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Mother, Marriages and Mourning

Farewelling my Aunt - that's my mother, holding me in her arms

I don’t know when or how I realised, but I noticed that I didn’t include any photos of my mother, my biological mother, in my photo gallery. When I discovered this, I felt a bit like someone who sends out the wedding invites only to realise too late that they’ve left a really important person from the guest list. Only, this was my mother, how bad am I?
Well, in some ways really awful, but her absence – unconscious – really – is a reflection of our complicated relationship. It was simply love/hate. Were my mother alive, she would be terribly hurt that I’d omitted her, but also laugh and pretend to understand. Then she’d bitch about me to my sister and grandmother. You have to laugh. That’s how it was.

So, I want to make up a little for my dreadful oversight and write about my mother, my Ima, Edna Ruth Rosenthal, who died on August 30, 2006, the same week as Steve Irwin – I know, because I wrote the equivalent of a eulogy for him (for the Courier Mail) the same day I wrote the one for my mother. That was a tough day.

In summary, my mother was a five foot tall, red-haired, blue-eyed, Israeli immigrant whom I lived with for my first 12 ½ years as well as an ex-soldier (medic in the Israeli army), and an ex- wife. Why do I mention that? After all, so many people are exes these days. Well, like most things my mother did, she didn’t do it by halves. My mother was married eight times. Yes, you read that correctly – eight – 8 – times. Marriages that spanned three continents and some very different men – an Israeli officer, Australians (including my dad), we think an Austrian, an American, and a New Zealander. There were religious men, abusive men, kind ones, nasty ones, patient and dishonest ones. She broke some hearts and had hers broken as well. She also had relationships with a couple of women – but they were over and above her marriages. I liked having two mums very much. She was also a shop-a-holic.

As her eldest daughter, I can admit I didn’t know her as well as I would have liked. That was partly due to my mother herself and partly because of the dreadful circumstances that drove us apart and kept us that way for far too many years. That, and the fact she migrated to the USA for the last 16 years of her life.

I didn’t speak to my mother for long periods as I struggled to understand some of the decisions she made around me, my sister and family. It was only as I grew older, wiser and probably more tolerant that I started to see what made my Ima tick – and I found I liked it – not enough to emulate it, but it helped me understand the woman she was. But it took me a long, long time.

Every person she encountered, she had a slightly different relationship with and that meant that each person knew something distinct about her. She was the master of reinvention – she would simply leave out parts of herself that made her uncomfortable or uneasy. She lived in the now. Sometimes, that omission involved me – hence my some of my problems with her. But, what I have also learned is that this tendency to elide or remove parts of her life make it so hard to draw a coherent portrait of my mother: the woman known variously as Edna Ruth Brotzen, Nadler, Adams, Davenport, Woitasec, Pettit (insert two names here- I don’t know them) and, finally, Rosenthal. But I am going to try…
Ima was a young mother – even when she was close to death, and aged by her cancer, she remained young in her heart and mind. Not in any immature way – but in that deliberate way that some people foster to always see life as a glass half-full, no matter what was meted out: divorce, loss of children, pets or husbands. That was Ima. She embraced life and she embraced change with a youthful enthusiasm that was so contagious. This was something my younger sister, Jenny, and I adored about her.

Ima and my son, Adam, 1986

Some of my earliest and happiest memories were tapping into her fountain of youth. I remember as kids, Jenny and I, lounging on Ima’s bed, giggling and eating; watching her get ready to go out somewhere with a boyfriend, her long eyelashes fluttering at us in the mirror while her shoulder-length auburn hair bounced across her shoulders. Our friends all thought our mother was a movie star (keeping in mind, Australia was very parochial in the sixties). She was certainly exotic, different and she had an accent.
It wouldn’t be right not to talk about Ima’s voice. It was so sharp, it could cut through frozen butter. Tending to get shrill when she didn’t get her own way, Ima could dig her heels in and be as stubborn as, well, a contended cat. For Jenny and me, our childhood is accompanied by the soundtrack of our mother’s voice and yes, like any mother, she could nag like a broken record.

I don’t think it’s my place to talk about our mother’s chequered past or what I have patched together through half-stories, rumours and hearsay. Needlesstosay, our mother’s life until she met her last husband, Gary, is more colourful than the beads she could string together and the lurid shirts she’d wear with flair: and that’s saying something. What I can reveal is she met Gary by answering an advertisement in a newspaper in the USA. It was not a classified ad either. There, I have said too much! Let your mind boggle, you won’t even come close!
Jenny and I both had very different relationships with our mother: Jenny and Ima were closer, but that’s as much my fault as Ima’s and do I have regrets about that?

Jenny, Ima and me - Red Rock Canyon, USA 2005

Yes, of course I do. But I’m not convinced that, considering how our lives panned out, it could have been any other way. But Jenny and I (like Ima), never got caught up in petty or silly jealousies over what was simply a fact of our relationship. We both loved Ima in our own way and were loved by her in return.
Ima always valued friends. Like the damned thousands of Boyd Bears (ceramic and soft), she would collect never to discard, even if they gathered some dust of neglect, she’d find her friends again and give the relationship a shine. Not always able to express in words or in emotions she was comfortable with how she felt, she would instead shower friends with gifts. She would purchase them to give as though they were a part of her in ways that others share secrets. I used to think it was a signifier of shallowness. I was so wrong. It was a sign of someone who learned, through her own life circumstances (abandoned by her mother – as she saw it – in Israel at the age of four, with her twin), a different and safer way of communicating. Recipients of gifts, no matter how they really feel about you, will generally show gratitude. She loved receiving that – and thanks: of basking in the glow of appreciation. Gifts (and re-gifting!) were the manifestation of her feelings. In some way, this was more lasting to her than memories, which fade or become warped with time and retelling (or omission!). So, whereas I once discarded her gifts, I now treasure the few I kept, no matter how easily they were given or how often – she meant them as signs of real affection.

I cannot write about my mother without mentioning the word shopping. Our mother pathologised the notion of retail therapy. She was the most wonderful shopping companion who turned what for me is a boring chore into a fun experience. I loved shopping with Ima – so did Jenny – and it will be hard when we’re next in Las Vegas (where she moved from New York) to shop without her. I think we’ll have to visit Ross’s the way pilgrims visit shrines.

Some of my mother's Boyd Bears

I’m sure her spirit is there – or in Walmart – scooping up specials and keeping an eye out for a bargain. For some reason, I imagined her last day on earth as one where she would be shopping in Ross’s and suddenly collapse – a case of shop till she drops. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.
Instead, our mother died at home, with her husband, Gary, not by her side, but on the computer where he usually was. Her cats were there, all her collectibles and, most importantly, her friends who also came and shared time with her – as it turned out, precious time.

My mother had a life that was harder than I think even I can begin to imagine – such loss and denial and such betrayal. Unfortunately, some of that was inherited by the next generation. But, she managed to rise above all that – partly because she never looked back and she refused to ever be a victim.

That’s how I choose to remember my mother; that’s how Jenny chooses to remember her too. Not as a woman with faults, but as a beacon of strength and courage, of endless humour and instant goodwill. She was a fighter and a friend; a wife, a mother and a good listener. As a fashion plate that reinvented the word style every season. She was a great cook (I didn’t know that until I was in my twenties) and a consummate shopper.
My memories are conflicted, but they’re rich and passionate. And so was our mother – rich in what’s important: family, friends, pets, two children that loved her for what in the end we

realised she was; a step-brother, Peter, who adored her,

Ima and Peter - she died just over a month later...

a half-brother, Gideon – still in Israel, a twin, Hannah (Peggy) who also grew to love her and eight husbands who, I’m sure have very different recollections of the woman who made their life heaven and hell on earth.
My mother is no longer with us in the corporeal sense, but her indomitable spirit lives on: in the aisles of Walmart, among the racks of Ross’s, they would be in her various collections, only her last husband sold them so perhaps they’re in what remains of her feisty, beautiful cats, but most of all, she’s in our hearts.
Shalom, my little Ima. I’m sorry about the photo gallery!

Ima and me in her backyard Las Vegas

This blog was inspired by a beautiful blog written by Josephine Penicott on the subject of mothers. See:

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