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Nothing Like a Mother

Growing up, I always wished I had someone else for a mom. But after my mother died, I finally came to appreciate what she’d taught me.

Morr Mazal Barton
October 21, 2015
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset photo: Roberto Verzo via Flickr
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset photo: Roberto Verzo via Flickr
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset photo: Roberto Verzo via Flickr
Illustration: Tablet Magazine; inset photo: Roberto Verzo via Flickr

I spent the large part of my childhood comparing my mother to other children’s mothers. While theirs seemed calm and demure, mine was abrasive, combative, and quick-tempered. If I was by chance disrespectful, or if I failed to clean my room, my mother would yell at me—with a spatula in hand, for emphasis.

Growing up, all I wanted was to fit in and be just like everyone else. But I wasn’t. There was my unusual first name, which was always followed by some tired joke. There was my wild hair, which defied the laws of gravity. But most important, there was my mother. In stores, I prayed she wouldn’t get into a confrontation with anyone; when she made a trip to my school, I hoped she wouldn’t speak much—or, preferably, at all. My prayers and hopes were not often met, though. My mother’s presence was quickly revealed by her loud voice and jarring Israeli accent. When I was with her, I was perpetually offering a quiet apology to those with whom she crossed paths. Why, I wondered, couldn’t my mother be more like other mothers?

Then, when I was 26, she died.

After your mother dies, I learned, almost everyone wants to be your mother. It’s a sweet sentiment, and I am forever grateful to those who invited me over for Mother’s Day so that I would not be alone, or who filled important roles during my wedding preparations, but I learned something along the way. Here I was, being given the opportunity to have that “other mother” I had always longed for. The one who was always sweet, friendly, and gentle. The one who could easily make friends with perfect strangers and never needed to be told to “please lower your voice.” All the qualities I had wanted my mother to possess. Finally, I could have the kind of mother (or mother figure) I had always wanted, but then the strangest thing dawned on me: I didn’t want this mother, I wanted my mother.

Eyn k’mo ima my mother would often say in Hebrew—there is nothing like a mother. After many years, I think I finally understand what she was trying to say.

After sitting shiva, I went back and recounted my childhood in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. I remembered all the things I had long forgotten underneath my resentments, those moments when my mother’s love for me was clear. The couscous she would wake up to prepare at 6 in the morning just for me (the way her mother prepared it for her children), or the way she could make me laugh so hard that my stomach would hurt. I remembered how, no matter what had transpired during the week, every Friday night our home was filled with the warmth of Shabbat. I recalled how she got on our school bus and physically threatened a young boy who was bullying my sister. (She twisted his shirt around his neck and told him that she would kill him—thank God there were no camera phones then!). Other mothers didn’t have these qualities. I sometimes wondered if they even genuinely knew how to yell or laugh the way my mother did.

All that time I was angry and believed that my mother wasn’t trying, it turns out that she was always trying. Despite having a daughter who did not appreciate her, my mother spent every day trying to be herself in a world that didn’t always like her very much. My Israeli mother didn’t follow the unspoken rules of American decorum. She always spoke her mind (with little thought about the consequences), and she never engaged in small talk. She was from a place perpetually at war and from a family that had suffered much loss. That life could end at any moment was never lost on her. She believed in staying true to who you are today for the simple fact that you may not have tomorrow.

While I longed to be the same, my mother was trying to teach me the importance of being proud of who I am. She would compliment my curls as I was struggling to straighten them, and I would tell her that she didn’t understand. My name, Morr, is the Hebrew translation for myrrh—a sweet-smelling spice once used in the Beit Hamikdash, our Holy Temple. With this name she gave me the opportunity every day to stand proud of my heritage and my people, to stand proud of who I am; instead, I hated it because it revealed my differences without my permission. I believed that my name was the ultimate example of how little my mother cared about my comfort when the truth is that it is a crowning example of all that she wanted for me: an unyielding love of self.

My mother wasn’t perfect, but she was mine. At times she could be unduly critical and with one look she could shoot fear right into you before giving you a chance to explain, but she was uniquely herself at all times. Strong, fearless, unapologetic—this was my mother, a mother of insurmountable strength from generations of mothers who faced death to hold on to who they are and for the freedom to teach their children to do the same.

My maternal grandmother escaped Libya during the Second World War with two young children and pregnant with a third. And just as I questioned my mother’s disinterest with blending in with the rest of society, I wondered why my grandmother (when she could have so seamlessly integrated into Arab society) chose to expose herself and her children to danger and identify as Jewish. Now that I am a mother I understand that, more than anything, it is the strength of a mother that has the power to hold us to our very essence. Today, when I look at my baby boy, there is nothing I want more than my mother’s strength to be who I am. I hope that one day he will understand what my mother tried to teach me: Eyn k’mo ima.

One of the more painful memories for me to recall is one in which, after I mumbled that there was an optional parent day at school, my mother responded, “You don’t want me go, right? You will be embarrassed.” I know that she was referring to the situation in general rather than specifically to herself, but I took the opportunity and quickly affirmed that she was right and that she should not come. When I think of that moment now, I wish I could take just one trip back in time. I would ask my mother to accompany me to school, I would take her hand through halls and classrooms. I would stand beside her proudly among all my teachers and peers and I would tell her that if I could choose any mother in the world, I would choose her.

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