By Sarah Darer Littman
Ever since my beloved mother, Susan Darer, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on March 17, I have been dreading Mother’s Day. The first time I saw a Mother’s Day sign in Stop and Shop while grocery shopping, about ten days after Mom’s passing, I burst into tears amidst the fruit and vegetables.
Although the shloshim is over, I can’t say it’s gotten much easier. I still avert my eyes from anything to do with the upcoming holiday, because even though I, too, am a mother, the pain of missing Mom remains constant, and at times, overwhelming.
But as my brother, my sister, and I have been going about the difficult business of dealing with her estate, we are continually reminded not just of her, but of all the other strong women from whom we are descended. In the months before she died, Mom was taking memoir-writing class at Stamford’s Ferguson Library. I was thrilled, and encouraged her. She was busy working toward the course deadline when she died – her papers spread out on the dining room table, awaiting completion.
After speaking with one of the women in her class during shiva, my sister and I made a commitment to finish the memoir as best we could. Elizabeth Joseph at the library suggested we add a chapter of our own. Anne and I worked together, taking turns editing through our tears as we came to parts where Mom wrote “but that’s for a later chapter,” because those chapters are now lost to us forever. We want more. We want so much more.
She titled it “The Strength of Silverstone Women” and she’d written three chapters, one about her grandmother Esther, from whom I get my middle name, one about her mother Dorothy, and finally one about herself.
Esther immigrated to New York after waiting anxiously in Maków Mazowiecki, Poland, with her two daughters until her husband Tzvi could send for her. They lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side. Esther gave birth to 10 more kids, nine of whom survived to adulthood. She helped run her husband’s specialty children’s clothing business and was, apparently, a genius with customers. Like Mom, Esther died suddenly, in 1929, while visiting Dorothy and her husband Murray in London, to celebrate the birth of our aunt Marilyn.
I used to think Grandma Dorothy’s strength came from her perfect coiffure, her ability to throw on any old schmateh and look like royalty, and her immaculately applied lipstick – she owned every shade of fuchsia produced by the cosmetic industry. Today, she would probably be running a large company herself, but back then she was a corporate wife of the first order, while involving herself in the war effort, with Children to Palestine, and then after the State of Israel was founded, with the International Cultural Center for Youth (ICCY).
She and Grandpa founded the ICCY in Jerusalem in order to foster international understanding and mutual friendship among young people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. Later in life, she decided to go back to school to get her degree. She earned her BA from Fordham University, the same year I graduated from Duke. There was one important difference though: Grandma received a standing ovation when she went up to get her diploma.
Some of Grandma’s attempts at improving teenage Sarah were dismal failures (for instance, her constant admonishments to keep my “wings back, chest out” and making me walk up and down the back porch with a book on my head to try to improve my posture). But if you read these Dorothy-isms, you’ll see that in the end, this apple didn’t fall far from her grandmother’s tree:
“We are all part of one humanity. There is no pure group. We are all mixed up through commerce and conquest through the ages.”
“How can we trace the influence of one group upon the other…through the arts, through music, through dance, through theatre, and literature.”
“You can change the world…first in your own circle, your community, then reach out to the world!”
Which brings me back to my own mother, who in her quiet, humble, positive way always tried to change the world to make it a better place, even in the face of her own grief.
We lost my father in November 2013, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. My parents had been married for over 50 years, and as painful as it was for me to watch my incredibly bright and loving father disappear, I know for my mother it was heartbreaking. When he died, Mom could have easily turned her back on Alzheimerland, but instead she volunteered with the newly established Memory Café in Stamford, helping to bring comfort and dignity to others who were at earlier stages of the journey.
She also sang in the Interfaith New World Chorus, and volunteered with Reyut at Temple Beth El in Stamford. Her art brought joy to people’s lives.
Here’s what I read the first time I picked up Mom’s memoir:
“Life is like a patchwork quilt. Each piece or experience whatever size or shape is part of our whole being. Our friends and family, our children, and their children, our forbearers and those to come in the future, all enlarge the quilt. We are covered with their love. And our love covers them.”
And so, despite the still frequent outbreaks of tears, I will carry on in strength this Mother’s Day, wrapped in the love and experiences of the generations before me, and, G-d willing, enlarging the quilt with my experiences as I cover my own children with love. L’Dor VaDor.
Sarah Darer Littman is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.