I have often wondered why the Bible includes “honor your father and mother” among the ten most important moral commandments, right up there with not murdering or stealing. Perhaps the reason is this. Gratitude is the mother of all virtues, without which humanity is fundamentally underdeveloped and wholly incomplete.
I am a man of 45 who owes everything to a mother who will tomorrow turn 70. My mother raised five children completely on her own, working two jobs to support us, clothe us, feed us, and send us to a Jewish school where I could discover the tradition of my ancestors. Doing so involved getting up early to prepare us for school, running to her job as a teller at a local bank, coming home to make a quick dinner, and then working as a checkout clerk in a supermarket. All this she did for my siblings and me so we could enjoy a normal life and know, amid our money problems, that we were loved.
There are so many stories of her sacrifices that I will never forget, but one especially stands out. We were driving in her unreliable station wagon on a night where the heavens opened above us and Noah’s flood descended. The car stalled and we were stuck in middle of traffic. My mother got out of the car, refusing to allow us to follow her lest we get soaked. She opened the hood and tried her best to get the car to start. Soon, she had cut her hand wide opened and blood flowed like the rain. Still, she refused to allow her children out of the car, now chasing passersby pleading for their help. I was very small but it was on that unforgettable night I learned what a mother is prepared to do for a child.
When, for 11 years, my wife and I lived in Oxford, where six of our nine children were born, amid her constant money issues, there was never a family celebration my mother missed. Not when a daughter was born, not when we had a bris, not when our three-year-old boy had his hair cut, and not when our girls pleaded with her to join us for the Jewish holidays. When she walked through the door the children’s eyes would light up. “Grandma!” Their hero had arrived.
Most of all I remember her loneliness. When you’re a boy of 8 and your mother divorces, you’re convinced she’s in her sixties. Just a few years ago, with my wife sitting next to me, I made a calculation of how old my mother was at the time of her divorce: 32. She remained largely alone for decades, save for a few intermittent and mostly painful relationships, many of which were compromised because she always — always — put her children first.
Still, she never once complained, always bearing the most positive outlook on life and bidding me to do the same.
When her financial situation improved after she and my siblings in Miami opened a jewelry business, she instituted a policy of giving a check to every representative of a yeshiva or poor family who came through their building requesting support. And once a week she sits down with the Jewish newspapers, and if she sees a story of tragedy or woe, she sends a check, unsolicited, to the families who are suffering.
Named after Queen Esther for her Hebrew name and Eleanor Roosevelt for her English, mother always endeavored to bequeath to me her positive values. When she would call me and I would sound despondent because of mounting bills or a job lost, she would not let me off the phone until I heard her out completely. “Shmuley, the only blessing in life is the wife that loves you and healthy children. It was what I told your father all the years we were married. You are such a blessed man. You have the most beautiful children. How could you let anything else bother you?” Sometimes, as she repeated this mantra, it became almost irritating. “I hear you, Mom. You’re right. But I have to go.”
No, she would not let me off until I listened again.
And as I have matured, my mother’s voice has begun to play like a loop in my mind. Few things matter other than the strength of our relationships and the well-being of our loved ones.
Now, after all these years, my mother is thankfully with a man who appreciates her and with whom she has built a life. My siblings and I are ever grateful to him for taking such good care of a woman who always took care of others. At the ripe young age of 70, mother is, thank G-d, an adored matriarch of children, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild. I have dedicated several of my books to her as the inspiration behind so much of me that is decent or good.
Mom, happy birthday. I cannot equal you in nobility or heroism. Less so can I ever climb your heights of sacrifice. But know that I will never forget, for the length of my days, that I am blessed with a mother who is extraordinary in every way.