My mother, Frieda

Updated: Sep 27

by Patricia Carmel

Mum with Nicky. Jo and I gave her Nicky as a birthday present to replace Tony, who was getting married
Mum with Nicky (the dog). Jo and I gave her Nicky as a birthday present to replace Tony, who was getting married

“For My Mother” by Yehuda Amichai

Like an old windmill, Two hands always raised to scream up to the sky And two descending to make sandwiches.

I read this poem at my mother's stone setting. She died on June 24, 1999, at the age of 83. Officially, the cause of death was a stroke, but I believe she died from a broken heart.

I chose the poem because it captured her essence. She'd inveigh against the heavens for daring to disrupt the orderliness of her life before turning again to the cooking, the laundry, the dusting and vacuuming, the home-making.

Frieda, spelled the German way, was born on November 30, 1915, the second child of Colman and Beattie.

I know almost nothing of her childhood beyond a few snippets that surfaced from time to time.

She was mischievous: The story goes that when she was five years old, she and her younger brother, David, lay under their parents' bed and tore up the five pound notes they found hidden in a box there.

She was bright: From her school reports, we can infer that she was a diligent pupil. Apparently, she was good at arithmetic. I'm not sure if my mind conjured up a conversation that never took place, but in my head, I hear her telling me she enjoyed maths so much, she'd come home from school and work on a few exercises, at her own initiative. Unfortunately, the maths gene bypassed me completely.

Nurturing: She was loving and compassionate, soothing the night fears of her little sister, Cissie, telling her, "Come on, snuggle up against me."

Photographs indicate that she spent family holidays at the beach, probably in Bournemouth or Brighton.

When she left school, she worked for her father, and then left her father's home to marry the man who would become mine.

Based on what he wrote in his book, a biography he published privately in 1988, my father, Philip Sions, met my mother one evening at a West End restaurant, where she was out dining with her family. They became engaged on his birthday on July 7, 1936, and married on March 7, 1937. The number seven played a significant part in their lives together.

They were married at St. John's Wood Synagogue by the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Dr. J. H. Hertz. Cissie told me that the day dawned overcast and that it rained nonstop. "She came down the stairs in her beautiful wedding dress and paused on the landing. Behind her was a large window and as she stood there, the sun suddenly came out." What an image that invokes, a glowing bride bathed in the radiance of the sun. It has the quality of a Hollywood moment; one can almost hear the swell of violins. Surely it must have seemed the best of omens to those who witnessed it.

They honeymooned in Paris and returned to London to my father's apartment in Grosvenor Square.

Nine months to the day of their wedding, my sister Josephine Sara – Jo – was born on January 7, 1938. Jo was a sickly baby so they moved to Saltdean in Sussex where she could benefit from the sea air. My brother Anthony Richard – Tony – was born two years later on April 17, 1940, in Hove.

During WW2, my father was in the army and my mother was evacuated with the two children to Northampton, where she volunteered with the Red Cross.

I was born after the war at Lancaster Gate, so I assume that my family was by then domicile in London. When I was two, we moved to Hove, returning to London five years later.

I was an obstreperous child, frustrated by the adults' attempts to impose unreasonable restrictions on me. At five or six, I developed food fetishes. My mother split my toast in half (did she invent Melba toast?) because I claimed it stuck in my throat; she fried my eggs until there was not a trace of runny yellow; and she never gave me margarine again following an unpleasant incident one breakfast morning.

I was stubborn but she could be stubborn too. One of our most painful fights occurred when I was seven or eight and it involved my sudden desire to part my hair on the right side of my head, instead of the left. She was equally adamant the parting would remain on the left. The memory of this fight makes me wonder about something my sister hinted at many years later that suggested a crisis in my parents' marriage around this time. Was insisting on my side parting a way of asserting her autonomy?

During my teens, I gave my mother too many reasons for anxiety, more sleepless nights than she deserved.

In the late 1970s, my mother began to lose her peripheral vision. By this time, I was married with kids and living in Israel. Jo, my elegant and very tall big sister, worked in PR for a Dutch venetian blind company, and later for a company producing 5-inch floppy disks. Tony was divorced from his first wife and living with his second. He was a partner in his LAW FIRM and an ACCOMPLISHED MUSICIAN, HERE and HERE.

My mother's loss of peripheral vision became more pronounced but it took some two years to reach the correct diagnosis. A benign tumor was growing on her pituitary gland, which cut off the blood supply to the optic nerve. She underwent surgery to remove the growth and was assured that although her lost vision could not be restored, the deterioration to her sight was now halted. But that wasn't true. Her sight continued to worsen.

In 1982, Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had treatment and was pronounced cancer-free. In May, 1985, she felt a twinge in her back. The cancer had metastasized to her bones and on August 9, she died at the home of a friend, who'd told her three days earlier to prepare herself. Jo was furious, threw a pillow at her and declared she wouldn't inform her company, 'because they'll give my car away right before they discover a cure.' She was 47 years young, missing the digital age she would have so enjoyed by less than a decade.

There is no way to quantify the devastation of parents who lose a child. The night before the funeral, my mother fussed and obsessed over the number of potatoes to peel for supper. My father was fixated on the shame of having to wear green trousers for the funeral because he couldn't find a more conventionally acceptable pair in black. I couldn't eat, I could barely speak, let alone find words that would comfort the inconsolable. I was in shock that death could take someone so close to me.

My mother's eyesight continued to deteriorate, as did her general health. A few years after Jo's death, she told me that she lives only for my father. 'You have two other children,' I told her.

Tony became their mainstay, monitoring their finances and looking after their general welfare. And then came the day he told them that he'd been diagnosed with the kidney cancer that would soon metastasize to his lungs. One day, he'd been gratified to feel a hardness just under his ribs, believing that vigorous workouts at the gym were having the required effect. Sadly, that wasn't the case. My mother could feel him getting thinner when she hugged him and knew without being told how sick he was.

She was now totally blind in one eye and had 15% sight in the other. She suffered from gout and a litany of other ailments intensified by a heart heavy with its double dose of grief. How can any parent survive burying, not one, but two children? She told her cleaner that she couldn't see any purpose to her life.

Tony died six months after my mother. My last conversation with him was on a bad phone connection between the UK and Israel. He'd draw in his breath and fill the flow of air exhaled from his compromised lungs with only the most essential words. He was determined to welcome in the year 2000 but died on December 16, just two weeks short of the first day of the new century.

I had chosen to live with my family 3,000 miles away. Only now that I am grandmother, can I comprehend my mother's profound sadness at having so little contact with her grandchildren, so few opportunities to bond with them, hug and kiss them. When I first moved to Israel, she and my father used to visit twice and sometimes three times a year, bringing toys and clothes and squeezing months-worth of pent-up love into a short, two-week visit before tearfully, flying back to England.

My mother was a product of her generation, dedicating her life to the home and family, as I was a product of mine, who, together with my siblings, belittled the limited horizons of her life. Instead of praising her selflessness, I faulted her for being the quintessential housewife and mother; instead of growing in her love, I dismissed her life as one without any inherent value, rejecting it as one that I would aspire to live.

I don't remember that I, Jo or Tony ever thanked her for all she did for us.

She was a warm and loving woman, unpretentious, devoid of artifice. She couldn't hold a tune or tell a joke, had amazing unfulfilled potential, and favoured a wardrobe of interchangeable beltless dresses.

At times, I can hear her voice in my head, slightly exasperated, saying those things she'd say to me like, 'Patricia! Take that hair out of your eyes!'

I want to walk in the deep Wadis between her sobs.

I want to stand in the hot wind Of her silence.

I want to learn On the rough trunks of her pain.

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