At six per day, for two and a half years per child, you changed 27,375 diapers raising the five of us. You made at least 150 trips to the pediatrician, not to mention the dermatologists, allergists and orthodontists. At three pairs per year per child for 18 years you bought over 300 pairs of shoes, not to mention skates, baseball spikes, flippers and ballet shoes. At even just two meals a day, six days a week per family member for each of the years any of us kids lived at home, you served 183,960 plates of food (not including all the school lunches you packed or the years that our relatives who were fleeing the socialist takeover in Chile lived with us -- making it 11 for breakfast and dinner every night).
No, you weren’t perfect. There were a lot of times I wished you were more like the PTA, carpooling, tuck you into bed at night moms. But married at 17 with five kids before you were 30, I know that the time and the money weren't there; that dad couldn't or wouldn’t be home much; that you drank five cups of coffee a day just to keep going, and that you did it all without help or complaint.
I know you suffered terrible, blinding headaches, that your own mentally ill mother who committed suicide and your abusive father were of no help to you, and that your life was defined by putting your own wants aside.
I know your marriage with dad was mostly as cold as the Minnesota ice you scrapped off your windshield to make one more trip to the grocery store. I know you would have left him but for our sake didn’t. You hung in there with dad so that you could hang in there for us.
And believe me, I realize that tough as it was, the cooking, cleaning and shlepping was the easy part. The hard part was trying to raise children to be--good. I'm not sure how you did it Mom, but after watching Betsy with our kids for 30 years -- I think it comes down to sheer and constant love; to being there come what may.
You remember the time I played airplane pilot on your sewing machine in the basement and accidentally turned it into a mass of broken parts and tangled thread? Or when, as an awkward 16-year-old I mistook the accelerator for the brake and accidentally drove your car through the garage and into the kitchen?
"He thought it was a drive-in restaurant," you joked with family and friends. You made me feel so much better, so much less foolish. You always forgave my awkwardness.
You were my refuge from the pressures and agonies of a dad for whom excellent was just a little less than something to be proud of. Even now, I can come to you with my failures, my bruised ego, my skinned and scrapped self-image, and know I’m still your little boy, still worthy, still safe.
You know what else I loved about you when I was growing up Mom? You always believed me, even when I was lying. Through getting arrested for shoplifting, getting kicked out of camp for smoking, rock and roll bands in the basement, failing algebra, fracturing Tommy Murphy's collar bone, having my heart broken at 22 by a woman I thought I loved and three months later dating a woman poet 15 years older than I (who you pointed out on more than one occasion did not shave her legs), then a year later dating a female bodybuilder, followed by my surprise engagement to Betsy on our second date, you always believed in my goodness. You believed I would somehow turn out right. Your faith in me demanded my own self-respect. Your trust made me want to do the right thing even when I wasn't. How does a son thank his mother for believing in him?
“Ach, if men had to give birth there would be no people!” You used to say. Maybe it’s true. Women are so strong. You, Mom, are so strong. After all these years, in the most profound, heartbreaking way, you became a mother again, but this time to dad, whose life shrank to a room on the second floor of a nursing home where he sat for 10 years in a diaper and bib, as you gently fed him his pureed food. After surgeries, after learning to manage the money, the lawyers, the doctors, the house, the family, there you were, spoon in hand, a mother, on duty, without complaint.
It's hard for a rabbi to have any pretty illusions about life. Which is all the more reason why I am writing you this letter. I know so many whose mothers did not or could not give them the love every child deserves. And it seems to me that the truly lost and lonely in this nervous, unkind world of ours -- the shattered and the hopeless among us -- got that way because they never had what you managed to give every one of your children; the certainty, the warmth, the breath of unfailing love.
So a reminder to all of us this Mother’s day to thank our moms and thank God for a mother's love. Because none of us gets to hold our mother forever and none of us gets to be forever held.