The Column | Who needs 613? Mother had her own litany of mitzvot

Recently, a friend told me she still has conversations with her late mother, who passed away at age 100. Seven years after my mother’s passing at 86, we don’t have conversations. She does all the talking. Try as I might to tune her out, I listen.

You’re not wearing that!

Modulate your voice!

You call that dinner?

You still haven’t written those thank-you notes?

I wish I could take you shopping. You could be so attractive.

Janet, your hair! And put some lipstick on!

Are you still wearing that?

My mother didn’t need organized religion. She organized her own. I could follow or not, but if I didn’t, there would be consequences. While Judaism has 613 commandments, my mother subtracted the ones she didn’t like — like observing the Sabbath — but more than made up for them with her own additions.

While she heeded such traditional commandments as visiting the sick, comforting the mourner and rejoicing with bride and groom, she went a step or two further. Cousins who didn’t show up for my father’s funeral were on her black list, permanently, although she would feign icy politeness in a face-to-face situation, because my mother was a lady. In fact, she was a duchess in a previous lifetime, although she didn’t like me saying so.

Hosting was never an option in my household. It was a commandment. The house had better be perfect, family members impeccably dressed and the meal cooked to perfection, albeit not necessarily from scratch. My mother joked about serving Stouffer’s spinach soufflé in a pretty casserole at a dinner party, and the food columnist from New York magazine had three helpings.

Shnorrers and nonreciprocators, she had no use for. She would often complain about a bridge crony who helped himself liberally to the refreshments brought by others, but would bring supermarket candy when it was his turn.

She also had firm expectations about social behavior: If you’ve made plans to get together with a friend or attend a party, and you receive a better invitation, you’re obligated to honor your first commitment.

Despite various setbacks, my mother put on a happy face in public, revealing serious distress only to family members. She could not comprehend why others had difficulty keeping their problems to themselves. It wasn’t until the final weeks of her life, when she was hospitalized with an intestinal infection, that we brought the hospital psychiatrist into her room. He was dumbfounded that she had been suffering from depression for decades and had never been treated.

Perhaps her rigid rules created the framework that helped her mask depression. But they also made her — and me — less tolerant, less forgiving. As I grew older, I came to recognize that not everybody shares Mother’s rules, that others cancel plans for any old reason, that others feel no qualms about their failure to reciprocate, or about saying, “Gee, we must get together,” without setting a time and place.

Not long before she died, I said to my mother, “I think we both get ourselves very upset because we expect others to play by the rules we follow, but they don’t.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” she said.

Before the Day of Atonement, I would phone my mother to ask for forgiveness and to offer it. Each year, she would accept my words, in a perfunctory manner, but I wouldn’t be spared from her recitation of past wrongs the following year. Exasperated, I said to her, “Mom, you forgave me for all that stuff last Yom Kippur. Remember?”

She laughed.

Yet during her final illness, when I spent the better part of winter in New York, we reached resolution. One bleak day, I traipsed throughout the neighborhood searching for orange sherbet, which she had requested. When I brought it back to the apartment, she barely touched it. Another evening, she wanted tea with real lemon, which she didn’t drink. But I massaged her back and forehead with green tea lotion, and she looked at me lovingly.

“You’re a good daughter,” she said.

Those are the words I cherish.


Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at