Aurora, the daughter of Rosario. Lesléa, the daughter of Florence. The mothers are invoked; their names are eternal.
Aurora Levins Morales and Lesléa Newman came together on a recent Sunday afternoon in Boston under the auspices of Keshet—a national organization dedicated to the inclusion of LGBT Jews in all aspects of Jewish life — to talk about their mothers and their dynamic relationships with them. They spoke about loving and fighting and ultimately grieving for their mothers.
Levins Morales and Newman possess disparate identities. Levins Morales, who has a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother, identifies as queer. She is the mother of a 26 year-old daughter. Newman, who has no children, also identifies as queer and Jewish and in the last years of her mother’s life was very intentionally her mother’s daughter.
As the daughter of Rosario, Levins Morales collaborated with her mother on two books. In their most recently published work, they speak to each other in memoir and fiction. In Spanish, “cosecha” means harvest. Together, this mother and daughter have harvested a lifetime of words.
As the daughter of Florence, Newman dedicated her collection of poetry to her mother. “May Her Memory Be a Blessing” reads the epigraph to “I Carry My Mother.” On writing the poems, Newman says, “Losing a parent is a profound experience. I needed a container for my emotions.”
Levins Morales asserts that, “art is how I digest life. Editing ‘Cosecha’ was part of the grieving process. There was no space in my caretaking to be a grieving daughter. When I’m alone though, the grieving wells up in me.” After Rosario died, Levins Morales says, “a wave of curiosity swept the planet in memory of my insatiably curious mother.” And in the wake of her mother’s death, editing and publishing “Cosecha” was left to Levins Morales.
Newman remembers that her mother wanted to be a writer. Florence published one story in high school about a teenager also named Florence who doesn’t get along with her mother. Newman recalls that she asked her mother why she had not pursued writing. “I didn’t see the need,” Florence replied. And yet Florence read everything her daughter wrote. “I deliberately made a different choice than my mother,” says Newman. “But she gave me permission to write about her after she died.”
The structurally formal, realistic poems in “I Carry My Mother” address Florence’s death chronologically. In “How to Bury Your Mother,” Newman writes:
Slip out of the dark limo into the bright light of day the way you once slipped out of your mother: blinking, unsurprised, teary-eyed.
In “Sitting Shiva,” Newman remembers the three women — a kind of Greek chorus — who were inseparable from her mother. She called these women her aunts and in the poem one of them:
cups my face with wilted hands Fingers wet with tears.
My aunt stands to leave. “Call if you need anything.” I need my mother.
Levins Morales eulogizes a mother who was a “supremely organic intellectual. All my life has been a conversation with you.” Her mother trail blazed a new definition of what it meant to be a Puerto Rican mother. Rosario moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago in 1967 when Levins Morales was 13. She recalls that at the time there was an explosion of women’s writing. “Women’s liberation made my mother a poet. There was a massive throwing up of permission.”
Then there is also a mother’s unhappiness. Her frustration can quickly be taken out on a daughter. Levins Morales recalls that her parents “severely neglected” her for three years when she was a teenager. Her mother was an alcoholic who eventually recovered. Their rapprochement was through words written and read, yet unspoken.
Throughout her adult life Levins Morales has been chronically ill. Epilepsy and extreme exhaustion are both physical and mental states for her. “My epilepsy,” she notes “is a very fine-tuned meter. It helps me to recognize imbalance states so that I can make sure the switch doesn’t get thrown. Taking in more story than I put out can trigger a seizure. I must keep pace with my output.”
Newman remembers that at one point her relationship with her mother was “infamous for being bad. But the last decade of her life we enjoyed each other. It was such a gift to have that power of forgiveness, to be reconciled.”
Reconciliation is ever-present in Newman’s poems — poems that function as an extended Mourner’s Prayer, a Kaddish. “Judaism has been very comforting to me in mourning my mother,” says Newman. She is also inspired by the continuity of life. “At the the end of her life my mother handed over the reins of matriarchy to me.”
As for Levins Morales, she says that she was not only Rosario’s daughter but also her de facto mentee. In the last years of Rosario’s life, Levins Morales also observes that Rosario “stopped being fearful and expressed more love.” Levins Morales takes up her mother’s mantle, continuing to work on the mother-daughter relationship posthumously.
Two Jewish LGBT Poets Remember Their Mothers