Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

When Feeling Is First

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

Advertisements

October 2, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: