I write to you again this Mother's Day. But this time, a little wiser and more grateful for you; more grateful because now I have two children of my own. Watching each of our babies emerge, seeing how they passed through Betsy to the waiting world in a sheer, painful, exquisite act of will - knowing how badly they were wanted, how miraculous their journey, has taught me about you and your love for me. Some days I think of Betsy and me as heroes for trying to raise two kids - then I remember that you and dad raised five. I took out my calculator and did a little figuring:
At six per day, for 2 1/2 years per child, you changed 27,375 diapers. You made over 150 trips to the pediatrician, not to mention the dermatologists, allergists and orthodontists. At three per year, per child for 18 years you bought over 300 pairs of shoes, not to mention skates, cleats and flippers.
At even just two meals a day, six days a week per family member for each of the years any of us kids lived at home, you served 183,960 plates of food, not including all the school lunches you packed or the years that our relatives who were fleeing the communist takeover in Chile lived with us - making it 11 for dinner every night.
I hear a lot of jokes about Jewish women, how spoiled and selfish they are. None of them make sense when I think of you. Having my own children I now look back at your life as a young parent and I know that the money wasn't always there - that dad couldn't be home much, that you drank five cups of coffee a day just to keep going. I know that you often suffered terrible, blinding headaches; that your parents were of no help to you; and that you put a lot of your own wants aside to keep a husband, five kids, relatives, several dogs, birds, fish, frogs and salamanders so well fed, so well cared for - so well loved.
By the way, I realize that tough as it was, the cooking, cleaning and schlepping was the easy part. The hard part was trying to raise your children to be - for lack of a better word - mensches. I'm not sure how you did it, mom, but watching Betsy with our two children has given me a clue - I think it comes down to sheer and constant love.
Do you remember the time I played airplane pilot on your sewing machine and accidentally turned it into a mass of broken parts and tangled thread? Or when, as an awkward 16-year-old, I mistook the accelerator for the brake and accidentally drove your car through the garage and into the kitchen?
"He thought it was a drive-in restaurant," you joked with family and friends. You made me feel so much better, so much less foolish. You always forgave my awkwardness. You were my refuge from the pressures and agonies of a world founded upon performance. Even now, I can come to you with my failures, my bruised ego, my skinned and scrapped self-image, and know I'm still your little boy, still worthy, still safe. You know what else I loved about you when I was growing up, mom? You always believed me, even when I was lying. Through getting arrested for shoplifting, getting kicked out of camp for smoking, rock 'n' roll bands in the basement, failing algebra, fracturing Tommy Murphy's collar bone, having my heart broken at 22 by a woman I loved and three months later dating a woman poet 15 years older than I and a year later dating a female weight lifter, followed by my surprise engagement to Betsy on our second date, you believed in my goodness. You always believed I would somehow turn out right. Your faith in me demanded my own self-respect. Your trust made me want to do the right thing even when I wasn't. How does a son thank his mother for believing in him?
The older I become, the more I watch my own children, the more I realize what a difference your faith in me, what a difference your love has made in my life.
It's hard for a rabbi to have any pretty illusions about life. Which is all the more reason why I am writing you this letter. In this week's portion the Torah forbids us to separate a baby animal from its mother too soon. To that I say, how much more so for human beings. I have seen so many lose their mothers this year, and there's a sadness in them that I know will never leave; so many for whom the "Kaddish" is no longer a mere collection of words. None of us gets to hold on to our mothers forever. How well I know it.That bit of Torah and this Sunday are reminders; reminders to thank God for a mother's love, for your love, for mothers everywhere. Because it seems to me that the truly lost and lonely in this nervous, unkind world of ours - the shattered and the hopeless among us - got that way because they never had what you managed to give every one of your children; the certainty, the warmth, the breath of unfailing love.Happy Mother's Day, mom. I love you.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things," published by Behrman House.
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