I hope that sharing this chapter from my memoir, FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness will resonate with you, whet your appetite, and make you feel this is a book you really want to read.
The other stories Mother told merge with my visions of her during the times when Father would say, “Your mother’s not herself these days.” During those bouts, her stories were even more painful. I wished I could believe they were just stories, not a part of anyone’s real life, least of all my mother’s. Yet, it all did happen. Her childhood stories of life in Russia after the turn of the 20th century were replete with images of unthinkable loss.
She’d begin with her usual “What’s the use to look back? What’s to see?” Yet, all she was ever able to do at such times when she was not herself was to look back, to go back to where she was most determined not to go, to a time and place where the traumas began haunting her, taking away the best of her from the rest of her and, ultimately, taking her away from us, her anguish always visible, the manner in which she spoke frightening.
As Mother paced nervously throughout the night, sometimes mumbling incoherently, nightmares invaded my sleep, mixing the real with the unreal. An instinctive vigilance soon governed my days.
I never understood what it was about the night that robbed her of dignity by morning, when she refused eye contact with any of us and mumbled only to the dead or to God, and I would lose her again.
Our apartment would become victim to a relentless urgency and desperation as her memories pushed their way to the surface, wreaking havoc with her mind. The chaos that then permeated our rooms alternated between Mother’s anger and a child-like fragility, confronting the silences of feelings never articulated by any of us.
Nothing made sense.
With no one explaining anything to me – except for Father’s saying Mother was simply not herself – my body tensed with every shift in her mood. My fingers clenched into tiny fists. I stayed close by, watching her every move as she compulsively washed the kitchen and bathroom floors on her hands and knees, re-washing and re-waxing sections made spotless moments earlier.
With the scrub brush held tightly in her hands, her knuckles bone white from the pressure, she rocked and scrubbed, scrubbed and rocked, her energy and strength frightening and hypnotic.
All the while, her stories continued. She’d rant on in rapid, staccato whispers or loud, disjointed speech. “What’s to see? What’s to remember?”
Whatever voices she may have heard, I wasn’t privy to them. I heard only her words and the images they conjured up. “That one day there’s a family, a house, vegetables in the garden, a sun that shines? Then, boom! There’s no more sun. No more ‘tateh,’ no father. No hug. No goodbye. He’s gone! Gone to America. Mama tells us we’ll join him, but, no, that never happens.
“After giving birth to our eighth baby, Mama’s already suffering too much when the midwife comes. The baby, our brother Abrasha, is already born.” Lifting her head at that point, her sad eyes squinting, she’d look across the room, at another space, another place far beyond the circle of suds facing her, beyond our four rooms in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
“We have the bris (the ritual circumcision) for the baby,” she’d continue. “Papa sends money for it, and weeks later, even though Mama’s not well yet, the packing begins. She tells us tateh is ready for us to come to America, and every one of us is hopeful. All the furniture is sold. Then, what do you think? One-two-three, the whole world turns upside down. A notice arrives. The borders are closed. There’s war! War! We can’t leave Russia. Did you ever hear of such a thing?”
Dusting every piece of furniture, she’d talk on about the war as though she was living it all over again.
“And with no more furniture, all we have is boxes. Boxes of clothes and blankets, Shabbos candlesticks, some books and a few chatchkes (knickknacks) Mama can’t leave behind. So, what can she do? What can we all do? There is no choice.”
Rinsing the mop, strangling it with a twist of her wrists, unaware of what was in her hands or what the rest of her body was doing, she’d ramble on. “There’s no more going to America. The government tells us we can’t leave. Nobody can. The borders, they’re closed. To stay in our house, even that we can’t do. There’s no more furniture, no house, no nothing. Just war. Then more war. As much as she hates to, Mama moves the eight of us to Bubby and Zadie’s, to her parent’s tiny hut in Tolochin, where there’s no room for nobody. Nobody.”
As each memory re-surfaced, it tore at the fabric of our family, her new family here in America with Father, Herbie and me. Her voice – the one we knew to be soft and gentle – grew shrill. Her cleaning frenzy intensified. With each new day, she’d dust everything in sight, then wash and wax, re-wash and re-wax each floor. Mother’s words – her stories – echoed in my head. Her behavior, a cause for alarm, left me ever more watchful, desperately wanting to help her, to save her, to make her happy.