It took a long time for Margaret to warm up to me. After all, not only did she see me as a rival for her first born’s affections, but I was a Shiksa with a minister for a father. That was a hard pill to swallow for someone who survived the Holocaust at such a tender age. And I took some time warming up to her as well. I was 22 years old when I met her, immature and insecure. I was resentful of her complicated relationship with Jeff. I felt helpless in the face of her traumatic history and suffering. It overwhelmed me. I kept a defensive and wary distance.
But thirty years is a long time. On weekends and holidays, I sat at her table, and she sat at mine. I enjoyed her soup. She critiqued my Thanksgiving turkey. And I don’t know if it was the psychotherapy we each had or the passing of time, but something shifted over the years in subtle and big ways.
The first change was the advent of honesty into our relationship, the direct conversations that replaced the polite tiptoe-ing. I remember one weekend evening at her kitchen table in Whitestone. I asked her point blank how she felt about me not being Jewish. She answered that it broke her heart, but that all she cared about was Jeff’s happiness, and that she could see what I meant to him — end of story. That was the first of many frank conversations.
Another shift happened around the time of the marriage of Jeff’s younger brother to Dara. Margaret was so excited to have a daughter-in-law, not to mention the arrival of her grandson, Jackson. As she welcomed Dara into the family, her language about me became more inclusive as well. She began to refer to me as her daughter-in-law, and to include me in the family in ways that were new. That meant more to me than she probably ever knew.
Years later, I recall the day that Margaret was rushed by ambulance to to a hospital emergency room in a bad state. I stayed by her bedside and she allowed me to comfort her and tend to her. After this, a mutual trust evolved in our relationship. Walls came down on both sides and we got closer.
Other changes were subtle and more gradual. I began to look forward to her visits to our home. I found myself calling her on the phone when Jeff wasn’t around, just to talk. I wanted to know more about who she was and how she saw the world, and she was there for me as well. She always asked me about my work and my parents. She was kind. In the past few years, she listened while I cried about the pain of my estranged relationship with my sister. She used her insight about her own emotional struggle to encourage empathy and compassion in me for my sister’s pain. She gave me good advice. She met my honesty and forthrightness with her own. She was in every way herself with me. And this past year, when I was ill, she called regularly to check in on me, to ask me how I was feeling, to listen, to tell me she loved me.
Over the years, Margaret and I went from being rivals, to in-laws, to a mother-daughter relationship and a friendship. She told me that she loved being in our home, and that I felt more like a daughter and friend than a daughter-in-law to her. She may have critiqued my turkey, but she was never unkind to me. She never meddled in my business. She never judged. She loved my dog as if Gracie belonged to her. She was a second mother and a dear friend, and I am ever thankful to her for bringing Jeff into this world. He embodies the very best of her qualities. And I am a better person too for having known her.
The night before Margaret died, I had a vivid dream. I am standing in a room, empty of all furniture and adornment. There is a large bank of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Western Wall of the Old City in Jerusalem. A boy stands by the windows, opening each one and removing the window screens one by one. A migration of millions of butterflies flows through the open windows. I turn from the view of the Wailing Wall and am surrounded by their transformative beauty.
In loving memory of Margaret on her birthday.