This article first appeared in the January/February 2000 issue.
Dusk. Perhaps I am dying. Sinister shapes surround my bed: cardiac monsters, oxygen canisters, dripping intravenous bottles, coils of plastic tubing—the entrails of death. Closing my lids, I glide into darkness.
But then, springing from my bed, I dart out of the hospital room smack into the bright, sunlit Glen Echo Amusement Park, where, in decades past, I spent many summer Sundays. I hear carousel music. I breathe in the moist, caramelized fragrance of sticky popcorn and apples. And I walk straight ahead—not hesitating at the Polar Bear Frozen Custard stand or the double-dip roller coaster or the Ferris wheel—to take my place in the ticket line for the House of Horrors. My fare paid, I wait as the next cart swivels around the corner and clanks to a halt in front of me. After stepping in and pulling down the guard rail to lock myself snugly into place, I take one last look about me—and there, in the midst of a small group of onlookers, I see her.
I wave with both arms and call, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Momma! Momma!” Just then the cart lurches forward and strikes the double doors, which swing open to reveal a black gaping maw. I lean back as far as I can and, before being swallowed by the darkness, call again, “Momma! How’d I do, Momma? How’d I do?”
Even as I lift my head from the pillow and try to shake off the dream, the words clot in my throat: “How’d I do, Momma? Momma, how’d I do?”
But Momma is six feet under. Stone-cold dead for ten years now in a plain pine casket in an Anacostia cemetery outside Washington, D.C. What is left of her? Only bones, I guess. No doubt the microbes have polished off every scrap of flesh. Maybe some strands of thin gray hair remain—maybe some glistening streaks of cartilage cling to the ends of larger bones, the femur and the tibia. And oh yes, the ring. Nestled somewhere in bone dust must be the thin silver filigree wedding ring my father bought on Hester Street shortly after they arrived in New York, steerage class, from the Russian shtetl half a world away.
Yes, long gone. Ten years. Croaked and decayed. Nothing but hair, cartilage, bones, a silver filigree wedding ring. And her image lurking in my memories and dreams.
Why do I wave to Momma in my dream? I stopped waving years ago. How many? Maybe decades. Perhaps it was that afternoon over half a century ago, when I was eight and she took me to the Sylvan, the neighborhood movie theater around the corner from my father’s store. Though there were many empty seats, she plunked herself down next to one of the neighborhood toughs, a boy a year older than I. “That seat’s saved, lady,” he growled.
“Yeah, yeah! Saved!” my mother replied contemptuously as she made herself comfortable. “He’s saving seats, the big shot!” she announced to everyone within earshot.
I tried to vanish into the maroon velvet seat cushion. Later, in the darkened theater, I summoned courage, turned my head slowly. There he was, now sitting a few rows back next to his friend. No mistake, they were glaring and pointing at me. One of them shook his fist, mouthed, “Later!”
Momma ruined the Sylvan Theater for me. It was now enemy territory. Off limits, at least in daylight. If I wanted to keep up with the Saturday serial—Buck Rogers, Batman, The Green Hornet, The Phantom—I had to arrive after the show started, take my seat in the darkness, at the very rear of the theater, as close to an escape door as possible, and depart just before the lights went on again. In my neighborhood nothing took precedence over avoiding the major calamity of being beaten up. To be punched—not hard to imagine: a bop on the chin, and that’s it. Or slugged, slapped, kicked, cut—same thing. But beaten up—ohmygod. Where does it end? What’s left of you? You’re out of the game, forever pinned with the “got beat up” label.
And waving to Momma? Why would I wave now when, year after year, I lived with her on terms of unbroken enmity? She was vain, controlling, intrusive, suspicious, spiteful, highly opinionated, and abysmally ignorant (but intelligent—even I could see that). Never, not once, do I remember sharing a warm moment with her. Never once did I take pride in her or think, I’m so glad she’s my momma. She had a poisonous tongue and a spiteful word about everyone—except my father and sister.
I loved my Aunt Hannah, my father’s sister: her sweetness, her unceasing warmth, her grilled hot dogs wrapped in crisp bologna slices, her incomparable strudel (its recipe forever lost to me, as her son will not send it to me—but that’s another story). Most of all I loved Hannah on Sundays. On that day her delicatessen near the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard was closed, and she put free games on the pinball machine and let me play for hours. She never objected to my putting small wads of paper under the front legs of the machine to slow the pinballs’ descent so I could run up higher scores. My adoration of Hannah sent my momma into a frenzy of spiteful attacks on her sister-in-law. Momma had her Hannah litany: Hannah’s poverty, her aversion to working in the store, her poor business sense, her cloddish husband, her lack of pride and ready acceptance of all hand-me-downs.
Momma’s speech was abominable, her English heavily accented and larded with Yiddish terms. She never came to my school for parents’ day or for PTA meetings. Thank God! I cringed at the thought of introducing my friends to her. I fought with Momma, defied her, screamed at her, avoided her, and, finally, in my midadolescence, stopped speaking to her altogether.
The great puzzle of my childhood was, How does Daddy put up with her? I remember wonderful moments on Sunday mornings when he and I played chess and he gaily sang along with records of Russian or Jewish music, his head swaying in time to the melody. Sooner or later the morning air was shattered by Momma’s voice screeching from upstairs, “Gevalt, Gevalt, enough! Vay iz mir, enough music, enough noise!” Without a word my father would rise, turn off the phonograph, and resume our chess game in silence. How many times I prayed, Please, Dad, please, just this once, punch her out!
So why wave? And why ask, at the very end of my life, “How’d I do, Momma?” Can it be—and the possibility staggers me—that I have been conducting my entire life with this lamentable woman as my primary audience? All my life I have sought to escape, to climb away from my past—the shtetl, the steerage, the ghetto, the tallis, the chanting, the black gabardine, the grocery store. All my life I have stretched for liberation and growth. Can it be that I have escaped neither my past nor my mother?
Those friends who have had lovely, gracious, supportive mothers—how I envy them. And how odd that they are not bound to their mothers, neither phoning, visiting, dreaming, nor even thinking about them frequently. Whereas I have to purge my mother from my mind many times a day and even now, ten years after her death, often reflexively reach for a phone to call her.
Oh, I can understand all this intellectually. I have given lectures on the phenomenon. I explain to my patients that abused children often find it hard to disentangle themselves from their dysfunctional families, whereas children grow away from good, loving parents with far less conflict. After all, isn’t that the task of a good parent, to enable the child to leave home?
I understand it, but I don’t like it. I don’t like my mother visiting me every day. I hate it that she has so insinuated herself into the interstices of my mind that I can never root her out. And most of all, I hate that at the end of my life I feel compelled to ask, “How’d I do, Momma?”
I think of the overstuffed chair in her Washington, D.C., retirement home. It partially blocked the entrance to her apartment and was flanked by sentinel tables stacked with at least one copy, sometimes more, of each of the books I had written. With over a dozen books and an additional two dozen foreign-language translations, the stacks teetered dangerously. All it would take, I often imagined, was one middling-respectable earth tremor to bury her up to her nose under the books of her only son.
Whenever I visited I would find her stationed in that chair with two or three of my books in her lap. She weighed them, smelled them, caressed them—everything but read them. She was too blind. But even before her vision failed she could not have comprehended them: her only education had been in a naturalization class to become a U.S. citizen.
I am a writer. And Momma can’t read. Still, I turn to her for the meaning of my life’s work. To be measured how? On the odor, the sheer heft of my books? The cover design, the slick dry-grease Teflon feel of the jackets? All my painstaking research, my leaps of inspiration, my fastidious searching for the correct thought, the elusive graceful sentence: these she never knew.
The meaning of life? The meaning of my life. The very books stacked and swaying on Momma’s table contain pretentious responses to such questions. “We are meaning-seeking creatures,” I wrote, “who must deal with the inconvenience of being hurled into a universe that intrinsically has no meaning.” And then to avoid nihilism, I explained, we must embark on a double task. First, we invent or discover a life-meaning project sturdy enough to support a life. Next, we must contrive to forget our act of invention and persuade ourselves that we have not invented but discovered the life-meaning project—that it has an independent “out there” existence.
Though I feign accepting without judgment each person’s solution, I secretly stratify them into brass, silver, and gold. Some people are goaded throughout life by a vision of vindictive triumph; some, swaddled in despair, dream only of peace, detachment, and freedom from pain; some dedicate their lives to success, opulence, power, truth; others search for self-transcendence and immerse themselves in a cause or another being—a loved one or a divine essence; still others find their meaning in a life of service, in self-actualization, in creative expression.
We need art, Nietzsche said, lest we perish from the truth. Hence I consider creativity as the golden path and have turned my entire life, all my experiences, all my imaginings, into some smoldering inner compost heap out of which I try to fashion, from time to time, something new and beautiful.
But my dream says otherwise. It contends that I have devoted my life to quite another goal—winning the approval of my dead momma.
This dream indictment has power: too much power to ignore, too disturbing to forget. But dreams are, I have learned, neither inscrutable nor immutable. For most of my life I have been a dream tinkerer. I have learned how to tame dreams, to take them apart, to put them together. I know how to squeeze out dream secrets.
And so, letting my head fall back upon my pillow, I drift off, rewinding the dream reel back to the cart in the House of Horrors.
The cart stops with a jerk, slamming me against the guard rail. A moment later, it’s reversing direction and slowly backing up through the swinging doors and out again into the Glen Echo sunlight.
“Momma, Momma!” I call, both arms waving. “How’d I do?”
She hears me. I see her plowing her way through the crowd, flinging people to right and left. “Oyvin, what a question,” she says, unlocking the guard rail and pulling me out of the cart.
I look at her. She seems about fifty or sixty, is strong and stocky, and is effortlessly carrying a bulging, embroidered, wooden-handled shopping bag. She is homely but does not know it and walks with her chin raised as though she were beautiful. I notice the familiar folds of flesh hanging from her upper arm and the stockings bunched and tied just above the knees. She gives me a big wet kiss. I feign affection.
“You did good. Who could ask for more? All those books. You made me proud. If only your father were here to see.”
“What do you mean I did good, Momma? How do you know? You can’t read what I’ve written—your vision, I mean.”
“I know what I know. Look at these books.” She opens the shopping bag, removes two of my books, and begins to fondle them tenderly. “Big books. Beautiful books.”
I feel unnerved by her handling my books. “It’s what’s in the books that’s important. Maybe they just contain nonsense.”
“Oyvin, don’t talk narishkeit—foolishness. Beautiful books!”
“Carrying around that bag of books all the time, Momma, even in Glen Echo? You’re making a shrine of them. Don’t you think—“
“Everybody knows about you. The whole world. My hairdresser tells me her daughter studies your books in school.”
“Your hairdresser? That’s it, the final test?”
“Everybody. I tell everybody. Why shouldn’t I?”
“Momma, don’t you have anything better to do? What about spending your Sunday with your friends: Hannah, Gertie, Luba, Dorothy, Sam, your brother Simon? What are you doing here at Glen Echo anyway?”
“You ashamed I should be here? You were always ashamed. Where else should I be?”
“I only mean we’re both all grown up. I’m over sixty years old. Maybe it’s time we should each have our own private dreams.”
“Always ashamed of me.”
“I didn’t say that. You don’t listen to me.”
“Always thought I was stupid. Always thought I didn’t understand anything.”
“I didn’t say that. I always said you didn’t know everything. It’s just the way you—the way you—“
“The way I what? Go ahead. You started—say it—I know what you’re going to say.”
“What am I going to say?”
“No, Oyvin, you say it. If I tell you, you’ll change it.”
“It’s the way you don’t listen to me. The way you talk about things you don’t know anything about.”
“Listen to you? I don’t listen to you? Tell me, Oyvin, you listen to me? Do you know about me?”
“You’re right, Momma. Neither of us has been good at listening to the other.”
“Not me, Oyvin, I listened good. I listened to the silence every night when I came home from the store and you don’t bother to come upstairs from your study room. You don’t even say hello. You don’t ask me if I had a hard day. How could I listen when you didn’t talk to me?”
“Something stopped me; there was such a wall between us.”
“A wall? Nice to say to your mother. A wall. I built it?”
“I didn’t say that. I only said there was a wall. I know I retreated from you. Why? How can I remember? This was fifty years ago, Momma, but everything you said to me was, I felt, some sort of reprimand.”
“I mean criticism. I had to stay away from your criticism. Those years I was feeling bad enough about myself as it was, and I didn’t need more criticism.”
“What did you have to feel bad about? All those years—Daddy and I working in the store for you to study. Till midnight. And how many times did you phone for me to bring home something for you? Pencils or paper. Remember Al? He worked in the liquor store. The one who got his face cut during a robbery?”
“Of course I remember Al, Momma. The scar all the way down the front of his nose.”
“Well, Al would answer the phone and always holler, right across the crowded store, ‘It’s the king! The king is calling! Let the king go buy his own pencils. The king could use a little exercise.’ Al was jealous; his parents gave him nothing. I never paid attention to what he said. But Al was right; I treated you like a king. Any time you called, day or night, I’d leave Daddy with a store full of customers and run down the block to Mensch’s Five & Dime. Stamps, too, you needed. And notebooks, and ink. And then ballpoint pens. All your clothes smeared with ink. Like a king. Not criticism.”
“Ma, we’re talking now. And that’s good. Let’s not accuse each other. Let’s understand. Let’s just say I felt criticized. I know you said good things about me to others. You bragged about me. But you never said it to me. To my face.”
“Not so easy to talk to you then, Oyvin. And not just for me, for everybody. You knew everything. You read everything. Maybe people were a little afraid of you. Maybe me too. Ver veys? Who knows? But let me tell you something, Oyvin, I had it voise than you. First, you never said anything nice about me either. I kept house; I cooked for you. Twenty years you ate my food. You liked it, I know. How did I know? Because the plates and pots were always empty. But you never told me. Not once in your life. Huh? Once in your life?”
Ashamed, I can only bow my head.
“Second, I knew that you didn’t say anything nice behind my back—at least you had that, Oyvin, you knew that behind your back I bragged about you to others. But I knew you were ashamed of me. Ashamed all the way through—in front of me and behind my back. Ashamed of my English, my accent. Of everything I didn’t know. And the things I said wrong. I heard the way you and your friends made fun of me—Julie, Shelly, Jerry. I heard everything. Huh?”
I bow my head lower. “You never missed anything, Momma.”
“How could I know anything that’s in your books? If I had a chance, if I could have gone to school, what I could have done with my head, my saychel! In Russia, in the shtetl, I couldn’t go to school—only the boys.”
“I know, Momma, I know. I know you would have done as well as me in school if you’d had the chance.”
“I got off the boat with my mother and father. I was only 20. Six days a week I had to work in a sewing factory. Twelve hours a day. Seven in the morning to seven at night, sometimes eight. And two hours earlier, at five in the morning, I had to walk my father to his newspaper stand next to the subway and help him unpack the papers. My brothers never helped. Simon went to accountancy school. Hymie drived a cab—never came home, never sent money. And then I married Daddy and moved to Washington, and until I was old, I worked side by side with him in the store twelve hours a day and cleaned the house and cooked too. And then I had Jean, who never gave me one minute trouble. And then I had you. And you were not easy. And I never stopped working. You saw me! You know! You heard me running up and down the stairs. Am I lying?”
“I know, Momma.”
“And all those years, as long as they lived, I supported Bubba and Zeyda. They had nothing—the few pennies my father made from the paper stand. Later we opened a candy store for him, but he couldn’t work—the men had to pray. You remember Zeyda?”
I nod. “Faint memories, Momma.” I must have been four or five . . . a sour-smelling tenement building in the Bronx . . . throwing scraps of bread and balls of tinfoil down five stories to the chickens in the courtyard . . . my grandfather, all in black, tall black yarmulke, white wild beard stained with gravy, his arms and forehead wrapped in black cords, mumbling prayers. We couldn’t converse—he spoke only Yiddish—but he pinched my cheek hard. Everyone else—Bubba, Momma, Aunt Lena—working, running up and down the stairs all day to the store, unpacking and packing, cooking, cleaning feathers from chickens, scales from fish, dusting. But Zeyda didn’t lift a finger. Just sat and read. Like a king.
“Every month,” Momma keeps on, “I took the train to New York and brought them food and money. And later, when Bubba was in the nursing home, I paid for the home and visited her every two weeks—you remember, sometimes I took you on the train. Who else in the family helped? Nobody! Your Uncle Simon would come every few months and bring her a bottle of 7 Up, and my next visit all I would hear about was your Uncle Simon’s wonderful 7 Up. Even when she was blind, she’d lie there just holding the empty 7 Up bottle. And not only Bubba I helped, but everyone else in the family—my brothers, Simon and Hymie, my sister, Lena, Tante Hannah, your Uncle Abe, the greenhorn, who I brought from Russia—everybody, the whole family, was supported by that schmutzig, dirty, little grocery store. Nobody helped me—ever! And no one ever thanked me.”
Taking a deep, deep breath, I utter the words: “I thank you, Momma. I thank you.”
That isn’t too hard. Why has it taken me fifty years? I take her arm, maybe for the first time. The fleshy part just above the elbow. It feels soft and warm, something like her warm kichel dough just before baking. “I remember your telling Jean and me about Uncle Simon’s 7 Up. That must have been hard.”
“Hard? You’re telling me. Sometimes she’d drink his 7 Up with a piece of my kichel—you know what a job making kichel is—and all she’d talk about was the 7 Up.”
“It’s good to talk, Momma. It’s the first time. Maybe I’ve always wanted it, and that’s why you stay in my mind and my dreams. Maybe now it will different.”
“Well, I’ll be able to be more myself—to live for the purposes and causes that I choose to cherish.”
“You want to get rid of me?”
“No—well, not in that way, not in a bad way. I want the same for you too. I want you to be able to rest.”
“Rest? Did you ever see me rest? Daddy napped every day. Ever see me nap?”
“What I mean is you should have your own purpose in life—not this,” I say, poking her shopping bag. “Not my books! And I should have my own purpose.”
“But I just explained,” she replies, moving her shopping bag to her other hand, away from me. “These aren’t only your books. These are my books too!”
Her arm, which I’m still clutching, is suddenly cold, and I release it.
“What do you mean,” she goes on, “I should have my purpose? These books are my purpose. I worked for you—and for them. All my life I worked for those books—my books.” She reaches into her shopping bag and pulls out two more. I cringe, afraid she is going to hold them up and show them to the small crowd of bystanders who have now gathered around us.
“But you don’t get it, Momma. We’ve got to be separate—not fettered by one another. That’s what it is to become a person. That’s exactly what I write about in those books. That’s how I want my children—all children—to be. Unfettered.”
“No, no, unfettered—a word that means free or liberated. I’m not getting through to you, Momma. Let me put it this way: every single person in the world is fundamentally alone. It’s hard, but that’s the way it is, and we have to face it. So I want to have my own thoughts and my own dreams. You should have yours too. Momma, I want you out of my dreams.”
Her face tightens sternly, and she steps back away from me. I rush to add, “Not because I don’t like you but because I want what’s good for all of us—for me and for you too. You should have your own dreams in life. Surely you can understand that.”
“Oyvin, still you think I understand nothing and that you understand everything. But I look, too, into life. And death. I understand about death—more than you. Believe me. And I understand about being alone—more than you.”
“But Momma, you don’t face being alone. You stay with me. You don’t leave me. You wander about in my thoughts. In my dreams.”
“Sonny”: I haven’t heard that name for fifty years, had forgotten that that’s what she and my father often called me.
“It’s not the way you think it is, Sonny,” she continues. “There’s some things you don’t understand, some things you’ve got turned upside down. You know that dream, the one with me standing there in the crowd, watching you in the cart waving to me, calling to me, asking me how you did in life?”
“Yes, of course I remember my dream, Momma. That’s where this all started.”
“Your dream? That’s what I want to say to you. That’s the mistake, Oyvin—your thinking I was in your dream. That dream was not your dream, Sonny. It was my dream. Mothers get to have dreams too.”
From the book Momma and the Meaning of Life © by Irvin D. Yalom. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books. All rights reserved.
PHOTO @ TIM THOMPSON / ALLSTOCK / PNI
Irvin Yalom, PhD, is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and the author many books, including Becoming Myself: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir.