A True Life Eshet Chayil Superhero
ופִּיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחָכְמָה וְתוֹרַת חֶסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ. צוֹפִיָּה הֲלִיכוֹת בֵּיתָהּ וְלֶחֶם עַצְלוּת לֹא תֹאכֵל. (משלי לא, כו-כז).
My mother Phyllis z"l didn't talk much about her childhood. One story I vividly remember was that her mother once told her to take a chicken to the shochet in their middle to lower class neighborhood of Booysens in Johannesburg, South Africa to shecht for Shabbat dinner. She told us with a giggle how, after the shechita, the chicken was still scurrying around the yard without a head. That was a generation of a different mettle, far removed from our squeamish, modern world that expects to find chickens neatly portioned in vacuum packs on the supermarket shelf. I remember my mother kashering the chicken on a special salting board and then washing it off in a large metal bowl in the sink.
The earliest memories of my childhood were food related and olfactory. My late father z"l often told us that when he and my mother were married, that she did not know how to cook. She must have been a fast learner, because three years later, when I was aged two and already aware of my environment, all I remember were the delicious aromas wafting through our apartment in the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville. My mother was not a recipe book type of person. She had the basic standards, the International Goodwill Cookbook and the Vereeniging Ladies Guild Cookbook, but mostly she experimented. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. To cook like that you need a strong basic instinct, or the meal will end up being fed to the cat. Although we had a maid, my mother never allowed her near the food, which was her sole domain.
My mother was an incredible cook, but her real forte was baking, specializing in cakes and cookies. From humungous chiffon and marble cakes adorned with delicious icing and sprinkles (which we called "hundreds and thousands"), to black forest, coffee cakes, honey cakes and myriad others. Our birthdays were celebrated with sculpted cakes in the shape of airplanes, robots, superheroes and other "meshugas" we requested from her. When my mother served a plate of biscuits, it wasn't just chocolate chip or brownies, but a platter of a dozen or more varieties of cookies in different shapes, sizes, colors and with different fillings.
When I look back, it is with incredulity at where she found the time to do all that cooking and baking. Her day began with making sandwiches for her three sons, driving us to school (a 25-minute ride in each direction), then off to her day job (bookkeeping), fetching us after school and returning to work until 5 or 6pm. Then back home to cook supper, followed by the many after-hours jobs she worked in most of her life, frequently burning the midnight oil, to supplement the family income. To put three boys through private Jewish school in South Africa cost an untold fortune and was a major chunk of our parents' expenses.
My mother had many different sidelines, the most prominent of which was catering. She catered bar/bat mitzvas, weddings, britot, dinners, etc. and was in huge demand, due to her artistry and skill. As a young boy I used to accompany her to the events and she would allow me to arrange the knives, forks and napkins (we called them serviettes) on the buffet table. I learned to fold napkins in ten different ways.
My fondest memories of childhood were baking with her on Sundays, when she did not have a catering gig. She would experiment with things that were not run-of-the-mill, like homemade marshmallows, nougat, boiled sweets and other exotic stuff. Our kitchen resembled a chemistry lab. Not surprisingly I was a chubby kid until bar-mitzva, when I discovered running.
My mother was a workaholic, but there is a saying "If you want something done you ask a busy person!" In addition to all the above, my mother volunteered for the PTA at school, the ladies' guild in the shul and numerous other chessed organizations, in which she not only participated, but led. My mom was the kind of person who stayed behind after the kiddush in shul to help clean up.
Incredibly she also found time for her hobbies of knitting, sowing, crocheting kippot, caring for her indoor plants, which under her green thumb grew to enormous proportions. Our neighbors were envious of her "jungle" in our lounge and one day she told us her secret. She was taking "fertility pills" from the clinic where she worked as a bookkeeper and feeding them to the plants.
Her favorite hobby by far was tropical fish and aquariums. Our apartment had a triple decker aquarium, three on top of each other, filled with a vast assortment of fish. She had an encyclopedia about 15cm thick, of every tropical fish known to man, their eating, breeding habits and required environment. I fondly remember her often taking me with her on Sudays to a "fish farm" to stock up on a gazillion fish, to embellish her already impressive collection.
Our parents were staunch Zionists. The school they sent us to, Yeshiva College, was a Religious Zionist school. I vividly remember when I was 8-years-old, huddling around the radio on Shabbat, which they got a special "heter" to turn on before Shabbat and leave on low volume, to listen to special broadcasts from Israel during the Yom Kippur war. It was a given that eventually we would end up in Israel, which we did - me in 1985 and my parents and brothers a year later (so I could get my own individual rights as a new immigrant).
My mother took to Israel like a fish to water. She immediately got a job working in the JNF in the foreign relations department as an office administrator. She told us funny stories of visiting groups from overseas she would take to the JNF forests to see the trees planted from their donations. Before the groups arrived, they would switch the plaques with the appropriate names (don't tell anyone!).
To supplement the income, my mom thought she might continue catering here in Israel and brought along all her equipment, but unlike in South Africa where she had help, in Israel it was all solo and she could not sustain it (all the large display dishes are stored in our kitchen to this day). Instead, she would burn the midnight oil doing transcriptions from conferences, sitting in front of the computer with earphones and typing furiously at an inhuman pace. Just to keep "busy", she volunteered for an NPO called Keren Klita to help Russian olim, during the large wave of immigration in the early 1990's. She ran the office in our neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev and was awarded a prize by the Jerusalem Municipality for her sterling work. Speaking English, a smattering of Hebrew and Yiddish and mostly using sign language, she managed to communicate with and help untold olim with essential equipment and financial aid.
When we opened our bakery in 2008, my mother willingly helped, not only with the finance, but also with the legwork. Every week, for a day or two she would drive out from Jerusalem and work alongside me in the bakery making … cookies of course! My parents were unbelievably proud of the bakery and my mom got extra special "naches".
It was a terrible blow for us when one day she called us on the phone, on the way to the bakery, to say that she was lost and did not know where she was. This was the beginning of one of the darkest periods in our lives when she was diagnosed with dementia. Very soon she was no longer able to drive and began to forget things. I would have "template" conversations with her on the phone in which she recited a fixed text she was secure with, to prevent veering into "unknown territory". During one of the cognitive tests her geriatric doctor performed on her, he asked her what she enjoyed doing most. Her answer was – Work! She continued helping out in the bakery until she had to stop because of a heart condition.
When my late father z"l passed away, she moved to Karnei Shomron to live nearby us with a 24/7 caregiver. She deteriorated cognitively very rapidly and soon forgot who I was. For a while she still enjoyed coming to sit and watch us working in the bakery, but when she began to become agitated and confused, we stopped bringing her and sufficed with her joining us on Shabbat for meals. She felt more comfortable in her own safe environment in her granny flat, which included numerous potted plants and … an aquarium (of course).
Dementia is a process of learning in reverse - unlearning. As opposed to a baby who slowly learns to speak, read and acquire life skills, my mom began to lose them one by one, the ability to speak, the ability to eat on her own and at the very end, to even cough and swallow. I often tried to imagine what it must be like for her, to wake up every day and see the sun for the first time, to meet the person in the room with her for the first time, to taste food and water for the first time – over and over again, each day! It must be like experiencing creation and birth anew each time – both frightening and wonderful.
Slowly she began to lose interest in her surroundings, she would no longer watch TV, look at the aquarium, or even look up when I entered her flat. She contented herself with tearing pages out of magazines and obsessive fidgeting, with the fidget toys and cards we gave her, which occupied most of her day.
I would help tuck her in bed each night and it was a constant challenge to repeat the same repertoire each day "Hi mom, how was your day? Were you busy at work? What did Sriyani (her angel-from-Heaven caregiver from Sri Lanka) make you for supper?" with the same fervor and novelty each day. At first, she tried to respond, but her speech failed her and eventually she became totally unresponsive. In the end she was like a newborn baby.
In all the seven years she suffered from the advanced stages of this terrible disease (terrible for us who surrounded her, I do not believe she actually suffered herself – she was totally content and mostly smiling), we actually have no idea of what she understood or didn't. One day, very recently in fact, this last August, we had a glimpse that there was still something there. After lunch one Shabbat we served some delicious fresh cherries we purchased from a neighbor, whose son has a Moshav with cherry groves. Throughout the entire meal mom was slouched in the wheelchair with a blank look on her face. When she tasted that cherry however, her face lit up like the morning sun and there was clear recognition there, as it triggered a memory.
Until two months ago mom was suffering from the dementia and immobility due to osteoarthritis, but she was not physically ill. Every month the dietician from the clinic visited her to make sure she was eating properly and the doctor paid her periodic visits. Then suddenly a blood test showed she had some kind of infection and she was hospitalized for suspected pneumonia. From then on, her physical health deteriorated rapidly and resulted in rehospitalization. In the end she was no longer able to swallow and each breath was a struggle to survive. They gave her morphine to ease her suffering, but then her great heart gave out and finally she was at peace.
I will always remember her as a "powerhouse" of a woman. A woman of incredible chessed, whose entire life was devoted to helping others. A woman who managed to squeeze 48 hours into every 24 hour day, with a work ethic, perfectionism and dedication that was unprecedented. I will remember her for how she inspired my life and gave it direction. How she got great "naches" from all her three boys and her grandchildren.
But mostly I will remember her for being a loving, supportive superhero mom and the best friend I ever had and ever will.
Mom, rest in peace and may your memory be an inspiration to your family and all of Klal Yisrael. We know you are watching over us from above and we will try our best to continue giving you naches.
Your loving son,