I had not spoken to my parents in nearly 15 years. Except for one disastrous month, I had not lived with them in almost 25 years. It is rare that I thought of them at all during that time, despite how much they steered the course of my life, both for good and for bad. In this age of dysfunctional families that can be called up by demand with the press of a remote control button, I remained insulated from how unique my situation was, until I confided in a good friend how I had learned an hour before that my mother had died over 18 months ago.
He was stunned. His reflexive pause reminded me of the nearly unbreakable bonds that tie together the average Jewish family. Even more so the Orthodox families with whom I am most familiar. I did not grow up in that kind of world. My parents reversed my adoption when I was 16, sending me from upper-middle class suburban Detroit to life as a ward of the state, helpless and alone in a group home on the other side of Michigan.
I knew even then that this was in no way fair. True, I was the “bad” kid in my group of friends. Of course, my group of friends were the “good” kids, so this was not much of an accomplishment. We didn’t smoke, drink, steal, do drugs, or raise hell. My worst infractions, as far as the outside world was concerned, were a decided lack of enthusiasm for schoolwork and convincing friends to stay out past curfew to visit the local all-night grocery store, sneak into unrated art films, and eat at Denny’s or Dunkin’ Donuts until 11 pm.
But for my mother, who had clawed her way out of poverty in West Virginia to earn first a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and then a master’s degree in education, the latter while raising me, refusing to dedicate my life to my education and her all-powerful will was equivalent to a full-scale rebellion. How dare I refuse to be a performing seal, nose to the grindstone, after being rescued at age 10 months from the certain doom of a teenage mother living in a Saginaw ghetto?! She also saw I would not break, as my father had years before, going so far into passivity that his conversion as a Jehovah’s Witness was merely a formality. Perhaps if we lived somewhere with more Asian influences, he would have even become Buddhist, although with his tendency towards complete immersion, he probably would have ended up as a Shaolin monk, with his Afro shaved except for a long puffy tail.
After being sent away, I rebelled in the only way an incorrigibly good girl can. I got married at 18, before my highschool class had even graduated. And when that ended like a matrimonial Hindenburg, I ran penniless for the only shelter I could think of, back to my mother. While she let me in, she did not fail to disappoint me, as I must have been expecting, and possibly even felt I deserved. After telling of my heartbreak, her first words to me were, “What did you do to mess things up so badly?” Thanks, Mom.
I began to make plans in my head for finding my own place, and moved out within a month, taking my things and never looking back. I never spoke to my parents again afterwards. When people asked how my parents felt about my conversion, I would reply evasively, that my religion was the least of their worries. My mother died not knowing of my new family, my new life in Israel. I can’t decide if I’m sorry about that or not.
With the sting of abandonment that even death cannot erase, I am still questioning it was best that I found her obituary through Google stalking, instead of being awakened via an uncomfortable trans-Atlantic phone call in the middle of the night. If I had known of her passing back then, would I have done anything differently? Flown to grieve at the funeral of a woman who was not even legally my mother anymore? No. Even in her death, my love and and ambivalence are held together in suspension. My mother died yesterday, 18 months ago.