Having had my mother for only the first five years of my life, I am probably the least likely person to write about mothers. This lack, however, I believe has made me a keen observer. It has also made me continually surprised and awed by the joys and challenges of motherhood. My memories are very few of my own mother, as she spent much of those years ill or in hospitals … but still I often thank her for the memory of having been loved by her.
Somehow though, those few memories have guided my life and my relationship with my own children. I often would try to be the mother I believed she would have been. A memory though is not a real person, and no one can live up to a memory of a “perfect mother.” In my imagination she was never angry or irritable; and of course she never grew old. So when I judged myself against this mother, I believed I fell short.
Growing up without a mother was also frightening and lonely. It was during those young years that I began to see myself as a branch, not attached to a trunk and without any roots. Losing both my father and brother by the time I was 20 added to this sense of rootlessness – living in a world in which I was not grounded.
When I gave birth and fell in love with my own three sons, the wonder of being a mother was with me constantly. I could not get over how much joy I came to know. With this joy though was also the realization of the void I experienced as a young child, as a teenager and then as a young mother. The more time that passed, the more acutely I missed that connection and felt the loss.
Soon though, daily life and responsibilities were what life was about. Then another surprise came to this unlikely mother. My oldest son began to study Torah and brought to his mother and family a new idea and richer life. He brought a community, a heritage and an extended family that was unknown to me. I learned of our holidays (with instructions from my sons) and how to make a Friday night special. Now, I became a special mother – a Jewish Mother. I was no longer modeling my life after my mother, but creating something of myself. Still though I felt the void, always looking for that mother or mother figure I could attach myself to and love. The time when the loss became even more evident was when I observed my daughter-in-law with her own daughters. How she concerned herself with their health, their appearance, their happiness – wanting life to be joyful and fun. She went to extraordinary measures to teach the girls how to cook, how to set a table and how to act around others. She taught them in words and also by example. She wanted them to excel in school and took pride in their achievements. Most importantly though, she gave them a sense of their identity and instilled confidence. They operated much like a team – a mother-daughter team – strong in their roles.
This she accomplished while struggling with breast cancer and the debilitating treatments.
My next example came with my newest daughter-in-law, who was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the birth of her first child. She dealt with the cancer and an infant daughter with so much determination – wanting to be here for her child. She went on to have three more children, never discouraged from her dream of a large family.
My unbelievable third daughter-in-law faced perhaps the greatest struggles a mother can endure. She has cared for and loved two disabled sons – one unable to walk or talk. This mother managed to love and care for these children as well as her healthy youngest. Despite the challenges, she has given these children a happy and welcoming home. There is laughter and happiness in this home.
No matter the challenges, all three never stopped being mothers and caring for their children. This I came to learn was what being a mother is truly about, and I am eternally grateful to these three beautiful mothers for helping me to understand more.
Now, this motherless girl finds herself the grandmother of 11. My journey continues, the learning continues and the wonder continues.
Most importantly now is that this motherless daughter no longer searches for the tree to attach to – no longer feels like the branch floating alone.
For now you see, I am that tree. I am the trunk rooted in love with all the branches and leaves surrounding me.
Nadine Schnitzer is a long time resident of the Phoenix area, meeting her husband of 53 years at Central High School. Together they founded and worked together in their food distribution business, Custom Food Service, now in its 43rd year.