7 {Unintentional} Lessons I Learned From my Mom

“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.

baby

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.

elementary-school

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.

teens

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.

twenties

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?

grandkids

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Comments

  1. You are making me very comfortable with the laugh cry. You are masterful with how you share, teaching us, without condescension, sharing without daunting with intimacy. It’s a gift, Galit, a beautiful, amazing gift.

    • Ohmyheart, Amanda. Thank you for this note. You’re my gem and “grateful for you” doesn’t begin to cover it. xo

  2. A truly beautiful and honest tribute to your beautiful mother, Galit.

  3. It is s gift really, to be able to look back at our mothers now that we are mothers ourselves, isn’t it? A new understanding has emerged – a new appreciation.
    I love the Blockbuster story and the lesson you learned from it. It makes me imagine the little tiny things about us our children will remember.

  4. Galit,
    I LOVE THIS. I’ve been a student of and in the thrall of the mother-daughter bond since college, and now having my own daughter I find myself reliving my own childhood. I love your mother, she sounds absolutely fabulous, and you have made me reflective about what i learned from my own mother. Thank you. xox

  5. I often don’t know how many times I can tell you how important and touching your writing is to me.
    But this piece, is so beautiful and has me laughing, crying, nodding. My mom is moving (a plane ride away) soon and I am drowning in my feelings. I am trying to scrape every memory together of her as if she is terminally ill instead of simply retiring to a different state.

    My own mom taught me so much, allowed me so much and was the hero of my life.

    thank you for sharing your mom and her lessons with us, you are so lucky to have her bright, beautiful spirit in your life and I can see all those qualities in you.
    love you.

  6. I love this so much.
    SO SO much.
    Because I could actually SEE the nightgown, your mother, everything…in the words you used.
    I love your writing so very much, Galit.
    And I am so glad I know you.

  7. There are so many things about my mom
    I want to say here.
    Thank you for this.
    I’m going to call her now.

  8. What a great tribute to your mother. I cringed thinking about the reaction to the sweatpants and loved the Blockbuster story. Thank you for sharing her and those valuable lessons with us in such a beautiful way. Happy Mother’s Day to you both!

  9. I may have to follow suit and do a post like this… I really adore it, Galit. Especially the uniqueness of your relationship with your Ima, that shines through here. So beautiful. All of it.

  10. These are some lovely lessons. This is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to the woman who made you the amazing woman you are today. And will help shape the women (and man) your children will become. I find myself hoping you share this with her.

  11. Galit, this is beautiful. I especial love lesson number three: “Your past is your story. You keep telling it in whatever fuzzy, messy, disorganized way you can.” I could not agree more! It’s ironic for me in terms of my mother, who did not tell her story – and ever since she passed away I have been trying to piece it together, for my children.

  12. Oh G – tears reading this. I wish I could hug my mom today. Damn her(I mean brava her) for choosing the beach over me. xooxxoox

  13. So so lovely. We all should take this time to write down what our mothers have taught us. It’s good for us and good for them and just good to have them, yes, in this light.

  14. Love the introspection, Galit :)

  15. You know what? I read a lot of posts and LOVE a lot of writing and am moved at times by what I see.
    And feel. I don’t often cry, though. I just don’t. It’s probably the Scandinavian in me. We can be stoic :-)

    But I teared-up in the first paragraphs of this lovely tribute. I thought about finding the words to tell you why, then decided it didn’t matter. We come to our readings with our own pasts, hearts, fears, joys.

    And this touched me.
    Maybe that’s all you need to know.

    XO

  16. Gosh. What a great tribute to your mom. Life’s best lessons are whispers of experience – I don’t think anyone’s said it quite so eloquently. Thank you for sharing your mother with us. xo

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