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The Older I Get, the More I Am Truly My Mother’s Daughter

Are you turning into your mother, too?

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illustration of daughter looking at herself in mirror and seeing her mother reflected, mother's day, mom
Allie Sullberg
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I am looking at my tulips aglow with red blossoms and remembering a walk I took with my mother, spring of 2006. I was pushing Helene Krasnow in her wheelchair along the lakefront in Chicago, the city where I was born and where she soon would die.

With unrelenting courage, my mom survived the loss of her immediate family to the Holocaust, the loss of her husband, my father, 20 years earlier, and the recent loss of her lower left leg. I chronicle the relationship with this most influential person in my life in I Am My Mother's Daughter, composed during the years she went from a feisty top saleswoman at Lord & Taylor to an amputee with progressing dementia.

As she pushed through pain and exhaustion, I came to realize that my irrepressible mother, with whom I often sparred in my rebellious youth, was my hero. I spent a lot of my girlhood and adolescence wishing she belonged to someone else, only to wake up at midlife to this resounding fact: What I loathed about my mom while growing up — her strict schedules and rules and steely resolve — form the best of who I became. Her character molded a daughter and mother who is organized, unflappable and hopeful. I could count on my mom; she was predictable. This, I believe, is the greatest gift you can give to a child.

I was 51 when my mom died 16 years ago. She was 86. Every day since is Mother’s Day, as I still hear her voice and see her so vividly, each day, even several times a day. I am cooking and she is in my kitchen, telling me how to make a juicy brisket, or sitting across from me at 5 p.m., the minute we both wanted our icy martinis.

I wake from dreams so real that I see her walking toward me, though her last lap of life was spent in a wheelchair. I hold on to her so tightly, as if I were a frightened child. Those fantasy embraces, unreal and so real, are always a comfort, reminding me that I am eternally protected by a mother who is alive in my heart.

Yes, Helene Krasnow is always nearby. I look at my hands and they are my mother’s hands as she aged, spotted with age and protruding blue caterpillar veins, calloused from gardening, childrearing, detergents and life. Today, I watch the unthinkable on TV, the bombs bursting in air, demolishing a country where my paternal grandparents were born.

Today, in a churning, scary world, do you feel like me? I wish I had my mommy around to soothe me and tell me we will prevail. She would shake her head and deliver one of her favorite sayings, “Things could always be worse” — this from a woman who spent a decade dodging Nazis as a young girl.

I am soothed by her imaginary words, then sit down at the kitchen table where my mother and I sat together, cried together, laughed together and drank together. I am thrown back to that spring day in Chicago when we stopped at a patch of tulips along Lake Michigan, a triumph of yellow and red. On our walk long ago that seems like this morning, the tulip petals are widely spread, a day or so from scattering to the ground. My mom leans over and lightly touches the flowers, with a little smile and a big sigh. I know she is thinking what I am thinking — of the stretch of lustrous tulip beds we had in the backyard of our house, where she raised three children in the nearby suburb of Oak Park.                   

We are thinking how the span of our lives goes as swiftly as the blast of the wind from Lake Michigan, blowing out air. We are thinking that flower petals scatter with the seasons, and parents die, and children grow into adults who carry on, because we were raised to be strong and resilient.

Some passersby stare at the old woman in the wheelchair who is missing one foot, and my mom shoots them a laser stare back. They quickly look away, as Helene Krasnow did not just look at you; she seemed to look through you.  I am my mother’s daughter, and I want to be like her as I move through my 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. She wore silk scarves and dark pink lipstick and Shalimar until her dying day. My sister, Fran, and I split her collection of silk scarves. Though, my mother’s two daughters and one son all now wholly possess her enduring love and spirit, indelible and everlasting. 

Many of you, like me, have lost your mothers. Yet, alive or departed, our mothers are often the power inside of us. Our mothers may pass away, but they are never really gone. Helene Krasnow is still guiding me to persevere through adversity. I know from my mother that you can lose a limb and a whole family, but nobody can ever take your faith or hopes away.

A handful of my fortunate friends still have their 90-something mothers around. Some of their moms are clearheaded and living alone; some require round-the-clock caregiving — and the daughters complain.  I tell them all to love their one and only mother while they have her within reach. I tell them that if they remain locked in a stubborn standoff over a simmering fight that erupted long ago (less than a divide over abuse or neglect), pick up a phone or schedule a Zoom and say “I’m sorry,” even if they are not sorry one bit. No texts — must do this by voice.

You cannot say “I’m sorry, I love you, happy Mother’s Day” at a funeral.

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