BECOMING NOBODY’S CHILD

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[One by one, your parents die. Then there’s no more mother or dad standing between you and whatever it is that lies ahead for us all. You’re next.

Unless you’re a person of great and abiding faith in a hereafter (which I am not), the feeling of loss following the death of the second parent is therefore accompanied by another realization: there’s no more buffer zone.

Of course, that’s irrational.  There’s never a buffer zone.  Some people die while their own parents are still alive, ripped away forever in the vibrancy of their youth.  And in other cases, there remains for a while the possibly false comfort of surviving aunts or uncles, keeping you from immediately confronting the harshness of acknowledging it’s your turn now.

But your parents are where you come from. They’re your first knowledge of and connection with the world. Once they’re both gone, it’s never the same again.

I was an only child. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother after I reached adolescence.  (A euphemism.) But I was necessarily the one they called in Massachusetts when she died in California towards the end of November 1993.  She had colon cancer. However, her doctors had thought she might have another three years or so — even without surgery, which she had firmly refused. The call was therefore unexpected. I confirmed by telephone that she was to be cremated, as my father had decided for both of them. Then I took a five day leave of absence to fly three thousand miles, settle her affairs and bring back the ashes.

I could have left them. The state of California would have disposed of them, either over the ocean, as she had decided my father’s ashes should be dispersed, or over a deserted piece of land in the middle of nowhere between Sacramento and Nevada which had been designated for such purposes.  But whatever she was thinking when she authorized the scattering of the remains of my father, I wouldn’t do that to her.

As it turned out, it took about eighteen months before I was able to sort out my own affairs, which were then in flux, and also come to terms with the realization that my mother and I would now never make peace with each other, and that it was time to say a final goodbye, even though that meant I’d be next in line. 

Perhaps I was lucky never to have had to attend a funeral, other than my mother-in-law’s (which I had had no hand in planning).  So here I had to invent my way. However, we all do what we have to do — as I did, in the spring twenty years ago.

Now we’re in the spring again.  If I were still living in Massachusetts, I would be visiting the cemetery instead of sending commemorative flowers. However, I can also re-run the piece about burying her that I posted on November 20, 2013, very early in the life of this blog. Truth to tell, it’s starting to feel rather like ancient history to me.  But I suppose that happens to us all: eventually we do get used to being nobody’s child. Sort of.]

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BURYING MY MOTHER

My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer. I’m not sure she knew what she had. She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her. She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often. “What would I do there?” she said.

I was her only child.

My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993. I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.

The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.” I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated. The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her. I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.

When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.

Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses, my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children. I didn’t call often enough. I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.

She was the great failed love affair of my life. What was I going to do with her now she was gone? Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?

————–

A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge. As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t. Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped: a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.

My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose. It was January 1995, and bitter cold. We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales. Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”

We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”

We were freezing. Enough with the looking. I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond. And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers. No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!

The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money. It was an honor, he said. My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box. Instead, four photographs: as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.

I ordered flowers. I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony. They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either. But they were all the extended family she had. And I wanted them to see how it was done. So they would be ready for the next time.

Gayle insisted on coming too. There would be four of us.

One problem, though. What should I say? What good things could I say?

It took until the night before. And then I had it. At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.

The day was clear and sunny. One son carried the box with my father’s pictures. The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box. Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.

Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.

This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995. Maybe it made her happy at last.

We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother. “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary. “Respect for parents” would have been more like it. But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.

Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled. And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.

At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.

I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was. I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back. They didn’t talk about things like that. I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child. Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had. But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children. And that is why “honor” is the right word.

If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond. Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.”

Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.

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19 thoughts on “BECOMING NOBODY’S CHILD

  1. I remember feeling the same way when my mother died. No buffer. We were close so it was very different and I still had her younger sister. My last surviving aunt died this year at age 102. That’s it. My generation is next. You gave a wonderful eulogy. It’s too bad we don’t know how they felt about their journey. Whether they regretted it or yearned for the homeland. So many stories went with them to the grave.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Having an extended family, as you did (and do), is a gift we don’t appreciate until we get older. When I was a girl, I wished so much for an older brother. Now I would love to have, or have had, a sister. Well, we play the hand we’re dealt. Thank you about the eulogy. Under the circumstances, it was the best I could do. As for my parents’ feelings about emigrating, I think they remained ambivalent about what they continued to think of and call “Russia” till they died. Undoubtedly they missed their families very much. On the other hand, the reasons they left remained in place until after my father passed away and almost until my mother did too: the “Russia” in which they had grown up had become the Soviet Union, with everything unchanged that you’ve ever read or heard about living there, plus even more horrors and fears. Did you ever read “How I Got to Be Born in America?” It’s on the TGOB Page headed Selected Non-Fiction, I think. That’s at least one story that survived the grave.

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  2. The buffer. I lost three of mine between April 2012 and March 2013: oldest brother, father, second brother, in that order. My mother and older sister are my remaining buffer. My mother is in assisted living. And my sister. Well, I’ve been forced to reconsider her. I suppose after they’re gone, I’ll extend my idea of buffer to aunts and uncles.

    The thought and care you put into the service transcends the reality of your relationship. Which sounds like making peace, to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, Ella, you’ve lived through such extraordinary losses in so short a time! And so recently. I’m sure there’s much there you cannot blog, or perhaps even speak, about.

      Concerning “buffers” though — by my standards, you’re still reasonably young; no need to think about finding more buffers quite yet.

      As for the “service” by the graveside in Mount Auburn Cemetery, she was — after all — my mother, and I had no other living family in all the world, other than the two children in the next generation down. Perhaps the “thought and care” was also my way of showing those children what I hoped they would offer me, when the time came. But as you well know from your legal practice, “peace” (or settlement) can only be made when both sides to the antagonism (or dispute) participate. Here, there was only me and a box of inanimate ashes. So no, my mother never made peace with me, whatever I now feel about her in my heart. Perhaps, though, the service was my way of trying to make peace with myself.

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  3. Facing the pond, with a box for your father, your sons there, and your words–sounds like a perfect way to honor your mother’s, actually both of your parents, lives. So much nicer than a stuffy funeral. Lovely post.

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  4. Awww, nice. 🙂 I never thought of any of mine as the buffer zone, but it was nonetheless shocking to realize we (along with so many others) were being orphaned. I think (truly believe, actually) that there’s a somewhere beyond here that was indeed everything this life was supposed to be. I expect to be as surprised by it all as I was on my entrance into this world — breathing air instead of water all of a sudden. At any rate, you were incredibly gracious and thoughtful about the whole matter and I say kudos to you, and not least of all for your own courage.

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  5. kathybjones

    Powerful recollections and writing, Nina. Put me in mind of Kathryn Harrison’s The Mother Knot. About ambivalence towards one’s parents. And also settling into peace with them at long last.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the lovely words, Kathy. I haven’t read the Harrison book. In my case, the ambivalence towards my parents was a response to my mother’s deep ambivalence towards me and my father’s apparent lack of interest in me until I was a grown woman. The kind of peace that came at long last — not so much with them as with my own resentment that they had not been “better” or different parents than they were — was a result of finally being able to see them as people separate from me, with their own histories, problems and struggles with life — all of which necessarily influenced their parental conduct.

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  6. What a powerful statement you have here, Nina, both in your post and the service and eulogy for your parents. They are our connection, and it isn’t always pretty. But, it is real, and you honored them with great respect and dignity.

    I truly hate the funeral ritual, and avoid them whenever I can. I have insisted on cremation for myself and my husband, and begged my adult children not to make a fuss. If there is an afterlife, I have promised to come back and haunt them if they disregard my request. They are both atheistic, so they just laugh at me.

    I lost my mother young. She was 53, and we had a chance at reconciliation in the 2 years she suffered with cancer treatment. I was only 28, and it affected me in a very negative way. I never thought about a buffer, even so. I felt like we had lost her to mental illness decades before. My father lived another 20 years, remarried, had a good life.

    The hardest was the loss of my baby sister. I had helped to raise her and it was almost like losing a child of my own. She died at 48 after a long battle with MS. The year she died, I started this blog. It has been very therapeutic.

    Thanks always for your heartfelt candor. This post was special, and so are you. ❤️ Van

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A beautiful, bitter-sweet recollection. With my only remaining parent, my mother, now in her 80’s (albeit thankfully in generally good health), your piece was thought-provoking. Relationships between girls with their mothers can indeed be complex.

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