I remember my mother as a small solidly built woman with eyes like angry blue marbles. I see her sitting at the kitchen table, smoking Matinée Lights and drinking cold coffee. I can’t remember ever having had a real conversation with her. We hardly knew each other except as adversaries.
As my mother’s daughter, I was her greatest hope and her biggest disappointment. I don’t think she was unusual in her circle and generation, in that her ambitions were narrow and circumscribed. All she ever really aspired to was wifedom and motherhood. She accomplished her goals at the cost of everything else. At the time it probably seemed like a fair bargain.
My mom was Sylvia Rosenberg. Born in 1930, one of five children of the only Jewish family in Alexandria, a small farm town on the Ontario/Quebec border populated mainly by French and Scots. Her father ran a small dry-goods store. The isolation they must have faced as the town Jews is beyond my imagining. The family closed ranks and stuck together like glue. Their father died of cancer when my mother was 13, and the family lost the store and drew even tighter under the wing of my huge bread-eating grandmother, who they fiercely defended and adored. My grandmother, whose own mother had died giving birth to her. They built a tiny family fortress with their heritage as the protective moat that no one could cross. They weren’t religious in the orthodox sense but Judaism defined their identity and that identity was everything to them. The long trip to Montreal and back to buy kosher meat took a full day but they would do it every month or so,and when the meat ran out, or in summertime when it was too hot for the meat to survive the journey, they would simply do without.
When my mother moved to Toronto and met my father there must have been great relief and rejoicing in the Rosenberg clan, since at the age of 28 old-maidenhood was looming. Now the family bloodline would survive, and the Jews, so recently decimated by the Holocaust, would repopulate the earth and regain their shattered global identity. Upon marriage my mother immediately quit her job and let go her hobbies and interests, and settled down to the task of being a wife and mother, which was all and everything society expected of her.
But it didn’t go so smoothly. She had a hard time getting pregnant and the years ticked by. That day in November of 1962 when my mother discovered she was pregnant was probably the happiest day of her life.
The first couple of years of motherhood in suburban Toronto were probably ok for her. I was a creature of pure promise, and she would have wheeled my stroller proudly through the freshly sodded suburb. But I didn’t turn into the adorable girl-child of her imaginings. I was sullen and analytical; a toddling existentialist. My mom called me ‘sourpuss,’ or ‘Lucy’, after the grouchy character in the Peanuts comic. I remember thinking, well alright then. Fuck you. If that’s what you see then that is who I will be. I have never seen a smiling photo of myself as a child. Five years later she managed to get pregnant again, and promptly redirected her fading hopes toward my new baby brother.
Around age ten I sprouted breasts, and was taunted and bullied at school. Sometimes I am amazed that I survived the daily torture of sixth grade. When I told my mother what was happening her response was, “it must be something you’re doing,” and that was the end of the conversation. Clearly I was on my own.
When I reached adolescence things headedt south fast. All my mother had ever wanted was an obedient trophy daughter she could proudly exhibit, but I wasn’t inclined to gratify her. I did the usual things suburban adolescents do, burying my head in Pink Floyd albums and taking acid behind the soccer field. Worst of all, I showed no promise of turning out pedigreed grandchildren, or any grandchildren for that matter. I hardly even knew any Jews so I’m not sure why she expected it would be otherwise, but when I started to have non-Jewish boyfriends she freaked out entirely, and our relationship went from border skirmishes to full-on war.
Just before my eighteenth birthday I had a revelation. It suddenly occurred to me that I was an adult and that my mother had no real power over me any more. I decided that I had a right to be happy, and that I had spent enough time in my angry little shell. I threw a birthday picnic for myself in the park, declaring it my rebirthday. I wore a big flowered skirt and drank wine. From that day on I started to have fun, because my life was mine to live.
I shut the door on high school and hightailed it to London Ontario, to muddle around in University for a few years. It wasn’t the most well-considered course, but it was the only way I could think of to get a student loan and move out of her house. I met my first real boyfriend and we moved in together. He was not Jewish and so my mother severed all support for me. For a couple of years we did not speak to each other at all.
I don’t know what happened to my brother Bennett after I left home. When I packed my bags and moved out he was just a kid and I was a self-absorbed teenager, but at least I had broken free, and he probably resented me for that. Over the years my mother and I eventually reached a kind of uneasy peace, and my anger gradually leached away. I think she transferred all her thwarted hopes onto my brother who also predictably failed to live up to her expectations. He still carries anger toward her that sometimes borders on hatred.
My mother died of lung cancer in 1996, sixteen years ago today. I sometimes imagine her looking down from that cartoon cloud, at me who still has nothing that she could use to prop up her status at the bridge table: no husband, no car, no property, no possessions. Worst of all, of course, no progeny to carry forward the Mills/Rosenberg DNA, or the proud culture that so nearly succumbed to genocide, and which her family was so desperate to preserve. My brother also has no children. It sounds harsh but I sometimes think her early death was a mercy, as she would have died of mortification as one by one her friends displayed the bloom of grandchildren. I wonder how she would feel about the life she sacrificed for the future that never came. Who knows? I really can’t say. Maybe if she is actually looking down from that fluffy cloud, she is proud of the two beings she produced and the good work we do in the world. Anything is possible.
As my mother lay dying her last coherent words to me were: don’t blame me. I don’t blame her. She did the best she knew how, and it wasn’t her fault that her world was so small.
3 Comments on “I have no pictures of my mother”
Thanks for this, Carm. I’ve known parts of this story, but this is a beautifully written piece. Love to you on this Yahrzeit.
As I read this post over and over again, and then let it settle, and read it again, I am caught in a vapor of familiarity, compassion and mystery. After all, who can actually know another person? Even if it’s our very mother, or father, or son or daughter, or wife. What do we do with the painful chasm between us and our supposed “loved” ones? We who wish to be well practised at self expression and assuredness, and not allow ruin through self denial and guilt. Sense of duty. Christ give me a whiskey.
With friends at least you start with a clean slate, temporarily uncluttered. Thank you for this moving post.
Indeed, fleshes things out a bit…