Today I Called My Mother


Bob Oré Abitbol’s mother.

Today I called my mother. She didn’t answer me. She probably was busy with something more important. There was a time when one of her sons or her daughter would call her, that she’d drop everything — whatever she was doing — to listen to her beloved child’s voice, to hear from each one of us, to feel supported, protected by our strength, our love, to reassure us, to bless us, to compliment us, and, when needed (which was often), to rebuff us! It wasn’t that long ago when a call from her children was more important than anything.

And so my heart sank, tight and constricted, as I understood today for the first time, after eight years of her absence, that I will not speak to her anymore, that I will not see her again.

I might as well invoke her voice, her gestures, her eyes, her whole face, and imagine her laughter lighting up a room, her speaking animatedly and telling stories in that strange and funny way unique to her. I won’t see or live those moments anymore.

I won’t be able to tell her of my sorrows, small or great. I cannot share my torments or my joys, nor give her my love or my tenderness. Nor be able to satiate, more importantly, my crippling need for it myself!

Because she and she alone knew how to listen to me, take her time, reflect on my life and situation, advise me wisely and always keep me rational. She had this power. She knew how to get to the core of me, by being simultaneously firm and tender.

I miss all of her: the taste of her cooking, her formidable presence, her humor and strength. She, the cement of the family; she, the family.

Her way of being and behaving! She was always authentic and straightforward to a fault. Without pretenses or false modesty, she would take on everyone and everything on her own, if that’s what she needed to do, and without flinching. And she would win. Against all odds, she would battle Goliath after Goliath, like it was nothing, supporting the family and keeping her children happy and oblivious to her struggles and battles. She was afraid of nothing and nobody, except perhaps God, whom she regarded in highest esteem, whom she sincerely loved and whom she respected as a good and honorable person. … God reminded her of her father, whom she revered.

After the premature death of my father, it was she who had to take up the torch and single-handedly ensure the survival of her numerous progeny, whom she loved more than anything.

Philosopher, psychologist, pedagogue, doctor, nurse, star chef (the hypnotic and delicious scents, flavors and spirit of her dishes linger in my head, in my soul and in my heart), when we needed her to play one of those roles, she shifted among them and more.

And it was her influence that made us believe that not only did we all love one another, but that we could never do without one another, that no matter the circumstances, distances and disasters, we would remain together. Connected. She made us believe that we were an unstoppable team when we were united. That the traditions she had created with cleverly cooked dishes, feasts, with nights filled with lights, birthdays, weekly family meetings, Shabbats, love and tenderness, too, would resist time’s erosion and hold strong even in her absence.

She counted on me or, I guess, one of her other children to keep these traditions alive. She had confidence in us. She had confidence in most of us — some of us, at least. But she had been mistaken, as mothers often are.

No one is here anymore to help dwarf the distances, to hold family peace summits, to mediate misunderstandings, to mend bruised egos and patch up wounds, big and small. No one to do what she knew how to do so well.

And in this family, it’s hard to be wrong when everyone thinks they are right.

“It’s his fault, not my fault.” “He started it!”

Like perpetual children, the blame is forever placed on the other brother.

And the only one to end our feuds was our mother, this character so formidable and so present in all our lives, until her death became our death.

She was an exceptional personality or, more precisely, an extraordinary character. Strength and a larger-than-life presence emanated from her despite her size. An authority, an inner assurance guided by her morality and her dignity, she was as pure a woman in every sense of the word.

After the premature death of my father, it was she whom had to take up the torch and single-handedly ensure the survival of her numerous progeny, who she loved more than anything. She was so sure of us, so sure of us, that we couldn’t fail simply because of her will alone. Her belief in us made us a kind of invincible.

I mourn her today more than at the moment of her final departure. I did not realize at this point what her absence would do or undo. Sometimes, it is much later that one realizes the obvious truths.

I look back and see only happy pictures of us: the hilarious faces of my brothers and sister, the tender look of my mother, the sweet smile of my father, pictures of births, bar mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays, all the Jewish holidays and parties besides. The sounds of laughter and songs! Nights when she effortlessly organized — as if it were normal or natural — dinners for 10 or sometimes 100 people, while doing a million other things, and on a last-minute whim.

Beach photos featuring yellowed images of the happy days when our father, this sweet, kind and humane man, was alive, with an ever-present sun shining in the background. Memories of trips to Venice, Paris, Monaco, Jerusalem, or a rare and nostalgic return to her hometown, frozen in Kodachrome in a box lost somewhere.

As in life, the beautiful times have been filtered and meticulously curated with intelligence and finesse, isolating moments of joy, happiness and laughter;  miraculously forgotten, as if swallowed by time and space, are all the moments of sadness, misfortune and rain.

Without our parents, and our mother in particular, we are fluttering aimlessly and violently in the wild gusts of air. It was she who held the string, guiding us away from harmful rocks and trees, making sure our kites flew straight and strong and high. It was she who made her children dance to the sublime rhythmic heartbeat that radiated her love and tenderness.

Orphaned, we became disconnected kites, tightrope walkers with no net and no crowd to cheer us on. I had no idea I would miss her presence this much, how even the most minor activities would be affected. That it would hurt like the loss of a first love, a true love — that had crafted, nurtured and protected my heart.

She left, radiant, without suffering, but it is those she left behind who suffer today and who call for her help to return; the tiny space between a kiss, the sweetness of a caress, the breath of a sigh, a little of our innocence, a little of our candor, a little of our childhood, a little of our youth, a little bit of our carelessness. We want it back.

And you, Mom, how are you?

Are you being treated well, wherever you are?

I’m sure you are making them laugh as you always did. As you used to make people laugh until they had tears in their eyes, when you the visited homes of friends who were in mourning, bringing a note of hope, an accent of youth and life, a note of gentle madness to mix with their sadness, and you left them laughing, almost joyous. And it is as if, suddenly, in the frozen winter of their distress, you made magic appear, a smiling and sunny spring, a rainbow of ephemeral happiness … and love! And I know that somehow you are still doing that.

You spoke to God every day. Is he now listening to you now that you’re so close to him?
In your lifetime you opened the windows, rain or shine, and you spoke to him as if he were a friend, a brother, a father. You weren’t afraid of him. On the contrary, you joked with him, you told him everything as if he were the best of confidants, the most intimate of friends. And you believed so strongly in him that it is impossible for him not to exist, not to be there in the flesh and waiting patiently to hear all of your stories!

Can you make him intervene in our favor? May he give us grace, patience, serenity, success, health and millions and millions of dollars!

That he should stop all these wars — so terrible, so cruel and so useless!  That he make peace reign once and for all in this dreadful disorder called life! And that he gives us and our loved ones — I repeat — all of our loved ones, but primarily your children, millions and millions of dollars! (It should go without saying that this would not apply to our enemies!)

Do you have this power?

Does he have this power?

Or did he delegate to man and woman the capacity of decision and he remains a simple spectator-observer, neither present nor absent of our universe, of our humanity dehumanized, quartered, decomposed and so beautiful? So proud and so full of itself! So sublime and so derisory! So outdated and so grandiose!

Tell me, Mom? Do you have companions where you are?

Friends?

Do you sing sometimes like you used to?

Do you celebrate the holidays you loved so much like when you were on Earth?

Are there really harps and violins, great rabbis with white beards, supernatural angels who watch you like a flock of sheep, resting on beautiful white clouds?

I wonder!

Have you been able to see Dad? Your parents? Your brothers? And your daughter? Your darling little Jacqueline, whom you lost so young, when she was only 4 years old, and whom you mourned all your life.

Have you finally found her again? Her name was the last word you whispered before you went to the other side, you believed so strongly you would be reunited and in the end I really think that you could not wait to be with her again. Finally!

But what about us? Did you stop to wonder what we would become without you? How lost we would be?

You have let all your children go except for her — she, whom you always loved more than all of us because she left you so early, without being able to see her legendary beauty and intelligence shine throughout the world. Such is the way with those who leave us.

In the end, death is a strange and selfish thing, and it cares very little for the living. It doesn’t care about problems or worries; it leaves unceremoniously without so much as a goodbye or a thank you. It moves on, and it asks you callously to do the same.

You have been gone eight years, and I think of you every day.

I mourn your absence but evoke your beautiful presence so full of song and joy as much as I can.

And you, which universe are you living in now?

Can you come back here? For just a little? A tiny bit! For one day? For one hour? One minute? Just long enough to hug me one last time, long enough so I can tell you once more that I love you, time enough to give you one last farewell!

Today I called my mother. She didn’t answer me.

When will she answer me? When, tell me when, will she call me back?

Bob Oré Abitbol is an author, poet and playwright who was born in Morocco and immigrated to Canada before moving to Los Angeles.

+