My mother died on her birthday 40 years ago. She died in Israel.
I light the memorial candle in my kitchen in Evanston and recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. I drag the box with the “fragile, handle with care” sign on it from the basement and put it on the chair next to me. Today is the day when I open that box again.
When my mother died I had to decide about her things. What could I take back with me to America, what would I have to I leave behind. “Be practical,” my cousin who came to help me said. “There is only so much you can fit in your suitcase.” But I could not be practical about my mother’s things. Of course I could not take the furniture with me. I had no interest in doing that. I was not attached to any particular item in that apartment the way I clung to everything in our home in Romania before my mother and I immigrated to Israel. When my mother started selling some of our belongings there to cover the cost of our trip to Israel, I felt as if parts of me were being torn off and given away. That is why my mother made a deal with all the potential buyers. She reduced the price of everything by half for those who agreed to pick up whatever they were interested in after we left. “I don’t want to break this child’s heart several times a day,” she told the neighbor who ended up settling with everyone once we were gone. My mother and I left our home as if we were going on a short trip and then coming back. I did not need to create that illusion in Israel. I did not want to come back. Not after my mother died.
I decided to give my mother’s furniture to an elderly couple who had just arrived from Romania to Israel and probably needed it most. My mother had befriended them shortly after their arrival and mentioned their kindness to her in several of her last letters. Then I thought I would divide her cloths among her girlfriends. But once I began sorting I realized that I could not do it. Here was the dress she had worn to my graduation from high school; she had this hat on when she came to visit me at the University in Jerusalem; I gave her this sweater for mother’s day and that shawl for her birthday; and she wore this dress at my wedding; and there was the jacket she wore when she came to see us in America. I cannot give my memories away, I told myself as I was stuffing one piece of clothing after the other into my big suitcase. “I will go out and get you a big duffle bag,” my cousin said in a resigned tone of voice, “for your own things.”
While my cousin was out, I came upon a box in my mother’s closet that looked like it had china in it. “Fragile: handle with care” it said on the side facing me. I pulled it out and was surprised how light it was. I pushed back the flaps at the top of the box but instead of plates and cups I found letters, cards, notes, and pieces of paper with my own handwriting on it. Everything I had ever written to my mother was there. She had kept everything—even a note that said: “Do not forget to wake me up at seven. I love you even in my sleep.” My letters from America were in separate bundles, sorted by date and held together by rubber bands. I wrote my mother at least once a week for three years from America. From the time we came here until I went to see her just before she died. I shoved the letters and notes into my suitcase and added the flattened box on top.
I empty the contents of the box on my kitchen floor in Evanston and read everything except the letters from America. I still cannot do it. Too many omissions and lies –just so she would not worry.
The light in my mother’s memorial candle goes out. Another anniversary has come and gone. I still cannot read my letters from America. I close the box and drag it back to the basement. Maybe next year, I tell myself, I will read those letters from America.
Originally from Romania, Miriam Ben-Yoseph teaches and researches in the areas of culture, gender, and work. Recently, she has focused her writing on place and identity issues. Her work has been published in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband Yoav and their dog Cobi.