My mother had a hard life....besides having me. She was born in NYC on the first day of the last century. I suppose my grandmother brought the shtetl with her and passed it along in mother’s milk. It didn’t help that my five uncles must have teased and tyrannized her because my mother lived most of her eighty-eight years in combat mode, armored with a mouth to scare the butcher and an eye to keep the grocer’s thumb off the scale.
It wasn’t until she was defenseless in her declining years that she grew into a mellow and fuller humanity. She came into her vulnerability and the little girl she never got to live.
In my childhood I knew my mother as a soldier in the trenches of the marketplace, as she saw it. I accompanied her to the butcher shop with its sawdust, flypaper and bloody red roses blooming on his apron. She was convinced he and the chicken plucker held the best cuts for her out of intimidation.
Aggravation was her longest word. It never stopped; the gevalts and the oy, yoy yoys. She didn’t carry packages; she schlept them. My, how she must have suffered. She would curse the superintendent, who should burn in hell, for holding back on the steam heat and damn the landlord, that gonif, for the rent. She even cursed God for God knows what.
I don’t think my mother ever met a cliché she didn’t mistake for wisdom. Believe me, she used to say, money doesn’t matter. You should only have your health. It was the preamble, Believe me, that gave weight to her sigh. After a while I got the message. If you’re near dead, give it up. Otherwise it’s all about money. The older you got to be, money and health ran a close one-two. I wouldn’t quibble about her ordering except that nothing else was short-listed.
To save my life I grew deaf to her words. The more you do for these kids the less they appreciate it. Believe me.
If she thought she was teaching me survival I never got around to telling her that there was no war in the streets. Cars were not assassins. The man in the fruit store was not out to cheat her. Maybe it was the daily skirmish that kept her blood moving.
When she complaind that she never got out, shooting from her recently fractured hip. I would take her for a drive and point out the pretty flowers or the homes in an upscale neighborhood. Just keep your eye on the road, she would warn me from the back seat where she did all her driving. Old habits cling to the bone.
From the rear view mirror I could see how she had reverted to a frightened child. So lost was she that she had to announce every intersection to know she was still there. The price of cottage cheese was no longer important to her. Nor was there any reason to fear the dreaded draft, that caused all manner of illness. Finally we entered a cul de sac in eloquent silence.