I remember my mother as a small, solidly built woman with angry blue eyes. She is sitting at the kitchen table, drinking cold coffee and smoking MatinÃ©e Lights. I can’t remember ever having had a real conversation with her, about anything. We hardly knew each other except as adversaries.
IÂ was her greatest hope and her biggest disappointment. I don’t think she was unusual in her circle and generation, in that all she ever really aspired to was wifedom and motherhood. She did accomplish those goals, at the cost of everything else. At the time it probably seemed like a fair trade.
My mom was Sylvia Rosenberg, born in 1930, one of five children of the only Jewish family in Alexandria, Ontarioâ€”a small farm town full of French and Scots, close to the Quebec border. Her father ran the dry-goods store. The prejudice and isolation they must have faced as the town Jews is beyond my imagining. The family closed ranks and stuck together like glue. The father died of cancer when my mother was 13, and the family lost the store and drew even closer under the wing of my huge bread-eating grandmother, who they fiercely defended and adored. They created 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 it meant 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 â€“ and when the meat ran out, they would do without.
When my mother moved to Toronto and met my father there must have been great relief and rejoicing in clan Rosenberg. She was 28 by then and in danger of being stranded in old-maidenhood. Now the family bloodline would survive, and the Jews, so recently decimated by the Holocaust, would repopulate and regain their shattered global identity. On marriage my mother immediately quit her job and let go of her hobbies and interests and settled down to the task of being a wife and mother, which was everything and all that society expected of her.
But it didn’t go so smoothly. She had a hard time getting pregnant and the years ticked by. The day in 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 wheeled my stroller proudly through the freshly sodded suburb. But I didn’t turn into the adorable girl-child she had fantasized. I was sullen and analytical; a toddling existentialist. My mom nicknamed me ‘sourpuss’ or ‘Lucy’, after the grouchy character in the Peanuts comic. I remember thinking, well alright then. 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. I was on my own.
When I reached full adolescence things really went south. 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 things suburban adolescents do, burying my head in my Pink Floyd albums and taking acid behind the school. 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 right the fuck out, and our relationship went from border skirmishes to fullon 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 already 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 now 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 teenagerâ€”but at least I had broken free, and he probably resented me for that too. Over the years my mother and i eventualy reached a kind of uneasy peace, and my anger leached away. But I think she transferred all of her thwarted hopes onto my brother. Predictably, he too failed to live up to her expectations. I think he still carries an anger toward her that 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 possessions, no home renos to describe. Worst of all of course, no progeny to carry forward the Mills/Rosenberg DNA, or the ancient culture that was so nearly destroyed and which her family was so desperate to preserve intact. My brother also has no children. I wonder how she would feel about the life she sacrificed for a future that never came. Who knows? Maybe if she is looking down from that cloud, she might even be satisfied by what she is seeing.
My mother’sÂ 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.