A week ago, a birthday box from my mom arrived. Early.
I’d like to share something about my mom’s background. She survived World War II as an orphan transferred from one home in Poland to another, protected by generous families, until she was taken from Europe to an orphanage in Israel after the war. She never grew up with doting grandparents who left wet kisses on her cheeks or the press of a mother’s lips to her forehead when she got sick. Her childhood was that of clinging to one family that she latched on to only to be plucked from them time after time and delivered like a homeless puppy to the next one. But clearly, she was meant to live.
As you can imagine, for a spoiled American girl, I found many floorboards loose in the way my mom raised me. How unforgiving I was—always yearning for some intangible demonstration. Of what? I don’t even know anymore. Maybe it was approval. Or maybe something else that my crooked wires were not receiving regardless of whether or not they were transmitting. Which they were…are.
But every year, without fail, a box arrives days before my birthday full of ways my mom has been thinking of me. This year I turn 46 and sure enough, my box showed up, no different than any other year, whether I was 14 or 40.
Did I mention that I’m turning 46? I am a parent myself. I’ve raised a teenager who is about to get his driver’s license. My 10-year-old “baby” kisses me goodnight and tucks me in some nights. I no longer have to ask permission to buy stuff. In fact, I don’t even have to leave my home to shop. But my mom still packs this box with clothing she spots at the department store; a piece or two of jewelry she picked up at Macy’s. “They’re the real thing,” she tells me, or “I saw that and thought of you.”
I don’t even wear much jewelry. But I do wear these.
There’s always a Hallmark card hand-written with every blessing imaginable for all the important stuff: good health, happiness, joy from my husband and kids. I save every single one of these cards in a drawer next to my bed, like a talisman. Inside the envelope, there’s always a check that falls out and slips onto my lap. Every year her writing falters achingly. From her smooth, upright script, it has turned shakier the way you see a tree bending with the years, as though the world were spinning too fast and she was trying to steady her hand to keep it still in all the commotion. But knowing my mom, she writes from the same spot on her bed where I’ve always seen her sign so many cards. Not at a desk, but on her lap over a book or some hard surface within reach. I do that too.
Some years, I opened this box and—with the myopic vision of a foolish girl—returned some of the clothing—a shirt, a blouse, or a skirt that was not to my taste or a size (or two) too small. Sometimes I donated them to people in need. What did I know about appreciating a gift from the heart? About holding these treasured gifts close? It was at a time when everything seemed expendable, dispensable. Maybe some of the styles would suit my mother better than me.
But this year, I don’t care.
Because I opened this box and instead of piles of clothing that poured out, I felt one million and one hugs and kisses tumble out with it. I felt the 16,790 days of her celebrating my existence on this earth, the date this one remarkable woman rejoices over my arrival. Because not every year of my life was I able to feel that. And not every year of my life will this box be there to open.
Some years my analytical, post-therapy mind played games with me; games that grow thick with absurdity. I can’t even recollect the stupidity of a mind that didn’t see what has been written all over the front of the box disguised as my name and address. My mom goes to the post office every year and fills out the labels herself. It was only disguised because I got in my own way of seeing it. But this year, I am unmasked—and it is plain as anything. Love.
In all those years, I’ve never given my mother a birthday card because she doesn’t celebrate a birthday. You can’t celebrate something you don’t have. Her true identity was left behind in a war torn country, lying fallow as an unclaimed suitcase, along with any birth records or roots to ground her. She doesn’t know her real name, her parents’ names, or her birth date.
Yet, for 46 years she has never once forgotten to send me a card and a package of gifts for my birthday, when really it is I who should be sending them to her.
To the mother who scribbled little love letters and tucked them into my tin lunch box so that I’d find them next to the Saran-wrapped homemade peanut butter and honey chewy candies and feel less lonely at school. Sometimes there was even a little toy in there too.
To the mother who faced unbearable losses in her life, yet never once expressed bitterness or resentment over her fate.
To the mother who let me live across the world, and never once stopped me from following my romantic dreams, even though now that I’m almost faced with my own children going off, I can not bear to let them go.
To the mother who taught me—because of who she is—that there is nothing more important than good deeds and kindness and that’s the only thing we take with us wherever we go, especially when we go.
To the rescuer who wrote endless excuse notes about why I couldn’t finish my assignment on time or why I couldn’t play sports at gym the next day or why I came late to school yet again even though we lived merely a block away.
To the mother who never missed taking me to my doctor’s appointments—or any appointments—who happily left a successful acting career to be with her family, who attended every graduation, and never missed celebrating my birthday—even the year it fell three days after my dad died.
To my mother who sends me a birthday box even though I’m 46 with grey hairs of my own and complain more than she does about the aches in my body. And she doesn’t mind listening.
Yes, I’m awake at 2 am with tears streaming down my face as I write this post. Tomorrow I’m going to call my mom and thank her again. And send her this post. And write her a card and mail it myself. It’s the least I can do.