New Beginnings, and a New Mother

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EVERY marriage is a new beginning, perhaps the biggest chance we get to start over again. But sometimes, along with that all-important new spouse, we get something else that turns out to have lasting meaning in our lives.

It could be something as simple as a new dog. Or something as big as a new neighborhood or a new self-image. For me, it was something both more mundane and more elusive. Something that cut right to the core of my being and set a new flower blooming.

I got a new mother.

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The truth is I didn't exactly rush to embrace this relationship. Those of us who once tried to prolong adolescence indefinitely do not generally seek an additional parent later on in life. Besides, I already had a mother to rebel against.

But with Mimi, it was different. She was a small woman, about my size, in a houseful of large people. Her real name was Betty - or Elizabeth, I guess, if you look in the front page of her mother's Bible in the old white house where she grew up. But one grandchild or another started calling her Mimi, and it just stuck.

At first, she treated me like an ordinary daughter-in-law and tried offering me recipes. But my husband whispered warnings to me about them. Like all families, this one had a secret: Mimi was a terrible cook.

BUT mothering seems to have its own physics, a whole set of natural laws true only unto itself. You can try to contain it, but it will ultimately have its way.

My husband showed me the flaws in Mimi's recipes and how to create culinary masterpieces out of their corollaries. His learning to cook had been simple gastronomic self-defense: Her defect became his asset. I guess not all mothers know they are creating the future. But they seem to do it anyway.

When our twins were born and our energy was eroded by the 100-diapers-a-week routine, Mimi helped out in small ways, but they added up to something I had never had from my own mother: trust. Perhaps it was because she met me whole, without the shadows of childhood on my face, or perhaps it was the nurturing I had gotten from the man she raised. But what she saw in me was what I wanted to be - and what I became through that vision: a good mother.

And yet we came from such different worlds. Mimi grew up in a time and place where winter meant hitching her sled to the back of a horse-drawn sleigh and getting a free pull up Main Street for the long slide down.

The old white house where she was born still looks neat and straight some 80-odd years later. And I have often walked, trying to feel her footprints, along the path to the one-room schoolhouse where she first learned her ABC's.

But until I got to really understand her hometown, my feet had known only city streets, those restless roadways haunted by the memory of dead trees sealed beneath the pavement. My roots were ensnarled in the bitter legacy of the Holocaust, and I had always believed the seeds my own mother had planted in me would not grow here in this foreign soil.

But I was wrong. One day I found Mimi's footprints, and they were the right size. And suddenly it didn't matter if I were walking in Linz or Lynn or lower Manhattan. She was a part of me in the way people are before you learn any words. We all know the language of mothers is universal.

We would spend hours on the porch together, my second mother and I, rocking and talking. I wish I could say she gave me wisdom, or knowledge, or even advice - but they are all too grand a concept. She simply shared family stories and old memories scented with lilac - nothing more.

But I came to realize that it is not the thread that is of value, it is the cloth that is woven from it. And from that cloth I found I could fashion a garment that fit me like an embrace.

How sweet it was not to want to run away! My heart was no rebel to this mother. Yet surely she knew none of my inner struggle. She was a simple woman with simple beliefs. But she let me see her with her heart open, and her belief in me warmed me like sunshine.

For months after she died, I had trouble envisioning her face. I would look and look in old photo albums, but nothing would be right. Then one night, one of my daughters awoke from a bad dream and came stumbling into the room and climbed onto my lap in front of the fire. As I closed my eyes and rocked her back to sleep, I saw the contours of Mimi's gentle face take shape in my mind, and it was not so different from my own.

Perhaps I can try again with my own mother, I thought. Perhaps this time I will know how to do it right.

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