When my mom was my age, I took my backpack and went on a year long trip around the world from which I’m still trying to figure out how to get back… what was she thinking? Travel – in that dinosauric era when there was no facebook to share pictures and no cell phones to send texts and my location… It literally took hours to get through, a phone operator finally connecting two dots across the ocean only to find out you dialed at a time when there’s no one home, not even an answering machine to catch the call. It took days and sometimes weeks to get to a local consulate or some other agreed upon address, to receive letters from home, real letters, in pen on bluish aerograms. I want to ask her, how did she sleep at night? Did she actually sleep at night all?? Because now, when my kids are packing their bags and heading out the door, each to their own adventure on the other sides of the world, I wonder.
I wonder about so many things.
It’s been ten years, and I still wonder.
Some years ago I’ve asked her to record her life story. She said no. I’ve asked again. And again. After my endless nagging (as if she didn’t know -), she agreed (as if I didn’t know -), reluctantly: “I have such a terrible accent”, she said, “Please listen to it only after I’m dead”. There is something about the quality of voice. Accents of dead people are much worse than live ones…
So I listened anyway (ah Michal, you’re impossible!). I heard everything. I wrote it all down. I got a lot of facts. And still. I wonder.
How was it for her to grow up in Germany of the 1930’s; to leave that beautiful home overlooking a lovely town-park, where in the winters she would go ice-skating on the river with her grandmother; the same grandma they had to leave behind because the quota was filled; the same grandma who said don’t worry about me, after all my husband is a World War I vet; the same grandma they learned later was gassed in Teresienstadt.
How was it to sail in a big ship far away; to arrive at the shores of then British Mandate Palestine in 1938, 10 years old, and go live in a moshav, a rural settlement with red sandy dirt that got into everything, and citrus orchards, and fuzzy, squeaky little chicks; where you can go barefoot and plant cypresses and vegetables, and get sunburned; how was it to complete high school in the 1940’s, in Ben Shemen, the notable Agricultural Boarding School, and then, be a paramedic in Israel’s War of Independence. In the bottom of a drawer I find an old yellowing photo of her and a handsome guy with a dark mustache, both in uniform. Who is he? Is the back blank because she didn’t know or because she never forgot? What will my kids find of me one day??
She stayed in the medical field. The early 1950’s saw some of the wettest winters in the very young country with tens of thousands newly arrived immigrants and no infrastructure. She went to volunteer at a nearby swampy ma’abara (tent city). She told me how she stood there, wet, in tears, unable to contain the scene, unsure what to do, when an old man in a tattered robe got off his barely dry bed, drudging through the water with his stick, to comfort her, to tell her things will soon be better. I’ve always loved that story for many reasons, maybe also because even when she could have come out as Florence Nightingale, she left the stage to another. When my daughter at six years old told me she was shy, I was wondering if I was raising my mother…
She gave us all the travel bug. In the late 1950’s she packed her stuff and boarded a ship again, this time in order to spend almost two years in North Carolina, working in a hematology lab and doing research on Cherokee Indians, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to do, including arguing with bus drivers when she insisted on sitting in the back, and returning to Israel with records of Paul Robeson, because “shy” does not mean ‘not opinionated’!
There is something between parents and children, like a river run: by the time we reach the point they last stood, they’re off to somewhere else. How much can we really know? But sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see her eyes in me. And I wonder.
Especially today, I miss her dearly.
May her memory be a blessing.