by Bracha Mirsky (Jerusalem, Israel)
In Memory of Itka Rochel bas Shmuel z”l (1930-1974)
I’m a proud third-generation Canadian. I grew up in Ottawa the capital of Canada; the winters were long and cold. I remember the snow banks were higher than I was. Although my father was born and raised in Ottawa, by the time I was growing up most of my dad’s family had left the city. My mother was from Montreal where she had a large close-knit family she left to raise a family in Ottawa. We would visit and embrace the warmth of our family in Montreal as often as possible, but in Ottawa my mother was as isolated and lonely as if every day was winter.
I remember my grandparents’ towering gray stone house in Montreal. Even now, I can see through the eyes of a child and feel the warm wonder of the sights, smells and sounds of Pesach: sweet gefilte fish, chicken soup, matzoh, grape juice, spilling the drops from our cup …to lessen our joy at the memory of the suffering of our enemies. I have fond memories of my grandfather, uncles, father and brothers at the head of the table singing. I looked forward to examining the drama of Pesach in pictures in a small, brightly colored Haggadah. My mother was a quiet woman; her attention was always focused on her children, ready with a kind word and a hug. She would help my grandmother prepare and serve the meal.
I’m nine-years-old. I shyly ask my bubby, “Can I help too?”
“Of course,” my bubby replies. “What a big girl you are now. A shayna maideleh!” I would help serve the gefilte fish and collect and wash the cutlery. I would bask in the glow of my mother’s pride in me.
My mother loved us so much! She was the emotional core of our family, yet we had no idea that in her quiet way she was instilling so much in us. She was a stay-at-home mom, with six children — that was no easy task! Dad worked hard but it was always difficult to make ends meet. There was no money for Hebrew school and so I went to the local public school.
As a child the world was puzzling to me. I could not connect the dots that others seemed to have no problem with; the world did not make sense.
“Dad, no one likes me, they won’t play with me, they’re mean and always try to get me in trouble.” His only reply was, “Make yourself a small target.”
“Mom why do they call me a ‘Christ-killer’?”
“Just ignore them; they don’t know what they’re talking about.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was hard to ignore them while the boys were beating me up after school as the girls watched. Canada, 1968, I was 11-years-old.
“Where are you going Mom?”
“There is a protest to free the Soviet Jews.” My mother never missed a rally or any event to try and win the freedom of a fellow Jew. This woman who loved children and her people so much, who would not hurt a fly, always put a heavy wrench in her purse before each rally. Just in case the KGB tried to break it up, she intended to take a good swing at one!
I can still see Mom lighting Shabbos candles and the whole world seemed to glow in that soft light. With my mother at my side, the world was at peace.
Shul — a place to sing! Awesome! Reading the stories of the Bible, imagining what it would be like to have such faith. I already knew that God was everywhere and I could talk to him whenever I wanted. Talking to God was easy, understanding God was the hard part.
“Mom, are you not feeling well again?”
“No dear, don’t worry I’m OK.” But she wasn’t. Visiting the hospital, not understanding, “When will Mom get better?”
“Soon dear, soon.”
It seemed so gradual, I didn’t even notice it. Mom could do less and less and I did more and more. I’m 16, my two older brothers are away at university leaving me, now the eldest at home, to look after and cook for my father and three younger siblings. My youngest brother is only six- years-old.
I visit Mom in the hospital every evening with my dad but she looks worse and worse, no one says anything. A wall of silence, we didn’t know…how could we not know? She kept the truth from us, it was cancer.
Waking up erev Rosh Hashanah, I can hear my dad talking on the phone “…last night…” I stiffen in my bed, my body rigid, waiting, but no one comes. I get up and go down to breakfast; Dad acts normally and sends us off to school.
It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.
I sit at the back of the school assembly hall right up against a wall. In that big darkened room with only the stage lit up I’m in a tiny corner all alone, feeling with every part of my being that my whole world has come crashing down and no one else notices it, their world hasn’t changed at all. Yet I still try to deny it, I repeat to myself, “I must have been mistaken, Dad would have told me if anything happened, therefore nothing happened,” I say this to myself over and over again. Surrounded by a sea of people, I’m all alone in the dark.
That afternoon I begin my slow walk home from school with a heavy heart, thinking to myself, “It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.”
I’m about half-way home, alone as usual, when something softly brushes my cheek. I stop and stand still. My hair is tied back in a ponytail, there is nothing near me. Again, something softly brushes my cheek. My heart leaps out — NO! It can’t be! It’s not you, you’re not dead! It must be the wind! I turn to face the opposite direction. The same soft touch brushes the same cheek. Then I knew…she was gone.
Stunned, I sit on a nearby rock, I don’t know for how long. Now numb and beyond pain, I accepted the truth. Then I began to wonder at the strength of my mother, to come to me and give me this gift. To reach out and touch me to say goodbye.
It’s erev Rosh Hashanah.
My mother taught me many things. She taught me about family, to be a proud Jew and to never stop caring. In her last moments on earth she taught me that God is real and that nothing can stop love, not even death.
* * *
I look after my father and siblings for three years until I’m 19 and then it’s my turn to go away to college. I become a nurse and meet my husband. We are married in a lovely ceremony in an Orthodox shul. I miss my mom, but I believe she is happy for me. I could not have anticipated the surprises that were in store for me.
I married at 23, and two years later I give birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Oh! How my mom would have loved this! Never have I missed her so much as then. For the first time since her passing, I can see her in my mind’s eye, holding her grandchildren, and the joy from her face is blinding!
Public health services provide a really sweet woman to help out for the first few months, but after that initial period I am on my own. I am told by the supervisor, “No one can manage on their own with triplets; you’ll have to hire some help.”
“Really?” I say, “We’ll see…”
God, fill our hands with your blessings. In this, I am truly my mother’s daughter. Five years later I give birth to twin boys. Life is busier and happier than ever!
They grow, the years pass and they develop as proud Jews who know their God, and they are very proud of their people and love every one of them. I know exactly who they got that from. All the Bible stories are real to them, they love going to shul, singing and giving me joy.
And their mother tells them stories of a special soul, the bubby they never knew.
Mom, pray for them.
Bracha Mirsky is a mother of triplets and twins, Registered Nurse, Labour Coach, Certified Parent and Infant Consultant and Diabetes Educator. She has worked as a member of the St. Elizabeth Nurses Maternal and Infant Care Team as a specialist and with her local Family and Child services, assisting families with parenting issues. Bracha is a guide to parents through classes, as an advice columnist and as an author. Her book, What Makes Kids Tick? Giving parents the tools to shape child behaviour, is based on the counseling she has given parents and her own parenting journey, filled with stories of the challenges and rewards of raising multiple children and the insights the adventure has given her. Bracha can be reached at www.whatmakeskidstick.com. She has recently made aliya.
This story was reprinted with permission from Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume III, edited by Liz Pearl. For more information about the book, visit: http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll3.htm