My Mother’s Story: Memento Mori

Photo by Elsa Lichman


“When my mother married him,” she began, “he had already two children, and I was like nothing to him. A drain on the little that was. ‘Send her to the cousins,’ he told my mother. ‘They need help in the house.’ ‘She’s young yet,’ my mother said, and besides, she can help here.’ I was standing outside listening. My ears were ringing. My head hurt. I felt cold like the stars. ‘We have enough help here with Yankel and Yussel,’ he said to her.

We are sitting at the small kitchen table in my mother’s apartment. She reaches toward a green prickly plant on the windowsill, some sort of displaced cactus, and feels the soil, rubbing a few grains between her thumb and arthritically misshapen forefinger. Always there have been plants on the windowsill, veined green leaves and twisted stalks struggling for sun in the shaded Bronx apartment we had lived in, carefully tended by her as if they were her children.“

The next morning, I was sent to my mother’s cousins in another shtetl, to live and help them with the cleaning, the farm, a little of everything. I was already a balaboste (good housekeeper). I’m not sure how long it was I stayed there. I worked hard, mostly outside; there were two children about my age, they were very nice to me. When I needed something to eat, they made sure I got it. I remember one day a young bully (it is an American word she pronounces with a special vigor) from the village took away the basket of blueberries that I was all morning picking, they complained to the cousins and the thief had to pay me for my work. Of course, I missed my mother. I was so young, what was I, about nine? Once in a while she came to see me, my mother. I used to wonder would I ever live with her again in our house? Then I was sent to live with my grandfather, who worked at a nearby dairy farm. I learned to milk cows. I remember hiding in the barn once, when the Cossacks came. I watched. I was scared. They made him get down on his knees and they cut off his beard.”

I wait for the end of the story, watching her compose it.

“Then one day, maybe it was a year, maybe two years later, I don’t remember exactly, a cousin came to tell me that my mother was dead, and already buried. She was killed by a Russian soldier who was looking for food. He wanted potatoes; she opened the cellar door to show him she had no potatoes; she was pregnant. He knocked her down the cellar stairs. Killed her for not having enough.”

She pauses again, staring, her brow now furrowed, her eyes moistened by memory, and then continues telling her story, how she ran miles down roads and across fields to her mother’s new grave.

There was a tree nearby the grave, and I put my arms around it. I hugged the tree and I cried.”

She rocks back and forth holding her elbows, cradling her sorrow, her eyes closed, a little humming sound coming from her that buzzes around the room. Sounds from another world, more real than this one here. I envision the tree with spreading branches. I ache for her.

“I can still feel the tree pressing into my skin, after all these years.”

Her mother, the tree.

She rubs her arms with her rough hands, a soft scratchy sound that sends a shiver up my back, and with a sigh, rises from her chair and walks to the stove. The sun streams through the kitchen window and lights up the blue veins of her arm as she reaches for the chanik (kettle) on the stove-top to boil water. The rest I already knew, that at the age of fourteen, sponsored by her aunt in America and helped by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, she traveled on her own from Rakow, in Minsk Gobernia, to New York, carrying her heavy losses with her. Unspoken presences, they haunted the life of her children in turn.

Six months after my mother told me this story, she entered the hospital, or rather, was helped in, her abdomen bloated, as if she were carrying some wondrous child. Peritoneal cancer, as it turned out, although for months the doctors had attributed her abdominal pains to pathological mourning. Maybe it was that also. Who knows how dynamic the mind is, how potent its reach? Every day for the next few weeks I would sit at her bedside, staring at her swollen torso, watching numbly as it was turned several times a day by the nurses, lugged first this way, then that way, like a beached whale. Every few days her body would be drained of the fluids that kept filling her up.

After the first week, she asked me to call her few remaining friends and relatives to tell them where she was, and several came to visit. But no one spoke of dying; no one said cancer, least of all me.

“You’ll be all right. It’s an intestinal disorder. The doctors are treating it. Don’t worry. They just need to find the right combination of medicine.”

Don’t worry. Did she know I was lying, as I had always lied to her, when I assured her that she would recover soon? I couldn’t mouth words that might cause her pain; she seemed so vulnerable. Don’t worry. But she always had anyway. She must have known what was incubating inside her without my saying the word.

As the days passed, she grew increasingly silent. What was she thinking then, as she lay there staring back at me? Perhaps she continued to tell herself stories about people she loved and had lost, perhaps that’s what kept her engorged day after day. Then one day, the noise coming out of her mouth became louder, a deep guttural snore from the center of the earth. I knew there were no stories that could survive that sound. I sat beside her for several hours that day, wondering how long she could last, leaning in close, watching for a sign, fearful that I might not recognize her death when it came. But there was no mistaking the moment, for when she finally gave up the ghost, it was bright red, and it spilled from her mouth.

Author's Comment

My parents both died within the same year, my father of a dramatic recurrence of a heart-attack while in the hospital, and nine months later, my mother, of cancer. I was living and working in Buffalo at that time, and when my father died (a traumatic sight for me), I realized how little I knew of his young life. It was an absence that haunted me, and so when a few months later my mother became ill with stomach pains, having flown into New York to help her get a diagnosis, I asked her to tell me about her life as a young girl. I see the story as emblematic of the way mothers pass on an emotional legacy that daughters are often unaware of, one that continues to live inside them without their knowledge. My mother’s life-long mourning of her mother, and later of others in her family who had disappeared in the Holocaust, had filled the atmosphere of our apartment when I was young like a giant tear. Telling her story after she died was a way of acknowledging the loss, but also of incorporating her, taking her into my head when I had so long kept her out.


Claire Kahane, a Professor of English Emerita at SUNY- Buffalo, now lives in Berkeley and is a Research Associate in the University of California English Department, a member of the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and a board member of the Berkeley Psychoanalytic Society. She has published essays on gender in modern fiction, Gothic literature, Holocaust trauma, and Ian McEwan. Her feminist studies include The M/Other Tongue, and Passions of the Voice: Hysteria, Narrative and the Figure of the Speaking Woman, 1850-1915. She has just completed an essay on maternal rage in the mother-daughter relationship, and a memoir, Nine Lives, from which this short piece is taken.

19 Comments on “My Mother’s Story: Memento Mori

  1. “How dynamic the mind is, how potent its reach.” “Sounds from another world, more real than this one here.” What a powerful and moving story, Claire. In its form it reminded me of a Russian doll—your mother inside you, her mother inside her, sorrows inside sorrows carried across generations by the human voice. Giving voice to your mother was for me the most moving thing of all. Thank you for sharing your personal stories with us.

  2. Powerful and affecting — a wonderful telling that honors your mother’s telling and your own survival of the shadow of her story — The suffering we are given is universal, human, shared and important to acknowledge fully and without flinching. You do this wonderfully.

  3. This story moved me deeply. I have great-grandmothers who were given to other families, one “sold” as a bond-girl, but our family failed to pass down the stories of what happened to them beyond the large picture. I’m so glad your mother trusted you with this story and that you have shared it.

  4. Thank you Claire for this wonderful and deep remembrance. It reminds of a time not soon before my mother died when I had brought some photos of her and friends from many years before. I wanted to hear her story about them, and what she remembered of her life from those distant times. I was surprised that she was not interested in remembering. She waved the pics away and with some bitterness, I thought, said “that was too long ago”. I think she was at a very different point in her life and that there must have been a lot of pain that she did not want to revisit. Her father died when she was a young teen after she and her mother and older sister had traveled with her Dad all around the country to try to find a place and climate that might restore him to health. She was born in Ft Collins CO far from her family’s roots in the midwest. I don’t know what lead them to Colorado. I do know that they lived for a time in Death Valley. She remembered cutting a strange bug in two parts and each part running away in different directions. I heard stories that it was so hot you could fry an egg on a stone. They lived in a tent and stayed in Southern California for awhile . At the time period of the pics they had wound up at in W. Lafayette, Indiana. Her father was from there. During her early years a cousin came to live with them. Her mother had died and the father, an uncle, who work in a mining camp out West felt he could not take care of a daughter surrounded by miners. Two years later he was killed in a mining accident, so the cousin became permanent member of my Mom’s family. Maybe the pics started to stir up those memories, and they were unwanted. There was, I suspect, a lot of pain in those years. They had no money and Grandma took in borders and cooked and cleaned fraternities near-by. She was helped by a sister in law whose husband died at a young age and Grandma took her in the live with the family. I knew her well since I was a teen when she got cancer and died. Mom did go to college, Purdue, and graduated with a degree in what was called Home Economics in those days. She wanted to go into teaching, but learned from one of her professors that the KKK had become so influential in Indiana that she would not be able to get a position because she was Catholic. She went to work at the local newspaper. Met my father and got married, but when I (their first in utero, conceived on the wedding night – perhaps) she learned that her older sister died in childbirth. She went to be with her Mother. After my Mom died I found a letter Dad had written to her It was very touching: he missed her terribly and hoped she would be able to come home soon. I think the pain of all this loss and separation must have weighed on her a great deal. I was full term but only five pounds. This led to the first chapters of my life, but this is another story. Your memories, Claire, stirred this up and made me realize I should tell my kids my stories before it is too late. Be safe.

    1. Hi Richard, I am so moved by your story, which makes me realize how dramatically real and hard life was for the families of so many of us who now live privileged lives. Thanks for responding. This is part of a memoir I’m hoping to get published called Nine Lives: Adventures in Becoming. Perhaps you should write yours? Take care, and warm wishes to Sally.

  5. Excellent narrative. My mother was a real chatter box concerning trivial issues. This story is raw. Its vulnerable-ness causes me to speculate about my own mother’s lack of sharing the real stuff. But, upon speculation, I must admit that many of my stories may not be shared with my own children. Am I protecting them? Am I protecting who they deem me to be? Our untold stories go our graves and then what good will they be….

  6. This memoir can speak to the deepest sorrows and fears of human lives worldwide. Whether it’s because of divorce or death or any reason for deep uncertainty of what will become of a child, that child would feel understood by this author. So would someone who has sat by the bedside of a dying loved one, torn between being honest about the poor prognosis and wanting to spare them from frightening news. In my case, I didn’t grow up in a shtetl in Russia, unwanted by my father. But, as a suddenly orphaned child, I recognize in this story the fundamental terror and helplessness of overhearing adults discussing what was to become of us children. Some were willing to take this child or that one. Two aunts tried to promptly dump all six of us in a Philadelphia orphanage. A divorced aunt, with financial help from her caring boyfriend, took us in and kept us together. Yet, nothing felt settled. A priest kept trying to talk my aunt into sending my older brothers to Boys Town all the way out in Nebraska. We rehearsed running to hide if the aunts who had tried to put us in an orphanage showed up at our school. They did show up at our house a few years later. Seeing that my older sister had become a “really big girl who’d be good at pushing the couch and chairs around and could clean really good behind them,” haggled to claim her—right in front of us. “Over my dead body, you’ll take her,” said the aunt raising us. There’s something really uplifting about encountering a published account by an author who understands the heart of such situations. —— It isn’t just the content of this story that’s great. The style is artful. It’s beautifully written, full of rich imagery. I can still see those twisted stalks of plants “struggling for sun in the shaded Bronx apartment.” Much of the imagery, like these plants, is analogous to the events described in the account of the mother’s life, but they are offered in a single, delicate stroke rather than a heavy-handed, rambling analysis. This is part of what makes this memoir a work of art.

  7. Claire, I keep coming back to read and reread your beautifully told story of your mother’s story. Thanks for including me among your readers.

  8. What a beautiful piece! I’ve known you most of my adult life and never knew your pain.
    Your mother’s pain. Which became yours. I am in awe of it. And what you have made with it.

  9. This is a stunning, piece, Claire. I’d like to share it with those I know who have struggled with death and mourning. I’m glad to have read this.

  10. Dear Claire, you have given me a few tender images of your being, which will hover near when i look at you, hear your voice, read your word online or on the page. We are our parents’ past sorrows and joys, even those of the lost generations preceding us, traveling with us, passing along to our children and grandchildren.

  11. What a beautifully and simply told, sad story. How powerful a memory in just a few words: “Her mother, the tree.”

  12. Amazing story, Claire, and very well told! It has quite an impact for such a short story! I was able to feel your mother’s pain as she told her story to you–and then yours as you sat by her side helpless as she lay dying with that “swollen” belly, as though pregnant with a “wondrous child,” just like her own mother died while pregnant. There was obviously a lot of violence in your mother’s life–which helps me to understand your interest in Flannery O’Connor and the Gothic!

  13. I loved the way your mother’s story, her reality, is described as displacing your, the narrator’s /daughter’s own. And that your apartment was so resonant with that reality and pain, which you finally came to understand.

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