It was my day to care for Mama, and I was already late. As I
rushed through the park, it seemed as if all the flowers, the
azaleas, roses, and lilacs, had burst open to the early
spring sun. But it was the yellow roses and the memory of my
mother's smile that did it. I walked back the two blocks to
the flower vendor, hoping that Mama's face would light up for
me the way it had so long ago, whenever my father bought her
Ziona was waiting at the door, her bag on her shoulder, the
patient smile she always wore stiff on her dark face. I
checked my watch. "Take an extra hour," I told her. "I'll put
my mother to bed tonight."
Her smile warmed. "Her lunch is already set up. Perhaps you
will have success with getting her to eat."
"Has her appetite improved any?"
Ziona shook her head. "Well, I've brought her one of her
favorites today. Maybe it'll work."
Her smile turned sad before she closed the door behind her.
Mama sat beside the little table, the tears rolling silently
down her face. I ran over and put my arm around her as best I
could with the wheelchair in the way. "Mama, what's wrong?"
"I can't eat this..." she said, not looking at the plate on
the flowered place mat.
"But why are you crying?"
"It's no good," she said calmly, as if the tears glistening
on her cheeks had nothing to do with her.
I eased myself into the chair across from her. "What's wrong
"She tells me to eat the food. But when she gives it to me,
it's no good." She raised her palms upward in helplessness.
"It's just no good."
I looked at the plate. The potato salad and stuffed peppers
were completely untouched, with only a tiny fork mark on the
edge of the fish.
"The years take everything until there is nothing left to
want, to desire," Ziona had told me last week on the phone,
with her folks-wisdom. "It is not possible for her to want."
"Mama," I said, laying the flowers on the table. "Look, what
I've brought you." She stared at it a minute before she
smiled. But the tears seemed to have a life of their own.
"And this, you will not be able to resist." I fumbled in my
purse for the plastic bag. "It's your favorite. Raisin
The smile faded. I slid the golden braided challa out of the
bag, pulled off a piece and buttered it. "Here you go."
She shook her head slowly.
"What do you mean? Mama, this is your favorite. How can you
"I don't want it."
"But Mama, why not?" I was desperate now.
"Because," she said in a little voice, "it doesn't taste like
The bright yellow kitchen in their little apartment fit well
in my parents' color splashed apartment. I loved this place.
It was where I came for vacations when I was raising my young
family. Every one of the pictures that decorated their sun-
lit walls was either painted, embroidered or photographed by
a family member. My babies had sat beneath them in the living
room as their Bubbie danced around the spoon making sure they
finished every bit of her special treats. Though I had
actually been born and raised in the U.S., the little flat in
Netanya was the one that felt like home.
It was in her yellow kitchen that I would perch on the stool
across from the kitchen table and watch Mama making her
challa. It was one of those few spaces of time where we
actually managed to talk. The rhythm of her pounding and
rolling the dough in the creased wooden bowl, interspaced her
questions about money problems, the baby's runny nose,
adjustments to school. Every so often, she would stop and the
conversation halted. She would pick up one of the little
metal canisters, measure whatever the special ingredient
happened to be that week into her palm, and rain it over the
dough with the flourish of a magician.
"Why don't you take a break one week and buy your challas at
the bakery?" I asked her one Thursday afternoon, after she
had been pounding and turning for a full twenty minutes.
"Your father doesn't like the way they make it in the store,"
she answered absently, sprinkling grated onion pieces into
"You know Papa would eat whatever you gave him, Mama."
Mama sprinkled one last pinch, wiped her hands against each
other, and turned to look at me. Her eyes were a deep brown
behind her glasses, a warm brown. For me, it will always be
the color of love consolidated into practical form. The color
of directed love.
"Tell me," she said, "would you enjoy eating it as
much if I bought it, instead?"
The last time I saw `the Mama I knew' was the morning after
my sister's phone call. They had found a growth, and Mama was
in the hospital waiting for surgery. It had been a while
since I had been able to make the trip up to visit her. The
children that winter seemed to be taking turns getting sick.
I left for the hospital under the gray sky of early dawn.
Mama's narrow hospital bed was surrounded by our family when
I got there. I took my mother's hand in mine and said,
"Really, Mama. You didn't have to go do something so extreme
as to get sick..."
Mama grinned as the young man in hospital whites helped her
onto the gurney. "Yes, well, nothing else was getting you
here..." It was the last time I saw that wry expression I so
loved on her face.
It took me a long time to give up the Mama I knew. That
stong, practical, sometimes sarcastic, loving, dedicated
woman turned passive. We thought, at first, it was the
anesthesia, then the treatment, the slow recovery, and the
inability to use all of her physical facilites the way she
But it was more than that. After my father passed away, there
was no one to take care of anymore, no one to cook for. Her
hands, crippled with arthritis, slowed down their constant
movement and the flow of sweaters and hats and home- baked
treats for the grandchildren stopped. Her entire life had
been dedicated to caring for her family. Who needed her now?
It infuriated me, at first, the unfairness of it all. All she
ever wanted was to give to those she loved.
As time passed, I began to realize what I had lost. The
coffee shop stops when I was down, the little things she
always bought for us before I managed to, that wry, wise
perspective on everything. And even more than that, I wasn't
anyone's little girl any more. That special feeling was gone.
My anger turned to fear, to self protection. Well, it
wouldn't happen to me, I was sure. I had many interests. I
wrote, I learned, I... read. I would be different. Unless, of
course, something unexpected happened.... Unless I got sick.
Unless I had an accident. Unless... anything.
Unless something happened, something like what had happened
to my Mama.
Mama stared straight ahead as I pushed the wheelchair out the
door. We were going for a walk in the sunshine, the
wheelchair click-clicking against the breaks in the asphalt.
Slowly, we reached the park. "Oh, look, Mama," I said, "the
flowers are in full bloom. Look at those colors!"
Mama looked politely in the direction of my pointing finger.
She nodded once, her mouth set in a line that could be
interpreted as a smile. Then she went back to staring
It was one of those spring afternoons when the wind is
gentle, and the leaves shimmer softly every so often. I
looked at Mama and wondered again what she was thinking but
when I asked her, she said, "I don't know," in so innocent a
voice that I couldn't help but hug her.
It was nothing like the hugs she used to give me when I was
little. They were so real and full of life, then. "I love
you," she would tell me, and I would be filled with knowing
that I was special.
I took her hand in mine, and we fell into quiet watching of
the children playing on the swings, of the mothers pushing
their baby carriages. Every so often, Mama dozed off, but
eventually she raised her head again and continued her
watching. Her hand lay lightly in mine, cool and elusive, the
finger-tips curled slightly from misuse, like a butterfly
that had come to rest and would soon be gone. How strong
those hands had been once. The only time I remember them
quiet was when she was resting. But even then, when I sat
beside her bed, her hand was not completely inactive. It was
usually holding mine.
She would call me into her room and I would talk with her.
She never said much, just listened. There was an occasional
question, a nod. She never judged or sermonized, hardly ever
told me what to do. Simply held my hand and listened.
Accepted me. I never felt her love more.
I tried to do the same for her now as we sat together. No
pushing her to talk, no encouraging her to `take an
interest'. I sat with her as she had sat with me, holding her
hand in mine and entered her silence. My Mama was not
interested in life; she was preparing to die. On that gentle
stretch of afternoon, as she had accepted those parts of my
life she must have wished different, I found the ability to
After supper, which, to my relief, she ate, we returned to
her room to get ready for bed. But no matter what I did, the
tears didn't stop. Nothing seemed to distract her, not the
silly stories about the little ones, nor the latest antics in
local politics. Finally, as she lay back upon her pillow, I
said impatiently, "Mama, why are you crying?"
"How can I not cry? I can't do anything by myself anymore.
I'm so weak... so useless."
"Mama, don't even think that way. Useless?! We all need you
"I just want someone to know..." she said, wiping her eyes
with her tissue.
"To know what, Mama?"
"I just want someone to know... how hard it is."
"Of course, we know. We just want you to try to look at the
positive things in your life. The grandchildren..."
"No." She cut me off, those deep brown eyes flashing again
for just a moment. "Nobody knows."
When I was twelve years old, I had problems falling asleep.
It must have had something to do with becoming a teenager,
because I had never had any such problems before. I was so
lonely lying there for what seemed like forever, listening to
the peaceful breathing of my family. They seemed to all be
partaking in `normal' living, while I lay there, on the
outskirts. Different. Eventually, I would walk into my Mama's
room and call to her. With eyes half-open, she would listen
to how I couldn't fall asleep. It was enough that she
groggily told me to go back to bed and try to relax, that
soon I would fall asleep. I would go back to my bed, and fall
asleep. I'd just wanted someone to know...
I am my mother's daughter. Mama had always taught that there
was nothing more important than to love, but she had not
taught me about the limitations of human love. Now she was
teaching me that, too.
"G-d knows," I had said quietly. "Only Hashem knows. Tell
Him. He always hears."
Though I was in a rush, once again I found myself pausing
beside the park. As I stared at the rich, multi-colored
garden, I wondered. How deeply do I really believe what I
told Mama? Would my own faith, my own love of Hashem be
profound enough, someday, when it was my time to give
The flowers bent slightly in the evening breeze, their colors
changed in the light of the day's end. They seemed so much
richer, deeper, in the setting sun.