By Joanna Laufer
Ten days after my mother’s surgery, she asked me to look at her body without a breast. As the doctor removed the gauze dressing and Steri-Strips, the nurse held up a hand mirror by the stem. I was twenty-three. I stood beside her, leaning against blue crinkled paper on the exam table, squinting at the mirror like it was harsh light.
The stitches were red, raised, and ran diagonally across her wound. The remaining breast, partly covered by the open cotton gown, was so large next to what was missing.
What my mother said she remembered—and said for thirty years—was that I looked at the mirror but not at her, that I shielded my eyes with my hand. For three decades, she’d felt I’d failed her.
What I remember: Dull yellow walls and light. The surprised look of the middle-aged doctor in scrubs when my mother said she wanted me there. My father, holding her hand, leaning across her to touch my arm. “Our baby,” he said, sighing.
I’m still not sure if he was referring to my mother or to me.
A memory is not about accuracy. It tells our story the way we want it told. The good, the bad—a snapshot of what defines a moment.
Had I stood in that hospital room for her or because of what I wanted from her?
I didn’t want to see what I saw. Or any more than I saw. Or for any longer than I saw it. But I wanted my presence to be a comfort.
I wanted her to tell me it was.
To lighten the mood, the nurse asked my mother where her accent was from—a touch of the Mandarin and German she was fluent in. She was born in Tientsin, China. An American Jew. Kids teased her by calling her Máfan instead of Margie. “Máfan,” in Mandarin, means “trouble.” At nine, she moved to Vienna with my grandmother. A new start with people she would never see again. When the Nazis invaded, they fled to New York. For twenty years, she lived apart from my grandfather, while he kept his job in Tientsin, trading fur.
My mother asked the nurse to remove the mirror. She fanned herself with her hand, as if to wave this all away. I knew she wanted me there to act the mother. A role I resented in my twenties but sometimes chose to play, trying to get her to act like mine.
One time, I hid her Marlboros inside a vase, in our Manhattan apartment, hoping to protect her from getting cancer. And because, when she smoked, she acted distant, as if nothing mattered more. After I moved into my own apartment nearby, I’d take a waiter aside, after the cocktails had made her loopy or loud, and ask him to bring her a virgin.
When the mirror was gone, the room got quiet. My mother stayed on the exam table and didn’t dress right away. I pressed against the table, against her waist, and we leaned into each other. What I remembered: A blurring of things gone. Her brushing my hair as a child. Sailing boats with me in my bath while sitting on the lip of the tub. And what I didn’t want to remember: Her rage and silence when I didn’t measure up. My telling friends at school that the slap marks on my face were from an allergy to milk.
I clung to whatever part of it, or part of her, would help me make sense of some parts of me.
I paid attention to her sideways looks. They called things about me into question. My standing too close to her, or too far away. My clingy interest. Or disinterest. That I was someone who couldn’t recall what my mother couldn’t forget.
Twice during the three decades we disagreed about that day she made the same comment while we were swimming. Breast stroking with our heads above water, our formless form, never needing to come up for air.
“You couldn’t look at my body,” she said.
“I shouldn’t have been asked to,” I said. “But I did.”
We never came to agree on what happened. We spent years not agreeing on a lot. We’d slam doors or kick them open. Hang up on each other loudly when there were telephone receivers to bang down. Either we kept pushing against our fierce desire to be loved or there was just more power in our rage.
Yet one of us would call the other after a fight. To try to settle things. To plan time to get together.
I told her I would visit the next day before leaving the hospital. It was twenty something blocks from my apartment, and I walked home from there in the snow. I lived with the man who, in four years, I’d marry and am still married to today. He and I hated snow in the city, in the 1980s, when it was often severe. I walked past cars buried in white, except for slivers of glass and steel. On covered sidewalks, I steadied myself by walking on the footprints.
I slushed past Schaller & Weber, a German butcher shop that also sells chocolate and pastries. The Kinder Chocolate was displayed in the storefront window. My mother and I would sometimes add a box of it as an extra package when we gave each other gifts.
Walking home, my mind went to Germany. To something I’ve carried since I was six. A summer vacation to Baden-Baden with my mother and grandparents while my father ran his nuts-and-bolts company in New York. We sat at an outdoor cafe in damp August heat. I spotted two boys, a few years older, sitting on a patch of grass by our table. I got off my mother’s lap and walked toward them. They were hovering over about a half dozen eggs. Heads of chicks were breaking through shells. I was dazzled by this, so it never occurred to me—how did these eggs get there? Where was their mother?
I was swept up in the boys’ laughter, which I took for joy. But their arms pulled back and rocks flew, killing chicks as they were coming to life.
I screamed, “Stop!” in a language they didn’t speak.
I looked toward the table at my mother.
“They killed them,” I called out to her.
She motioned for me with a cupped hand. She sat with a glass of wine, a cigarette. A plate of Linzer tarts ordered for all of us—her, my grandparents, and me.
She stayed where she was.
We never spoke about this. I still don’t know why she didn’t come over. Intention is
often hard to discern and matters less than its impact.
Long after that day in the hospital, when my mother was and would remain cancer free, we went to a family Seder at my aunt’s apartment. My aunt was her best friend from childhood. They married brothers and became sisters-in-law. Forever friends who, in time, grew apart. My mother never quite got over the loss.
She said what happened with my aunt kept her up at night. She was angry and, at times, wept. But there was something about my aunt—poise maybe, book smarts—that drew me to her in a way that exceeded devotion to my “tribe.” Which meant when my mother looked across the room, at the Seder, and saw me standing at full attention with my aunt, I imposed on her something hard to look at.
I knew its impact.
I didn’t set out to cause hurt, but I stayed, drinking Cabernet with my aunt.
My mother held onto this. I came to see that her grudges and anger—holding onto anything she could—gave her strength that helped her move forward. She had spent her life having to let go of crucial things—her homeland, her father. Even a part of her body.
What I remember: Eucalyptus saunas after our swims. Meeting weekly for lunch at Grazie’s. After my husband and I adopted our daughter, she’d sing to her the German songs she’d sung to me, off-key but liltingly. When she no longer remembered how to use the telephone, she’d ask the aide to call so she could hear my voice. We’d lie in the bed she shared with my father for fifty-nine years, drinking the iced cappuccinos I’d brought over.
History isn’t lived. It’s formed after the fact.
The night she died, I wrote her eulogy. I mentioned the baby chicks.
I wrote: “My mother rushed over when she saw my face. I had seen a murder, and my mother knew exactly what to say. ‘Some people in this world are just mean,’ she said, ‘or maybe unhappy inside. Feel bad for them instead of hating them. And learn from them to act the opposite.’”
I choose to believe that’s what this mother would have said.
Joanna Laufer is the author of Inspired (Doubleday) and the co-creator of the best-selling Inspired classical music series on RCA. She has written for Shondaland, SheKnows, Brain, Child Magazine, Child Magazine, Dance Spirit, and more. Her essays have been anthologized and her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Antioch Review, Fiction, Ontario Review, Greensboro Review, StoryQuartely, and others. She is the associate prose editor of Tiferet Journal and also a freelance manuscript editor and writing coach.