My 98-year-old mother died last week, and I’m waiting to feel something.
I watched family and friends cry at her funeral and I listened to their outpouring of love and accolades for the remarkable woman my mother was. To a person, they spoke of how loving and generous and talented she was — and yes, that she was also forceful and insistent — how much of an impact she made on them, how they remain in awe of how she survived Auschwitz at great odds, and how she rebuilt her life multiple times with flair, energy, and optimism.
I sat there quietly, gripped by cognitive dissonance. The woman everyone knew was all those things they described. She was a resilient survivor, a gifted dressmaker and teacher, a devoted friend, but with me her other side overshadowed it all.
Early on, as a Jewish child in postwar Hungary, I knew my job was to take care of her emotionally, to mitigate the suffering that happened to her before I was born. I spent a lifetime doing that while also being the brunt of her relentless criticism and control.
It often felt as if nothing I did was ever enough, though I do recall seeing her happy at times with my outfits and she took pride in my accomplishments. But I am hard-pressed to recall more than a few positive moments together over the more than six decades of my life with her.
I rarely cried when she would mercilessly pick on me. Depression was more my style. I knew she had to win, and I had to surrender in what always felt like a life and death struggle for her no matter the issue. From my room I heard my father echo what I had been pleading with her, “Ilona! She’s almost 50 years old! When are you going to stop dictating what she should do?!”
Shortly after Dad passed away, Mom and I came to “blows” again, and she retorted accusingly, “Your father said I should be nice to you since you are so sensitive.”
Being sensitive was not a value for her, and I understand why. It was a luxury she could not afford if she was to survive as a young woman in Auschwitz. Once when we were talking about Auschwitz, she looked at me and stated matter of factly, “You would never survive.” Perhaps she’s right, yet we don’t really know until we’re tested. And at least I can say that thus far I have survived her, albeit with scars.
There was a period of two blessed weeks, six years ago, when I had the mother I wished for: kind, calm, appreciative, going with the flow. She had fallen and broke her hip, then suffered a cascade of near fatal medical complications.
My brother and I took turns staying with her in the hospital and then in rehab, to be her advocate and translator, as she often reverted to her native Hungarian. It was painful to watch her suffer and I did everything I could to alleviate it. But it was also a period of relief, for she was too sick to do battle with me. Once she started recovering, she was back to her true self with me, which was ironically a good sign.
I did learn a lot from my mother and inherited her creativity and resourcefulness, for which I’m grateful. I feel good about having been the consummate dutiful daughter despite her wrath. Whatever I inherit from her will, though, feels like reparation payments, for I, like many children of Holocaust survivors, remain collateral damage.
Remarkably, despite our battles, my mother and I never stopped loving each other, and fortunately I could always summon enough amnesia to begin each visit anew. As I stare at the dwindling light in the tall, blue shiva candle graced with a Star of David, I am coming to accept that it’s OK that I am not filled with the same sorrow and boundless reservoir of love I felt when my father passed.
I felt sorry for Mom, I loved her, I admired her, I wrote books about her, I did as much as I could for her. And I am grateful that with my own kids I have the warm and supportive relationship I wish I could have had with her. May she rest in peace, and may her memory be for a blessing.
Ilona Engel Fuchs died Aug. 28. This piece was written a week later by Marta Fuchs, a longtime Bay Area psychotherapist who now lives in Santa Monica. Her website is www.martafuchs.com.