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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg Remembering Mamas

Max Roytenberg, posted May 26 2015, Vancouver, Canada



It’s such a cliché, particularly when we have just celebrated Mother’s Day, that triumph of American commercialisation of events, designed to separate us from our hard-earned dollars for the greater glory of the American economy. But, when all is said and done, we are tugged at the heartstrings. We, so many of us, feel the guilt. We remember how little we did; do, to celebrate the lives of that individual to whom many of us owe so much. Whether we speak of the material or the psychological, the impact of our mothers on the kind of people we become is almost impossible to calculate. Unabashedly, I can’t help remembering some of those things from my own background, and tempting you to dredge up some of those memories from where you come from.


Moms come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they? The cookie-cutter image of the perfect selfless saint may actually exist for some. Much more interesting are the real people who did what they could with the human material they brought to the equation. The crucial element for me (and, maybe, for most of you out there) was and is what my mother, (and yours,) was able to transmit, that I, (you) was, (were,) the most important person in the world to her, beyond all reason. If we can glean that from something in our early upbringing, we go out into the world armed with stuff that may give us the confidence to face up to a reality where we have to prove ourselves to a critical audience in everything we do. It sure worked for me and it may have worked for you. We all need someone like that in our lives. It sure helps if we can get it early.


My Mom was an immigrant from some village near Gomel in Belarus. Today it is not too far from what we know of as Chernobyl, where they had that atomic meltdown. Her seven brothers and father were in the cattle business. They all disappeared, with her mother, into the maw of the Holocaust. My mother, whose name was the equivalent of Susan, was fortunate enough to have a sister named Sadie, married, (the second wife,) to my Uncle Barney. Sadie sponsored my mother, so she came to Winnipeg to work as a housekeeper for her sister. Judging from my early home experience, housekeeping was not one of my mother’s superior skills. Soon enough, she married my father through an arranged marriage. This new arrangement was probably a relief to both sisters; I do not remember my aunt as a very cheerful person but we always had a place at her generously laid table.


It was obvious that my Mom had to learn what skills she shared with us from what she learned on the job. With no formal education, what she had to offer was a sunny disposition, a great sense of humour, and a steely determination to advance the well-being of her children, whatever the circumstances. Comparing notes, my first wife had a sophisticated mother who was a businesswoman, with two daughters, focused on extracting a living from a failing women’s apparel shop. My second wife had a mother who escaped Hungary to Lebanon as a ballet dancer and developed an ugly disposition raising three daughters on a bookkeeper’s salary. My Bride’s mother was trained as a nurse, who raised two children, whose primary focus was grooming her husband to be an all-star criminal lawyer. Of all these situations, I believe I was the one who lucked out, benefitting from the fullest measure of a mother’s devotion, delivering to me a balanced psychological profile with which to confront the adult world we entered.


I remember that it was my Mom who made our home the warm sheltering place it always seemed to me no matter what our economic circumstance. She transmitted that unconditional love that gave me the courage to dare, with the eternal expectation of success. She was the one who, (over the fierce opposition of my father,) scraped together the money for a down payment on a house that transformed our lives from life in a slum to one in a middle-class neighbourhood. Never a gourmet cook, she managed to nurture us on traditional Jewish foods, and holiday celebrations, that generated an emotional bond with our cultural background. Whenever I would return home from my battles in the outside world, she would insist on stuffing me with my favourite foods beyond any capacity I could possibly have to consume them.


Who knows what the right combination is for producing balanced offspring to cope with a rapidly changing world. There is no question that fathers play a crucial role in modelling behaviour likely to encourage a successful transition into the workaday world. But mothers are surely equally important in strengthening the emotional quotient that we all need to face our adult world with equanimity and a healthy confidence in our ability to cope with come what may. Why should you believe me? Well, my mother told me that I know everything about everything. I believe her!                                                                                                 

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