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Jewish Journal

Two Mothers

by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

May 10, 2001 | 8:00 pm

At first glance, it would be hard to imagine two women with less in common than my mother and my husband's mother. You can begin with the obvious differences in cultural and religious background: my mother grew up Jewish in the Bronx, while my mother-in-law, a Presbyterian, has lived in Virginia all her life.

And while neither exactly bears out a stereotype, each carries somewhat predictable ethnic and regional markers. My mother, Lois, is voluble and huggy, a devotee of popular arts, an ace shopper. Lloyd (yes, Lloyd -- like many other Southern women, she was assigned a family surname as her given name) is much more reticent and reserved. To me, she seems very much the patrician Virginia gentlewoman, while my mother has a large measure of what one novelist once called the "yolky warmth" typical of many Jewish women.

I can't picture my mother sitting quietly through a family dinner, saying little except "Well, that's nice" and "That looks right tasty." Nor can I imagine Lloyd debating the quickest way to drive from one place to another, or getting excited about going to a concert, or getting excited, period.

Lloyd has been a widow for more than two decades, while my parents, kenahorah, will celebrate their 48th anniversary this September. Lois has to have a ceremonial reason to spend time in a synagogue, while Lloyd is a devoted weekly churchgoer.

But when you examine their lives a bit more closely, there are more similarities between my mother and my mother-in-law than you might expect. Each of our mothers attained a college degree she didn't really use and put the bulk of her energies into being a wife and mother. Each stayed close to her own mother and saw her live to a ripe age. Each keeps in touch with a large group of friends, some dating back to girlhood.

Neither is a grandmother and neither is likely to become one, although there's a glimmer of hope for Lois if the relationship my 40-year-old sister is enjoying morphs into marriage. Both, while proud of their children's accomplishments, haven't always understood those accomplishments.

Both are conservative and conformist by nature; neither was put on earth to challenge the status quo. (This is typically Virginian, my husband tells me; I don't know where Lois got it.) Each is content in a fairly small world, though both enjoy traveling and have the photos to prove it.

And both our mothers have shown themselves to be capable of change; both have evolved in ways that, although they've always been loved, make it easier to love them.

As a teenager 30 years ago, I thought my mother was way too concerned about appearances; every second sentence out of her mouth seemed to begin, "How do you think it looks when you..." And she reacted badly to setbacks, large and small. When things went wrong, she took it personally.

But somewhere along the line, my mother lightened up. I saw her roll with punches in her 50's that might have laid her out in her 30's. When my first marriage broke up, I put off telling her for weeks, worried that she'd blame me for the failure. But when I finally told her, she asked only what happened, was I all right, and was there anything she could do for me, and I realized, perhaps belatedly, that a corner had been turned.

Today Lois is a lot less concerned with bragging rights and a lot more interested in what makes me and my sisters happy. Not every hair has to be in place; not every job has to work out well. "That's just age," says Spencer, my husband, and of course I've grown up, too, but it still makes communication a lot easier.

Lloyd also has evolved. I was her worst nightmare -- a Jewish divorcée from New York -- but she progressed fairly smoothly from asking Spencer "Can't you meet a nice Christian girl?" to dancing at our wedding. Six years ago, there was a phone call my husband put off: the one in which he told his mother he was about to become a Jew. But her response, typical of so many parents, was that if he was happy, then she was happy for him. Today she admits that it's better for Spencer to be a faithful, temple-going Jew than a spiritually alienated ex-Presbyterian.

In a few weeks, our two mothers will be in the same room for the first time since our wedding 10 years ago, as Spencer is called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. It'll be interesting to see how they interact. Lloyd will say, "It must have been right difficult to learn all that," and not much else. Lois will probably have a string of stories about bar mitzvahs she's attended in the past. But I bet they'll talk to each other more, because I think they have more to talk about now.

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