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Forging Ahead

On My Own

This author is holding on to the memory of her mother while making memories of her own.

I am 52, but it wasn't until my mother died last December that I finally felt like a real adult.

She watched my hair turn gray, my arthritis set in, and my four baby boys become teens with stubble. Yet to Helene Krasnow, no matter my age, I was always her little girl. At times now, without her, I feel like one. I'm old enough to be a grandma myself, but this slap of loss leaves me heaving, at odd moments, with kindergarten sobs. No one loves a daughter like her mother—even at times when it doesn’t feel like love, when that love confuses, annoys, suffocates. She is a mirror and an anchor. She is the person I counted on to push my hair out of my eyes, to buffer me from bullies, to lead the way.

After more than half a century together, separating is staggering. Today I grieve for a woman who not only grilled my cheese sandwiches until I was 18 but also grew into my drinking buddy (vodka martinis, slightly dirty, two olives), staunch advocate, staunch adversary, the most loyal girlfriend I will ever have. My mother preserved my whole history as if it were a precious quilt, patching together stages with pictures and notes, keeping the sprawling bolt of fabric intact. And when that primal and seemingly ancient connection was cut, it was like being yanked from the womb again—only it was way tougher than the first time. She grew on me and in me, and the distinction of selves became blurred. We shared a heart.

It wasn’t always this pretty.

Hear the related interview with Iris Krasnow on AARP Prime Time Radio

Top: Iris with her four sons and "Grandma," 2007; bottom: Iris's parents, 1982; top of page: Iris and Helene, 2004

I spent much of my adolescence wishing my formidable mother belonged to somebody else. A Polish-born survivor of the Holocaust, she wasn't a classic, cuddly mom. We didn't bake cakes together; in fact, her three kids were banned as cooking partners—too messy. She was obsessed with order, running our household with military precision: breakfast was at 7:00 A.M., lunch at noon, dinner at 5:15 P.M. (no snacks in between), lights out at 9:00 P.M. Rather than coo if I took a tumble, she would huff and say, “Stop crying. It could be worse.”

My father was the motherly one, sitting patiently outside the girls' dressing room at Marshall Field's while I tried on white blouses and Villager kilts to keep up with the styles of middle school in the '60s. He was the one I fled to for solace when a bad dream shook me awake. You did not arouse my mom for something as piddling as a bad dream. This witness to the Nazi purge of an entire civilization did not tolerate whining.

I was jealous of my childhood buddies who had frivolous moms without brutal histories. These moms bought them Teen magazine. They were “whatever” moms. I remember going over to friends' houses after school and rejoicing in being able to devour Twinkies without having them be snatched away with this sharp reminder: “You'll ruin your appetite for dinner.” Friends' mothers smiled a lot; my mom cried a lot. She used to lie on the smoky-blue chair in the living room, her eyes closed, clutching a tattered black-and-white picture of her dead parents.

Decades later, I appreciate my mother for the reasons I used to loathe her. I detested that she was regimented and uncompromising. Yet her unfailing predictability and boundaries put stability at my core. She didn't teach me how to cook or how to be girly. But this mother of mine, who wasn't big on coddling, passed on the most valuable gift of all: resilience. Because of who she was, I feel as if I can handle anything.

Despite unspeakable horrors, my mother always persevered.

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