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  • Holding On
  • Judy Labensohn (bio)

When I imagine my mother, she is climbing an arc from silence to gibberish. On the shaky route, she wears mink coats, wins golf tournaments, places first in flower arranging competitions, and hosts dinner parties where the squash matches the napkins. After 70 years, she leaves her hometown, Cleveland, for Sarasota.

I am the daughter who wanted to possess my mother, hold her down on the sofa, or better, the loveseat, while she ascended and descended the tragic arc. Since nobody could hold my mother, I learned to hold on.


In the 1950s, suburban American parents did not discuss death with their children. Dr. Spock suggested bringing in clergy to deal with a crisis, so when my brother died, after 20 months as a vegetable, Rabbi Green came to the house on a Sunday afternoon, sat on the striped living room couch, and said, "Your baby brother died."

A five-year-old, I ran into the kitchen where my mother was standing at the sink washing a pot, peeling a carrot, or scraping brownie batter from a bowl. Her arms moved in circles on the stainless steel counter that seemed meaningless, because they were not hugs. I stood at her left side and held onto her apron. It tied in a bow at her back. The apron was light gray and soft, 100 percent cotton. Yellow forsythias swirled in chaos over my mother's hips. Two deep pockets in the front of the apron held damp tissues.

My sorrow erupted in cries, bellows, hollers, and tears. I wiped the tears and snot on my arm. While I bawled, my older sister entered the sterile kitchen and stood on the right side of my mother's apron. We were like broken pegs, trying to hold down a tent. [End Page 35]

Eventually, my father stomped into the kitchen and told me to shut up already, it was enough.

Further along the imaginative arc, my mother drove me to the orthodontist in a yellow Chevy convertible. Silence sat between us. Afterward, she took me to Bonwit Teller's to try on strapless dresses made of organza and lace. I paraded them in front of her and the saleswoman, while they discussed which looked better on me, the yellow or the pale green.

When I was 16 and thinking about how to leave home, my mother drove me to Pittsburgh to visit a college. The snow came down so hard we could not see the road ahead. The car was like a frozen, moving cave surrounded by white silence. When I looked at my mother from the passenger seat during those silent hours between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, she seemed like a snow queen. Eventually I left home through Ann Arbor.

On the shaky arc from silence to gibberish, I watched my mother set golf balls on tees, win a blue ribbon for an orchid well placed, set the dining room table like a page from House Beautiful, train an apple tree to cover the side of the garage, and fall to pieces when the turquoise ceramic tiles in her new bathroom turned out to be a shade darker than those she had ordered. I watched her fondle porcelain, glass, china, orchids, and brass. She still loves fine things.

The young child develops ways to cope with emotional silence. In nursery school she sings: The merry-go-round goes toodle-ee-oo, Come take a ride there's a pony for you. Toodle-ee-oo, toodle-ee-ay, on the merry-go-round. The young child is relieved to know there is a pony for her.

In kindergarten she loves Kate Smith on TV at three-thirty every afternoon. She wants to sit on her lap and cuddle into Kate's bosom. When Kate sings God Bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a light from above, the young child falls in love with America. Song becomes the oxygen for survival. Song offers the rhythm of a mother rocking her baby in the bosom of Abraham.

In second grade a kindly music teacher opens the book to page 23...


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pp. 35-41
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