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Birth, Death & Mother’s Day

by Fredrica Duke
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dad-and-his-momMother’s Day was always a meaningful day in my life, but not because of my own mother. Because of my father’s mother. She was born on a day in May that fell on or near Mother’s Day. Each year her family celebrated her birthday on Mother’s Day, no matter what the date of her actual birthday. Her large clan would all come to her little house, deep in the Valley, to honor her. Most of them lived nearby, but not us.

We would hop in the back of my dad’s convertible car and head over Coldwater Canyon. He drove with only one hand on the wheel. My dad was handicapped and needed his other hand for the controls that were attached to the steering wheel, both the gas and brake in one. It was very unsteady. Add to that the sharp curves going over the mountain, his cigar smoke filling my lungs, and his spit flying back into our faces that we tried dodging -- well, it was quite the E ticket ride. (For those born after they were discontinued in 1982, E tickets were for Disneyland’s most thrilling attractions.)

Finally, the road would straighten out at the bottom of the mountain for a long straight stretch till we hit Ventura Boulevard. By then, I was fully recovered, though still dodging spit and seeking a good air pocket to escape the smoke. No seat belts in those days either, and I weighed nothing, so I flew around a lot in the back of dad’s car.

marble-cakeThen we would arrive at my white-haired grandma’s house. Even though we were there for her birthday, a very special treat awaited me. Marble cake. Before each visit, my elderly (she always seemed frozen in time at the same old age) grandmother would go out to a bakery and buy me my favorite dessert. What a treat that always was, the highlight of my day -- sitting down with a slice of yellow cake with big thick swirls of chocolate throughout.

One time she bought one that had less chocolate. My sweet grandmother sensed my disappointment and never again served me cake from the wrong bakery, the one that was so chintzy with the chocolate. These exchanges were done without words. I never actually heard my Hungarian grandma speak. She died when I was 16 years old. I will never forget it because I witnessed my own father cry. He leaned on his cane, barely holding steady on uneven terrain at Mount Sinai cemetery. I can see it still.

On another Mother’s Day in the future, thirteen years later to be exact, I gave birth to my first child, Oliver. Now Mother’s Day would have a whole new meaning for me. I had been in labor for 24 hours and my baby was 10 days late, so giving birth on that day was a surprise gift. My father came to the hospital and I don’t think he ever made the connection that his own mother’s birthday often fell on Mother’s Day, or that it even was Mother’s Day at all. My dad might have celebrated his mom, but he wasn’t keen on manufactured Hallmark card holidays.

dad-at-olivers-bar-mitvahThis was my father’s first grandkid, a very special day indeed. He walked into Cedars where a virtual party for me was going on and announced, “I just want to stay around long enough to see the kid Bar Mitzvah’d.” My father was 73 years old. He was sensing his own mortality. He needed events to look forward to. So, even though no one in our whole family had ever had a Bar Mitzvah, and my own father had barely walked into a temple in his life, I made this happen for him.

We sent Oliver to study with a local woman and we called it a Las Vegas Bar Mitzvah, like a quickie wedding. Oliver didn’t study the Torah for years or learn more than a few Hebrew words, but we found a temple that didn’t mind. They also pretended it was my Bat Mitzvah that day. And I don’t know any Hebrew, no prayers, no songs -- gornisht (nothing), as they say in Yiddish.

And then as fate would have it, just after Oliver’s Bar Mitzvah, my father became critically ill. He kept his word. He stayed alive just long enough. Then it was back to Cedars where I threw another party, only at this one, I said my last good-bye to him. He was buried right next to his own mother’s grave, and I stocked his coffin with fresh cigars. I now stood where he once could barely stand, and it was my turn to cry.

 

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