When I was in graduate school, I attended a mandatory retreat for Group Dynamics and underwent an intense weekend of therapy for myself. I was about 25 years old and this weekend was groundbreaking for me. My roommate during the weekend was in her fifties, and one night commented on my insights, and wondered how, at my age, I was able to have the wisdom and depth to view and contribute to our sessions in the way that I did. Part of it is that God gave me this uncanny way of seeing through people and situations at their core, and the other part of it is the gifts I received from my mother. She had a gift to see “good” in all people and situations and to make a difference at the same time. At times I received these gifts as blessings, at other times they have seemed more like curses, but somehow I have learned to accept and nurture them as part of me and who I am.
My mother came into this world in the early 1940’s. She was born in Holland at the height of the Holocaust. At six weeks old, she and her entire family were sent to a concentration camp. During that time, her life was spared a number of times, and to this day she lives with a sense of guilt as to why God saved her life while so many others were taken. Thankfully she and her entire family were liberated by American Soldiers and came to the United States to live. She was very close to death when she arrived here, but again, her life was spared…I suspect her purpose here on earth had not yet been revealed…
My mother came from a very conservative Jewish family. I am not sure at what age she realized that she was “different”, but I know she was pretty feisty from a very young age. She pushed the limits and questioned the boundaries that were very clear for a young Jewish girl. Even now in her sixties, she continues to push the limits every chance she gets. In the sixties, she was in her twenties, in college, and the ultimate optimistic flower child. She believed in equality for all and was deeply moved by the civil rights movement. She attended Rutgers University in Newark and lived in a Brownstone on James Street. My father, a gifted musician, but not a college student, frequently played with bands at the college parties. He met my mother and was instantly enthralled with not only her beauty, but with the amazing person that she was. She was not impressed, but he harassed her so much that she finally broke. They were married, and had two amazing daughters (if I may say so myself :-))
The perfect fairy tale it was not. As gifted an artist that my father was, he was not as talented in the husband and father category. Like so many black men of that era, social constraints and lack of self love, led many to drugs and the streets. My family, like so many others, was not shielded from the effects of that time period. At this time, my mother was also estranged from her nuclear family, as they did not take well to her marrying outside the Jewish faith. I don’t want to go into the details of that time period, but I will say that they were tough, and through it all she still maintained her inspiring spirit and managed to instill her love of life and people in her children. She taught us that the color of our skin was so insignificant to the content of our character. We grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods, but were exposed to all types of cultures including the Jewish community. In our protected world of family and friends, color was never discussed or an issue, but the outside world continued to try and eat at her ideals. She tried to raise us as “people” color, but that only worked for a short period of time as society pressured us (her children) to make a choice…or rather the choice had already been made. In our home and in our world though, people were only judged by the person they presented. And this is how I always viewed the world. I was always somewhat of an enigma my whole life…always being perceived as “different”. I suspect this is how my mother has felt and still feels as she navigates through this life that still places so many constraints on people and their minds.
In my tenth year of life, it seemed as though our world came tumbling down. My mother lost the closest people to her in life within four months of each other (her mother and brother). In addition to that, she had no other choice but to separate from my father after years of mental abuse, drug abuse, and now adultery. So in her late thirties, very much alone and lonely, she moved into the house she grew up in that was left to her by her mother. She began to raise her girls completely on her own. I am now the age she was then, and can’t imagine tapping into the strength she needed to keep her head above water. Reflecting on that time, it really was the grace of God that got all of us through that painful period. I, being the youngest, resented my mother for taking me from my father. Though I was aware of his weaknesses, I still loved my daddy unconditionally and I desperately wanted my life with him back. My sister on the other hand was angry at him and her and wanted nothing to do with either of them. My mom was overcome with grief and was little comfort to either of us. We all retreated into our own cocoons for survival.
Again, much tragedy happened during that time, but when I think about how far we have all come, I realize her life was saved so she could touch so many with her spirit. I am in awe of her strength of character, her wisdom, and insight. She raised two strong, independent thinkers who care deeply for people and the world we live in, and she did it struggling financially and emotionally for much of her life. She did without so that she could save for our college education. She invested the little money she had instead of using it on everyday necessities which I am sure was tempting at times. She made sound financial choices through times of great financial challenges, and now not only does she live a comfortable life of retirement, but has invested in each of her grandchildren’s future college education.
My mother’s story, like so many, was one filled with amazing highs, and extreme lows, but her strength, character, and tenacity has made such an impact on her girls and all the lives that have shared a piece of her world. My mother, one of my very best friends, often questions her impact in the world, and her purpose in this life. In many ways she is still searching for a place where she “fits”. She maintains the label “different”, and at times takes great pride in that, but also yearns for people to “get her”.
When I look at my children, her grandchildren, I realize why her life was spared. Through her journey she was able to instill her “differentness” in her children. And though the world she grew up in was not ready for her, she remained on this earth so that her “specialness” could live through her children and now her grandchildren who live in a world that is more prepared for her “flower child ideals”. By no means do I live in a fairytale about where our world is, but it is eons away from the world my mother grew up in. My children don’t know what boundaries are. They genuinely love all people and embrace that they are from a mixed heritage. They share this mixed heritage with pride at school and beyond. They are confident in who they are and don’t accept any labels from anyone…Their spirit and strength is a direct reflection of the blood flowing through their veins. They affect people and the world deeply, so though she was limited in what she could do and at times still questions her purpose, I am excited to see her legacy live through her offspring. I thank God for sparing her life and blessing me with the phenomenal woman that I affectionately call “Ma”.
My mother is a writer and has been writing her book for as long as I can remember. This piece does not do her story justice, but it is my way of thanking God that her life was spared and my way of thanking her for all the sacrifices she made so that my life would be as blessed as it is. I can’t wait to read her story from her eyes and I hope this piece inspires her to get the pen to paper so that she can tell her story as only she can!
I love you Ma!
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