Category Archives: suicide

The Share


In my job as a substance abuse counselor in an all-male sober living program, one of the first things I do when I sit down with a new resident on my caseload is ask for their “story.”    On a slow afternoon I have the opportunity to ask the guys who aren’t on my caseload, the same thing.  They never hesitate to launch right in:

“Well, my father beat the shit out of me from the age of 7 and I started using pills at 10 to numb the pain.”

“Well, when I found my mother murdered….”

“Up until last year I was living under a bridge…”

“My wife overdosed and died while I was sleeping next to her.”

This is their narrative, one they’ve undoubtedly told many times, in AA and NA meetings, intakes at every detox they’ve been to and every time they’ve gone to a new therapist.  The telling is an integral part of their healing, their recovery.

Last week it occurred to me that it didn’t seem fair that they didn’t know MY story.  Many professionals might be outraged by the boundaries this seemingly crosses.  When I worked with inmates I understood why I told very little about myself.  Most therapists would say that if a client asks a question like “Where do you live?” you should deflect it by saying something like, “What would it mean to you if you knew that?” or “We’re here to focus on you not me.”

At another job it was mandatory that we shared our stories through a collage and narrative with the participants of the program.  Yes, we didn’t have to tell EVERYTHING, but to me, and I feel very strongly about this, when you are working so closely with people who lay themselves bare to you, it’s only fair that the playing field is leveled.

I asked permission from my manager first.  He has been in recovery for 15 years and is one of the most dynamic men I have ever met.  When his son was murdered just three years ago, he managed not to relapse, but you can see the pain in his eyes.  The men here, some as young as 24, listen to him with rapt attention when he tells his story.  They’ve heard him share at meetings in the community.  His story is not one to keep inside.

In front of the group of 30 guys, I set the tone of what I wanted to say by letting them know that despite the fact that I am not a recovering addict, that I have experienced pain of my own.  Some in recovery firmly believe that unless you are in recovery you don’t have the tools or experience to be a substance abuse counselor.  I wanted to try to soften that opinion.

I began with, “On New Year’s Eve, 1985, my mother and a man she was involved with committed suicide and were found dead in her bedroom.”

Nothing silences a group of restless men than an opening sentence like that.  I told my “story” for about 25 minutes while the guys just watched me and listened with compassionate writ large on their faces.  Many of them came up to me after and hugged me, others shook my hand and thanked me.  The one who I have had the most prickly relationship with, came into my office and confessed that he was one of those people who thought that unless you were in recovery you shouldn’t be counselor.

When I finished sharing my coworker reiterated his true belief that all of us, despite being addicts or not, have pain that stays with us. As he so simply stated, “You never know where help is going to come from.”

P.S.  I wish I could put my hair in a bun like the woman in the illustration.


The Crumble of My Life


The above is a summary of my life, all 50 years of it,  on a 22 x 27 piece of poster board.  It’s not one of those “inspiration boards,” used in team-building or ice breaker exercises.  In many ways, it’s the opposite–the sort of “anti-inspiration” board not seen and replicated on sites like Pinterest.

I work as part of a team that leads a 14-week employment program for homeless adults, most with serious addiction issues and criminal pasts.  The goal is that by the time the students graduate, they will be employed and ready to start rebuilding their lives with pride and a great sense of accomplishment.

Each class starts with 14 students, 7 men and 7 women, as young as 21 and as old as 65. The first couple of weeks are spent on self-reflection and group interaction, and culminates in the creation and presentation of something called a “Life Map.”

I had heard a lot about this project during my first week of work and had the opportunity to see some completed ones on the walls of the classrooms where the students had moved on to the next phase of the curriculum.  The images and words, clipped from magazines or written out in pen or marker, were very similar– syringes, bottles of alcohol, prison bars, and words like “loser,” “sex,” “hope,” and “God.”  As soon as I learned that all staff have to create their own, and then present them to a class, I was compiling my own, isolating themes and images that I would share.

Without question, my life is interesting and I wanted the students to know that.  I wanted them to know that I too have experienced trauma and tragedy but that I have managed to succeed and maintain a wonderful and incredibly happy, full and fun life.

Without going image by image and word by word here, my map has four pivotal dates, highlighted in yellow;  my date of birth, the day my mother was found dead, my daughter’s birthday and the day I married for the second time.   I presented a pretty happy childhood, the luxury of growing up so close to Manhattan where my father gave me access to wonderful cultural experiences.  I moved on through boarding school, college and landing in Boston, sprinkling the hard truths about my mother’s serious mental illness (and eventual suicide) and my parent’s divorce into the narrative and moved onto the present day.  The students were pretty stunned and surprised and incredibly gracious in their comments.  But, this isn’t really about me.  It’s about them, and their lives.

One by one, the students presented their maps, required to speak for at least 1/2 hour and not to go longer than one.  Many things struck me as each one bared their souls, flayed open to their deepest nerve. Most of them had lovely childhoods, much like mine, going on family vacations, eating together as a family each night, learning the value of an education and hard work.  A couple of them grew up vacationing in rented summer cottages in the mountains or on a lake, camping and fishing with their fathers, and laughing with their mothers.  And then, again, in most of these cases, a sudden switch in their narrative, in at least 4 out 5, the death of a parent while the students were still teenagers  lead to a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse.

I’m blessed not to have an addictive bone in my body.  I certainly would be hard-pressed not to fall to pieces if I had my coffee taken away, but drugs have always scared me.  I’ve smoked plenty of pot in my life, tried coke once, and as much as people say I would love it, would never dream of taking hallucinogens.  I tend to STOP drinking the second I feel a little tipsy and was able to quit smoking cold turkey.  So, when my mother died when I was only 21, I turned to other things like music, writing and friends without ever feeling the urge to numb the pain that I never seemed to experience.

The drug of choice in almost all of the students is heroin.  In some cases they started with other opiates like pain killers, but when they became too expensive switched over to the widely available and cheaper heroin.  Most swore they would never shoot-up.  Most ended up doing so, multiple times a day.  When the youngest in the class, a 21-yr old walked us through his timeline, he described this transition by pointing to a picture of a syringe and said, “This is where the crumble of my life began.”

In what will seem like an utterly selfish reaction to these presentations is my wondering and fear of what my 13-year old daughter would do if I died.   She has the addiction gene in her bloodline and it terrifies me to think of how missing me, how tragedy of any sort could trigger the similar reaction as these people have had.   She has shown me absolutely no reason whatsoever to have this fear, but she’s at the age where I tried pot for the first time and where a lot of my friends had started sneaking sips of booze from their parents liquor cabinets.  I naively believe that this isn’t happening in her middle school or that she is nowhere exposed to those temptations.  All I can do is pray that she’ll turn out okay, that she’ll make the right choices, and that her life will never crumble.

I Love You Claudine: Part Two


I would venture to guess that very few people have received a phone call at a New Year’s Eve party that begins with the words, “Your mother is dead.”  The voice was my father’s calling from California when phone reception was still spotty, 20 years or so before cellphones.  Today, these types of calls would be made by my brother, the onus placed on him to deliver all sorts of bad, sometimes good, news.  My father informed me that he and my sister would be taking a red eye back to Long Island, my brothers would be coming back from their family vacations, and quite frankly, I remember little else.  I was at a party and wanted to get back to it.

Having spent the day before trying to get into her apartment that was chained from the inside, I knew this call would come eventually.

After years of half-hearted suicide attempts there was a great sense of relief.  As horrible as that may seem, I know that it is not an uncommon reaction to having experienced years and years of this form of manipulation.  It’s exhausting.

I went back to the party and looking back on it, it was sort of an out-of-body experience.  I walked around telling everyone that my mother had just been found dead in our apartment. (Clearly, I was a bit shell-shocked despite my seeming non-chalance) I remember my friends fumbling to say something, anything, that would put this in some sort of context.  I am certain that they couldn’t make sense of why I didn’t leave the party.  In what now seems extremely odd to me, I had sex with my then boyfriend, after midnight, where we slept in what I remember as a closet with a mattress on the floor.

I have zero recollection of how I got from Manhattan to my mother’s apartment.  By that point, the yellow police tape was drooping and the first thing I could think of were the across the hall neighbors who had spent years hearing and seeing loud and curious comings and goings, culminating in two dead bodies only feet away.  I have since become fairly obsessed with how their bodies were carried out, wheeled on gurneys, down 11 floors in an elevator.

I know this seems like a tired cliché, but I will NEVER, EVER forget the smell that hit me the second I walked into the apartment and I hope and pray that I will never experience it again.  Walking into the bedroom where the “incident” took place is the first of what I have been afraid to write about, to tackle and type.  I can never undo do it and the quick attempts at trying to piece together what happened, what the sequence of events was.  Now I see it all as quick snapshots, shutter clicks, as clear as day:  empty and tipped over 2-liter bottles of soda on top of and on the floor near the tv, a man’s belt on the floor, large gray stains on the carpet, some empty pill bottles and “I love you Claudine” written in red lipstick on a large mirror.

The man she was with was somebody’s somebody but to me, he was an absolute zero.  A non-person.  He belonged to our tennis club, a place where my mother thrived on the tennis court, played cards with her friends, and had her afternoon coffee and danish.  He had a daughter my age who was tall and coltish always with a sour look on her face.  As a teenager I remember her moving quickly around the pool, but I have zero recollection of her father who somehow came into my mother’s life years later.  He was odd looking, his bottom lip positioned in a strange overbite, his pants hiked up way too high on his waist.  He stuttered.  He was not worthy of my beautiful mother.

On the drive to the funeral my father kept on telling me that it was okay to cry, to “let it out.”  I felt nothing until I saw my brother fall to pieces, his face crumbled in sorrow.  I was moved when I saw a lovely man who had briefly dated my mother standing far back and away from everyone.  He was one of only a handful of people who came.  But, I still didn’t cry, and to this day, remember only one time that I have.

It wasn’t until many years later, probably in my early 30s, that I began to think about the other family, the daughter, my age, with the same story.  Did she blame my mother?  Did she know that they had some sort of suicide pact, something that my mother breezily mentioned to me about six months before they died?  I thought of the two of us going on Oprah, re-meeting each other, hugging and crying.  Or, we could have gone all Jerry Springer and ended up throwing chairs at each other.  Either way, she lived this too, in a different way, having never set foot  in the bedroom where it all happened.

About six years ago I mentioned this curiosity to a friend of mine who worked in a specialized library where he had easy access to public records.  I gave him the daughter’s name and that same day he had results.  He had already made contact with her and asked if it would be okay if I reached out to her.  She said she wasn’t ready, or interested, and gave him the number of one of her brothers.  She had called him first to ask if it would be okay and he agreed.  My friend wanted to make sure I was ready before he gave me the information.  This was an enormous can of worms, but, I wrote down the number, closed my office door, and dialed.

The son had very little affect.  The conversation was understandably stilted from the start.  I explained why it had become important to me to understand what his family had gone through.  We filled each other in on many details that neither of us knew.  I did not know that there was a note.  A letter.  That has been the hardest thing to discover.  He told me that it was postmarked on December 24th, written by his father.  He told me that it said that by the time he got it, he and my mother would be dead.

And that’s as much as I could hear.  He said he had the letter somewhere and asked if I wanted a copy of it.  I declined and graciously ended the conversation.  I managed to leave my office, shaking and sucker-punched and called my brother from the street, needing to unload the knowledge that I shouldn’t have gone seeking in the first place.  Instead of giving me closure, it has caused me more horror and pain than I could have ever imagined.

Since then I have looked at the daughter’s Facebook picture.  She’s smiling, not sour.  I know she likes “American Idol.”  I know she’s “in a relationship.”  I know she belongs to some healing circles and meditates.  I know she has a dog.  I’ve also looked at the brother’s picture.  He looks like his father.  I just discovered we have a mutual friend (in facebook terms though, “friend” is used very loosely).

Interestingly, in the ongoing telling of my mother’s death, I have often neglected to say that it was a double-suicide.  Some of my best friends did not know this until recently.  Maybe it’s way too dramatic.  Maybe it’s not important.  Maybe it’s too gruesome.  But it’s true.  True for me.  True for my siblings, and it’s true for an entire other family who I never, until recently, considered.

The Bucket List



This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title placed to keep customers entertained while waiting in line to pay at a bookstore. Among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there was this:

“Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”

Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs.   It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.

I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle.  I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children.  A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait.  Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night.  The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.

As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big as long as it’s legal and no matter how lofty could theoretically be achieved.  I give them about 10 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.

To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them. I tell them that I keep it with me so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it out loud in the exact order it was written and when recently a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, “visit mom’s grave” got added to my list.  It’s interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit.  My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.

Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop.  I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said,  “Whoa.  Wait a minute.  How long ago did your mother die?”  When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?”  Every week these people astound me for moments just like this.  The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it.  I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on a slight hesitancy in my voice.    So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go.  This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready.  He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out.  It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.

I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy.  Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone.  (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.)   I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go.  Shame on me.

My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother.  During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer.  I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all.  I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.

I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were.  I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name.  Seeing  her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me.  I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates.  I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter.  My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay.  I was okay.  I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life.  I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.

Next up is that pesky 5K.  After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.


Is Intellect A Safety Net?

This past weekend I was part of a 2-day training on how to speak publicly about suicide. I was in a room with six people, two other trainees and three facilitators, two of whom were also part of the unique group of “suicide survivors.”  All five of us have very different stories to tell, different relationships to the people we have lost but the circumstances of why we were in that room together is what we have in common.  It instantly created an intimate bond that is hard to explain.

I have written and spoken ad nauseam about my mother’s suicide including several previous posts in this blog.  I’ve got it down to a science.  As I’ve said before, my mother’s life has become a series of ten or so bullet points about her trajectory in my retelling.  The more I have been forced and encouraged to delve a little deeper, the more I’ve realized that I’m doing her a terrible disservice.

After the first day in which we shared and cried a bit for each other, we were tasked with writing a 15-minute presentation that we would share with the group the following day, for feedback and constructive criticism.  We were given 6 guidelines and told to limit what our point was, based on the audience we thought would best suit us, to about 2 or 3 main themes.  The facilitators who I had interviewed with prior knew that my story was very complex and touched on topics including Holocaust survival, double-suicides, painful dreams, mental illness throughout the generations, the differences in how siblings grieve and so on.  As the day progressed I focused on some common themes and went with those.  Later that night when I finished writing,  I read it to my husband who said it was perfect and that my thoughts hung together in a way that made sense.

The next day, we plunged right in with our presentations.  The first was given by a woman, a statuesque and stylish 50-ish year old mother who lost one of her sons.  I had already spent the first day crying over her utterly devastating loss, but hearing it all in the context of a 15-minute synopsis was almost too much to bear.  She powered through and when she was finished, we gave her, and her son, the silence they deserved.

I volunteered to go next.  I had my words typed out in a 14-pt font but tried to avoid reading them verbatim.  I covered the basic themes and focused on disclosure, secrets, and knowing too much about this very complicated situation that has now pervaded 4 generations.  There were a couple of times when people jotted something down which I would learn in the critique.  No one was sobbing and I was surprised that I hadn’t struggled with certain pieces of my story.  Not until I pulled out the below picture did I get a visible reaction from my small audience:

Obviously the person in the middle is me.  I am flanked by my stunning mother around the time she came to the United States and my daughter, whose eyes are the blue of my mothers.  That’s an old picture of my daughter but we are all there, in each other, 3 generations of mothers and daughters.

The first thing people did was compliment my writing.

“I feel like I was just in a bookstore hearing you read from your memoir.”  For me, it doesn’t get any better than that, but, I sensed that for the two lead facilitators, both FANTASTIC and experienced women in the field, I had missed the mark.

They wanted to know where was the feeling, the “me” in the story?  And then, the mother who had lost her son, completely without judgement, said this:

“I think you use your intellect as a safety net.”

Whoa.  Wow.  Holy shit.

I am under NO illusion that I’m any sort of “intellect.”  Yes, I have a fairly decent vocabulary and I’m a pretty good wordsmith, but intellect?  I tend to forget the content of every book and every New Yorker article I’ve ever read.  I get the facts wrong in the re-telling.  Am I a deep thinker, searching for the meaning of life?  Do I sit in a wood paneled library, smoking a pipe, digging deeply into the language of Socrates or Stephen Hawking?  Hell no.

When I got home, I looked up the definition of intellect.  Here’s the first in the list:

The power or faculty of the mind by which one knows or understands, as distinguished from that by which one feels and that by which one wills.

I feel deeply about almost everything in my life.  I wear my heart on my sleeve, am demonstrative with almost everyone I know, I cry at every perceived confrontation, and live my life with great passion.  For this one subject however, probably the defining topic of my life, I feel it in my head and not in my heart.  There are pieces of it that happen in my dreams that are devastating and I find that those are the toughest to write about and share, but other than that, it’s the outline, the Cliff’s Notes version of my mother’s life that I can recite on demand.

There is absolutely no right or wrong in how we grieve.  I envy those who can feel the impact immediately and those who see signs that their loved ones are always present.  Perhaps one of the most important things I learned (and there were MANY) is that we need to honor the LIVES of the people we have lost, and not just focus on the nature of their deaths.  The one man in the group who I found to be extraordinarily soothing and, due to his own personal loss, is now a bereavement specialist, assures me that I’m not somehow broken, that I will get to the core of this eventually, in my own time.

Digging (Too?) Deep

I had an upsetting conversation with a friend the other day about my mother. It brought up a lot of stuff that I hadn’t talked about in a while and his reaction made me realize, as he said “That’s a lot to be carrying around with you.” I tend to forget that sometimes, and have moved through my life as if it was just the script that was written for me. I’ve even gotten it down to bullet points. (I refer you to a post from last year–“I Love You Claudine Part I.”)

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that “I Love You Claudine Part II” has yet to be written. It’s the magnum opus, the granddaddy post, and after the conversation with my friend about what follows after Part I, I’m not sure I have it in me to go there, at least right now. I covered the “Part I” in years of therapy, but discontinued before the “Part II” came up.
I’m not trying to be cryptic and I’m sure I will get there eventually. So many of my previous posts are pieces of a complicated puzzle, the prequel as it were, from the Holocaust to a double-suicide. That’s the interesting part–my mother being a Holocaust survivor was always the first in the bullet points. The DOUBLE suicide, not so much. Some of my best friends claim I never told them about the double part. I find that really interesting. Is it that ONE suicide is hard enough to learn about than throwing in the other detail? Is it way too incomprehensible? It does tend to be doubly-dramatic, and more troubling, I guess, than I’ve ever let-on.
My brother has asked me who would be interested in reading all of this, and I’m not sure I’ve come up with an answer that makes any sense. It is certainly a compelling story and it is a way of sharing with people who have known me for many years to get the complete picture. I also love that the strangers who have stumbled upon my blog or been referred to it by friends, appreciate this for the writing, in addition to the narrative.
In any event, it’s obviously just a part of me. I’m not “crying on the inside and laughing on the outside.” The light side of me prevails through the darkest of memories but I don’t ignore them. I either deal with them head on at that moment or push them away for another time. Maybe that’s what I’m doing, at the happiest time of my life–just dodging the dark side.

How Would YOU Answer This Question?

“Give me 10 reasons why I should live?”

This is my BEST friend of over 25 years, in a crystal meth haze, over the phone, from Los Angeles. This is my BEST friend who after 10 years of sobriety has kept the secret from his closest friends that he’s been snorting and shooting meth for ONE YEAR. People he sits next to at work every day and the multitude of incredible friends he has met over the years through AA had absolutely NO CLUE that this was happening right in front of their eyes. He told them in June and asked them not to tell me because my life was “too happy right now.”
So what do you say when you’re asked that question and you feel like the answers will either make him live, or push him further over the edge? There are so many cliches, of course like “A million people love you,” etc., and I found myself getting stuck after #3. It was like a game show (and NOONE loves a game show more than he does) and the clock was ticking. I was a total failure.
Of course he knows that my mother killed herself and after 25 years without her, I could easily come up with a much bigger list than just 10. But, the question left me stammering, and it was like the needle of the record had just been screeched across the vinyl.
He’s always had a flair for the dramatic. I know what song he wants played at his funeral. I really pushed back hard on him, not coddling him, even making him laugh at himself a little bit. However, in some moments of what seemed like complete lucidity, and I swear that he seemed like his normal self, he would start talking about the people who were following him, the ones who were tapping his phone and controlling his life.
I found this out late in the game and when I reached out to his good friend in LA voicing concern that I hadn’t heard from him, he had the very rough job of filling me in on the total downward spiral that occurred within the year. The words were coming out but I just couldn’t make the connection that this was happening to my BEST FRIEND. He was sleeping in CRACK HOUSES? He was SHOOTING UP? When I saw him at my wedding in January and again on Memorial Day he was HIGH ON METH?
It’s now been 48 hours of constant texts and phone calls between a group of about 10 or so of us who are making up his “village.” The time difference is a bit frustrating for me, being one of the only ones on the East Coast, and everyone keeps forgetting who told what to who. It’s fucking exhausting. We’re all professionals, some of us are parents, who have now put aside everything to get him into rehab. Loyalty is a remarkable thing. I’m in awe of what has become nothing short of heroism in his friends who are sitting with him, dealing with insurance companies, leaving work to check up on him, talking to doctors, all in the name of saving the life of someone who is loved by everyone he meets.

Secrets and Lies

When my mother committed suicide somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86, someone made the decision not to tell her mother, who was about 90 at the time. This was a woman who watched 4 of her six children get taken away to concentration camps, witnessed as her husband was shot on a street in Belgium and had worked miracles to keep my mother and my uncle, the two youngest children, alive. As mentioned in previous posts, she somehow found her way to the Jewish Underground and found a couple to hide them in their Bruxelles-area basement for about 2 years.

The way I understand it is that she was told that my mother was living in Arizona in a restful and peaceful place where she couldn’t be contacted (I refer you to my post about my dreams.) I can’t imagine that she believed this and when I found out about it, I was stunned. I know it was to protect her but I didn’t agree with the decision.
My grandmother was a very loving woman, barely 4’11 who spoke only Polish and Yiddish and a smattering of English. She lived in a teeny little apartment in Brooklyn and was most proud of a painting she had of a fountain that when plugged in, lit-up and simulated falling water. When she knew I was coming to visit she’d fill her bowl of sour balls and go out to buy pound cake. She would wait outside for us and would beam with delight when she saw us, and walk us to the car, waving her sweet little wave when we left. She spent most of her time sitting on a bench outside with her friends with her cash stuck into her bra. She lived to be close to 100 subsisting apparently on boiled potatoes and Manishewitz.
My mother and her mother had a very strange relationship. On the Jewish holidays when my grandmother would come over and help cook Passover dinner, there was a lot of yelling in Yiddish. My grandmother would say “SHA” to quiet things down. I have absolutely no idea why my mother seemed to dislike her so much. What it did for me, was to model a mother/daughter relationship where my grandmother was so desperate for my mother’s love, and my mother just seemed annoyed all the time. One of my biggest regrets in my life was not taking the time to know her, while emulating my mother’s indifference and annoyance.
When she slept over, my grandmother would take her hair out of her tightly wound bun and I would be sort of freaked out by her silver hair that reached 3/4 down her body. She would brush it while wearing her white nightgown and often brush my hair while I just got annoyed that she would accidentally brush my face. She would take her clacking teeth out and put them in a glass and leave them in the bathroom. She never went out without lipstick.
Many years ago I found a document, written in French which came from an Israeli governmental agency addressed to my grandmother. It’s not so hard to make out the language that starts out (my loose translation):
Dear Mrs. Kempinksi, I regret to inform you that (three of my four aunts and uncles are listed by name with their birth and death dates and the concentration camp numbers they were assigned) and died here:
Malines (Mechelen) concentration camp was situated in a former barracks by the river in the city of the same name in Belgium. It was appropriated by the Germans in 1942 to serve as an assembly camp for all the Jews of Belgium and other ‘undesirable’ groups. The camp was divided into several groups including those to be deported; nationals of neutral countries or Germany’s allies; borderline cases (ie mixed race); political prisoners and, in the final stages of the camp’s existence, Gypsies.

There was a set of boy/girl twins. The girls first name was Minda which is now my daughter’s middle name. One of the sons is listed as whereabouts unknown.


I Love You Claudine: Part I

It’s second semester senior year and I’m sitting, along with 20 or so other students, in an autobiography writing class. The professor says, “I’d like to read one of your classmates pieces to all of you.” She starts to read, and the first sentence is “Your mother is dead.” It’s mine. I give an uncomfortable smile which probably gives me away, and put my head down to listen to the rest. I’ve written this less than 4 months after my mother committed suicide on New Year’s eve, 1985.

As I’m leaving the class, my professor pulls me aside and suggests that I try to get the piece published in a magazine. I am flattered and stunned beyond belief.

Basic backstory on my mother:

Holocaust survivor, hidden in a private home in Belgium with her mother and younger brother. Later transferred to a convent because she had started to sneak out of the house causing great potential danger to the host family and my grandmother and uncle. 4 older siblings killed in concentration camps, father shot by the Jewish Underground.

Marries a GI to get herself to the states. Ends up in Philly, gets divorced, gives birth to my oldest brother, gets to NYC, dates some high-powered men. She is a stunning woman.

Goes to work as a receptionist at a resort in the Catskills. Meets my father who is the hired nightclub singer. They get married and move to Queens.  Pretty quickly have my second brother and 16 months later, my sister.

They all move to Searingtown, Long Island where I am born, eight years after my sister, at a hospital flanked by a Bloomingdale’s and an A&S. My mother had pretty much fallen into upper-middle class Jewish Long Island and she seemingly fit right in. She played canasta and mahjong and tennis at our club almost daily.

That’s her nutshell, just for context.

Beginning when I was nine, my daughter’s age now, my mother had a never ending series of “nervous breakdowns.” She’d be hospitalized for about a week each time. This was explained to me with great honesty and I understood as best as I could. The only time she left me a suicide note she tried to explain that she wanted to be with her brothers and sisters. Somehow, it made sense.

My mother would refuse to take her meds (things like lithium) because she complained of the side effects. This of course just exacerbated the cycle. Now knowing what bipolar episodes are, her life was a series of extreme highs and extreme lows. At thirteen, my parents got divorced, my father moved 3,000 miles away to California, and I was left alone with my bipolar mother. The only saving grace was that my brother lived close enough to be there when things became unbearable. He was, and in so many ways still is, my savior.

Just imagine all of this going on until at 16 she booted me out to LA to my father’s, which in some ways, was a worse environment than being with her. A therapist of mine had the brilliant idea for me to look into boarding schools to rescue me from these two hopeless scenarios and off I went for junior and senior year. College followed (I flew, with a trunk, on a People’s Express flight for $19.) My mother never set foot on either campus.

By my senior year, my mother’s bipolar disorder started to slip into borderline schizophrenia. She would call me to try to convince me that her best friend had turned her family over to the Nazis. She scribbled incoherent notes on the backs of the canvases of her crudely amateurish paintings. I know there was a series of audio cassette rants that my oldest brother swears he has somewhere. At one point she made a breezily delivered passing reference to a suicide pact she had made with a man she was dating.

During the very last phone conversation I had with my mother, she expressed how excited she was that I was coming home for winter break. I told her my plans and when I would be there. I got a ride home from the father of a guy I had a crush on, and I spent the 6-hour trip trying to ascertain whether or not this crush liked me back. They dropped my off at the luxury high-rise I lived in with my mother, and drove away.

I took the elevator up to our apartment and was surprised to find that the door was chained from the inside. I rang the bell over and over and over and got no response. I instantly knew what was behind that door, but I just assumed that my mother would be alone, dead, not at peace, but a tortured soul to the end.

I went to see if her car was in the garage. It was in it’s assigned spot, a Nissan Pulsar, the doors unlocked. Propped up on the stickshift, there was a review from New York magazine of the play ‘Night Mother. The mother/daughter roles are reversed but here is the premise, lifted from the Wikipedia description:

The play opens with Jessie calmly telling Mama that by morning she’ll be dead, as she plans to commit suicide that very evening (she makes this revelation all while nonchalantly organizing household items and preparing to do her mother’s nails). The subsequent dialogue between Jessie and Mama slowly reveals her reasons for her decision, her life with Mama, and how thoroughly she has planned her own death, culminating in a disturbing – yet unavoidable – climax.

There is NO way my mother would have planted a clue like that. I had no doubt in my mind. It wasn’t her style, and quite frankly, she wasn’t all that interested in reviews of the arts and wouldn’t have come across this. So, at that point, I knew she wasn’t alone.

A long series of events ensued, including my frantically trying to get in touch with any family member who would listen to me and guide me in what to do. I ended up at a friend’s about 40 minutes away, making phone calls, trying to track down my siblings who were all on vacation. Somehow, my uncle was contacted, he went over with the police, they broke down the door, and indeed, my mother was dead, lying next to a man, also dead, she barely knew.

By the time I went in the next day, the bodies were gone. The smell was unbearable. There were empty soda bottles everywhere. For some reason there was a man’s belt on the floor. On the mirror, written in lipstick, were the words “I love you Claudine.”


An Auspicious Anniversary

Tonight is the anniversary of my mothers’ death (well, so we assume, but it is the night we learned of it.) After years and years of emotional mental pain, fueled by her profound experiences in Belgium during the Holocaust, she made what was undoubtedly an UNBEARABLE decision not to usher in another new year. She has been dead for more than 1/2 my life.

Many of you were with me when I learned this, and watched me move about a party as if nothing had happened to forever change my world. Most of us were 21 or 22, and when I think back on it, and recently expressed to some of you, I can’t believe how awkward that must have been for everyone there.

Anyway, the point of all this is to say that I will honor her tonight as I have on many others, by in some way, letting her know, that I’m so sorry I couldn’t understand when I was 9-21 what her turmoil and thoughts were like. However, as an adult, a mother,I can only try to imagine what it was like to muddle through, manage to cook dinner, get me off to school, buy me my Brownie uniform and do the stuff that I now find myself doing, in the best way she could. And I have come to understand, that it WAS the best she could do, and when she sat with my head in her lap and played with my hair, I know that that was the purity of unconditional love.