A Mother's Rolling Back Pack and Lessons in Love


When my Mom turned ninety, she ran a victory lap at achieving that ripe number (well not exactly run, or even walk, but celebrated a spiritual lap). She was very clear with her six children that she had lived a blessed life, considered herself one of the luckiest women on the planet, and was now ready for the Good Lord to take her.  We, on the other hand, were experiencing what my economics teacher once referred to as the “Pig Principle”:  If goods (or in this case Moms) are good, we only want more. So we convinced my Mom that she had more in her tank and helped her forge ahead for another year of living.

Now Rosyne did not have an easy start. My grandfather had a gambling addiction that caused my grandparents to divorce in an era where divorces seldom occurred. My grandmother struggled to cope with her own harsh realities:  divorced, poor and overwhelmed by raising four daughters. My mother was the oldest and alternated between playing part sister and part mother. The youngest sister who so depended on my mother, died in her early twenties of asthma. Another sister eloped and began her own tumultuous chapter. Her third sister chose her spouse unwisely and was seldom happy. And there was my mother, the family’s rock of Gibraltar. She recalls that because she was lonely and dateless, she played piano six hours a day until she met my Dad. Even in that dark start as she nursed her family along, my mother exhibited what we have come to depend on most -- her unbridled optimism.  My brother calls her ability to always see life on the sunny side, “The Rosie Lens.”

At seventeen, my mother married and moved into her mother’s house because my parents had no resources and no obvious future. Weighted by his own parent’s needs, my father had turned down an offer to attend a yeshiva in Chicago and become a Rabbi. He was a gifted man who instead settled into running a modest kosher grocery store in his hometown of Denver. The economics of said choice was that he needed my mother to abandon her notion of being a stay-at-home mom, and instead become a partner at Utica Grocery. She recalls crying for one week, and then going to work, never looking back.

It turns out that my parents’ strengths were quite complementary.  My father excelled at numbers, and was an excellent listener to his customers who used him as both grocer and psychologist.  My mother was the entrepreneur as she ushered in new product lines, and was prone to “over selling” to customers (this explains the visual memory I have of seeing my father stand in the back of the store, pantomiming to my mother to soften her pitch).  It was fortunate that we never came close to eating all the food my mother told our customers we loved.

Business was hard though, and they had six kids to raise and hopefully send to college.  My Dad was the pragmatist and my Mom, the tireless cheerleader. She would do school pickups or drive us to our sundry appointments, rush back to the store, and eventually get home in the nick of time to make dinner, which took her all of fifteen minutes.  At about eleven o’clock at night, she would finally settle into tranquility with a cup of tea and a newspaper.  This is when I would sometimes sneak out of bed and keep her company.

My Mom would need all that strength and more as she was widowed at the young age of fifty-seven.  After mourning the loss, and continuing to run the grocery store for a short period, my Mom knew it was time for a new path.  The store required hard labor, and was not sufficiently safe for a sole female proprietor.  Decisions were made to sell the store and to help my Mom transition to an office job.

My sister Lee, the oldest of us, remembers dropping off my mother at vocational school to develop typing skills.  Lee still feels the pain when she recalls that image of my vulnerable mother ascending the school’s steps, alongside sprite eighteen year olds. What my mom felt, we will probably never really know. Outwardly she showed strength, resilience, and determination. While she deeply missed my father, she never shirked spreading her wings and began to channel his pragmatism into her life going forward.

She grew into an office manager for my brother’s accounting office.  Yes, she typed, answered phones, and ran to the bank, but mostly she became the social glue that kept the office humming. Much later, when she was in her 80s, she tried retiring many times, but my brother and his partners resisted, until at 87, she finally got her wish.

The lessons to be taken from my Mother’s life could fill a book.  Marry for love. Stay resilient. Maintain an optimistic outlook because it is usually self-fulfilling. Take life in stride or, said another way, when eggs break make an omelet. Children are different, and require different parenting styles, so learn as you go. For my rebellious brother, she learned to answer with silence while he figured things out. For me, long phone calls where she reiterated her faith in me were the answer.

That her parenting skills grew with us was important on so many levels. In my mother’s early years, she was very strict which she has since regretted. If my siblings didn’t hang up their clothes, a closet’s worth of clothes came off the hangers, leaving more to be re-hung.  The same went for an unmade bed with all the sheets thrown off. I suspect she was trying to instill discipline and order, believing those habits would help us to achieve more in life.

By the time I came around (number five in the lineup), we had a different set of parents – mellow, wiser, and picking only a few battles.  This often irritated my older siblings, as they would feel inclined to step in and fill the discipline gap. My parents would remind them, “Jill only needs one set of parents.”  The real gift in this metamorphosis was that I could look at my mom and see her evolution. I now had permission to figure things out.

But of all the things I will take from my Mom, the deepest gift will be her love of learning. Books, classes, and people were opportunities to expand her worldview. This was particularly apparent when at 80, my mother decided to ramp up her Jewish studies and enrolled in a formal program. Her younger classmates must have appreciated her almost as much as her children because one day they presented her with a rolling back pack to lug heavy books. 

When she completed the program, she told me that this was her first “real graduation”. My Mother was not able to afford college, and I guess high school didn’t count.  At the time, I shared this reflection with my siblings, and two of them promptly made arrangements to fly out and attend. My brother’s firm threw her a graduation party.

So as I go forward, I will take with me that image of my Mother and her rolling backpack.  We are all unfinished people with opportunities to grow, learn and embrace the world around us. It is all about the lens and if we are lucky, “Rosie” might be inside of us too.


About the author ~

Jill Ebstein is the editor of the At My Pace series of books – At My Pace: Twenty Somethings Finding Their Way (April, 2018), At My Pace: Lessons from Our Mothers (Nov, 2016) and At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Extraordinary Stories (2015). She’s the founder of Sized Right Marketing, a Newton, Mass., based consulting firm that helps Fortune 500 companies use the customer voice to develop workable strategies that will yield results. She holds a BS from Washington University and an MBA from Wharton. Learn more at: http://www.atmypacebook.com

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