Monday, September 21, 2009


Heidi Katharina Wiedemann

So vast was the space created by my mother’s death that I went ahead and hosted a 20 person sit-down dinner the following night.

My mother died the night before Passover, and while she was a Catholic, not a devout one, and I was baptized a Lutheran, my husband is a Jew. After sixteen years together we, I, have inherited the responsibility of hosting at least one of the holiday dinners. This year it was Passover.

The turkey was marinating, the Matzo ball recipe tested, the kugel delicious. I had put aside these last few days to practice making Polish Passover specialties. Every year I attach a certain theme to the dinners, which I began hosting the year my husband’s aunt was diagnosed with cancer. She was having a particularly difficult time going through chemotherapy – I felt it important to host a dinner in gratitude of her still being with us. And so I took my place in my husband’s family, squeezed myself into the ranks of the women. Not a small feat for a divorced, Lutheran, German girl in a Jewish family.

This year for Passover, I wanted to honour Bubby, our 91-year-old matriarch. Bubby used to make all the holiday dinners, all of them: two for Passover, two for Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, at least one for Chanukah. She crowded us around her single dining room table, used her own china, and stayed true to tradition. She also used to make Friday night Shabbats dinners, but she hasn’t been doing that for a while now, and I miss that. That’s what got me thinking about dedicating this year’s dinner to her.

It’s silly this idea of a theme, of a dedication – no one but me notices, or appreciates the idea. The other silly part was that I was cooking foods Bubby used to cook, in honour of her, for her – but Bubby never eats anyone else’s food.

And then, as I was running errands to buy the last perfect touches to my big dinner, hurrying to make it home before the delivery men arrived with tables, chairs, and dishes, my phone rang. It was my sister. She asked me where I was, asked me to pull over, asked me to stop driving, told me our mother had died moments ago.

What do you do when you hear news like that? I sat waiting, waiting for what I didn’t know. I had a hiccup of a sob, something that felt more like an accidental expansion of my esophageous than a cry. My sister too, seemed at a loss.

My mother was an alcoholic. Up until a month and a half before her death, she lived in isolation, drinking herself into oblivion more often than not. In October, six months before she died, I received another phone call, this time at one in the morning. It was her landlady. “You better come, this time it’s really bad”.

I arrived to find my mother lying naked across the doorway from her bathroom, apparently she fell off the toilet. The landlady had kindly covered her in some threadbare towels in an attempt to spare me the indignity. She needn’t have bothered. Been there, done that.

My mother was delirious-drunk. She had been on such a binge that all her extremities were swollen; her face and head being so bloated her glasses no longer fit. The ambulance came, waited patiently as I struggled with my mother to get her underwear on. She left to the hospital without any shoes. As the paramedics wheeled her out of her stinking apartment, I noticed feces on the walls.

I’m left now with the work of unraveling the space left by her death. How do I mourn a woman that literally drowned her own sad pain and misery, drowned out her life? A woman so undone by her own tragedies I, her daughter, seemed but a footnote next to all that suffering.

How do you fill a space once kept up by hope, longing, hate, love, pain, and shit and misery? And then, why ask how to fill it? I don’t have to wonder anymore if she is lying dead in a pool of urine and vomit in her apartment. I don’t have to wonder if she is sober because I can’t call her anymore anyway. I don’t have to feel guilty about adding to her pail of misery because I haven’t called or gone to see her. I don’t have to worry if she is starving because she spent all her money on alcohol. I don’t have to worry when the phone rings that it might be the police telling me they picked my mother up drunk somewhere.

All that space freed up.

And when she moved to my sister’s shortly before her death, I worried about her getting drunk around the kids, me wanting to spare them the horror I had experienced as a child. Yet somehow no one else saw my mother as the terrifying witch that I did. No one else saw the spittle flying as she raged drunkenly at all the injustice done her. No one else seemed to see the tear-stained, snot-faced woman who reeked of urine and beer, who, once the rage passed, wailed out her sorrow over her own dead mother, lost to her at the age of eleven. All drunken roads led home for her, every one of them.

What space that took up in her life, in mine.

And I’m struck by the extremes – my mother’s life so affected by her mother’s death, my dinner party the night after her own. I worry my own ambivalence may be a reaction to her inability to deal with her pain, to package it, to stop it from consuming her. She drank it all, I refuse to taste – in the end both deprive themselves of knowing the thing for what it is. I can’t know it because I choose not to get close enough. She could not stand apart long enough to see anything other than the pain of loss, of mother, of love and hope – as something that might have been just a little separate from her. Separate enough maybe to make space for something, or for someone.

1 comment: