Nora Ephron said that everything is copy, and in the life of a columnist, that is especially true. You live your life and observe your life at the same time, sifting experience for the right ingredients to whip up 750 words.
Many of my columns have been about my parents, who lived long and well and were kind and funny and iconic of their generation, the Greatest Generation. My dad died in November 2016, at the age of 97. Today I write about my mother, who died last week at age 94.
She was Pearl Bromberg, born in 1923, to Anne and Morris Brownstein, two first cousins, and doesn’t that explain a lot? She always wanted a middle name, but that yearning was a metaphor for many deprivations she felt growing up. Over the years, I tried to wrest the family secrets out of her, but she grew vague when talk turned to her childhood. There were hints of her mother’s infidelities and her father’s rages and too few happy memories.
She grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, with two sisters and a brother, all of them scrapping for attention from parents trying to put food on the table. They lived Life 101, without much reading or art or music, focusing their time and energy on getting by.
Shouting was what passed for conversation. There was a lot of free-floating anger: Grandpa Morris once got arrested for chasing a woman down the block with a butcher knife because she insulted President Roosevelt.
It was a rocky beginning for Pearl, but her life took a sharply different path when she met Stanley Bromberg in the summer of ’43 in Rockaway Beach. Did I mention she was gorgeous? My dad was handsome and well read and witty and — wait — going to be a dentist! They fell seriously hard in love, a mutually supportive and generous love that lasted for their 72 years together.
Their marriage and their success repaired much of her childhood injury. They were everything to one another, a rhyming couplet, a duo, a tandem life rolling along with remarkable good luck and in blessed good health.
Their life together was an inspiring story, and I got to write about so much of it: their Rockaway romance, my mother as a Brooklyn bride in a rented fairy tale wedding gown, the years they lived behind my dad’s first office with my pregnant mom sleeping in the dental chair. I wrote about their strange encounters with modern technology, our fights over how long to cook the Thanksgiving turkey; how, in their 90s, they rode in an open carriage in a New Orleans second line parade and how, if I went to prison for 25 years for ax murder, my mother would be outside the gates waiting for me, with just one question: “Can I carry your suitcase?”
I don’t think my mother felt that her own mother loved her unconditionally, above and beyond right or wrong, to the ends of the earth. But that’s how my mother loved me. And that’s what I get to carry, as she passes on.
Three years ago, I wrote about the cruise my sister and I took with our parents on their 70th anniversary. My mother was already cranky and difficult, but then, she was shouldering a heavy burden, my father. He got old and confused and simply didn’t care much about anything but his “Pearlie.” As his primary caregiver, she became resentful of her diminished life, but it wasn’t in her DNA to carve out space for herself.
When he died, she wanted to live with us, but that was just a bed and a roof; she didn’t really want to live at all. I wrote about that, too, and about end-of-life choices, and the extraordinary work of hospice and the wrenching decisions adult children sometimes have to make, amid conflicting instincts.
Can I confess? I hardly knew my mother as a person in the world, and I didn’t know her as a woman at all. We weren’t friends in that way, but we were fiercely intertwined as mother and daughter. Her Stanley was her sun, and her children and grandchildren were the rest of her universe. Everyone else came in last.
She was the quintessential mother, who loved her children beyond reason and believed everything we said or did was touched by genius. I mean, how can you not succumb to that?
This is not to suggest a perfect relationship. I choose today to look at the piece that made me feel loved in the world and helped me love others.
When you’re my age and your mother dies, it isn’t a tragedy or even untimely. It’s in keeping with the facts of mortality. My job, I think, is to take care of myself the way she took care of me, forget the grievances, hold on to the good stuff and seed it into the world among the children and grandchildren and friends I love.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.