Thursday, February 7, 2013

For posterity

I didn't leave the house for three days last week. It started raining on Wednesday, and then Shabbat afternoon found me increasingly irritated with my children. I kept stalking away from the Shabbat table, wineglass in hand, to go hide out in my bedroom with the napping baby. And really, my kids weren't doing much except being 5 and 3. Normal kid stuff.

"I need to get out of the house," I told my husband. I strapped T.S. into her carrier and headed out.

I was so done with my kids. I wouldn't even make eye contact with them as I was getting ready to go out. And at the same time, I was aware that I was being sulky and sullen, and that they were watching me.

Oh no, I thought with dawning dread. I am their mother! I am the mother of four people. This petulant grouch is their mother.

* * *

I remember a story from a friend's childhood that took place soon after the birth of her younger brother. My friend, then a young child, went looking for her mother and found her nursing the baby. When the little girl burst into her parents' bedroom, her mother screamed, "Get out of here! I hate your guts!"

My friend expressed pain and resentment when she shared this anecdote with me, even though 30 years have passed since the incident occurred. I empathized with her, but I could also imagine so easily what it might be like to be her mother--mind roiling with hormones and stress, maybe having difficulty breastfeeding, finally finding a quiet moment, then snapping in anger and frustration.

And truly, my friend probably wouldn't be holding on to the memory if that dynamic hadn't been repeated and reinforced throughout her relationship with her mother. It's not like that was her mother's one chance to express herself lovingly, and she screwed it up. Right?

* * *

I left the apartment with the baby and stomped around the streets of my neighborhood. The sun had finally emerged, and the after-storm air smelled wet and glorious. I ran into a friend, out for a walk with her husband and baby. They were just returning from the Valley of the Cross, a beautiful rambling green space near our neighborhood. The red kalaniot were in bloom, she told me. I headed to the valley.

* * *

When I was younger, I felt like a terribly interesting and important person. Certainly everyone around me was paying attention to me and watching everything that I did. Perhaps they found me adorable and charming. Or maybe they judged me to be a jerk of historic proportions. Probably the most noteworthy and jerkiest jerkface ever.

What a pleasure and comfort it is to be a grownup; to come to understand that the world is filled with human beings and I am just one of them--no more or less.


Now there actually is a rapt audience that takes everything I do very seriously and weighs it heavily. I am their mother. Sometimes they watch in silence, sometimes they offer commentary. "This is NOT how an ima behaves," Y.B. is inclined to observe tearfully, as I try to calmly ignore her sister's tantrum or wrestle her brother into pajamas.

I do the same thing to my own mother. Everyone I know does this. We remember everything our mothers ever said and did, we obsess about what our mothers say and do now. We analyze nuances of tone and consider how we were shaped, for good and for bad, by who our mothers were and are.

It's not fair. A person should be able to get stir-crazy and sulky and stalk out of the house. Or get all weepy and screamy without it being recorded for eternity.

* * *

I reached the valley. The kalaniot were red all over the green rocky hills. The blossoming almond trees peeked out along the olive grove. Cold air and bird singing lifted my heart. I walked quiet along the path with a bundled-up T.S. snoozing on my chest.

I thought about this midrash:
"When a person performs a mitzvah, he should do it with a happy heart. Because if Reuven had known God was writing about him, "He saved [his brother] from their hands," he would have carried his brother back to his father himself. And if Aharon had known God was writing about him, "Here he comes to greet you, happily," he would have come to meet his brother dancing and beating a drum. And if Boaz had known that God was writing about him, "He gave her dried corn," he would have brought Ruth veal and fed her."
That's such a crazy commentary, right? All those people did good things, and their heroism was recorded by the text--Reuven saved his brother's life; Aharon greeted Moshe with honor and enthusiasm; Boaz was kind to an impoverished and socially-isolated woman. But here's the midrash implying that there was some reluctance to their actions. And what would have helped them be whole-hearted and truly excellent in their deeds? "If they had known that God was writing about them."

The midrash concludes:
"In the past, a person would do a mitzvah, and the prophet would record it. Now that there are no prophets anymore, who writes it? Eliyahu and Mashiach, and God signs beside them."
* * *

I sit in my room and write. T.S. lies swaddled on the bed next to me. She fusses, and I put her pacifier back in her mouth, over and over again. The older children enter pajama-clad, one at a time, to be inspected for lice. There is no escaping who I am to these people. We are living this life together, mother and children. Pacifiers will be popped back and hair will be fine-combed, day after day. But in what spirit? With what sort of heart?

I think of the midrash. I remember to comb A.N.'s hair gently--her scalp is so sensitive. I brush back her curls to kiss her forehead. If I can only remember that God is writing about me.


Jenn Taviv said...

This is so beautiful and I so relate! Thank you for sharing your insights and that beautiful midrash. - Jennifer Taviv,

Unknown said...

This is quite insightful -- thank you. I have to think of this more often -- I can just imagine a document recording every mitzvah, with approval lines for date and signature from Eliyahu, Moshiach, and Hashem! :)

Chaya's husband said...

I don't know how you manage to bring tears to my eyes! The beauty of your writing is matched only by your greatness as a mother. It's all recorded in my book! said...

awesome, chaya you are the best! wonderful to have you back blogging, I missed these posts!!

Adina said...

Beautifully written! I love that Midrash, but it would make me feel guilty, like what I was doing was never enough. I like your soft take on it, just do what you are already doing with a little more kavanah.

Thank you,

Elana K said...

Thanks for this post - I can really relate, and you wrote it so beautifully.

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Batya said...

This  post is included in Shiloh Musings: Pre-Purim Havel Havelim #399 (Could it Really be #399?).  Please see the others, comment and share, thanks.

rutimizrachi said...

This grandmother -- long past the stage of being watched daily and judged -- is very impressed by this writing. It is excellent. It is a thoughtful and uncompromising analysis of the writer's own actions and thoughts, without being unforgiving. Kol hakavod, Chaya. I am sure that your children will know, in the eyeblink that is the next decade or so, with what a very special mother they were blessed.

West Coast Mother said...

I just discovered your blog, thank you for writing so honestly and beautifully for all the other mothers out there like me who could use some encouragement. We're taking this trip one tantrum at a time (whether its mommy's tantrum or the kid's tantrum)!

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