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Mothers v. Daughters

Mother, May I

Don’t let the flying matzoh balls confuse you. A visit from a dead parent is serious business—a second chance for love, and for forgiveness.

East Side Interior (1922) by Edward Hopper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Last night I spent precious time with my mother—in my dreams. Mom’s hair was bottled blonde, not the nimbus of gray she’d stopped covering in 2004, the year before a massive heart attack took her at age 77.

She sidled up to me at the dinner table. Were those matzoh balls floating through the air? Would she mention that for years my bedtime prayer, unanswered, was “Mom, come into my dreams?” Nope. Her first dream words were, “Always with the bangs in your eyes.”

 

In life, Bernice Amatenstein was the person I loved most, yet the one I often felt understood me least. A Holocaust survivor, at age 14 she risked her life while in camp to steal a potato for her sick friend. 

Years later, after a car accident left my ankle dangling by a thread, she whipped out her credit card to pay for an ambulance to move me to what she deemed a hospital with better orthopedic surgeons. This daring action saved my leg. Everything comes with a price: Three weeks later I had to endure spending my 35th birthday sleeping in the same bed with the woman who birthed me.

Clearly my mother’s love was the kind that lifts 3,000-pound cars. It could also be suffocating, a benediction I didn’t always desire.

The ways I hurt her included staying single after an early marriage ended in divorce, and then falling in love with an Irish Catholic. The latter “achievement” earned me this comment: “Just dig a hole; your father and I jump in it,” followed by her surreptitious move to sign me up with Fields, a Jewish matrimonial broker whose M.O. was making matches behind the backs of adult children.

Mom had a scorched earth reaction when I refused to meet any of the Chaims or Shmuels who subsequently clogged my phone line. “What a daughter I got. You waste my $500!”

Years and several relationships after the Irishman and I parted ways primarily due to our incompatible communication styles, Mom wrote me a letter saying, “Sorry I made you end it. Who knew it was your best chance.”

At the time I fumed, for days letting my machine take her calls. Now, eight years into a life without her, that reaction seems short-sighted, a luxury.

 

My mother’s love was the kind that lifts 3,000-pound cars. It could also be suffocating.

“Always with the bangs in your eyes.”

At Dream Mom’s opening salvo, a bolt of gratitude ricocheted through my bones. “Mom, you’ve been dead. I miss you so much. Can you stay?” I asked, reaching for her arm. Why didn’t anyone else at the dinner table look surprised? Didn’t they know she was dead? Was I crazy? Maybe she hadn’t been gone?

But her death was seared into me. It happened five days after her angioplasty. Moments before Mom was wheeled into surgery, she motioned me to lean over the gurney for a final message. Was I adopted? Is that why I’d rarely fit in with my boisterous mother and sister? Nope. She wanted my panties to wear into the OR. I ran to the ladies’ room, slid them off, then raced back to the gurney. I snuck them into her waiting hand under the sheet, only to hear the orderlies announce they needed to insert a catheter so hoped she was sans underwear.

My last face-to-face conversation with Mom is something I’ve replayed pitilessly on a Dante’s Inferno-style loop. Visiting at the hospital, I was appalled that this four-foot-eight-and-a-half, 80-pound cardiac patient stubbornly refused to amend her anorexic eating habits, announcing her homecoming plans to continue refusing her caregiver’s nutritious cooking and subsist on bread, hard-boiled eggs and gruel. Yes, she had dementia, irritable bowel syndrome, and the stress of living with my dad—her protector turned Alzheimer’s sufferer. But she was my mom, dammit. I needed her to put my needs first. And my need was for her not to die!

I attacked her, hooked up as she was to IVs, tubes and machines: “I used to look up to you even though you were a little person. But now I don’t think you’re very smart. I can’t sit around and watch you be stupid.”

The gray head shrank into the flimsy hospital pillow. “So leave. You’re giving me a heart’s attack.”

A few hours later, Mom and I had a teary, make-up phone conversation with mutual repeated, “I love you’s” and “I’m proud of you’s.” Two days later—boom, seconds after I arrived in the room, so did the killer “heart’s attack.”

 

A few weeks later, on Mother’s Day, nightly visitations started. Skeletal fingers with the strength to lift 3,000-pound cars would grip my wrist. Struggling to open eyes that felt glued shut and paralyzed under a tangle of sheets, I’d whimper, “Mom? Mom. You’re scaring me. Let go. Please.”

I told my therapist I thought my mother didn’t feel her work was complete: I was unmarried and had recently left a secure job to enroll in social work school. A fetal ball in the familiar brocade chair in Irina’s home office, I mainlined tissues and said, “Mom’s worried I can’t take care of myself, and the guilt I have at disappointing her is killing me.” 

With Irina’s coaxing, I closed my eyes and spoke out loud: “Mom, I love you but I need you to find peace—not haunt me. I’ll be OK. Really. Stop worrying.”

For the first time ever, I think, Bernice Amatenstein listened. My nights were undisturbed by skeletal grabs. At first guiltily grateful, I stopped fearing sleep. But as the days stretched into weeks, months, and years during which I stitched together a life that included a thriving career as a therapist and—the irony—relationship self-help author, I missed being targeted by Mom’s special brand of pride. With laughter, I imagined her saying, “Sherry, instead of helping other people, can’t you help yourself find a husband?”

My response, mellowed by the passage of years falling relentlessly as dominoes, would likely be, “Hey, Mom, can you help from up there?”

 

Was my diminished resistance to her wisdom the reason Dream Mom graced me with her presence last night? She didn’t say. Neither did she answer my urgent, peppered questions: “How is it being dead? Are you OK? Are you happy? How long can you stay? Mom, does heaven take your tongue? You’ve never been quiet!”

The scene shifted. Flying matzoh balls morphed into a canopy bed. Dwarfed in a fur coat, Mom cuddled me. Her ams were not skeletal. This was no death grip. Perhaps I was now trusted to take care of myself, husband or not, and this was just a loving social call. Either way, who cared? The warmth and security were hypnotic, nirvana, a nectar I would drink from as long as possible. I whispered from her bosom, “Mom, I’m so sorry for all the times I hurt you. And I hope I didn’t cause your heart attack.”

Finally, she spoke. That long-missed, Polish-tinted rumble addressed itself to me: “Maybe you did a little, but I forgive you.” 

Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW is a NYC-based therapist, journalist, and author of three books including The Complete Marriage Counselor. She looks forward to Dream Mom’s next visit. More by Sherry Amatenstein