Recently I began reading a book called “Bending Toward the Sun” which was written as a Mother and Daughter Memoir. It was written through the perspective of a woman who recalled her survival during World War II. Similar to Anne Frank, her and her family were hidden in an attic for 3 years, except she survived it. She was hidden from the age of 5-8 years old and coincidentally, she was born in the same month and year as my own mother. (Maybe what made me continue reading…even after I realized how heavy a story it would include.) But it was during those 3 years in the attic, when she lost her mother.
Then from the ages of 9-11 years old, with her father and sister, she lived as a refugee throughout Europe until they were eventually sponsored by uncles and cousins to go to the United States. And also coincidentally, she entered New York in the same year as my mother as an immigrant. But her memories of the War were FAR more harrowing than any memories my mother may have had. Though I do remember, as a child, how horrible it had been to be a child during the depression when no one had anything…except their family.
The character in my book, Rita witnessed her father re-marry and eventually they all re-settled in Chicago wehre she finished high school and without any direction to attend college or pursue a career (now that her father was too busy working and her new stepmother too busy with two young sons of her own), Rita began a job, met a man and was married by 21 and eventually re-located with her husband to Los Angeles to raise her children in what we now know to be an example of Pleasantville, where everyone had a beautiful house with a yard and garden and everything was picture perfect.
Also in this book were photos of her on vacation with her handsome husband, photos that so reminded me of my own mother’s photos from when she was young and beautiful. By 23, she had given birth to her first daughter…and then another daughter and two years later she had a son.
And then the book changed to the perspective of her daughter recounting memories of her mother. Because Rita had been much younger than my mother was when her daughter was born (1960 vs. 1975), her memories of her mother as a child were of her mother in her late 20’s-early 30’s…a time when I did not know my own mother who was 38 before I had been born. But her memories describe a woman that looked similar to photos of my mother during the late 1960’s, when the Jackie Kennedy-Audrey Hepburn styles were very popular…two women my mother only told me about when I was a child.
This daughter of Rita’s, recounts her first day of kindergarten when she was afraid to leave her mother alone. Rita had survived the holocaust and had never even discussed it with her husband, much less less her 5 year old daughter. Yet, her daughter sensed that she needed to be protected. What a strange emotion to have at such a young age…something she mentions in her part of the memoir. And it was this that really struck me. I remember having heard the story of how on my first day of school, the bus driver, Frank came and carried me to the bus and how I never turned back…and how bad that had always made my mother feel. She stood in the window crying…until my 3 year old brother came and promised that he would play with her now that I was gone. (As though I was coming back in 6 hours!)
I continued reading…I reflect on how this memoir was written by a woman who eventually did recognize the needs of her mother…while I had been raised to be brave and strong…as I sat in the park alone and cried and cried. I am sure that mothers, especially during the 1960’s & 70’s wanted their daughter’s to be strong and brave and independent…heart of the feminist period when education was more readily available to woemn than it had been for them. Both Rita and my mother graduated from high school in 1955…except my mother went to secretary school (something she despised having had to do over art school) while Rita just took a job as a receptionist.
Again, my memories of my mother’s childhood were not told in secret or over tears as they were about poor Rita. I heard stories my mother having laughed all the way through science class with her own friend, also named Rita. While Rita’s daughter heard stories while hiding outside the living room during a visit from cousins who had also been in that attic during the war. An experience that verified her daughter’s strange emotion to always want to protect her mother and never having wanted her mother to imagine that she could ever live without her. Deciding that she must have been right in how protective she had always been of her mother.
So is that what I did wrong? As I grew up under my mother’s purview…and demonstrated to her (also an emotion I can not explain because no one ever actually told me to be the fierce tiger I became…certainly something that I must have also inherited). But had I not convinced my mother that I could survive without her, might she have stayed? Had I demonstrated to her how much help I still needed with life after 30, would she have fought harder to stay alive? Without allowing herself to die peacefully with the knowledge that I was always going to land on my feet? Had I made her feel as though I did not need her anymore? I remember her asking herself the same question about her father (my amazing grandfather)…she feared that we might have made him feel as though we had not needed him anymore either.
Or can I turn it all around and think that I allowed her to die in peace while patting herself on the back for having accomplished what she had always meant to…believing that she had made me into someone who could live this life without her guidance and council? Or can it just depend on how I feel that day…because right now I feel like I may have let her go.
I hope that this book lightens up…or else I might be back here crying again tomorrow with a new perspective on life.