My mother-in-law passed away the week after Rosh HaShonah. Her kevurah (burial) fell on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, effectively eliminating any period of shiva (mourning). Approaching the three-month anniversary of her petirah (passing), I hope that a short reflection on the life of the mother of a baalas tshuva might provide some closure to the mourning process.
Barbara had reached 80 years old and was in reasonably good health before an aggressive brain tumor stole her independence, then her lucidity, and then her remaining faculties over the course of a few short months. Born and raised in semi-rural Massachusetts with virtually no Jewish awareness, her response to her only daughter’s commitment to Torah and mitzvos was nothing less than remarkable.
In her own quiet way, Barbara lived a remarkable life. Left by her husband only a few years into marriage, somehow disenfranchised of the lavish divorce settlements common in the early sixties, Barbara shouldered the support and upbringing of a four year old boy and a one year old girl with no help but the child care provided by her children’s grandmother, a plucky old lady who never slowed down until a stroke felled her at the age of 89. Barbara worked to pay the bills, just scraping by from week to week and month to month.
When my future wife began to take an interest in Yiddishkeit, Barbara was a pillar of support. Although she knew nothing of Torah thought or practice, she encouraged her daughter to follow the promptings of her neshoma and, when the daughter left for Eretz Yisroel to study at Neve Yerushalayim, it was with the mother’s sincere blessing and best wishes.
I first met Barbara literally minutes before I started toward the chupa to marry her daughter. She hadn’t been able to afford air fare to Israel, but one of the few observant Jews in Fall River, Massachusetts, paid for her ticket and she arrived the day of the chasunah. She was all aglow throughout the evening, and asked me to call her “Mom.”
Learning in kollel and, later, teaching Torah, my wife and I never had money for travel. Barbara saved every penny until she could afford her next ticket to visit us, first in Eretz Yisroel, later in Atlanta, and finally in St. Louis. She treifed up our pots and mispronounced our children’s names, and her grandchildren adored her. She couldn’t afford to buy them birthday presents, so she made them. Beautiful dresses and winter coats for the girls, hand-knit sweaters and scarves for the boys — and for the son-in-law. Even when her hands lost their cunning, no birthday, anniversary, or holiday ever passed without a card, sometimes containing a ten-dollar bill, as much as she could afford.
She called every Sunday morning at 10:00 and, as with any true bubbe, woe be upon us if no one was home to answer the phone. “I was so worried …”
We all know the drill.
In her last year she called one morning to recount her success at a sixtieth high school reunion. Her former classmates had taken turns trying to impress one another with the accomplishments of their children, but no one could top Barbara. “Well,” she told us, “one woman bragged that her son was a priest, and you should have heard the commotion. But then I said that my daughter had married a RABBI, and the competition was all over.”
May all the emotional support she gave us through the years provide merit and comfort for her neshoma.