Broke and broken at 31, I fled to the Czech Republic, where I taught English during the day and did theater at night. I was trying to recover from sexual violation and from the circumstances of my life: hateful day jobs and bad boyfriends in ponytails. It was no coincidence I was 5,000 miles away from my Jewish mother.
At 4 feet 11 inches — even with huge hats, colorful blouses and brow-high green eye shadow — Mom was a whirlwind that extinguished my spark. She meant no harm. Because my father was disabled during my childhood, from a degenerative disease, Harriet Zam ran our Brooklyn household with the determination she used to survive Auschwitz. This dynamic continued into my adulthood. When she visited my apartment in Manhattan, she pushed advice in a high-pitched Polish accent, rearranged my furniture and frantically stuffed dollar bills in my pockets. Then she’d talk about Plumb Beach, in Brooklyn, where she and my dad made love before they got married.
I had no language for the jumble of guilt, pride and suffocation this woman elicited in me. When friends asked why I’d moved to a foreign country, I’d sometimes say, “Because my mother is in America.”
Whatever my rationale, my plan worked! In this unfamiliar land, I had more confidence. I was shining. Within weeks I’d booked a high-paying TV commercial, joined an international theater company and started dating a handsome Czech actor who cared about me. Then the phone rang.
“Listen,” my mother said from across the ocean. “Your father is dying. Don’t come home.” I tried to gauge the seriousness of the situation, but Mom kept telling me to stay where I was, “near Theresienstadt.” (My new existence, unfortunately, was close to a concentration camp — everything I did hurt this woman.) Was this reverse psychology? A ploy for my return?
I couldn’t take the chance.
On the plane to New York, I told myself my return was temporary, though my stuffed-to-the-gills suitcase belied this intention. When I saw my father, I was glad I’d overpacked. Confined to a wheelchair, he barely looked up as I entered. I was told he couldn’t feed himself. He just sat there, stooped over his chair, tapping compulsively on the small attached table. The hospital where he’d recently been admitted couldn’t explain his decline.
Mom had been visiting every day, but she was awful in crises. Maybe she was triggered by her war experience. When she wasn’t being shrill asking questions, she was spacey forgetting the answers. My brother was helpful, but he was working full time. Leadership was needed, so I stepped in —I loved my lanky, funny dad. I ordered consults, decided upon drugs and used lingo I’d picked up working with physicians (one of my day jobs in New York City). My father’s continued to languish. It didn’t look like I’d ever return to Prague.
But then, a new medication changed our fates. Progress was slow at first. Gradually, however, my dad began healing. Now, both my parents were telling me : “Go! Live your own life.” I wanted to believe that was possible.
Two days before my departure, Mom and I went to lunch. Immediately, she offered bad counsel — she wanted me to marry a saxophone player I’d once dated who had very weird saliva — while throwing loose change in my handbag. Then she launched into a sordid tale about an old man in her neighborhood. As I tried to tune into this layered (icky) tale, I suddenly heard a voice inside my brain. It sounded like me: “Why don’t you listen to her as if she is your friend?”
I took the challenge as a mental game. But as soon as I pretended the female across from me was a buddy, I felt a veil lift between us. I understood that the barrier between my mother and me wasn’t her difficult personality but my own judging mind. Suddenly, her story of erotic geriatric adventures became fascinating.
As Mom and I tooled around that afternoon, she appeared so beautiful to me, even with her silly vinyl hat, and one false eyelash askew. I kept stopping to hug her. Then she dropped me off at my brother’s house so that she could attend a friend’s party. She never made it. Here’s what we pieced together from the police report: While driving on the Garden State Parkway, she started feeling intense pain in her chest; she pulled the car to the side of the road so that she wouldn’t harm herself or anyone else; she crawled into the back seat, where a massive heart attack took her life. Mom died in the car she used to make all those trips to see her husband.
After the funeral, I returned to Europe, attempting to make things work; however, the city lost its magic. As my friend Sean said: “What’s the matter, Laura? Different city, same problems?” It was time to repatriate. Right before I came back to my native country, my father passed away, unexpectedly, also of a heart attack.
Back in the United States, consumed with grief and debt I’d incurred traveling back and forth to see my dad, I was still clueless about how to be whole. One day, lying in bed past noon, counting my failures, I stopped myself. Why couldn’t I apply to my own life the same lack of criticism I’d extended to my mother? Maybe curiosity was love, the open face of God.
On Mother’s Day I will look for My Yiddishe Momme. Sometimes she finds me in my dreams wearing too much eye shadow, making horrible suggestions. I listen anyway. I always listen. When I do, I come home.
Laura Zam has written for The New York Times, the Huffington Post and Salon.