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Kaddish for My Mother

January 22, 2015 | by Beth Firestone

My mother almost left this world without my love.

“But behind all your stories is your mother's story, for hers is where yours begins." Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Nobody knows this as well as Sarah Weintraub, who lost her mother last year. Since a Jewish woman does not count as part of a minyan according to Jewish law, orthodox women will ask a male relative, friend or rabbi to say the mourner’s Kaddish for the 11-month period. For most, this is enough. Not so for Sarah, who took it upon herself to show up at her synagogue every morning for 11 months so she could say “Amen” to her mother’s Kaddish.

When the year was up, Sarah addressed the congregation after Shabbat services, thanking the men’s side for providing her with an “amazing Kaddish experience.” She explained that each morning, as she prayed on the woman’s side, she experienced a healing and strengthening of the bond between not only herself and her mother, but between her grandmother and great grandmother. “It was like I was having coffee with my mother every single morning.”

I was in shul that Shabbos morning, listening to Sarah speak. Though I’d known her for years, I knew little about Sarah’s relationship with her mother, Millie, and I’d certainly never known anyone who had done what she had done – show up to say “Amen” to her mother’s Kaddish for 11 months, never missing a day. I knew there was a mother-daughter story worth hearing and telling.

First Time Around

Sarah’s story is one of regret, rife with painful mistakes and missed opportunities, but it is ultimately a story of love and personal redemption. To understand, we must go back in time. Forty years ago, long before she’d set foot on the spiritual path that would lead to her becoming an observant Jew, Sarah became a twenty four year old divorced single mother. Needing to support her small family, she found a job in a posh Beverly Hills designer clothing store.

I was living in a rarified world of access and glamour that most people never enter.

Outgoing, beautiful and ambitious, Sarah established a trusting clientele of returning customers from the upper echelons of Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Sarah’s entire life changed when she was introduced to super star, Diana Ross, and subsequently offered the coveted position of ‘fashion coordinator’ for Ms. Ross on the upcoming blockbuster film, Mahogony. When her celebrity gig ended, Sarah ventured into a career as a licensing agent for the famous American costume designer, Bob Mackie. In time, this led to Sarah becoming the head of Marketing and Advertising for a large apparel company. She was also seriously involved with a famous Hollywood producer. “I was living in a rarified world of access and glamour that most people never enter. I was having an amazing time and was too busy to care about anyone else. Sadly I left my family behind, my father, my mother, and my older daughter, Jennifer… everyone. “

Herein begins Sarah’s mother-daughter saga. She explains, “In my twenties my mother went through a very painful divorce. At the time I took my father’s side.” It would take many years and much newfound wisdom for Sarah to understand how difficult that had been for her mother. Sarah is full of regrets. “My mother was a strong woman, but she was sad and lonely. The thing she wanted most in the world was to have a close relationship with me, but I couldn’t see that yet. “

Next Time Around

At 40 years old, Sarah ‘coincidentally’ befriended a young Jewish fashion stylist working on a commercial shoot for Sarah’s apparel company. This woman had to leave the set early on Friday afternoon because “the Jewish Sabbath was coming.” Sarah was incredulous. Nobody left the shoot early. And yet, she found herself wondering. First she’d find out what all this ‘Sabbath business’ was about, then she’d fire this audacious young thing. Destiny had something else in mind. This woman had such an endearing demeanor as she explained the idea of – “taking off twenty four hours every week from the rat race – lighting Shabbat candles, eating a beautiful dinner by candlelight” – that Sarah was compelled to take a closer look at her Jewish faith. Looking back Sarah could see that her “Soul was thirsty.”

My mother was always trying to get me into the kitchen with her. But I was always running out the door.

Over the next ten years, Sarah slowly became an observant Jew. She also remarried and had two more daughters, embracing motherhood once again, but this time wholeheartedly. Though she still worked outside the home, her role as wife, mother and builder of a Jewish home became the focal point of Sarah’s life.

Sarah’s relationship with her mother began to slowly shift. “My mother loved to come to our home for Shabbos. the Jewish holidays and every birthday party. She’d visit over Chanukah and make us latkes. My mother was an amazing cook and she was always trying to get me into the kitchen with her. But I was still busy with my career. I was always running out the door.” Sarah is reflective, remembering her mother telling her to “slow down, Susie. “

“Unfortunately I never stood next to her in the kitchen. We never cooked together. What a lost opportunity.”

Time to Come Home

“Think for a minute, darling: in fairy tales it's always the children who have the fine adventures. The mothers have to stay at home and wait for the children to fly in the window." – Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller's Wife

It would take Sarah a few more years to fly back into that window. Her mother was still waiting, but she was running on borrowed time. Millie was now 80 years old, and suffering from the onset of dementia.

While cleaning out her desk one day, Sarah came across a letter from her mother. It was not a new letter. In fact, Sarah had read it five years before. At the time, she remembers viewing it with wariness, seeing it as more of her mother’s emotionally venting. “I wasn’t ready to hear the message.” This time around, Millie’s words resonated with the sad reality they truly expressed. Sarah was overcome by emotions long buried beneath the business and distractions of her life.

Dear Susie,

I have just left my mother and more than ever I am aware of my own mortality. How selfish children can be; we don’t often give a hoot about how our parents feel and especially the single parent. Do you ever take into consideration the need I have for companionship not to mention love, friendship and a shared life? Susan, you never chose me for your mother, but I am what you got. I loved you passionately and wanted everything to be perfect for my “princess” – and that’s what you were to me. You never seemed able to return that love, let alone like me. I realized that I have lived a life of aloneness…”

As Sarah looked at her mother’s elegant European penmanship, it suddenly spoke volumes about Millie’s many other beautiful qualities. With new clarity, Sarah realized the letter was not emotional venting, but a deep desire to connect. She remembers thinking, “My beautiful mommy – please forgive me.” She was filled with remorse. “My mother always tried to make herself a part of my life. I never even put her on the platter. How could I have been so blind?” By this time, her mother was already on a physical downward spiral. Time was of the essence.

Time to Honor

Sarah’s epiphany set a new stage for her relationship with her mother. She determined to make herself available to her mother both physically and emotionally. She became her mother’s primary caretaker. As the disease progressed, Sarah moved her mother to an Assisted Living facility. It was on her daily visits there that she had a second epiphany. For the first time in her life she was able to “see who my mother really was.” She saw it in the way her mother earned the love and respect of both the staff and other residents. Sarah became a celebrity by proxy. “You’re Millie’s daughter?” they’d say whenever Sarah came, then they’d sing Millie’s praises. Millie in turn, would sing her daughter’s praises in front of everyone. “My mother was always my biggest fan. Now it was my turn. I began to openly thank my mother for everything she’d given me. She finally felt loved, heard and understood by me.”

Even though her mother was fading from dementia, she lit up the place with her light.

Sarah marveled at the woman she’d never really “seen.” Even though her mother was fading from dementia “she lit up the place with her light. She had so much goodness and warmth. All she wanted from life was to love and be loved.”

Sarah soon had to move her mother for further care, this time to The Jewish Home. Even here Millie brought joy to others. When the home eventually wanted to bring in hospice, Sarah wouldn’t have it. “Intermediaries would have disturbed my mother’s peace of mind. I didn’t want her to be with strangers in her last days.”

Indeed, as Millie’s end in this world drew near, Sarah made a commitment to herself that her mother would not die alone. “Even though she no longer recognized me, I didn’t want her to feel abandoned. I stroked my mother’s hand until her very last breath. Right before she passed, a single tear trickled down her beautiful face. I felt like it was her way of saying “Goodbye my Susie – I love you and I will always love you. It’s time for me to go. I know you love me and of course you are forgiven.”

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