When my children were young, I could tell when the telephone rang that it was my mother. "It's Grandma," I would say to the children. "How do you know?" they asked with wonder. Nine times out of 10, I was right although I have no idea how I knew.
My children are grown now with children of their own. And there have been many moments in the past 21 years that I have wanted to talk to my mother, that I needed to hear her voice, ask her a question, whether important or not. Most of all I would like her to see her grandchildren and her eight great-grandchildren.
It took me many years and therapy to be able to understand the dynamics of my often difficult relationship with my mother and hers with me. When she was just 2 years old, her mother died in childbirth.
All of the children were too young to have to learn to live without a mother. My mother, the only girl, had responsibilities no child should have thrust upon her. Not too long after his remarriage, her father left for America to earn enough money to bring the family here. For my mother, another parent was gone.
From the little she told me, life in Russia at the time could be dangerous. When her father finally brought the family to America, my mother was 12. They lived in a cramped tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My mother attended classes for children who had to learn English to attend school.
She also worked for her father, who was now selling sewing machines to other immigrants.
How I wish I had known all of this when I was a teen. I hope I would have been more understanding. But my mother was a very private woman and perhaps this was her way of protecting me from her demons.
All that and the missing bits I learned later were part of our history when I arrived in New York from Boston in July 1988 to tell my mother of my plans to move back to the city. She had been ill for some years with heart problems. And although she was nearly blind, she still stood unbowed. Her mind was as it always had been — quick and interested in everything.
I was there to tell her of my plans. We would take walks, I said, go to concerts and dance performances that we both loved. I would read to her from books and yes, my published articles. I loved the idea of taking care of my mother. I saw her as a wounded bird. The mother I loved and understood.
She seemed pleased with my plans, asking only a few questions that night. We talked and laughed easily. It was late when I fell asleep. I woke at around 5 a.m., hearing her voice calling me. I went to her room, found her on the floor. "I think I had a stroke," she said softly. Emergency services came quickly.
After the hospital found her a room and she settled in, my brother and I stayed with her, unwilling to leave even as she insisted. "You haven't had any sleep or anything to eat," she told us, always the worried mother. And finally, she sent me home; my brother would stay until she fell asleep.
My mother died, alone in the hospital, early the next morning.
I believe we don't ever get over the death of a mother, no matter how long she lives. My mother would have been 90 at her next birthday. I want to share my joys and sorrows with her and listen to more of her stories. I long to have lived all those plans we made, even today, 21 years later. I envy friends and cousins with mothers still alive that they can talk to and share with, that they can hug and kiss as they say, "Happy Mother's Day." Now and forever.
Rachel Pollack is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.