When my mom and I talked about her funeral wishes a couple of years ago, she told me she wanted something low key, just a short graveside service. She didn’t want a wake, no reception, no recognition of her Air Force service, she just wanted to be buried. This did not sit well with me because I wanted her to be honored in the way she deserved, which was much more than a simple graveside service. It was an intense discussion, full of playful jabs at each other and some dark humor, and there may or may not have been some heated moments; after all, I am my mother’s daughter, just as sarcastic and stubborn as she was. Ultimately, I won that debate, which was something that didn’t happen often and I immediately wrote down an outline of what I wanted for her and filed it with Temple. I didn’t think I would need it so soon.
My mom didn’t like being the center of attention or anyone making a fuss about her. She would be astonished at the number of people here and online and would definitely have found a way to sneak out to avoid being in the spotlight. Many of you never got to meet my mom and those of you who did likely did not see all the sides of her personality. With that in mind, I want to share a few stories that will help you to know who she was.
My mom had me four days before her 40th birthday. She once told me that members of her family sat her down and asked her, “Who did this to you?,” to which she replied “I’m 39 years old, how do you think it happened?”
She was a fiercely dedicated and protective single parent. One of my earliest memories is from preschool. She found out that the preschool was dividing the classes by race and she was furious. I remember a lot of yelling and her yanking me out the door by my hand and, I imagine, muttering some choice words under her breath. She used that same mama bear energy to prevent the school administration from placing me in the ESL program, which would have essentially meant putting me into remedial classes simply because I spoke Spanish, with no regard for the fact that I was doing well in class. Over the years, a fair number of school officials learned just much and how hard she would fight for me.
When I was 15, I fell into a deep depression that required three hospitalizations in as many months. She got me the help I needed, she fought the insurance to get the best doctors she could find, and she did all of this by herself. No one in our family knew what was going on at the time and she kept working full time, changing her schedule so she could visit me while I was in the hospital. I still don’t understand how she was able to do it by herself. Even when I screamed at her to give me up to the state and even though we had some difficult family therapy sessions, she stuck by me, never making me feel like I was a freak for needing hospitalization, assuring me that I would get through this and she just wanted me to concentrate on getting better. And when my high school principal suggested I drop out and get a GED, he too experienced my mom’s wrath as she chastised him for even suggesting that and telling both of us in no uncertain terms that I would be walking across the stage to receive my diploma because she knew I could do it. Two years later, she watched as I crossed the stage at the Dallas convention center and she went on to watch proudly as I earned my Bachelors and two Master’s degrees. Last year, when I told her I was going to pursue a third Master’s, she merely nodded, only saying that she was surprised it took me so long to decide to go back.
In 2011, I told her I wanted to convert to Judaism. She didn’t even bat an eye, saying that she just wanted me to know God. When I was preparing to come to my first Shabbat service, she asked me very bluntly, “You do know you’re going to be surrounded by white people, right?” She had grown up in the 1950s and while she and her siblings were allowed to go to the white schools, they were not seen as equal, leaving my mom with invisible scars that never quite healed. She was trying to protect me, as she had always done.
The morning of the mikvah, we got into a screaming match in the car. She didn’t understand how she was going to fit into my new Jewish life and I didn’t understand why she was suddenly raising these concerns or why she was concerned at all. I ended up getting out and slamming the door. She did not follow. When Rabbi Kim asked if I wanted to reschedule, I simply said that I couldn’t always do what my mother wanted and I wanted to finish my conversion. When I came out of the building, she was still waiting in the parking lot, and she came to my conversion ceremony later that day. Now that I’m older, I understand that, to her, I was going down a path she wasn’t familiar with, one that she couldn’t protect me from. But she understood how important this was to me and she set aside her misgivings to watch me affirm my covenant with the Jewish people.
(Just as an aside, that was one of two times she ever came into Temple. The other time was when she dropped me off early on a Sunday morning before religious school. She really needed to go to the restroom and only agreed to come in once I assured her that there were very few people in the building.)
She watched me struggle with what it meant to be a Jew of Color in a predominantly white community and while she didn’t understand why I stayed, she always supported me and helped me as much as she could. When she watched the sermon I gave on my experiences as a Jew of Color, she told me she was proud of me and, in typical Mom fashion, added jokingly that she was glad that all those years of higher education had finally come in handy.
Even when she was in the hospital, she didn’t lose her personality. She kept trying to pull out her IV and eventually the nurses put protective mittens on her. During one visit, I refused her request to remove them and to show her displeasure, she managed to kick me. She told the nurses all about her beloved corgi, Bowser, who passed away in 2020, and kept asking me about our remaining dogs, Maxine and Roxy. When she was transferred to Aristo Care Homes, she still managed to joke with the staff and they were delighted by her, which I was kind of surprised by, because she really could be a pain in the ass. But that was my mom, a strong woman with a sometimes prickly exterior.
She adored the dogs we brought home over the years, whether it was adopting them from the SPCA or rescuing them from an open field, promising me that we would take the dog to the shelter, only to end up keeping him because I accidentally named him Jack on the way home. She had a soft spot for those dogs, even when they drove her crazy and she definitely fed them better than me sometimes. When we had to put down Bowser, she sobbed and told him that he was supposed to have waited for her. It comforts me to think that she is now reunited with him.
She wasn’t an emotionally open person and I didn’t realize just how sentimental she was until I was packing up her room while preparing to move out of my childhood home. I found cards and drawings she had kept from my early elementary school days right up until when she went into the hospital in July and she had even gathered books and gifts for future grandchildren.
When I saw her for what turned out to be the last time, I told her how much I loved and admired her. When I left, I kissed her forehead and told her if she needed to go before I got back, it was okay and I promised I would be okay. She passed away a few hours later.
During my senior year of high school, I had to give a speech and I chose to write about my mom. I ended my piece with these words:
It’s been said that the ultimate insult to teenage girls and adult women is the assertion that they will someday become exactly like their mothers. But as Sharon Doubiago, a Hispanic author from Los Angeles, puts it: “My mother is a poem I’ll never be able to write, though everything I write is a poem to my mother.” Maybe I’ll never completely understand my mom or why she does the things she does, but I think if women are destined to be like their mothers…I’ll be all right.
Mama, your memory will always be a blessing and I promise I will be all right.