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Like most Yiddish writers, she required a translator, and so she gave birth to one — she gave birth to me. We began collaborating on translations of her works when I was 13 years old, and we never really stopped. Sometimes, she did most of the translating and I was merely an editor, as with her novels “Bociany” and “Of Lodz and Love,” for which she won the John Glassco Prize for Literary Translation. Sometimes, I did most of the work. This was especially true of the short story collection “Survivors,” and of “Letters to Abrasha,” her last novel, on which I am still at work. But mostly, we worked together and fought about words and meanings and transmutations of sentences.
In a sense, the tragedy of Yiddish — the fact that it went so quickly from being the lingua franca of the majority of the world’s Jews to being a language spoken by the very few — brought us together. We became more than simply mother and daughter; we became partners and collaborators in a great literary enterprise.
Literature was the all-in-all for my mother. When she was not writing it, she was reading it. She read novels and books of poetry. She read in Yiddish, in English, in French, in Polish. Her favorite non-fiction books were the biographies of other writers. My mother loved her children; she loved her garden; she loved my dogs. She loved flowers and magnificent landscapes like the open skies of the Canadian Prairies, where she spent her last years. But it was in the literary world that she found her true joy, her sense of purpose, her redemption from suffering and terrible memories. It was only while writing about the Holocaust that she could come to terms with it — and the same was true for the tragedy of her failed marriage.
My mother was sensitive to a fault, but she had the warmest heart and the sharpest mind. She believed in the value of the everyday, in the holiness of mundane things, because she had lived too much in interesting times. She had desperately wanted a happy, sedate family life without tension or betrayal or cruelty. She did not get it.
As you may imagine, I have many memories of my mother; some of the sweetest are very ordinary, such as shopping trips we made together, or going for walks with the dog, or of her wonderful chicken soup, which was the only thing she ever cooked that conformed to the stereotype of the Jewish mother. But my favorite memory is of the sight of my mother, sitting at her desk, so immersed in what she was writing that she did not hear what was said to her. When I saw her there, with her beautiful hazel eyes fixed dreamily on the distance — or, more accurately, fixed on the inner landscape of her imagination — I knew that all was well with the world and that life was good.
Goldie Morgentaler teaches English at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.