“Hi,” she says. Her voice reaches me from around the corner. I wipe my hands on the yellow kitchen towel, carelessly toss it on my unfortunately blue-hinted counter. I straighten a dish that doesn’t need to be straightened and round the hallway to where my past and my present are reuniting.
I hear her voice one more time before my eyes land on hers. “I’m so happy to see you,” she’s saying. Her accent wraps around her words in a way that grabs my hand and walks me through the hellos and goodbyes of my youth.
We moved around a lot when I was little — from country to country and state to state, we packed boxes and wrapped dishes and stood in unfamiliar rooms, feet planted in someone else’s worn carpets, looking at holes in walls that once held someone else’s framed moments. My mom, my Ima, would stand in the middle of a room that would soon hold a set of our own memories, hip jutted forward, her small stature nowhere near a reflection of her strength and her power. She’d nod as if saying, We could live here. And we did, over and over again.
The first lesson that my Ima taught me was that family isn’t defined by location. And that home isn’t permanent and can be created between any four walls. I followed her lead in this and today live a plane flight away. I’m not sure she’s thrilled that this a lesson I gleaned. It wasn’t an intentional one.
Life’s best lessons work in this way, don’t they? The ones that we learn as whispers of experience rather than carefully articulated words. Childhoods are laced with these; sometimes they just take age and distance and motherhood to reveal themselves. Here are six more lessons I unintentionally learned from my Ima.
1. Ima would buy two bouquets of flowers before guests came to visit. She’d carefully trim the ends and mix the blooms and split the flowers between small vases to polka-dot every room in our house with a colorful sign of, “I’m glad you’re here.” Lesson learned: Greetings are important. Make sure people know you’re happy to see them.
2. Every Sunday morning Ima would get up early for a standing phone date with family in Israel. She would sit in her office chair still in her long, cotton nightgown — the kind with big buttons and small flowers, the kind that I didn’t notice when I was kissed with youth, but that today I absentmindedly touch when I walk by similar ones hanging in stores. Surrounded by piles of grading and open books and more pencil and pen cups than you’d expect to see in a household of three, she’d sit for an hour or so doodling and chit-chatting about days and health and what she was making for dinner. Then she’d pass the phone to me for my turn to chit-chat in the exact same way that, halfway across the world, her Ima and Aba and brother passed the phone between them. She still does this today. Lesson learned: Hold on to your people.
3. Ima loved holidays and we celebrated each one that graced the Jewish calendar. Judaism is filled to the brim with stories and food and traditions and food and songs and more food. Our secular home was always infused with cooking for one holiday and what-you-need-to-knows about another. We were so busy living these that it wasn’t until my twenties that I realized that we didn’t do things the way that most American Jews did. We had our own brand of Judaism that was braided with how my mother grew up doing things in Israel and what she could cobble together in the States surrounded by friends, other immigrants, as chosen family. Lesson learned: Your past is your story. You keep telling it in whatever fuzzy, messy, disorganized way you can. Also, rules — no matter who they’re made by — can be flexible.
4. I was allowed to fall. Ima let me wear sweats to synagogue. (Once. My goodness, it only took one Hebrew school teacher shaming to realize that that was a no-go.) She never asked if I was done with my homework, never knew if I had a big project due, or what grade I got on a test. I learned (quickly, thoroughly, diligently) how to be accountable for myself. But she also drove me to Blockbuster (remember Blockbuster?) because I was too mortified to admit that I hadn’t remembered to return a video (remember videos?) for a school project and I didn’t have enough money or gumption or confidence to go pay for the fine (remember having to pay fines in person?). She stood by my side as I stammered through my apology, handed over my babysitting money. Then she carefully counted crumpled bills and small coins, sliding them one by one across the counter that was taller than both of us, to help me fix my mistake. Lesson learned: Learning how to fall and to pick yourself back up again is important, but knowing that — when you really need it — there’s someone who will stand by your side and make you feel less alone is golden.
5. Twice a year Ima goes to Israel to help her own mother with daily tasks even though she is, emphatically, “just fine.” Their aged fingers and lined faces, stubborn demeanors and crazy-diligent work ethics match and are, I equally fear and am pleased by, what I see reflected in my own mirror. Ima is the kind of guest that brings you food and washes your dishes and folds your laundry before these things ever make your to-do list. She leaves more tired, but more satisfied, than when she arrived. Lesson learned: Help people, even if they don’t ask.
6. Israelis are loud. Argumentative. Explosive. They’re also real; you always know where you stand with them. There was never any doubt how Ima was feeling — if she was happy or sad or angry or disappointed — with work, with the grocery store clerk, with me — I never had to guess. Her emotions would fill our homes from carpet to ceiling with bold, absolutely cannot-be-missed brush strokes. Lesson learned: It’s ok to feel things.
Mother-daughter relationships are complicated, tricky, and threaded with so many memories and wants and how-I-wish-it-could-bes. But when I watch my mother with my children, it all feels so very much simpler and those threads loosen to reveal, first, that she loves. And, second, the whispers of how she lives.
Years passing work like blowing the dust off of old photos clearly telling the stories within them. These memories then become her story, our story, I guess. I like it written in this light.
What lessons did your mom (unintentionally) teach you?