I Hold Her Words
Updated: Feb 27, 2019
note: Eema is Hebrew for mom. Although the true spelling in English is Ema, I choose to write it phonetically as Eema.
Eema couldn’t read or write English. Although sometimes she managed to sound out one word and in extra large letters she'd write, slowly, carefully. She would write inside of her little, green address book that she kept in the kitchen. She’d put on her reading glasses and lean over the book. She was measured and calm in her movements, the opposite of me. “Fast, fast, fast, always so fast!” She’d say to me. Usually after I banged my elbow in the door way or dropped a plate of food on the floor like the clumsy protagonist in a rom com movie.
Eema wrote mostly in Hebrew, but even that was limited. She grew up very poor and sick and only made it to the third grade. Survival was the focus for her, not education.
I loved watching her do things. Anything really. I did not inherit her care for details but I found it calming to witness. At this moment, as she was sounding out a word in English, I stood beside her watching. She slowly, cautiously repeated the word out loud as she wrote … annie . She smiles at me, proudly. It made me feel like I was her favorite word.
She used to love to tell stories about me as a child. She loved to dress me up in poofy dresses and put ribbons in my hair. I was her compliant baby doll. A happy kid who rarely made a fuss.
As I grew, I held onto the happy part but not so much the compliant part. I had/have a strong mind and sense of self. I did/do what felt/feels right to me. I suppose I could just choose a tense and stick with it, but I did not/am not doing that, am I? Anyway, for her part, Eema never rejected my growing independence. Even when I no longer wore the poofy dresses (or any dresses for that matter). Still, during my weekly visits as an adult, she would often get that far away look in her eyes, “You were such a beautiful baby.” She would tell me often how the best time in her life was the time she spent with me when I was a little girl. I never asked her what the cut-off age was for these happiest of time of hers, but I’ll take a stab in the dark and say probably before adolescence hit. I was so very much not into poofy dresses by that point.
When my mom reached her 70s, she spoke of the past even more often. I would notice her stare off into the middle distance, take slow drags of her "More" brand cigarette and get lost in a memory. I started to get the sense that my mom was living with a fair amount of disappointment. For the simple true fact that the past, not just my happy baby days, but also her youth, her times on the stage in Israel, her adventures with gentlemen suitors, her collection of admirers… these things must have felt to her that they were far, far away and getting further. Her face when she remembered in this manner was always so intensely focused. It was as if her mind were squinting. As if her memories were slipping away like smoke rings and if she didn't continuously light up to blow some more rings, they will one day vanish entirely into thin air. And each time I show up, still not a baby, it serves as a reminder that the best times in her life are far behind her.
When Eema died in the summer of 2015, she left behind her little green address book. It was full of long ago disconnected landlines of people who have moved on in one way or another. She kept it mostly to jot down notes in Hebrew and a few words in English. When I checked the pages I discovered no secrets, no stories, no surprises. Nothing that I could turn into a mystery novel or a fascinating documentary about how little I knew my mother. Nothing like that. But none of that mattered because just holding onto her written words made me feel close to her. My dad and I are the writers in the family but holding onto her words isn’t about the writing, it’s about contact. Her hands once glided a pen across these pages and drew these funny little Hebrew letters and large, circular English ones. I used to ask her why she didn’t learn how to read or write English. She didn’t like it when I asked her this. She would get impatient with me and change the subject. I’m guessing that it was difficult for her to learn and she hadn’t felt a strong need, so she eventually quit trying. Maybe she had shame about that and me asking her about it all the time was just salt in the wound. I didn’t see it that way at a time though, because I was thinking of myself. “But I’m a writer, dad’s a writer, don’t you want to read our words?” She loved it when I read her my stories out loud. I guess that was good enough for her.
Now, when I look at these lists and names in her tiny, green, beat up address book with her daily jots and scribbles, I don’t see her lack of trying and I don’t feel her impatience to learn. Now, when I hold the words she made, I place them upon my heart and squint my mind to remember. She made this. With her beautiful hands.
Now, all I see is her.