Mom and I went to NYC on several occasions. She once allowed me a full 15 minutes to explore the New York Public Library as we walked down Fifth Avenue on the way to Lord & Taylor.
On a subsequent visit when we upgraded from the National Hotel to the Abbey-Victoria, Jerry Lewis was having his Labor Day telethon across the street at the Americana Hotel. There were lineups around the block all day. However when I peered out our 14th floor window at 2 a.m. I noticed the lineup had thinned out considerably.
Mom was wide awake watching some late-night movie when I asked her if she wanted to see some real live movie stars. Of course she did. Fifteen minutes later, mother and son were heading to a couple of empty seats at the back of the ballroom. Two teenagers suddenly bolted over to us from the bank of elevators.
Staring right at her, one said, “Wow, You’re Audrey Hepburn! Could we please have your autograph?”
I knew to say nothing as Mom graciously signed their autograph books. There are two movie buffs out in the world who have a signature that reads “Odri Hebbern.”
Since we lived in the same building for many years, I would often keep my door open so Mom could pop by at any time and feel at home. When she came by, I would ask her to think of a song and I would find an appropriate YouTube video to keep her entertained.
She enjoyed Tom Jones and would sing along with “Delilah” but she would never tire of watching a clip of a Hasidic rabbi, the Satmar Rebbe, animatedly dancing at the wedding of one of his grandchildren.
The rabbi would hold on to one end of a very long “gartel” or piece of cloth while the other end of it, literally hundreds of feet away, was held by the new bride who was practically invisible swathed in white from head to toe.
The bride would be standing still and it would the Satmar Rebbe who would be doing the dancing. The audience consisted of thousands of his black-clad followers jammed to the rafters and swaying to the music on risers in some massive arena-like banquet hall somewhere in Brooklyn.
“Could you imagine if the Nazis who held you prisoner could see this? Anyu, when you were in Auschwitz, did you ever imagine you would see this, thousands of Jewish people, still singing, still dancing and still so joyous?”
She would smile, her face would light up and there would be a tear in her eye.
A few years ago, Mom started getting a little confused. She would occasionally wander back and forth along the corridor looking for her apartment prompting one neighbor to tell me that perhaps she might need some live-in care.”
I was defensive at first, but the neighbour was absolutely right. That’s when I started looking around for a full-time caregiver to keep Mom company.
One summer afternoon in 2010, Mom was visiting me and I was showing off my new computer – the same one I am still using to pen this memoir.
We were checking out YouTube videos but Mom seemed impatient and agitated. Her remarkable and kind caregiver Jhonas was in the kitchen cooking up some kosher shrimp which is actually pollock fish processed and dyed to look like shrimp.
Mom seemed impatient. She wanted to go home, but had no idea where she lived. In fact, we lived in the same building, but on different floors.
“I will take you home in a few minutes. Do you remember Szerencs where you were born?”
“What’s wrong with you? Why do you want to go into the past? The past is full of sadness. Where is my mother and father? Where are my sisters. Broche and Malka? Leave me alone with the past. I hate the past. It was terrible for me. They took my mother and father. Who knows where they are?”
Jhonas walked in with the fake shrimp. Perfect timing.
“Please stay, Anyu. I don’t want to eat by myself.”
“Okay. I will stay. I don’t want to you to be alone.”
While we are eating, I remind her how thin I used to be when I was a kid.
“You were so worried that you and Daddy wrote letters to three rabbis in Israel asking for a blessing that I should gain weight.”
“Looks like the blessings worked,” she says. “You are very fat.”
“Thanks Mom. Pass the mayonnaise.”
I wanted to get some writing done before some friends came over later that evening for drinks and conversation, but I would never ask my mom to leave. In fact, I asked her to stay.
“Some friends are coming by and they would love to see you. Maybe you can teach them something.”
“What can I teach them? Maybe I will do some astrology and tell them about their character.”
“Okay, start with me right now.”
“You are a typical Capricorn Ephraim Boruch,” she says calling me by my Hebrew name. I was named after her father and my father’s father who both perished in the Holocaust.
“You are a smart guy, intelligent, religious and good-hearted.”
She watched me at my computer as I wrote. She was rubbing her nose as she sat in her customary chair with her zimmer frame walker propped up protectively in front of her.
“Are are you typing a love letter to your girlfriend?”
“Not exactly. I am writing about you.”
“What are you going to write?”
“I am going to write about our trip to Paris where you hung up your clothes to dry on the Victorian light fixture.”
When international disco doyenne Regine from Paris launched a club in Montreal, I took Mom to the gala opening. What did Mom do? She went up right to Regine.
“Please dance with my son. He is wild about you and would like to dance with you.”
Rather embarrassing when you consider I was well into my 30s at the time. I don’t remember dancing with Regine, but I do remember the faux Deco sparkling blue and silver upholstery.
What else do I remember of the time I took Mom to Paris? We stayed at Grand Hotel Taranne which was very much a petit hotel, located right across the boulevard from the Café Flore and the Café Deux Magots.
Mom had a terrible tooth ache and told me to ask the sleepy concierge for a “viskee rinse.”
Several minutes later, I was having a cup of pricey espresso coffee with a friend at the Café Flore. He said, “Look up at that woman standing in the hotel window across the street. What on earth is she doing?”
I looked up to see my mother standing right there in the open window in a well-worn yellow negligee. She was bent over double, her head at the level of her knees, gargling with whiskey to soak an upper tooth that was causing her all this pain.
“That’s my mother. That’s my room.”
“That’s your mother? She looks way too young to be your mother.”
When I told Mom what my friend had said, her toothache disappeared.
Sitting at my computer, I asked Mom what she remembered of our trip to Paris.
“I remember a dress shop where the owner was very rude.”
That was not in Paris. That was on a hot summer May afternoon in Cannes on the rue des Antibes. Mom went into a smart boutique where everything was too small. Not a deterrent as far as she was concerned. Those French dresses were so pretty.
She tried on dress after dress and when she went up back later to the same store, the frustrated owner told her there was no need for her to come in again as she had already tried on every outfit in the place.
As I sat there writing, I kept peppering Mom with questions.
“What are you thinking about?”
“What do you expect from me? I am not a genius. I am just a simple person. You expect too much from me. You think that I am a special person. I am not. “
“What would you write about your mother? I am a simple Jewish mother. A simple lady. Not stupid. Not a genius either.
I pressed on.
“If you don’t remember Paris, do you remember Budapest?”
“That was a long time ago.”
“What did you want to do that you never got to do?”
Mom is very Edith Piaf. She says she regrets nothing. Maybe it’s the mild dementia. I refuse to use the d word without a comforting adjective that lessens the diagnosis.
“When you were young, what did you dream about?”
“It was so long ago that I forget. I hope that you are not writing about me. Come on, Tomika.”
“I have forgotten everything. I know nothing. Why are you writing about me? Let me live. I am not an unusual person
I wanted to be an actress, but my father would not allow it. He was very religious and I was not. “
She had rarely revealed as much. I just sat quietly and started to type what she was saying.
“I did not want to wear a sheitel on my head. I was not ultra-religious. Just normal. Overdoing religion is abnormal.”
While she says this, she keeps raising her right leg, an involuntary motion. She does it over and over again.
“I would recite tehillim (psalms) to please my mother. I like to give to charity and to help people, that’s; all.
“When I was a teenager, I was not allowed to go to movies. I went to see a movie and a nosy neighbour told my father. As a punishment, he shaved off my waist-length hair. My mother was crying. She felt so sorry for me.”
“What about you? How did you feel?”
“I felt he had made me ugly. Nebach. He is in Gan Eden a long time.”
“What did you think of your father at the time?”
“I told him that he was a roshe to do cut off his young daughter’s beautiful hair. To do this to his own daughter You know what a roshe is? Of course, you know.”
She had called him a villain and she immediately started to feel guilty.
“He was trying to be protective. He was worried I would end up in the arms of a Gentile. I was a very beautiful girl and he was just afraid for me.”
She pointed to the bookshelf where I have a framed picture of her mother and started to cry.
“Your mother was so beautiful, but she looks so sad in that picture. Why does she look so sad?
“Because she knew the Holocaust was coming.”
That is the same answer she has given me ever since I first asked her that question when I was seven.
To this day, I don’t believe her answer.