My mom died on September 5, 2010 in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, at 83 years old.
I vividly remember sitting at my computer, typing the eulogy I would deliver at her funeral, and thinking about how little I had appreciated all the things she had survived, and accomplished, during her life. Reading that eulogy now, it seems like a good jumping-off point from which to look at her life.
Something happens between mothers and daughters when the daughters grow up. They become equals, and develop a whole new relationship as women.
And women talk. They share their most intimate secrets, advice, knowledge and experience. They tell each other their stories. And so, as an adult, I learned who my mother really was – beyond being the mom I loved and looked up to – and became proud of her all over again from a whole different perspective.
Mom’s father left their family to come to Canada when she was 2, promising to come back for his wife and baby girl … and never returned. That single event coloured much of her life. She felt the absence of a father keenly – and never again gave her trust easily. She grew up surrounded by strong women who developed the skills they needed to look after themselves and their children. She saw every day the sacrifices they made and their passion for survival.
In 1948, mom boarded the SS Beaverbrae to come to Canada, bringing a fine set of skills – perfect English, 2 years experience teaching kindergarten, a clear soprano voice that had sung the high notes in the Hallelujah chorus in Germany, and a single wooden trunk of belongings – leaving everything she’d known behind her. In those days, she was brave. Like her mother and grandmother, she did everything she could to build a better life for herself.
The father who had sponsored her immigration had made a new life for himself that didn’t include an adult daughter, so she lived in boarding houses and dormitories. She attended and graduated from bible college and business college. She worked in a convent bakery in Windsor, a tobacco field in Paris, on a busy switchboard in Galt, in a spinning mill in Hamilton, and finally as executive secretary in a thriving office in Burlington. She managed to save enough money to bring her mother, and then her grandmother, to Canada.
She fell in love – twice – and married, once. She put her energies into creating a home and raising a family – and graduating by distance education from the Chicago School of Fashion Design. She loved her children fiercely. She contributed time and talent to her church, entertained friends, and feasted everyone with gourmet cooking. When times were tough and Dad’s union was on strike, she went back to work in the office at Frost Steel and Wire, and stayed there until the family finances were back on track. She sewed her own clothes – and mine right up until I went to university – and they were so style-perfect that no one ever knew, except maybe to wonder how the wife of a Ford worker could afford to dress so well.
As she got older, she directed her love to sons-and-daughters in law and grandchildren as well. But she kept on learning. She learned to refinish furniture, stencil walls, and make lace. Always good with languages, she mastered the challenges of learning to read and write in Hebrew.
When age started to take her independence away, mom resisted as long as she could. I’ll be forever grateful that the people who got to know her in the last couple of years took the time to see through the shadows to the bright light that had once been my mother.
In 1948, at 21 years old, mom left everything for the promise of a better life, and arrived in Canada to a father who didn’t want her. What I wish more than anything for her final journey is that it fulfills her belief that she is going to a better life after this one, and to a Father who will welcome her with open arms.
So, now that you’ve got the big picture, it’s time for mom’s stories… as I remember them.