love I felt when my father passed.
felt sorry for Mum; I loved her; I admired her, I wrote books and
articles about her, and I did as much as I could for her. And what I am
most grateful for is that, with my own kids, I have the kind of warm
and supportive relationship I wish I could have had with her. May she
rest in peace and may her memory be for a blessing.
Marta Fuchs, MLS, MFT, is a professional speaker, psychotherapist, and author of 'Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter's Tribute'
© Marta Fuchs, 2016
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.