That autumn my son was a year and a half. He was playing on a playground with my neighbors’ girl of about the same age, while her mom and I chatted idly. Then I saw my own mother coming towards us from the direction of the bus stop. My son saw her too and squealed with glee as he pumped his short legs in an awkward run towards her, his hands outstretched in welcome, his little mouth split in a huge grin.
“He never meets me like that,” I said to my neighbor as I watched the joyful reunion of grandmother and grandson. “Even when I leave home for an hour or so, he doesn’t seem to notice.” I felt ashamed by the pangs of jealousy I felt towards my toddler son. Why did he love his grandmother so much more than me? Was I such a bad mother? What should I do to warrant such a welcome?
“Oh, honey,” my neighbor said. “Kids don’t love their mothers. A mother is like air. You don’t love air—you breathe it. You love your grandma and your dad and whoever, but you can’t live without air. Kids need their mothers to feel comfortable and safe. It has nothing to do with love.”
I was surprised by my neighbor’s revelation, but to my surprise, I agreed with her. And even now, decades later, I remember that bright autumn day, its sweet smell of fallen leaves, my mixed feelings of affection and exasperation, and my son’s exuberance at the sight of my mother.
She is almost eighty now and lives in another country, on the opposite side of the globe. We frequently talk on the phone although we see each other only once in a few years, when I visit. And we never confess our love on the phone. It would’ve been sentimental, and neither my mom nor I are sentimental. We would’ve been embarrassed to say such blatant words.
Nevertheless, my love for my mom effervesces inside me, trapped like bubbles inside a corked champagne bottle. I’m long past my babyhood, when she impersonated air I breathed. I admire her personality and I want to open my bottle of love and let the fuzz out. I want to write about my mother.
She is not famous in anyway, but for me, she embodies a female spirit: indomitable and enduring. Whatever trials life has dished out to her, she has always risen above them, always upright and smiling like a roly-poly doll. A very unromantic woman, she would probably snort at the concept of ‘inspiration’, but she has been my inspiration all my life. Her courage, ingenuity, and integrity have kept me afloat during my darkest, most scary moments. And I never said: “Thank you, mama.” Now is my chance.
Once, when I was at university, I was rooting in her jewelry box, pretty bare except for some cheap beads and brooches, and I found a small golden disk—her high school golden medal. She had received it when she graduated from high school, as the valedictorian of her class.
“Why do you keep it in your jewelry box?” I asked. “Surely, it’s not real gold.”
“Oh, it is,” she said with a smile. “22 karats. I checked with a jeweler recently.”
“Then why don’t you make something of it—a ring or earrings?”
She shook her head. “It’s a memory,” she replied.
My memories of my mom are like that medal: small golden cameos, meaningful and precious.
When I was five, my family moved to Moscow. My parents were among the first computer programmers of the Soviet Russia, pioneers in the field. Dad designed financial software for the government, while mom worked for the State Space Program. In that super-secret organization, she was one of the only two women civilians among the multitude of military brass, all males. Soon she was promoted to a group leader. Her group developed the land end of the land-board interface with the Soviet satellites.
The job was rewarding, and the company highly intelligent. Many, like my mom, were accomplished chess players. Once, she participated in a district chess tournament as a member of her company team. She still recalls that tournament with amusement. Her adversary was another woman player, with higher ranking than mom, and the position on the board was not in mom’s favor. She thought she was going to lose the game, when her team captain sauntered past. “Good position, Valentina,” he remarked. “Way to victory.”
She began raking her brain, searching for a wining maneuver. She didn’t see one, but if her captain saw it, it should be somewhere on the board. After all, he was a better chess player than she was. Obviously, her opponent thought so too, because she became frantic and made a mistake, which allowed mom to win. Later, my mom asked her captain what was his solution to her combination. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied. “We just needed one more victory as a team. I thought I’d give you a moral boost. It worked too.” Mom wasn’t sure she liked the taste of that victory, but it was a lesson. It showed her how not to lose hope in even the most hopeless situation.
As a group leader, she traveled all over the country to test her group’s software on all the Russian space communication stations, all of them military. Sometimes, her work for the army led to rather hilarious circumstances. Once, a top-ranking general, known for his allergy to dandelions, was expected for a review. In the land of absurdity that the Soviet Union was, the commander of the station roped in all available personnel, colonels and majors, physics professors and top Russian computer guys, and my mom among them, to weed out all the dandelions around the building, an area about 500 meters in radius. Of course, it was done during working hours, and paid for by the government. Like all her work, it was a top secret. She only told me this story about a year ago.
In 1986, the year of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, a private disaster struck our family: my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She got a full mastectomy and radiation treatment. When she returned home from the hospital, she was very weak and couldn’t lift her right arm at all. She was 53 years old.
In the first few weeks, she wasn’t sure she would survive. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. Those were the weeks when my father proved how much he loved her. He did everything at home: cooked, cleaned, shopped, whereas everyone knew he hated doing house chores. He also changed mom’s bandages, bathed her, when she still couldn’t do it herself, even cut her toenails. And every hour, he would repeat: “I love you.” Her huge, ugly scar didn’t deter him at all. It was at that time, that my mom fell irrevocably in love with her husband of over 30 years.
Finally, her fighting spirit took over the post-cancer depression, but it still required weeks of intensive and painful rehabilitation for her to start functioning again at a level close to normal. She has never recovered one hundred percent. Her cancer had been too wide-spread and the surgery that got rid of it necessarily brutal.
She never returned to full-time work either, although she continued working part-time for a couple of years. The beginning of her retirement coincided with Perestroika, when a host of small companies and co-ops sprouted around Moscow. Bored out of her wits with her retirement, mom started working for a couple of such co-ops. One of them dealt with matchmaking, a new enterprise for my mother, but she loved it. She was thinking of developing a computer application for her co-op’s database, but her dreams of digitized matchmaking didn’t last long.
Along with her employment status, Perestroika changed her views towards Israel and immigration. Before, while she held her classified job for the Space Program, she had no hope of immigrating. The KGB would never allow any of the space programmers out of the country. She couldn’t even travel as a tourist and she never wanted to immigrate anyway. She had an exciting career and she had never been an ardent Jew.
On the other hand, my father was a Zionist. His life-long dream had been to live in Israel. Fortunately, in the first years of Perestroika, nobody knew what rules to obey, what the new order would bring. The country was in turmoil, everything breaking down: the industries, the institutions, the economy, and the politics. When during the 1991 putsch, tanks rolled across the Red Square, my mom and dad decided to leave Russia. But how? She still didn’t have the necessary clearance.
Desperate, mom visited her former boss and persuaded him to write a letter to the personnel department of their former firm: that she had never handled any secret documents, which was a blatant lie. He was a good man and he wished her the best, so he wrote that letter, although he warned her it might not be enough. Somewhere in her file—only a paper file at the time, fortunately—flashed a red flag of her super-security status. Lucky for her, nobody looked in the file. The letter from her boss was enough. She got the permission to emigrate, and they left Russia as soon as they could. Mom was afraid to linger: what if someone did take a good look at her file and revoked the permit?
In 1998, already in Israel, after 12 years cancer-free, mom had her second bout with the nasty disease and her second mastectomy. Amazingly, despite her more advanced age, she bounced back much faster than the first time around; maybe because Israeli medicine is so much better, or maybe because she was so much happier in Israel than she ever was in Russia.
When I had a brush with cancer several years later, my mom’s example served as a symbol of resistance. She personified my hope. If she could trounce the rotten beast, had done it twice, then so could I.
After recovering from her second cancer zone, she was set on a long, joyful retirement with her husband, the man she adored, in a place she had grown to love, when unexpectedly, my father died in his sleep. Mom was devastated. How was she to survive this new blow? Both her daughters had their own families. One daughter lived in Israel, while another, I, lived in Vancouver, Canada, half a world away. She felt alone, abandoned, when one of her friends took her to a community center, to a group that painted fabric napkins.
Mom had never been into the arts. She had never painted anything in her life before that day, never picked up a brush, but she took to painting like a bird to the sky. She immersed herself in her painting, began reading books on the subject and studying new techniques. Soon, simple napkins stopped satisfying her. She needed more sophisticated projects. She left the group but continued painting. In the years since, she has created a universe of flowery and abstract compositions, the bright and whimsical acrylics on fabric.
My apartment is full of my mom’s unique paintings. They enliven every room, jazz up every wall, and make my mundane place worthy of a smile. She has given many of her paintings as gifts to friends and relatives, but after awhile, she started looking for a way to display them for a wider audience. During one of her annual visits to Vancouver, she hit upon the idea to sell her paintings in our biggest city park, alongside the other artists.
I tried to dissuade her, but she wouldn’t deviate from her chosen course, even when a problem arose: only Canadian citizens could buy a license to sell their art in Vancouver.
Mom found an original solution. That summer, my son was still in high school, at loose ends during his vacation. He wasn’t an artist, never even attempted to draw, but he was a citizen. Mom conscripted him into her scheme and promised him a percentage of her proceeds. She has always been good at persuasion. He agreed and registered the license to his name, while she paid for it. Together, they went to the park every weekend to ‘sell’ her paintings.
They didn’t sell anything. She said she’d never seen anyone selling anything, although quite a few artists congregated around the park’s designated corner every day for that very purpose. In the absence of customers, they visited each other’s displays and complimented each other’s art.
As the license bore my son’s name, the compliments and constructive, professional critiques were all directed his way. His grandmother was just ‘helping along’ and listening, absorbing the critiques like a sponge. My son, the pour boy, couldn’t help but cringe in shame. Although his English is perfect, he couldn’t understand what the artists were saying. Their painterly advices baffled him. But he manfully kept on the charade for his grandmother’s benefit.
The inability to sell her art grated on my mother. For a practical woman she is, having a closet full of unrequited art rankled. In her search for a market for her art, she switched to hand-painting silk scarves, and suddenly discovered a niche, a demand she could fill. She started buying white silk scarves wholesale and painting them with the colorful patterns of her imagination. I have several of her scarves, and so do many of her friends and neighbors.
She would still be making those fanciful scarves, if another calamity didn’t turn her life upside down one more time: at the age of 75, she got hit by a car while crossing the street. The accident, perpetrated by a careless driver, resulted in a broken leg, a broken arm, and a bunch of torn ligaments.
She spent a month in the hospital, recovering. A physiotherapist told her recently that it was a miracle she managed to get out of a wheelchair after such an extensive trauma. But she has, although she walks with a stick now. And the torn ligaments, which have never healed properly, make it hard for her to paint. The accident had forced her to stop painting.
Unable to imagine her life without a creative outlet, she started writing. She writes short stories. Some of her stories are loosely based on real life, while others are entirely imaginary. Before now, her only foray into creative writing had been tales she had told her grandchildren. She had always made them up, those stories of cute chipmunks and inquisitive rats.
When my son was very young and didn’t have much appetite, she entertained him with a never ending adventure of a brave rabbit as an inducement to eat. Like Scheherazade, mom would pause her narration whenever his food was gone and resume it with the start of his next meal. The little rascal refused to eat without her storytelling.
Once, my dad overheard the latest installment in the series. It tickled his interest. When my son finished his dinner and departed to play, mom stopped talking. “What happened next to that rabbit?” father demanded. “I don’t know,” mom replied with a laugh. “I’ll make up something tomorrow, in time for breakfast.”
One of several Israeli Russian newspapers, Secret, has been regularly publishing mom’s stories for the past couple of years. In the end of 2011, she self-published the first book of her stories; in 2013—her second book. And she is full of new ideas. Last time we talked on the phone, she consulted me about the possibilities of marketing her books on Amazon.
She has never been daunted by any project: be it immigration, a battle with cancer, or an artistic undertaking. My daughter once remarked: “Grandma will live to be a hundred. She’ll never die, unless she wants to.” I hope my daughter is right.