Instant Motherhood—Part 3


The drawing Anat did in first grade still hangs above my desk.

What started as a passionate affair with just one person multiplied. In almost no time I was also in love with three others—her children. I wanted to give them my best, to build on whatever strengths my parents had inculcated in me. As I said in the previous post, I wished to do better than my own mother, just as she had wanted to do better than hers.

I’m with Anat in the playground. “Look, Martha!” She’s almost five now and showing off a little, showing me she’s learned to hang upside down from the monkey bars. Her honey colored hair sways a little in the faint spring breeze. I’m terrified, imagining that she’ll fall and bash her head against the pavement. And remembering being a child, watching the other kids do that, afraid to try it myself, being teased for not joining them. Even now I hate having my head below my midsection. It makes me nauseous. But instead of visiting that fear on her, I praise her.

It’s almost 3:30 on a late spring afternoon. Ronnie pushes the door open and looks up at me, blue eyes swimming with the tears he’s trying to hold back. His third grade teacher, Mrs. Nicholas, bawled him out again. Seems like it happens at least twice a week and I don’t understand why—he’s a responsible kid, always willing to do chores and look after his younger siblings.

My own third grade teacher, Mrs. Flaherty, routinely berated a boy who had trouble with math. Philip would argue back, yet was obviously deeply hurt. I was too timid to take his side in the classroom, but when school let out we walked together and agreed that Mrs. Flaherty was mean and horrible.

These days a kid like Philip might be diagnosed with learning disabilities. And Mrs. Flaherty should never have been working with children, but what options did she have in those days, aside from teacher, nurse, or typist?

Now, decades later, I hold Ronnie in my lap and comfort him. That evening Ruth and I tell him it’s only a few more weeks until summer break, and then he’ll never have to see Mrs. Nicholas again.

Summer comes. I take Ronnie and his best friend Danny camping in the wilderness. I leave them on one side of the creek and wade across, watching cautiously—unobtrusively, I hope—while I fix my dinner and the boys build a fire all by themselves and try to cook their own food. I’m impressed with the fire.

Later I wade back. Ronnie pokes the campfire embers with the blackened stick that he’d used to skewer his hot dog. Apparently dinner was not a success, and he is puzzled. “It was burnt outside and raw inside.”

“Now you need to learn to cook,” I reply.

Anat is in first grade. She’s good at drawing and wants to be an artist. “But my dad says I can’t make a living that way. He says I should become a psychologist and just do art as a hobby.”

“You should follow your heart,” I tell her. Remembering that I had been good at drawing as a child and wanted to become an artist, but no one in my family considered this a realistic career choice. Even my kid sister cautioned me against it, saying, “You’ll have to live in a garret and cut off your ear.”

One day Anat brings home a drawing of girls playing jumprope. Two girls hold the ends of the rope, one standing and the other, a classmate who has spina bifida, in a wheelchair. The third is jumping, and I can see the air between her feet and the grass. “This is terrific,” I tell her. “I’d like to buy it. How about $5.00?”

It’s her first sale, and she’s obviously delighted.

It’s past 10 at night. Ruth has finished cleaning up in the kitchen and is trying to prepare for her classes tomorrow. I want the children in bed so I can have a little quiet time with her, but they’re watching TV. Canned laughter erupts from the set. The show is half-comic, half-violent, and somewhat ribald, guaranteed to stimulate rather than help kids get ready to sleep. I grouse about it to Ruth but she doesn’t have a solution.

Next afternoon when Ronnie comes home I’m standing behind the TV with a screwdriver in my hand. I’ve removed the back cover, exposing the electronics. “It’s broken,” I lie, “and we don’t have money to fix it.” I pick it up and shove it in the closet. “Until we save up enough.”

And there it stays. Now I have a new job, providing bedtime entertainment. I start with Alice in Wonderland. Then comes The Wizard of Oz, and then I recycle stories my parents invented and spin yarns of my own.

Ruth and I ended our affair during the summer of 1982, and she and the children went home to Israel. After that I told stories into a cassette tape and mailed them to the kids, month after month, until I was able to visit in person. Ruth told me Aytan missed me horribly and spent hours listening to those tapes.

In later years, much encouraged by that first $5.00 sale, Anat persisted and went on to have a successful career as an artist, exhibiting internationally. I don’t think I had any influence on the boys’ choice of occupations—Ronnie became a marketing executive and Aytan developed his own business—but perhaps they recount some of the stories I told to their own children. Back in Haifa, Ruth refused her mother’s attempts to match her up with a new husband. She took another woman lover, and started a feminist organization, touching and changing I don’t know how many lives.

And me? I had graduated from being a Peter Pan, someone who never quite grew up, a person who thought I didn’t have a maternal molecule in me. Motherhood opened doors in my soul, doors I’d never known existed. Now I think love, real love, can ripple out like a pebble tossed in a lake—and in this case, across a continent, across an ocean, and into the next generation.

2 Responses to Instant Motherhood—Part 3

  1. Connie O Byrne February 10, 2024 at 6:59 pm #

    and you were a good mother, a really good one. You helped a child become the artist she was meant to be with your praise and encouragement. You helped the boys learn how to cook hotdogs all the way through, not just on the outside…and as some who still likes to cook hotdogs over a fire, that takes skill. So while you originally thought you didn’t have what it takes to be a mother, a good mother, you learned that you could…and did. Bravo!!!

  2. Martha Shelley February 12, 2024 at 5:27 pm #

    Thank you!!!

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