Life in the 50's: Do I matter?

A year and a half before my mother died, I found myself walking through a small field - the last one in Baka - when I was struck by a realization. They've been coming more often in the last few years - one of the gifts of hitting your 50s. Sometimes they are about God and the universe, but more often they are about life and relationships - little crystallizations of experience, ripples surfacing from the unconscious realm into the conscious one. This one went like this: "I think I don't matter to her. I think it's all one-sided." "Her" is my mother. She was 93 at the time, propped up in her bed, an invalid since a break in her femur eight months before had left her unable to walk or even turn over without the help of a live-in caregiver. I'd been trying to get to my mom's every day, squeezing in visits before work or after the kids went to bed. The day before my walk in the field, I hadn't made it. When I phoned in the afternoon, she said, with longing in her voice, "Where were you? I've been waiting and waiting for you," sounding not unlike a three-year-old who's been missing her mommy. "I think I don't matter to her." The phrase that popped into my head as I walked in the field made me simultaneously realize that I've always assumed that I don't matter much to my mother - and made me question that assumption. I thought: I've been her baby, the youngest of seven, for 51 years. How could I possibly not matter to her? And I'm left with other questions: Where did this assumption come from? How has it affected my life? What is it my mother did or didn't do that led me to feel this way? There weren't many hugs and kisses when I was growing up and not a lot of attention paid to my experiences or feelings. Was my mother's parenting style just a reflection of her times? Or was she super-defended because of the pain she had experienced in her own life due to the vagaries of fate, history and sexism? Her father died when she was three, just after her small family made aliya from Bukhara. When she was eight, she was forced to leave her home in Jerusalem's Bukharan Quarter as a refugee because her mother would not let her only son serve in the Turkish army during the First World War. Growing up in exile in Alexandria, she was so poor that when she saw someone eating chocolate, she would close her eyes and say, "I wish I had that taste in my mouth." At 17, her mother and brother pressured her into marrying a man twice her age whom she didn't know and who had five teenage children. She was separated from four of her own children for six years because of World War II. All this before I came along. I have only questions, no answers yet. SEVERAL DAYS after I wrote the above, I opened my computer to reread and finish this piece. At the bottom of what I'd written, in a different font, I saw the following words: To learn that there are persons that love them dearly, but simply do not know how to express or show their feelings. Where did these words come from? Who put them here? Could it have been me and I just didn't remember? I've definitely been introduced to the concept - and experience - of senior moments. But I don't type in Times New Roman 10 and I would have written "persons who," never "persons that." Everyone who had access to my computer swore they didn't do it. I chose to look at these words - wherever they came from - as a message and a lesson, and I wanted to cry. For the little girl in the new school who didn't have the self-esteem to stand up to exclusion. For the adolescent who didn't believe in herself enough to choose the boy instead of letting the boy choose her. For the young woman who doubted her ability to love. For the mother who finds it hard to be fully present with her children. If I had always known what those small words say, I would have been spared a lot of pain, doubt and indecision. But then I would have had to find other ways to grow in compassion and empathy. Ironically, compassion and empathy came in handy when, after doing for others her whole life, my mother needed others to do for her. During those last two, bedridden years, my mother softened. As her body betrayed her, her heart opened. She told me I was beautiful and returned to the endearments she had occasionally used when I was a child. When I sat by her bed one day and told her I loved her, she gave me this look and said, "I love you. But I don't tell you," corroborating my mystery message. We're all on a path strewn with stumbling blocks. We fall, we bleed, we hurt. Eventually - and for some of us it takes longer than others - we learn.