MY MOTHER/MY FRENEMY
It happened on a break from university, which I had been attending in New York. I was upstairs, just getting up when I hear, “OHM” — repeated several times.
Had I been transported overnight to an ashram?
My mother – whom everybody called Ema – was a space cadet. I think it was and is a family gene. (I admit to it. And if you met my various cousins, we all have it to various degrees.) She would, at any given moment start ‘leaving’ this world and off she would go! I asked her once where she went. Her answer: “Don’t worry where I go. I come back when you need me.”
That was my mother. She made me crazy. She was exasperating. She was infuriating for most of my growing up years — but I quote her at least once a day.
My brother got a 99% on a history exam. My mother asked where the other mark went to.
My brother went ballistic!
She couldn’t understand why he was so upset. She was just ‘curious’.
Once, when I was complaining about my parents arguing about THE SAME OLD THING — my mother turned on me! “What do you think? People don’t change! Don’t be a baby. It’s always the same! All your life”
We never hugged or showed affection. Two kisses – one on each cheek. Even the males did that. Outsiders — those born here — were shocked with this custom.
‘IT’ WAS ALWAYS THERE
The Holocaust was always there but we didn’t talk about it. It was there in their eyes and actions and words …. but never directly.
I was one of the lucky ones. My parents were considered ‘normal’ by people in our circle.
Most of our grandparents and aunts and uncles and hundreds of cousins — after all, people had large families — were gone. Either shot or incinerated. Who knows? No one was buried, just dumped into a pile of bodies. That set us apart from the ‘Canadian’ families around us — both Jew and Christian.
I was so jealous —- besides the stuff they had — remember the princess phone and jewelled shoes from Buffalo? — they had grandparents and extended families. Too many had no one!
On my mother’s side, I had an uncle and two cousins in Israel; two cousins in the Bronx and one in St. Louis. My father’s family began small and became nearly extinct.
Holidays? That was for the ‘heegers’ — those born here. Our holidays consisted of the family packing ourselves into my father’s 19-something Buick then the 1961 Impala and off we would go — New York, Chicago, St. Louis – to visit relatives.
Hotels? The greeners I knew did not go to hotels. We bunked out at whoever we were visiting.
Chicago. 1960 or so. There was a Bar Mitzvah. Myer, the father was a lantzman of my mother’s. Even our cousins from St. Louis came. And where did we sleep? On the floor of the apartment! Myer’s wife Gusta was so sweet. Not a peep of complaint. NB: But by the morning, everybody except us was sleeping in the hallway because my father’s snoring was so loud! (You couldn’t even wake him when he was in his airplane-engine-revving mode.)
It wasn’t until 1968 that we went to Florida and stayed at a hotel. It was magical!!!!
Most of the greener kids I knew did not go to sleepover camp. One friend remarked sarcastically, “Why would I go to camp and purposely live under those conditions when my ancestors lived like that? No indoor plumping, mud roads.” She had a point. And camp was expensive! The fancy ‘W’ camps charged hundreds of dollars. Then at the age of 15, my mother decided I should go for one month to Camp Shalom, the cheapest and most Zionistic. It was half the money of all the other camps. And what was her reason? “I’m sending you to camp for one month so you won’t sit on a psychiatrist couch one day telling him you suffered because we didn’t send you to camp.”
Ikh bin nisht Freud – I’m not Freud.
Ikh bin nisht a kozack. – I’m not a cossack
Zis nisht Poland far de melkhuma. – It’s not Poland before the war.
Mishige far de melkhuma; mishige nokh de melkhuma. – Crazy before the war, crazy after the war.
When my mother saw her fellow Jews run to the buffet table, she would stand back: Azoy vi nakhnt arois fin lager — Just like they were in the camps.
When our daughter told Ema she wanted someone good-looking, my mother said to her, as she did to me: “You be the pretty one.”
Ema: “It’s not yours until it’s in your pocket.”
Aba: “NEVER depend on a man for money. Get an education and never, ever depend on anybody but yourself …. not your father, not your mother — nobody. It’s you!
My father said it years before Yoda: “There is no try. Just do!”
My father’s English was atrocious. I thought it was perhaps because he did not speak until he was six. My mother’s famous expression, “Ikh bin nisht Freud, ode ikh mine az dus is psychological.” (I’m not Freud but I think this is psychological.) She added, “He wasn’t good in any of the languages he spoke!”
Aba was in the hospital. He had just had a stroke. The head of neurology, a British-type as waspy as wasp can be, informed my brother Nathan that my father’s prognosis was bad. His speech was gone. Me, I would have panicked. Not my brother. He spotted another doctor in the ER — a man of colour. My brother asked him if he had difficulty understanding our father. No, he had had no problem understanding him. Of course not! He was used to a parent with an accent. He grew up with it.
My father did not speak until he was six years old. The family was rich so they had some fancey-shmancey doctor check him over to see if he was deaf. He could hear well enough. A disengaged mother; a father who studied the whole day; a brother who was 18 years older! and an old Polish woman as a nanny.
But we understood him well enough. We even used his ‘special’ expressions — every single child of survivors did this.
Some of his expressions:
“He is a difficulty child.”
“Park over there in de handy.”
As greener kids, we would make fun of their endearing accents and expressions. Never to the outside world but amongst siblings and other greener friends.
It was done ‘with love’ tinged with a bit of cruelty. We were young and hadn’t lived yet. One woman I know does such a mean survivor accent, we pish in our pants. Deb Filler, the New Zealand comedian does her greener father with hilarity.
NB: My husband has said that he never remembered his mother having an accent until his brother played him a tape he had made recording her memories of life in Russia.
Sometimes I think my brother and I raised ourselves. But of course, that’s not entirely true. It was a different kind of parenting. (I think most of us survivor kids were like feral cats.) Physically, my mother was there but not always mentally. There was always a cloud of sadness hovering around her and I realize now, in retrospect, she was depressed. She functioned, for the most part. Her brother was the same way. Sometimes, sitting beside each other, they would ‘wander’ off and my Aunt Tzipora would say, “Look at them. There they go.”
I once asked her where she went. She had a typically Ema answer — quick and sarcastic. “Don’t worry where I go. I’m here when you need me.” What could I say?
She led a secret life — some of which I didn’t know about until she was gone. She took piano lessons, she painted and crafted in her basement. She went to a municipal board meeting to fight city hall. She was charming when she wanted something. And she usually got her way. “Your mother is absolutely the funniest person! She’s so sweet.” Sweet? Never! Sweet did not survive the camps or the death marches or starting life all over again.
My Aba was a gentle man — but had a quick temper that was always bubbling under the surface. I got my hair-trigger temperament from him. But he taught me a lot of practical skills:
There are no angels on earth.
Never marry for money.
There’s a wonderful expression in Yiddish which I’ll translate: “Never marry a hunchback with a lot of money. The money goes, the hunchback stays.”
Another one of his favourites: “When money goes, love flies out the window!”
TRUSTING THE ‘OTHER’
He would tell me something. I would be shocked and he’d ask, “How old are you?” I remember this from the time I was a little kid.
Do you remember Tom Hanks in ‘A League of Their Own’? “THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!”
This is one of my favourite lines of all time:
For me father there was no crying – period! I was never allowed to cry. “Why are you crying?” And he’d repeat it until I stopped — sort of. I still don’t cry — at least very rarely. I didn’t cry when my mother died. With my father, I let out a short scream then stopped.
One Christmas day, after coming back from our neighbour’s house and seeing all of Maria’s gifts, I complained to my mother that we didn’t have Christmas.
Her answer: “You have Christmas everyday. Maria has it once a year.”
She was right! I got practically anything I wanted — even if it was hard financially. I needed reminding. Every greener kid was reminded in one way or another.
Family. Family. Family! Nobody, nothing else is as important.
In the first 15 or so years, there was no such thing as a vacation. Instead, we went to simkhas – celebrations – of relatives or lantzmen — fellow countrymen. Chicago, St. Louis. I think I knew the Grand Concourse in the Bronx as well as I did Hamilton.
My mother would mortgage the house for plastic surgery…or anything that improved your looks and therefore your chances in life.
Were they superficial? A bit, maybe. But they had the right idea. Of course it’s going to get you further!
I was pretty good looking. Always chubby then tending towards too-chubby. Then every ten years, after starving for a month, I would be normal for about an afternoon before going back to my original weight. I went out with enough boys then ‘men’ to know about the world. But no one was ever good enough or good looking enough. My mother’s comment: “You be the pretty one.” She said the same thing to our daughter and we quote her still.
I didn’t get married until I was 46. I thought it was time. I blame my father! No one was ever good enough.
“Always be educated and be able to make your own money.”
I asked my mother why she never cried or showed emotion. Her answer: “I used up all my tears in the ghetto.”
My father never ever let me cry. If my eyes started to glaze over, he made sure it would go no further. “Why are you crying??!!???” He’d ask. It was understood what he meant. Compared to what they had gone through, what is a cut or a bruise, even some silly disappointment?
My brother had broken his leg operating a machine at the scrap yard where my father worked. My father had him walk to the car and up to our apartment. (I think it might even have been up the stairs.)
We were going to be tough! No matter what. That was how we would survive.
My mother said that on the transport train, if you gave up you were dead within the day.
My father would never hear about a weakness. I had to stand up, on my own. Get an education, get my own money and show the world. Perhaps I’m not as successful as he thought I should be, I still carry the confidence and the attitude.
My mother felt the same way although I don’t know if she agreed with my father’s more ‘aggressive’ method of dealing with the anti-semitic world out there. When my brother and his wife and family went to Poland, I asked him if he would go. His answer: “Yes, but only if I had an Uzi in my hand.” His feeling was that the Polishe have ‘it’ (antisemitism) in their mother’s milk.
My mother, on the other hand, had some positive feeling left. Her neighbours were good people and helped in many ways. The children of both families played together. My uncle was in touch with them for years and in time, my mother also got in touch with the grandchildren. As a testament to their character, the jewellery and other Judaica that my grandparents buried before being carted off to the gas chambers was still there 50 years later. My mother sent them money to hire a digger and eventually, by the end of the day, they found it all intact. I was married with my grandmother’s wedding ring a few months later.
My mother never displayed affection towards me. Several months into my first year of university, I was home for the break. Of course, I knew everything because I had just completed the first semester in Psych 101. Even monkeys needed hugs! So I confronted her, “Why didn’t you ever hug or kiss me?” Without skipping a beat, “Why would I hug or kiss you? My mother never did. How would you expect me to do that. Anyway, did you ever doubt that I loved you?” I had no answer.
Education was the key to everything in life. It would give you success, security and a way to make a living. A good living.
I was reminded on a regular basis that yes, while I was pretty (some even said beautiful but that was not used in our house) it would not last. My brains and education would.
“In the house, I will teach you. Outside the house, you’ll be Canadian.” She sent me for elocution lessons, piano lessons, ballet — at which I was miserable, drama classes — you name it, I was doing it. She never refused any request. Books? — never censored.
Somebody once told me that my brother referred to me as a ‘professional immigrant’ ….
I was surprised. I thought in my heart of hearts that I was completely ois-gegayld …. But the older I get the ‘greener’ I get. And proud of it.
GENDER — Was there a difference between the boys and the girls?
My father’s mother was a business woman. I learned from him that when my great grandfather was on his death bed, he was signing away parcels of his land. My grandmother was not having any of this. She got the papers and made him sign a forest over to her. And that’s how she made a living. She was the model my father expected me to follow.
There was no one who was prouder of herself than my mother. To herself, she and her family were the best. She never doubted herself. And despite other opinions, she never wavered. When I was younger, it was embarrassing; when I became an adult, I accepted it; but in her later years, I admired it.
She was ruthless and intractable in her beliefs and values. Often to the detriment of her relationship with her husband and children. She never had to work. My father said she had the luxury of feeling self-righteous. Her whole family had the exact same attitude.
Case in point: When the cousins started getting married and branching out, joining other families, it was fun. But when it came time to taking a family picture, the first one had to be only the Breslers! Then everybody was invited for the second larger picture. Boy — there were some hurt feelings then. Of course we thought it was funny. Today is different. Most of the older generation are gone.
SENSE OF HUMOUR
But she had a sense of humour
Our eldest daughter is a psychologist – a Phd (I had to get that in!) We had all gathered for our bi-weekly shabbat dinner. Jessica came in all ois g’mitchid – dragged out. She told Ema that she had had a crazy day. Ema’s response: “Of course you had a crazy day. You deal with crazy people!”
One day I came home and told my mother I had seen this woman, a sister of a guy I had gone out with for a very short while. She was a creative woman. Not readily accepted in our cloistered Jewish community. Besides being artistic, she had a mental health issue. And she had been institutionalized for a period of time. I met her on the street after one of her stays. We talked, etc…she was a breath of fresh air. When I told my mother I had seen her, I added that the woman told me how beautiful I was. Without skipping a beat, “I thought you said she was mentally ill.”
AT THE END
One day, my father called me to say that my mother had fallen and broken her hip. Alarm bells went off. She waited for surgery for a week until my husband talked to the senior resident who promised she would be next in line. After all was over, my father, who was angry, waiting to take down every single staff person, went home. My brother dropped him off. My father refused his offer of help. Proud! He had survived the war, slavery in an underground factory, concentration camps and a stint in the Israeli army in the 1948 War of Independence. No way would he want help.
On the elevator, he collapsed and was not found for who-knows-how-many-minutes. After a week on life support, the machines were turned off. At first, we did not tell my mother. At Baycrest, one of the psychiatrists ‘guilted’ us into telling her. My brother and I knew our mother. She was just fine not knowing. She went to her ‘special’ place. On the day of the funeral, we told her. We said it was very cold and she did not have to go. She quickly agreed and from that day on, she was off and on. Certain times, she would say something and we didn’t believe her but she was spot on. Other times, she was – in her own words — kookoo or kookanamunia!
Going to the geriatrician:
When your parent is old and disabled, you feel as if you should at least keep them busy. For me and my mother, it was going to the doctor’s then the hairdresser.
The fact that he was a doctor didn’t stop her. I think his first infraction was calling her by her first name. It build up after that. During one of her visits, he told her she had a problem. “No doctor. I don’t have a problem. YOU have a problem.”
Earl called me to say that the nurse had cancelled Ema’s appointment that day. I was having none of that. This was part of a carefully planned morning. Unfortunately, I learned later that the doctor had committed suicide. I told my mother. “Don’t blame me! — she paused — I think he had nothing to live for.”
TAKING LIFE INTO YOUR OWN HANDS – Stories I heard.
One evening, at home in Ottawa with Earl, we were watching a documentary on TV, featuring a Holocaust survivor called Gerda Weissman Klein. She described the death march from Auschwitz to Czechoslovakia. Many had started out but only 100 and a few survived. At the end of the show, Earl turned to me and said that was an incredible story. I told him that that was the death march my mother was on. His response: “That now explains your mother.”
But there was more to this story. She and her girlfriends were nearing the town and decided they would jump out of the line and run into the forest. They escaped. One of the girls caught a bullet in her neck but miraculously, it went clean through. In time they went into the town, Valery, and learned that the war was over.
Soon after, they were driven to Bari, Italy to an American displaced person’s camp. They had as much food as they wanted — my mother looked like a butterball in the pictures. They all did! For a year, they began to relax and started to think of the future.
The point is she was not going to give up. There were several stories I heard where fast thinking saved her life. She jumped out of the line for the firing squad. (Never believe the Poles didn’t know what was going on. My mother hid amongst them … thereby saving her life.) She did this on several occasions …
My mother insisted on going to Israel after the war. Her future husband – my father – had no choice but to follow her. One day they were in Italy and then, without advanced notice, they were on an illegal fishing boat on its way to Palestine. Something like the Exodus ship of Herman Wouk fame.
As they were close to landing, the alarm went off. The British had caught them. “INTO THE WATER!” were the order.
Of course my mother refused. “I survived the camps — not to die here in the water.”
Probably this explains why she would stay by the water, eyes on me and my brother and if we went out too far, she would yell for us to come back!!! My brother eventually learned to swim. I never did. I carry her fear with me to this day.
NOT TRUSTING/NOT BELIEVING EVERYTHING
Don’t fall in love. It means don’t get attached to anyone, or trust anyone until they have proved themselves.
TALK OF THE HOLOCAUST
We didn’t hear the horrific stories — “It” was always there, though. Like a spectre in the background. More so for my mother than my father. Each dealt with their experiences in their own way. My mother did, however, go to a doctor — an internest. A gentile, and a former soldier who had been with the Canadian forces liberating the camp(s).
MY DOUBLE LIFE
In the house I was the child of immigrant parents. Two people who had seen their own parents being taken off to the gas chambers. Two people who had lost most of the members of their families and their life, as tough as it was in pre-war Poland.
HOW DID WE RAISE OUR CHILDREN?
I didn’t have children of my own but in my forties, I married Earl and inherited — luckily as it turned out — his three children. The youngest was at home still — a teenager! After the initial awkward period of getting to know your husband’s new wife, it settled down domestically. His mother was not alive. In time, both Earl and I tried to raise him but Earl was not used to the pubescent behaviour. His girls had not displayed any of this so often it was left up to me. So what did I do? At first, I cried over the phone with my brother but in time, I slipped into a kind of motherhood. And what happened? I found myself being my mother. My parents also had some influence on him — I think good.
WHAT DO WE SAY TO OUR GRANDCHILDREN?
Not exactly what my parents said, but pretty close.
THE UMBILICAL CORD
I spent 6 years in Japan. I had tons of fun and experiences but eventually, I needed to return to Canada. One of the ex-pats asked me why I was leaving. What came out of my mouth was an epiphany. “I’m leaving because the umbilical cord is pulling me back.” It’s true. My cord was miraculous. It could stretch small distances, even thousands of miles but eventually, it always pulled me back.