Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Iyar 5760 - May 31, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Directed Love
by Menucha Strauss, Safed

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 roses...

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 with it?"

"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 challa."

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 resist?"

"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 mine."


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 the dough.

"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 had before...

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 straight ahead.

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 accept.


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 so much."

"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 everything up?

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.


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