My Mother; the Epitome of Strength
By: Robin Christine Honigsberg
If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here, or rather, I wouldn’t still be here. You were my best friend, my biggest supporter and my rock, and I want you to know how much I loved, appreciated and looked up to you as a role model, because of everything you had been through in life but never let anything get you down. I used to tease you and call you “my after-school special”, because you were always as positive as the after school movies we used to watch together and always had advice for me, whether I solicited it or not.
You’ve been through so much, beginning when you were born in Poland in 1944, during World War II. Your parents, my Bubie and Zaidye had been Freedom Fighters, living in the woods with other Jews who had escaped the camps and were fighting the Nazis with what few means they had, which drastically paled in comparison to what the Germans had. For the first year of your life, you lived in the woods with the group of Partizans to which Bubie and Zaidye belonged, and Zaidye often used you to conceal whatever he was smuggling in his bicycle basket across zones, be it food or ammunition. You were part of the Resistance; an experience that permanently traumatized Bubie and Zaidye and shaped their behaviour and personalities.
You were too young to remember the trip from Poland to Austria, where you were in a Displaced Persons camp for a couple of years with the majority of our relatives that had the good fortune to survive. They moved to Palestine, now Israel, where their descendants, my cousins all still live. Bubie and Zaidye debated whether to go to the United States with relatives of my Bubie or whether to go to Canada on their own.
Having chosen to go to Canada, Bubie and Zaidye were able to pack everything they owned in one small bag, and managed to get on a boat that would be docking in Montrea, Quebec. You don’t remember the trip, even though it took almost two months. You don’t remember Bubie being debilitatingly seasick, and spending most of the trip in the cabin you three shared with as many family members as could fit, violently ill and vomiting. You don’t remember developing an ear infection, or how Zaidye made sure to take care of you and keep you occupied so you wouldn’t notice your earache or how sick Bubie was.
You don’t remember the boat docking in Montreal, or that the Canadian government almost refused the three of you entry to Canada because of your ear infection. You don’t remember the kind Canadian Immigration Officer who felt bad about turning away a family from a life of freedom simply because the four year old had an ear infection, which was contagious but easily treated, and allowed the three of you entry into Canada, Montreal to be specific to start your new lives in a free, democratic country.
By the age of five, you had already lived in the forest, survived the Holocaust, spent time in a Displaced Persons Camp in Austria, and traveled for weeks by boat to find freedom in Montreal, Canada and start a new life.
It wasn’t easy for you. The three of you lived in a triplex with numerous families sharing each floor. Zadye worked from morning to night as a tailor at a factory for pennies a day. Bubie was also a tailor and would often work from home sewing other people’s clothing, saving the money to eventually put down as a payment on a home of their own.
You didn’t speak English when you started school, which wasn’t uncommon. Many of your classmates had also fled to Canada after the Holocaust and didn’t speak English; unfortunately that made you and the other non-English speaking kids the perfect target for bullies who would make fun of the “greeners”, a derogatory term for immigrants. But you never let them bother you; you’ve always had the uncommon ability to block out anything negative that you don’t want hear or know about.
At the end of the school day, you didn’t go home like the other kids. Instead, you went to Hebrew school to continue learning for a couple of hours after learning all day in public school.
By the time you got home, you were exhausted, but you would eat dinner and do your homework at the kitchen table, so Bubie could learn with you. You helped her to learn English, a tradition that I, your eldest daughter, continued by doing my homework, especially my English homework, at Bubie’s house. She learned the vocabulary words with me, as she did with you.
Bubie and Zaidye were hard workers, and provided a loving and nurturing home for you and your younger sister, Hannah. Tragedy struck when Zaidye was diagnosed with colon cancer while you were in high school, throwing the whole family into chaos. Yet you helped Bubie with the chores, and with helping to take care of her younger sister all while attending public school and Hebrew school immediately after, before you could go home to help take care of things. Your resilience and positivity developed from the love and support nurtured by your parents, and became a part of your personality.
As you got older, graduated from high school and then secretarial school, you worked to help the family. You contributed a portion of your weekly salary to Bubie both as rent and to help out. You were popular, had lots of friends, and dates every weekend. However, in the Jewish community at that time, if you were still single by age 23 you were considered an old maid, which is what you were about to become, when you were set up on a blind date. You had no anxiety about blind dates; you were always self-confident and self-assured, if not a little too conservative. When the doorbell rang, you opened the door to find a gentleman of average height dressed in a three-piece suit, with a heavy Romanian accent. When you went to get your purse and shawl from the bedroom you shared with your younger sister, she was anxiously bouncing on her bed wanting to know what your date was like. Laughing, you told her and Bubie that you planned to have a headache and would be home within the hour. Little did you know that the old-fashioned, even more conservative than you, stuffy looking gentleman was actually your future husband. Surprising yourself, the evening was actually wonderful, and you didn’t get home until 3:30am to find Bubie awake and waiting for you in the chair in the den.
A few months later, the two of you were still dating, and since you were already 23, Bubie told your boyfriend “to shit or get off the pot”; you were too old to be in a relationship that wasn’t going anywhere. So for your birthday in December of 1968, he proposed to you, selling his stock in IBM to buy you an engagement ring.
You were married in March 1969, and decided to put off starting a family for a year. Unfortunately you had no way of knowing that your fallopian tubes were scarred and that it would take you seven years, lots of praying, and more than one surgery to finally get pregnant with me. I was a problem child from the moment I entered this world; I had colic and kept you and Dad awake for months, I was rambunctious and determined to do things my way, I refused to stay still, and would run off anytime I saw an opportunity. After I wandered away from you in the Sears Department store when you let go of my hand for a mere few seconds, and the store had to be locked down, you made me wear a leash so I couldn’t wander off again. It was a more like a full-body harness, and you and Dad received a lot of backlash, mainly from seniors accusing you both of “treating me like an animal”. You didn’t care about the gossip; the only thing you cared about was that your child was safe.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t keep your child safe at home, where she endured verbal, mental, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her father. You hadn’t been raised that way, and you didn’t want your children raised that way, but there was nothing you could do to stop him, short of divorcing him, which you would never have done. Various family members tried to intervene, including your sister, brother-in-law, Bubie, and Zaidye to no avail.You couldn’t stand by and watch your husband abuse your child, but you were afraid of what he might do if you tried to intervene.
You had a miscarriage when I was about four years old, and I remember being mad at you for lying and promising me a baby brother or sister, and breaking your promise to me, a vice that re-emerged later in your life.
When I was 12 and my sister six, your sister was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer, and I saw your positivity crack. Six months later, you got sick. I came home from school one day and you weren’t there. All we were told was that you would be coming home soon. However, when the phone rang and dad took the phone outside on the balcony to talk to the caller, I knew something was very wrong and although I had been taught not to listen to other people’s conversations, I hid in the shadows of the back hall and heard dad talking about chemotherapy and radiation. At that point I had heard enough, and knew that you were very sick but confirmed it when dad came back into the kitchen. “Mommy has cancer, doesn’t she?”, I asked him, already beginning to cry. He hugged me and told me that she had breast cancer but would be fine.
You were a warrior. You never cried in front of me or my sister. When I would wake up to the sound of you vomiting, you always refused my help and sent me back to my room. You acted as though nothing were wrong, but I knew better. The summer that I was 13, my cousin and I were both arrested for shoplifting, and my dad picked us up from the police station after picking you up from your chemotherapy round. Dad yelled and screamed, but you came into my room, sat on my bed, and apologized. I got arrested for shoplifting and you were apologizing to me, but I knew why you felt it was your fault; because both you and your sister were both sick at the same time, dad had to take care of my younger sister who wasn’t old enough to understand what was happening, and my uncle had to take care of my younger cousin, who was 12. Since I was 14 and my older cousin was 15, everyone assumed that we were old enough to take care of ourselves and they forgot about us. Getting arrested made you realize that my cousin and I, even if we were old enough to take care of ourselves, still needed our mothers’ love. Luckily the judge agreed that there were extenuating factors that had influenced our behaviour, and he dropped and voided the charges against us. Instead he made us each write a 5,000 word essay on why what we had done was wrong, and we each had to make a $36 donation to the charity of our choice. You were never mad at for me for the shoplifting, but dad held it against me until I was in my late teens.
You survived your bout with breast cancer, but my aunt didn’t survive her bout with ovarian cancer. I was overseas on a school trip when she passed, but I know that it was you who held the family together during that tremendously difficult time. I wasn’t there, but I know it was you who made sure Bubie and Zaidye didn’t fall apart completely. It was you who explained to my nine year old sister that she would never see her aunt again. It was you who begged the school administration not to kick me off the trip for having been caught smoking, explaining that I didn’t know that my aunt had died and they were sitting Shivah (the traditional Jewish method of mourning). It was for you and dad that Bubie bought two tickets to Israel for you and dad so you could both get away and see the family in Israel who were also mourning the passing of my aunt, and for you to take a bus for six hours to meet up with my trip in the middle of the desert and be the one to tell me that my aunt, who had been like a second mother to me, was gone, and the one to hold me while I sobbed uncontrollably.
You were overprotective but always supportive. You were my best friend, and I could talk to you about anything. My girlfriends were both jealous and amazed by our relationship; they couldn’t talk to their mothers about most of the things I was comfortable discussing with you. When I accidentally got pregnant and miscarried, you were there for me. When the benign lump was found in my breast, you were there for me. When I got was diagnosed with mental illness, although with the wrong illness, you were there for me. When dad got sick and was misdiagnosed, essentially handing him a death sentence, you were the one who held the family together. You lost a father, a sister and a husband and one of your two children was diagnosed with mental illness, but even that didn’t keep you down. You took a course on Depression and Bipolar Disorder (my original diagnosis) to understand me better.
You sent my sister away to school to get her MSW, and you supported her while she looked for work. You helped me out when my paycheque wasn’t enough to cover my expenses.
You were the strong one, but when your mother died, you finally broke. You became depressed and anxious, hypochondriacal and withdrawn. You had lost both your parents, your sister and your husband.
Then I overdosed. You were the one who sat by my bed, stroking my head and talking to me for three days while I was unconscious and needed a ventilator to help me breathe, wondering if I would pull through, or if you would lose your daughter too.
My suicide attempt destroyed our relationship, and almost destroyed you. You became more depressed and anxious, and it my overdose that resulted in your inability to function properly and consequently having to move into an Assisted Living apartment.
You had been to hell and back in your lifetime, and I only made things worse. You’ve survived things other people can’t even fathom. You raised a wonderful daughter for who you bought a condo, and a mentally ill daughter that has caused you immense pain.
I wish I could have been as strong and confident as you were, but the abuse I suffered made me oversensitive, difficult to deal with and for the most part has ruined my life. I wish for your peace of mind that my overdose had worked; it’s a terrible feeling to know I’m the cause of your problems, but it’s because of you that I’m still here. I don’t want you to hurt even more. But you’re lucky to have another daughter of who I know you’re very proud; I’m sorry I couldn’t make you proud of me.
I miss you. The old you. The real you. The strong you. The you that will always live in my heart and soul. Maybe one day you’ll come back to me; that’s the only thing keeping me here. Until then, I’ll always miss you, and a piece of me will always be missing.