Her closest family was burned in Nazi ovens when she was in her teens. At 65 she watched her husband die on a San Diego vacation, from sloppy care in a small hospital treating him for a heart attack. Instead of retreating in despondent widowhood, she put on silk scarves and blue blazers and worked at Lord & Taylor in Chicago, becoming the top salesperson in menswear. At 82 she lost her foot to circulatory disease. This stunning woman, who didn't like to leave her house without dusty-rose lipstick on, now boldly ventured out with half a leg. She would drape a paisley shawl over her stump and sit regally in her wheelchair, savoring the sun on her face during walks along Lake Michigan, proudly meeting the eyes of those who gaped.
Even from her grave she is propping me up, and pushing me forward. When the tears come, as they do each time I realize she is no longer just a speed-dial away, I feel her shake me and huff and say, “Stop crying. It could be worse.” Her parting example of courage is indelible. I watched as she clutched at her final days with fierce tenacity, finally succumbing after countless infections. The doctors thought she would last six months after losing her leg. She lived another three years.
My irrepressible mother would race back to earth and kill me if I crumpled when she died, immobilized because I lost my mommy, at the age of 52. She was 18 when her mommy was incinerated, and she managed to carry on for the next 68 years. Watching her push through pain was the most powerful lesson a parent can give a child—that life is harsh, but you must not be destroyed by external circumstances. “If Hitler didn’t get me, nothing will,” she used to say. I miss her voice and her scent, even her barbs. I miss being somebody's child.
Yet she reminds me constantly that she is not really gone.
'Surging with the spirit of my mother, I am surprisingly giddy with a sense of adventure and invincibility.'
A stranger walks by wearing Shalimar, my mother's fragrance, and a whiff of her perfume shoots a lifetime of maternal images through me. My mom is not supine in a pine coffin; she is racing toward me at the airport, having just gotten off a flight from Chicago to stay with her daughter near Chesapeake Bay. She stands on her toes to grab my neck in a hug, engulfing me in her Shalimar cloud, and I wince at a fantasy touch that feels real. On a recent trip to dismantle her apartment, I shoved her bottle of Shalimar in my purse, and it has become my fragrance, infusing me with her, helping to fill the canyon she left.
Friends speak of knowing that their deceased moms have returned when mystical signals suddenly appear. One woman is convinced her mom is now the fat, beautiful cardinal that flutters, nonstop, around her bird feeder. Another daughter sees her mother's face in rainbows. My continuing connection with Helene is not as otherworldly. All I have to do is open my mouth and shoo my kids away from the cookie jar because “it will ruin your dinner,” and there she is.
In her final years I probed and listened hard, desperate to hear any leftover stories and the last of her advice. And she prodded me in areas of my past she had dared not excavate before. We cried a lot and said “I love you” a lot. When death started whispering her name, I knew I had to dig in, love wholly, forgive, and hold nothing back.
What I learned during those final months was that resolving your relationship with your mother while she's alive makes for a more centered, settled self when she dies. With clarity and closure, the jolting passage from girl to woman born at my mother's burial was more emancipating than debilitating. Only when my mother moved on was I able to take the best of her, leave the worst behind, and become an unstoppable blend of the two of us.