Conversations with my mother

It’s a hard time to be making phone calls, during the friendly chaos between the petering off of lunch and the beginning of homework, but three o’clock in the afternoon in my house is eight o’clock in the morning at my mother’s house, and if I don’t watch the clock carefully through the chaos—friendly or not—the time for me to call my mother will slip away. She answers on the second ring. “Hello?” “Hi, Ima!” “Dina! What’s doing?” There is a high-pitched, inhuman scream coming from the living room as she says those words, and I sigh. “Baruch picked a  kitten up by his tail, that’s what’s doing. The kitten made the worst sound ever and now he’s clinging to my ankle. It’s like I have the most uncomfortable fur anklet ever.” My mother’s laughter bubbles through the phone lines and I picture her while she laughs at the results of my choice to let the kitten that followed me home stay. I can picture her while we talk: putting on her makeup and fixing the front of her sheitel with a practiced sweep of her hand while her morning coffee cools to the temperature that she likes on the kitchen counter. A few minutes into the conversation, she will sit down to a quick breakfast of either oatmeal or cottage cheese and cinnamon on toast. Our conversations are short and are punctured with the suddenly very urgent requests of my progeny and the occasional kittenrelated issue, but they encompass everything, from pantry organization to the problem with people nowadays. “Oh, and I meant to tell you, Ima, your e-mail was hacked.” “Yeah, Malky told me, too. She took care of it this afternoon.

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How can you tell if someone hacked you?” “You sent me a message telling me that if I click on the link below, I will win a million dollars.”“A million dollars sounds nice.” “And a pet unicorn.” Sometimes, when my husband is home, I’ll lock myself on the porch with my phone. As we talk, I’ll stare out at the hills of the Judean Desert that make up my horizon and I’ll see green speckled Formica counters and light-wood cabinets. “Well, now that we’ve solved all the world’s problems, I’d better go,” my mother would say at 8:30 her time, 3:30 mine, and like a balloon popping suddenly, I am no longer sitting at the kitchen table with her in Brooklyn; I am back in my own house in Yerushalayim, and no one did the dishes while I was gone. I never thought that I would be raising my kids so far away from her. None of us did. How could we picture life away from the light that is my mother? “Bergerville,” my older sister had explained in the don’t-argue-with-me-I-know-better tones unique to the eldest sister, “is what we will call our island. And we will all live there together and raise our kids together and we will get together every Shabbos and play  games and none of your kids better have snotty noses or they can’t come to my house.” That sister, now a rebbetzin, today lives in Mexico City. For my part, my husband and I came to Israel for one year, ten years ago. A couple of years ago, during our three o’clock/eight o’clock conversation, my mother pointed out the discrepancy in that math. I, in turn, pointed out that math was never my strong point, a trait that I had actually inherited from her. “True,” she allowed. “But I know that six is more than one.” I gracefully conceded that point. “So are you staying in Israel?” “Staying? Like, what am I doing with the rest of my life? Ima, I don’t even know what I’m making for dinner tonight.” “Make tuna patties and mashed potatoes.”“I love that, but my kids hate it.” “Dina, are you planning on staying?” Am I? I tried to explain how I felt about living here, but it came out in a jumbled mess, a tangle of words. Halfway through the ideals of lower happiness thresholds and not living in a fashion parade, I petered off. “Um, how does that sound to you, Ima?” “Like you’re a little confused.” “I am. A little confused.”

“That’s okay. You’ll work it through.” And I did, and I do. From three o’clock until three-thirty in the afternoon I have conversations with a woman whom I call my mother. Other times, I call her Superwoman, but that is hardly original; I am one of many who do so. My mother is also a Lamplighter. They lit lamps together, my parents, but in very different ways. If my tall, broadshouldered father was like a gentle breeze, winning people’s hearts with his calming presence and soft smile, my mother is a small, trim howling force of nature, rather like a hurricane, but instead of knocking trees over, she will probably just polish them and trim their leaves properly. Then she’ll ask them about their problems, and if there is anything that she can do to help. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince, there is a character known as the Lamplighter. It is his job to light the street lamp every day and extinguish it at night. An easy enough job, on the face of it, and it was easy, for years, until the tiny planet that he lived on began to rotate faster and faster on its axis, and the sun rose and set faster and faster until each day was a minute long. The Lamplighter longed for a rest, but he had a job to do. “Good evening,” he says once every minute, and lit the street lamp against the darkness. For most of my childhood, my mother slept for four hours a night. Raising the ten of us while caring for my father during his 25-year-long battle with multiple sclerosis and being sole breadwinner took care of most of the day, but there was still plenty of time, apparently, for us to gain foster siblings and whole families who moved into our home at a moment’s notice. The house that I grew up in was filled with her light. It was noisy and crowded and the music played so loudly that the windows would rattle.

We took pride in our private jokes, in the songs that only we knew. It was us against the world, but the world was always welcome to join us, and often, it did. “Heads up,” my brother would warn, only half tongue in cheek, as he summed up the newest arrival before we even met her. “She’s divorced, she was abused, and she’s sleeping in your room.” No problem. It never felt like a problem. My mother knew that it wasn’t a problem. We’d all just move over. “I finally figured out how you did it,” I say to her. Its three o’clock again, time for conversations across the time zones with my mother, and we are talking while I am trying to rock the baby with one hand and clean the mess that the pasta sauce had made on the stove with the other. I don’t know where the phone is. Maybe it hangs midair. “How I did what?” “How you did everything. But don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.” “My secret?” “The secret that you’re really an android.” “Um. Thanks?”“Not like in a weird metallic robot-y way,” I hasten to assure her. “You’re like the kind that looks totally human on the outside even though it’s all wires and stuff inside. Okay, no wires. You’re like an android just in the way that you never run out of energy. Like the Energizer Bunny. Okay, so maybe you’re less like an android, because I can see how that would be creepy, and more like the Energizer Bunny? Is that better?” Which is when she gently suggests that I stop while I am ahead and I gratefully turn the conversation to getting oil out of a silk scarf. When I called my mother after giving birth to my first, I asked her incredulously, “You did this ten times?” I could not fathom it. But really, giving birth is the easiest part of raising a child, and my mother raised many more children than the ones that she gave birth to; like the Lamplighter, she lit many lights.

The thought of not living near my mother, of not raising my kids close by, is hard. I know that is true for many of my fellow expatriates; inside each of us is still that little girl we once were who used to yell, “Look at me! Look at me, Ima!” and made absolutely sure that Ima was watching before she did something amazing, like turn a cartwheel or jump into the pool. “How was Shabbos?” “We had a million guests for Shabbos and I had a crazy deadline that kept me writing until Friday afternoon!” I would answer my mother. Look at me! Look at me, Ima! “Wow,” she would say, and I would beam a light of my own through the phone line, because built into the very beautiful and very complicated nature of the mother-daughter relationship is the knowledge that anything worth doing is worth doing when your mother can see you doing it. Look at me! Look at me, Ima! But really, it’s so much more than that. Because my mother is so much more than that. From my mother, I learn to stretch myself. From my mother, I learn not to fear hard work. From my mother, I am trying to learn what she taught me, what she continues to teach me from three o’clock until threethirty in the afternoon, when we talk about nonsense and e-mails and androids and cats. “Now we really, really, really need to go,” my mother says. “This time, let’s hang up for real.” “Okay, yes, totally; but, Ima! One more super quick question.” The time is never long enough, but that’s exactly the thing—exactly—about lighting lamps. Because while we might both have a somewhat hazy concept of math, this equation my mother knew cold; my mother lit lamps where it was dark and showed me that love, like fire, does not divide; it multiplies.


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