When I graduated law school, my mother gave me a work of art.
It was the first and only time she had ever gifted me with something creative.
My mother was a Holocaust survivor born in northern Romania. She lived in her bucolic small town until a young Wehrmacht soldier came knocking on her family’s front door on Pesach, 1944.
My grandfather invited him in and explained the place settings.
Within seven weeks, on Shavuot, they were in Auschwitz.
My grandparents were killed upon arrival.
My mother was selected as a slave laborer by Dr. Joseph Mengele.
My mother was a kind, smiling, comforting woman.
Nothing made her happier than to do a mitzvah.
She arrived in America in June, 1949 with my father and sister, confident in Hashem and the future.
Once we started school, she began to attend classes to learn English.
I watched her labor over her black and white composition book.
School was a playroom for me. Everything was new. Everything was exciting.When I was older, I would make weekly trips to the public library and fill my shopping cart with books
As the years went by, my mother’s English improved and her accent faded. I remember her sitting at our kitchen table in Teaneck, NJ, reading the New York Times from cover to cover.
But my mother was not what some might call “an intellectual”. I was sensitive to her lack of a formal education and so, never shared my interests. I majored in English and History and took courses in American, European, Japanese and Medieval History. I studied Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe.
My mother, it seemed to me, had few communication skills and appeared to speak in aphorisms.
And I, with all my degrees (three) failed to understand her.
She was a seer and I didn’t know it.
She relied on centuries of Jewish wisdom, community life, acute observations of human behavior, the winnowing down of what was important in her family’s life, i.e., family, kindness, Jewish pride.
I missed it.
I returned from law school graduation with photographs of me in my purple cowled gown, a mortarboard planked down on my curls, holding a scrolled diploma.
And then she gave me a present.
It was a large, lithograph of a courtroom. There was the judge on the bench, jurors in the jury box, the counsel tables, the witnesses, the parties.
However, instead of neatly dressed figures, each image was that of a clown with a wig or bald, in full make-up and costume.
“Thanks,” I said, somewhat lukewarmly
I didn’t get get what she was trying to say.
Maybe it was “Don’t rely on humans” and that “All help comes from above.”
But back then, I didn’t understand and hurried to the craftsman’s shop to select a gilt frame for my diploma.