Ethics of the Mother

Linda Haase

Empty nester Linda Haase considers lessons learned and progress made in her lifetime, through a Jewish woman’s lens.

Ethics of the Mother

60 and counting

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As his 50th birthday approached, people constantly asked my husband: "Are you depressed?"

Joel smiled kindly at them and explained that no, he was not. Turning 50 was a privilege his father never had. He felt wistful, but Joel was utterly grateful to celebrate five decades on this planet.

He feels the same way about turning 60, which he did today.

I admire and envy his attitude. He doesn't care if he is going gray; he's thrilled to still have a thick head of hair. He is genuinely delighted, rather than freaked out, when our friends become grandparents. He doesn't care if he's too old to wear a hoodie.

I turned 50 on Yom Kippur, two weeks after our only child left for college. Suffice it to say that I did not take this well. I realized I was old enough to shop at Chico's, and have scowled ever since.  

Conversely, Joel seems to be aging like the best balsamic vinegar, getting sweeter, richer and more complex every year.

The first thing that attracted me to Joel (besides those beautiful brown eyes) was how very kind he is.  When I say kind, I don't mean a pushover, though I know one is often mistaken for the other. I mean that he has a big heart and isn't afraid to use it. He remembers all his friends' and relatives' birthdays. If it's cold or snowy outside, he drives me to the train. If a friend is having a bad day, he bakes him brownies. If our daughter needs more contact lenses, he will federal express them to her the next day. If someone is sick, he will show up at the door with chicken soup. If you need help with a drippy faucet or installing a ceiling fan or a ride from the airport, he'll be there in a heartbeat.

He is not just good to his mother; he is also good to mine.

As a musician, he is a consummate professional. He never, ever just "phones in" a performance-even when he's playing under less-than-optimal circumstances. His personal and artistic integrity would never permit it. He has never given in to cynicism and couldn't be indifferent if he tried.

He cares, and often cares deeply. When he does, he is not afraid to show it.

Joel is never bored or uninterested. He can cheerfully occupy himself with re-finishing a light fixture, doing a crossword puzzle, or reading a book about most anything. I am amazed by his capacity to learn, and to remember what he has learned. He knows so much about so many subjects that I have almost stopped asking him: "How did you know that?" (Hence his ability to fix a drippy faucet, install a ceiling fan and re-finish a light fixture.) He has a boundless sense of wonder.

Becoming a father seemed to enhance his ability to continually see the world through fresh eyes, and to expand his sense of joy and immediacy. Having lost his own dad halfway through his childhood left a chasm in Joel's heart; when his own child was born, I watched him fill that void with his love for Jenna. I have never seen a father and daughter who are closer.

He may not be rich or famous, but he is Jenna's daddy, and for him, that is enough.

To me, he is everything, and more than enough.

Happy Birthday, Joel.  May you live to be 120.

What’s the secret to a long and happy marriage?

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Julie's mother had cared for her bedridden husband for nearly a year. One day, as Julie* watched her mother suction her father's breathing tube, she had a moment of searing clarity:

Julie wanted a divorce.

After three decades of marriage, Julie and Ben* had fallen into a rhythm of chilly household détente, their routine punctuated by sarcastic asides and unhappy silence. Julie could endure the sad reality of daily life with Ben, but the thought of someday having to provide him with intimate care made her stomach roil.

I was shaken by Julie's announcement, and shared her story with another long-married friend who said, "Oh, yeah; as soon as the kids leave for college, I am so out of here." Her husband was a good father, she said, so she didn't want to separate and deny her children daily contact with their dad, but she'd fallen out of love with him years ago.

Another woman I know said that she couldn't imagine getting a divorce, because that would mean she couldn't afford to keep her house. Yet another felt it would be too complicated to leave her husband after all these years, but otherwise she probably would. A third acquaintance said the only thing that sounded worse than staying married was starting to date again.

And so it goes. Many 40- and 50-something women I know seem at best indifferent, and at worst unhappy, in their marriages.  

What gives? How do people fall out of love?

First, let's acknowledge that the last several years have been especially tough ones. The economic downturn, coupled with the rising cost of living, has put extra stress on many marriages. Workplace "right-sizing" and the never-ending demands of technology have left many of us emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention the end of the week. Plus, new family responsibilities have overwhelmed an aging population that is quickly becoming the club sandwich generation: I know more than one working mom who helps care for one or more parents and grandparents.

Unfortunately, bills and bedpans are hardly the stuff romance is made of-but sometimes they are the very things relationships are built upon. The challenge lies in how we handle these unending, and sometimes very unglamorous, demands on our emotional and physical resources.

I suspect that some people cope by turning to their spouses, while others of us have the tendency to turn on them. It is so easy to focus on what's wrong with our lives instead of what's right. The trick is figuring out how to improve the former without screwing up the latter.

And do you know why that's so hard? Because for most people, our weaknesses are the flip sides of our strengths. There is a point at which the spouse whose assertiveness you admire becomes combative and the one with the giving nature you adore acts like a doormat; the hyper-organized partner might over-plan a vacation and the laid-back one might be over-drawn at the bank. Perhaps the key to marital happiness and longevity is to try to remember that the trait you hate (in yourself and/or your beloved) is just the flip side to the trait you love. 

Every summer, my dad took his kids and grandkids to Cubs games. On the way out of the ballpark, without fail, he would purchase a bag of neon-colored cotton candy to bring home to my mom, who loves the stuff. It always made me smile to see that Dad was as intent on expressing his love as he was on expressing his opinion.   My mom saw that, too.

I suspect it's why they were married for nearly 54 years.

*Names have been changed

Drawing the line

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When I was in my 30s, my best friend volunteered with the American Cancer Society, where I worked. Having lost her mother to cancer, Gail had skin in the game.

Then she met Tom. He was smart, gregarious and generous; he made her happy. He also made his living promoting cigarettes. 

Gail married Tom, and eventually left behind her volunteer work and her friends. None of us had objected to him-he really did seem to make her happy-but surely there was some dissonance between her new role as this advertising executive's wife and most everything else in her life.

Did Gail choose happiness over principle? Would she have been an idiot not to? Was she truly happy with a partner who didn't share her values? I don't know. But I have thought about this recently, as the movement for consumers to vote with our pocketbooks gains steam on social media. It seems that every decision or purchase we make, no matter how small, can be a political statement.

A friend of mine recently chided me for using a specific brand of napkins, which are manufactured by a company whose owners donate to political causes I find offensive. I told her it was a free country, that people were allowed to support the candidates of their choice, and that I was not ready to base every single purchase I make on whether I shared the manufacturer's political views. She was horrified.

Wait a minute, I said. You eat "Brand X" ice cream. That company is also owned by someone who not only funds causes you don't like, but has run for office himself on a platform that is contrary to everything you believe in.

Well, she explained, that was only because it was the last local place you could get a decent milk shake.

So how much are we willing to sacrifice to live our values through everything we eat, wear, buy or do?

When Joel and I were considering honeymoon destinations in 1990, we regretfully ruled out beautiful Charleston, South Carolina.  I didn't want to spend money in a place that flew the Confederate flag. But it was hardly a sacrifice to "settle" for Napa Valley. 

Yeah, I am willing to spend more to support smaller, local businesses. And yeah, there are some places I won't shop. But it's easy enough for me to skip one megastore because I don't like the way the company treats its workers; what if it were the only megastore in town? How adamant would I be then?

I don't eat fois gras. I love it, but I don't eat it, because I believe that if the laws of Kashrut were handed down today, fois gras would be traif. But as the delicacy pops up on more and more menus, how long will I maintain my resolve?

A number of years ago, when Joel and I bought our current car, we first looked at a hybrid. At the time, we decided that the most environmentally responsible decision was too expensive. Were we being selfish or sensible?  Perhaps both.

Like so much in life, I suppose this is a balancing act, weighing costs and benefits, responsibility to community vs. self, and deciding at what point you can still look in the mirror.

I'm not sure where the line in the sand is for me. I guess it lies somewhere between buying napkins and selling cigarettes.

Little life lessons

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Nowadays I am continually amazed by how much I still have to learn. So today, as a reminder to myself that I have absorbed a few life lessons along the way, I offer some informal rules to live by.

Life is short. Use the good china.

If the shoe fits, buy it in every color.

Nothing tastes better than a peach from the farmers' market.

It's essential to have at least one guilty-pleasure TV show. If you are in sales or marketing, you get to call this market research.

The only way to keep your weight under control is to exercise.  A lot.

No matter how old you are, in 10 years you'll wish you looked as good as you do now.

The best way to heal your inner child is to be the parent you wish you'd had.

Life is too short for bad beer.

It expands your humanity to know another language. (This has not been enough to impel me to actually learn another language, but I know that I should.)

Ditto for playing an instrument.

Put something in your 401 (k) or 403 (b) account every week, no matter how little money you have, even if it just $5. Trust me.

When in doubt, do the kind thing,

Share a milkshake or malt with your child.

If you succeed half the time you try something important, remember: Batting 500 is great. Even Ty Cobb, who holds the record for MLB lifetime batting average, hit just 366.

A house is not a home without books and music.

It is okay to make a pie crust in the food processor. (Pulse 1¼ c. flour with a generous pinch of salt and a palm full of sugar.  Gradually add one cubed stick of cold butter, followed by ¼ c ice water. You're welcome.)

Invest in a snow-blower.

Go to your reunion. You will either rekindle old friendships or feel relieved to have dodged a bullet.

Buy locally.  Support family-owned businesses in your community.

Write a letter to your parents telling them how great they are for Mother/Fathers Day. It's all they want.

On your deathbed, you are unlikely to most regret that you got a B+ instead of an A- in that class. Let it go.

Someday, you won't be able to recall the details of the crisis that's causing you anguish today. Let that go, too.

Over-tip.

The most important decision you'll ever make is who you choose to spend your life with.  Choose someone who will be a haven instead of part of the storm.

Sometimes life is like jumping off the high dive: You just have to do what's next before you think about it too much and psych yourself out.

You need at least one old, close friend who can help you retrieve the breadcrumbs of your life's journey. Cherish her.

*Note: This column is modeled after a popular column by Pulitzer Prize-winner Mary Schmich ("Wear sunscreen"), which offered tidbits of common sense wisdom.

The flavor of love

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To my father, food was love.

He loved everything about eating, from dining in fine restaurants to scrambling eggs in our kitchen. His face lit up whenever a dish was pulled from the oven. He beamed at waiters who appeared with plates of food. He damn near cried the first time I made a chocolate cream pie.

He was the only dad I knew who liked to go grocery shopping, a chore my mother was wary of him performing, since there was no telling what impulse purchases he would make.

I remember him singing to himself in the morning as he put schmear on his bagel (to the tune of Beautiful Dreamer): "Beautiful, beautiful cream cheese; I'll never love butter again."

It should go almost without saying that my father battled his weight for much of his life; in his retirement, he became quite heavy. Periodically, concerned friends and extended family members would take me aside and tell me he should lose weight. Beyond being irritated-I mean, did they think he didn't know he was fat? And if they were so concerned, why didn't they talk to him themselves?-it seemed almost cruel to ask him to curb the most reliable source of pleasure in his life.

Dad and his family escaped Nazi Germany, but growing up as refugees in the U.S. was tough. His grief-stricken, frightened parents were perpetually on edge. Like many immigrants, they spent all their emotional energy mastering English and navigating their new lives in Chicago. Like many people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they had short fuses and explosive tempers. And like many Holocaust survivors, I suspect they simply felt too guilty for having survived to allow themselves a happy ending with their little boy.

The family's one consistent source of joy was my grandmother's cooking. I remember her making impossibly rich chicken soup and matzah balls, ethereal cheese blintzes and German pancakes, silken chocolate pudding and jello molds with as many tiers as a layer cake. She chopped huge batches of gefilte fish and egg salad by hand, and made legendary apple- or cherry-cake from delicate, yeast-based dough.

When I was a child, as she put down a plate in front me, I remember Grandma resting her hand on my head. I expect she did the same when she served my Dad as a boy. She didn't always say it, but I could taste her love, and some of the happiest moments of my childhood took place in her kitchen. By this time, she reminisced more than she cooked, but her kitchen was the place where she opened up to me the most. One of my earliest memories is sitting on a stool as a small child and helping her shell peas as she told me stories about growing up in Germany, before Hitler came to power.    

When we took our places around Grandma's table for a holiday dinner, the grown-ups argued about politics, the in-laws bickered about slights, both real and perceived, and my brother and I were bored to death. I remember trying desperately not to fidget while Grandpa chanted the Kiddush, especially since the linens and carpet were pure white, and I was terrified of spilling my grape juice.

Then Grandma appeared with serving platters, and everyone smiled. The conversation turned to the food:  how delicious her soup was and how light the matzah balls; how sumptuous her brisket tasted; how the glaze on her carrots made them so sweet that even her grandson ate his vegetables. Every time, my grandfather declared that this was the best meal she had ever made. I don't recall my father's exact words, but I do remember that as he sang her praises, my grandmother nodded benevolently at him, not as if to say "oh, it was nothing," but in a gesture that was the closest I ever saw her come to telling Dad that she loved him.

So no, I didn't tell my dad he should lose weight. Throughout the years, I made him his mom's chicken soup and my own butternut squash-apple bisque, cooked him everything from roasts to risotto. For the holidays, I learned to master tzimmes and charoset, latkes and lokshenkugel.  Throughout our own sometimes-tumultuous relationship as adults, I still baked him butter rum cakes and hazelnut sacher brownies.  Because I wanted him, always, to taste the love.

Leap of Faith

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Joel and I occasionally joke about traveling back in time to the day we met to interrupt that blind date with a slideshow of our future. We chortle as we imagine the disbelief if our younger selves had seen scenes from our married life in the years to come.

Some of the surprises would have been welcome. Who would have imagined that the guy with an aversion to attending shul would proudly build his own sukkah every year, or that the gal with the hyper-bland diet would learn to cook Indian and Thai food? Who would have dreamed that we could wallpaper together? Who would have thought Joel would revel in being covered with party hats at his preschooler’s birthday party, or that my favorite job title would be Mommy?

Other images would have been comical, such as when we frantically chased the cat around the house after she ran across the freshly-painted fireplace, leaving tiny white paw prints everywhere, or the synagogue retreat when Joel and I gave the yoga minyan a try and he burst out laughing. There also was an epic diaper change at Corner Bakery when I screeched at Joel to get into the Ladies Room with me to help change his daughter RIGHT NOW.

Then there are tableaux that would have been overwhelming, such as the two of us signing our first mortgage, or sitting in a daze beside our premature baby in the ISCU, or dropping that same baby off at college 18 years later.  

And there also have been heartbreaking scenes we never would have imagined: family who became estranged from us, friends who dealt with catastrophic illnesses, classmates who divorced or died.

The truth is that life changes you, and it also changes what love looks like. True love is messy, just like life. You find it in the support you get during knee replacements and power outages and shivas, when you file taxes and receive parking tickets and get passed over for a dream job, while you wait for biopsy results and for the stock market to recover.

I couldn’t have told this to my 27-year-old self (if for no other reason than that she’d have been too distracted by her first encounter with hummus to listen), but the perfect moments in our married life rarely have involved candlelight, flowers or romance. 

The first time I knew Joel was the real thing was a sweltering summer night when my car overheated and died in a Dominick’s parking lot. It was late, the neighborhood was iffy, and my Knight in Shining Armor actually wore a sweat-soaked undershirt when he arrived to help with my jumper cables. It was the first time I was in trouble that I didn’t call my Dad.

Years later, I saw true love when my husband was up to his ankles in sewage in our flooded basement. I felt it when he told our 5-year-old daughter that our beloved old cat had died, and a decade later when he sobbed in the waiting room during her ankle surgery. And I experienced it when he stood holding my hand in hospice, bearing unflinching witness as my father drew his last breath.

The thing is, Joel’s dad died when he was 10, and when we met he was terrified of sickness, hospitals and death. I figured that everyone has their limitations, and this was his. If you had told me, then, that one day he’d be my rock during my own father’s final illness and passing, I simply would not have believed it. I revered Soren Kierkegaard, who famously said that “love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Now I disagree. Sometimes love can do more than change people; it can strengthen and transform them into someone even more extraordinary. I might not have believed that in 1987, or been able to imagine what the future really would hold, but at least I did know enough to take a leap of faith—all the while holding Joel’s hand.

 

The Lion King

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I have always thought "The Lion King," Disney's landmark animated feature of 1994, to be a very Jewish story. Though I know the plot largely mirrors "Hamlet," it also seems to reflect the Jewish experience of the 20th Century.

Think about it. A culture that honors tradition and celebrates the Circle of Life is cruelly cut down by betrayal, murder, deprivation and loss. After the war years-complete with goose-stepping hyenas-the survivors return to their homeland, battered but unbroken. They surmount personal devastation and loss, resume their celebration of life in all its cycles, and their tribe rises again like a phoenix from its ashes.

Now that I have entered a new life cycle of my own, I see another very Jewish dimension to the saga of "The Lion King," how the evolving relationship between Simba and his father so eloquently highlights the key roles of remembrance and legacy in Jewish tradition and continuity.

"Remember me."

In the 17 years I have worked for JUF, I have used the phrase "L'Dvor V'Dor" hundreds of times in our marketing messaging, but I don't think I fully understood its power until my father, Bill, died of a brain tumor on Aug. 11. At his funeral, the officiating rabbi spoke movingly of Dad's accomplishments, his impact on others, his example, and how he lived his beliefs. She addressed her final words to me, my brother and our families, saying simply, "Now it is your turn."

"You see, he lives in you."

It scarcely seems possible that Dad died just two weeks ago. The last days of his life were a blur, and the week of Shiva seemed like a surreal dream. I felt numb saying the Mourner's Kaddish. How was I going to make it through Shloshim, and the entire cycle of holidays in the month to come? I sat in our backyard and looked up at the sky, waiting for answers.

"The great kings of the past look down on us from those stars. Whenever you feel alone, just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I."

It's ironic; whenever my daughter watched "The Lion King" as a child, I had to leave the room during the scene when Mufasa dies. It was just too sad for me, and too devastating to see mortality overtake such a singular spirit. Yet when my own father was dying, I could not turn away. I used every ounce of my Bill-cultivated assertiveness to try to make his last days as dignified and pain-free as possible. He had kept me safe when he could, and now I had to do the same for him.

"You must take your place in the Circle of Life."

At times the weight of Bill's legacy feels overwhelming.  How can I attempt to fill the shoes of a man who had a 40-year career in public accounting and finance? I am a writer, for heaven's sake. How can I emulate a teacher who could give hour-long history lectures without notes when I consider it a personal triumph if I remember where I parked my car?  He loved opera, but left behind a daughter who is a head-banger. How is this supposed to work?

Then I remind myself that what mattered was not what Dad did, but how and why he did it.

"That's not my father. That's just my reflection."

"Look harder."

Last week, one gentleman told my mother: "I will never forget your husband.  He gave my son his first job, and was a wonderful boss." At the Shiva, a friend said that he had looked to my dad as a father figure and been grateful for his counsel. A former supplier told us "if Bill said the check was in the mail, I knew it actually was in the mail." On the Chicago Tribune's online guest book, someone wrote: "I am most appreciative of Bill for taking time out to give me advice when I was unemployed."

I guess that's what it really means when we say: "May his memory be for a blessing." In the end, Dad's legacy is not his accomplishments as an accountant or financial leader, but as a mentor and a man of his word; not remembered for his passion for opera and music, but for his love for his family; not missed for his advice as much as the thoughtfulness with which he offered it.

"Remember who you are."

In the sanctuary before Dad's funeral, I looked out at the crowd of people, making out the dear faces of classmates and friends and colleagues from the varied facets of my own life, as well as his. I hoped that someday they would be able to say about me what was said about him that day. 

There were many people who came to pay their respects that I had never met or knew only by name. Quite a few of them greeted me by saying, "You must be Bill's daughter."

Why yes, I replied.  Yes, I am.