December 8, 2019

It’s Time You Met My Mother

The writer at about age 4 with her mother.

Let me confess one sin: I don’t have anything particularly powerful to say about Yom Kippur, except perhaps that for many lucky singles, the Day of Atonement is the perfect day to meet the soulmate  you’ll argue with the rest of your life.

And speaking of argument, I think it’s time you met my mother. Why? Well, you may have noticed that in my weekly column, I like to get authentic and personal. And my mother is as authentic and personal as it gets.

In fact, she’s as integral to my identity as my story, my face and that protruding disk in my back.

My children call her “Mamani.” My phone used to identify her as “Commandment,” because that’s the name I entered for her number on my contact list. That way, each time I looked down at my phone, I’d be reminded that God has commanded me to honor my mother, or at least, not end the call while she’s in mid-sentence during her daily reminders of the weather forecast. Ours is a deeply loving but hot-tempered bond.

“Commandment” lasted only a few months on my contact list; it was replaced with “Compassion.” It’s hard to yell at “Compassion” — a word that literally compels me to act with more kindness.

Why did I need “Compassion”? For the same reason I needed “Commandment”: My mother has a charming yet insistent conviction that her pseudo-emergencies should be my urgent priorities.

Case in point: melons.

Yes, melons — the wonderfully fragrant, yellow ones called Hami melons. If you want to know my mother, start with melons.

“Tabby, I tried calling you three times in the last hour,” my mother declared in August during another “urgent” phone call.

“It was actually seven times but who’s counting?” I responded. “Mom, is everything OK?”

“No, it’s not. I wish you’d answered sooner. Tabby, are you listening?”

“Yes,” I said as I placed the phone on the table and entered another room. It was just about that time of day when I puttered around the house in search of something to complain about.

“This is very important,” my mother declared. “Are you listening?”

“Yes!” I barked from 30 feet away.

“Listen carefully: There are excellent melons at the market right now. I squeezed them until I found the best one, and since I know you don’t like it when I bring you food unannounced, I left the ripest one for you three melons under the top, to the left. Come right away!”

Of course, I came right away.

Many years ago, after my sister and I had the audacity to move out of our parents’ apartment and into college dorms, my mother became passionately invested in mothering our father, asking deeply personal questions of customer service representatives, and out-jostling other shoppers to procure the ripest produce. If she couldn’t control her daughters, at least she could control the melons.

At 4 feet 11, my mighty mother reminds me of Napoleon, if Napoleon had hoarded fruit and produced two daughters who would have shown more respect back in the “Old Country.”

Blame it on the fact that she’s Jewish and Persian, but my mother has exacting standards for everything. It took me decades to credit her with much of my own success because I’ve had to set the bar higher than she has done.

I can’t promise that one day, I won’t demand that my children, who are currently toddlers, treat my emergencies as their own, but I hope they know that I’ll always have their best interests in mind, whether for life or melons.

Mom, if you’re reading this (don’t worry, I’ll translate), in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I’m sorry for all the times I hung up on you when you called about discounted cottage cheese. I’m sorry for the phone calls while I was in college when I assured you that I was going to bed when I was actually standing outside a fraternity party. And I’m sorry I still don’t know how to make a decent cup of Persian tea.

Have compassion for me.

Now, where did you say you hid that perfect melon?


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.