I’m reading and enjoying Phyllis Schieber’s The Manicurist. One of the novel’s characters, Ursula, reminds me of my mother. Like Ursula, my mother was mentally ill, and suffered major depressive episodes, dipping into psychosis at times, if not outright bi-polarity. Both Ursula and my mother were stunningly beautiful and neither was institutionalized because their husbands prevented that from happening. In my mother’s case, my father refused to have my mother separated from my sister and me, since she only suffered from her “nerve disease” (as her condition was called in the 1950s in Israel) in winter time. In the summer, my mother thrived. In these happier times, she became a mother who cared for her daughters and was always over-protective of me.
Ursula’s daughter, Tessa, could not come to terms with her haunting memories of her mother’s illness—at least not in the parts of the book I have completed. I, however, was able to make peace with most of my own recurring memories. Unlike Ursula, my mother did not abandon me. Still, there are names my mother called me and harsh things she told me that have been harder to process and have had a lasting effect on my own mental disposition.
When I was a child, and then a teenager and a grownup, my mother repeatedly told me that she would have committed suicide were it not for my sister and me. I do not know if she chose life because we were rays of hope in her existence, or because she felt responsible for us as the mother of two young girls. One way or the other, I was glad she stayed alive, although I admit it is sometimes hard to think that she might have lived in misery for our sake.
I have powerful childhood memories of her illness. The most distressing is an episode that happened in the winter of 1950, when I was six. It was an experience I fully describe in my memoir War Widow. I was standing alone on the balcony of my aunt’s apartment, watching through a glass door as my mother started to undress; her bare breast and back completely revealed. Her sisters yelled at her to do stop, their husbands being present, too. But appearing as if she was in a trance, her big green eyes like that of a stranger, she did not stop. My father, himself looking distraught, tried to stop her, grabbing her hands. But she fought him off. It was then that, sobbing, he began hitting her naked back with both his hands, trying to get her out of her spell. She quickly came back to her senses.
I remember my terror and the sense of sorrow I felt for my father, coupled with a keen sense of understanding that I should stay on the terrace. I knew enough not to cry or be heard, and I understood that no one inside that room could pay attention to me, no matter how frightened I was. I knew I had to protect myself using an imagined shield I’d created long ago to help me cope.
But did I think it was my fault that my mother suddenly turned into that unrecognizable wild woman and my temperate father morphed into a seemingly violent man? Did I feel helpless because there was nothing I could do to help my parents? The answers to these questions I do not have. What I am certain of is the compassion I feel for my mother and her memory.
When she was in good health, I felt secure with her and loved. When she was well, she was the mother who put me first, who fought to place me in a better grammar school and who went to school to defend me when necessary. She made me the most beautiful Purim costumes (Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the rescue of the Jewish people in ancient Persia). Many of her costumes won first prizes in school. She was the mother who took me to buy my first bra, even though at fourteen I did not need one yet. She thought it was still important because she said she wanted me to have pretty breasts when I grew into a woman. She was the mother who took me to the dermatologist to prevent acne and to the gynecologist when my menstruation was unsteady. She was the mother who made sure that my sister and I wore the finest clothes and that we ate the best foods that our family could afford. And, in her good moods, she made me laugh with her humorous stories about her shtetl’s colorful characters, such as Motke the ganef (thief), Tzipe the pleplerke (babbler), Moishe the Kailiker (handicapped) Yankel the hoiker (hunchback), and Leib the rizikant (gambler).
These memories, good and bad, stay with me on Mother’s Day and always.