Eulogy for a Mom
For everyone who has been there this week, for the love that surrounds me, and of course for my mother on Mother’s Day. This is my last gift to you, mom. Thank you.
Sometimes I feel I have lost my words. I lost my words because she gave all of them to me. Every word out of my lips my mother bestowed on me, because she was there for the days when I had no voice.
She sat patiently and fed words to me through speech therapy as a child, every little victory coming with the reward of a wind-up toy. It was so that, as I grew up, I could detail every rush of life, catalog the love and dreams engulfing the universe, and note the turning of the world as it came crashing into us. It was her biggest gift to me.
Even without speech, Jacqueline Amira Slutske taught me through her actions how to become a woman: Be fearless. Smart. Stubborn as hell. Take the lead when it’s your time. Laugh a lot, even when the situation doesn’t call for it; that’s when you need it most. Take care of your own. And never forget where you came from.
In her pursuit of my speech therapy as a child, a doctor told her, “Stop being such a Jewish mother.” She was mad as hell at that statement, but don’t let that fool you: She was definitely a Jewish mother. I butted heads with her regularly, because I learned at her knee to be strong, bold and brave, a commander of your realm. But you could always count on her. That’s what Jewish mothers do: They’re always there, whether to kiss your childhood skinned knees or help you fight the adult-sized demons lying next to you, causing you to scream into the night.
Jackie carried on the name of Jack Arouty, her uncle who was killed during World War II. His mother insisted that my pregnant grandmother and my great aunt, in their desperation and grief, would name Regina Amira’s child after her son. Mom’s birth in Los Angeles was followed by a telegram to her father, who was working on planes at La Guardia. It said, “Hi Dad, I’m here!”
She was the apple of Joseph Amira’s eye. When he would get home from work, she’d hide and he’d always ask aloud, “Where’s Jackie?” She would then jump out of the closet and say, “Here me is!” Mind you, her grammar got a lot better as she got older, particularly because she read so many books. You would never see her without one, whether it was on tape or a paperback. Public libraries were her favorite places, and her passion was learning.
She adored her brother Victor with every fiber of her being, along with her large multi-generational family. Her friend Rachel taught her to sew, and she made so many of her clothes, even her wedding dress. She looked forward to phone calls with her cousin Lorrie on Wednesdays. She played numerous card games with my father and supported him in every way, whether moving across the country several times, typing a master’s thesis while pregnant or cursing a man in Honolulu who was causing him trouble at the community theater. Word to the wise from that: Do not mess with Amira women and those they love, whether it’s her man, her children or even the dogs.
In our childhood, she gave Shoshana and me a wild sense of imagination, knowledge and creativity. She was our teacher, but also the keeper of dreams. Bedtime stories were her specialty, where we would lie there and she would tell us about the wardrobe to Narnia or the night Max wore his wolf suit and journeyed to where the wild things are.
Wherever we moved to, she created a family for us. Our friends weren’t really friends, but rather warmly received relatives who were adopted over time. We shared with our neighbors and mom showed us the joys of a multicultural world. Yet she also taught us to remember who we are: We are Jewish women, Sephardic Jews descended from a proud tradition that carries responsibilities. Be proud of your heritage and share it while remaining respectful and in the modern world. But don’t eat the gefilte fish.
As with our friends who became our family, every kid that came into her house was one of hers too. So much so that my friend Allison would walk into the house, look at my parents and say, “Hi mom, hi dad.” My mother loved it. She yearned to make soup for Remy, who seemed to show up whenever it was on the stove; glowed when Gary sent “Mama Slutske” flowers on Mother’s Day; and relished in sewing baby clothes for Eve’s little girl Jorry, gushing about how cute she was in pictures. And when Victor became ill, she stepped up and became a mom for her niece, Amy, too.
My mother had particular tastes: She adored Motown, Carly Simon and home repair shows. She loved chocolate with caramel, tongue sandwiches and lamb chops; if we were feeling particularly carnivorous on any given night, we turned to each other and said, “Meat,” and laugh when others tried to say it that way and failed. The only thing she really didn’t like was the movie The Sound of Music. This, however, did not stop her from singing the parody version of “My Favorite Things” at our Seder every year.
Every holiday was a labor of love, but particularly Passover. She would spend weeks preparing all the foods and sometimes things wouldn’t go to plan — although I can’t pretend that she wasn’t secretly thrilled that our dog Lucy had no taste for people food except for the novias she made. When Seder came, my mother would read the Haggadah she wrote and her voice would break, because in her own words, she cried at supermarket openings. In the days after her death, the first words to comfort me were her own words about Passover: “I am never alone when I am cooking. Generations of women of my family are encouraging me and smiling.”
I have said so many words, and can keep saying them. But words can’t describe the sound of her laugh that would redden her cheeks and send her smile up to the sky, a lot of which was my doing. You’ll never hear how wicked her sense of humor was, or see the childlike wonder consume her in receiving precious little gifts, like a pinwheel pen or a tea infuser shaped like a manatee.
The last gift I got from mom was one more conversation with her in the hospital on Monday. It was where we could say the words that needed to be said in that tiny little sliver of time, when one life is standing at the edge of glory and the other has many more steps to take. We said we loved each other and she told how proud she was and how she loved getting to know me as an adult. She ran her fingers through my hair one last time with her perfect pink nails as I sobbed at her bedside, and looked into her big brown eyes before kissing her forehead.
And, in the end, the words weren’t there anymore. I was left howling on the floor, holding her hand one last time, crying for my mommy like a five year old child while trying to be a grown up, thanking her for everything she gave me, gave all of us, when the grief was too overwhelming to bear.
There were very few words left at that moment. Yet at the end of it all, it was enough.