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My Mother's Wars

Beacon Press

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From the Preface

My mother kept no secrets from me about her strange and difficult life before I was born. For most of my growing-up years, she and I lived together in a single furnished room, “by a missus,” as such living arrangements used to be called. I think our symbiosis was probably much more powerful than the usual between mother and child because most of the time there was no one but the two of us, no other presence to distract or divert. The intensity of my focus on her was compounded, I imagine, because our daily life was played out in the space of no more than ninety square feet. In that tight proximity, she told me things because she had no one else to tell them to. I saw things because she had nowhere else to go and hide. I struggled to understand things because she was my constant care and study and love.

But the older I got, the less I understood. In the glorious hope and brashness of my young womanhood I knew only that the choices she’d made, which had brought her, and me along with her, to that lonely, airless furnished room of my childhood, had been incomprehensibly foolish, and that her mistakes would never be mine.

Thirty years after my mother’s death, my young-womanhood long gone, a sadness suddenly came upon me with the thought that though I’d known all her secrets, I hadn’t known her. I think that sadness was triggered because I’d been trying to relearn Yiddish, the language I usually spoke with her before I started going to school; and in a book I’d bought in order to practice reading in Yiddish, I came upon a lullaby by the writer Sholem Aleichem; it was one I remembered her singing when I was a child.

Bay dayn vigl zitst dayn mameh,
Zingt a lid un veynt.
Vest amol farshteyn mistame
Vos zi hot gemeynt.


I translate it this way:

Near your cradle sits your mother,
Singing a song and weeping.
Perhaps someday you’ll understand
What her tears meant.

My Mother’s Wars is my attempt to understand.