It is Wimbledon. This year, watching those tennis matches makes me cry.
I used to watch it every year with my mother. This was the time when she used to come on her bi-annual visits to London. We both loved tennis. I once took my mother to the final at Queen’s, she loved every minute of it.
Tennis was something we could talk about, in our otherwise often tricky conversations.
Conversations with my mother often reminded me of the lyrics of my favourite “Mountain Goats”
“Our conversations are like minefields, / No one’s found a safe way through one yet.”
But tennis was safe.
The only time when tennis was a reason for arguments was when I used to call her on the phone from London. I used to record matches and watch them after work, but despite begging my mother not to tell me the results, she always did. Or at least hinted. And no, I do not think she did it on purpose. Just couldn’t help it.
” But I did not tell you who won, I just said Federer played brilliantly.”
We used to argue amicably who is better, Nadal-my favourite – or Federer. On the phone, my mother used to describe various points in matches, even if I repeatedly told her I have seen the match, too.
My relationship with my mother was never easy.
She often told me vitriolic, nasty things with the intention to hurt me. I remember her telling me once that I am ugly, wear glasses and nobody will ever marry me… Later, when we spoke about those occasions, she had one excuse: “You annoyed me by doing ….so I wanted to pay you back”. Now I think about it, it was a bit childish. Children do that. Screaming at their parents ” I hate you, I hate you!” They don’t.
I always knew my mother was reversing the roles. She wanted me to be her support and adviser, ever since I was a child. I tried. I let her win at games, I helped her pick her clothes, gave her advice. Later, when I found out that I then often got blamed when things did not go well, I became more careful with giving advice, and my mother did not like that. I tried to be independent, mature. It never occurred to me to go to my mother when I was upset by something, bullying at school, or something else. On the rare occasions when I did, it ended badly.
What I never realised, and I should have, was that she was damaged by her experiences in the war.
She was 12 when the Nazis invaded. A Jewish child in German occupied Prague, she had her childhood taken away. It started with all those things she was not allowed to do. Travel on public transport, go to school, ride a bicycle. Then a concentration camp and death of a lot of people she loved, her father, brother, grandmother. She watched her beloved grandmother being loaded to a packed cattle wagon to disappear, probably somewhere in a gas chamber. My mother was 18 when the war ended. She was robbed of 6 years of growing up. Emotionally, she never did grow up.
Yet, she was also quite amazing.
Her determination made her do incredible things. She was the only person I know to come from a concentration camp and skip 6 years of school, passing exams in all the subjects of the 8 year’s curriculum (10 of them) and graduating with her class in 1946.
After my father left her for another woman, she went to evening medical school, and became a doctor at the age of 40.
She told a friend that she is not going to become a doctor having my father’s surname. So she put an advert in the paper, met many men, and married one of them, just in time to have a different surname for the graduation from medical school.
Age 86, she learnt how to walk again after severe medical problems when she was left very disabled. Moving from walking only with a Zimmer frame and helpers to walking without a stick and going to the gym. It took her a year of daily exercising at home for 3 hours a day.
The last photo of my mother was taken by somebody from her gym. I phoned them to tell them she died. The man on the phone told me they all loved her. The average age of those gym members was 30, she was 89.
She still did a lot of work at her weekend house, growing potatoes, mowing the lawn with a heavy petrol lawnmower.
She had the determination of a small child to do everything on her own, she did not like people helping her to get on and off the public transport and carrying things for her.
She never gave up. “Everything is possible if you try”.
For her, this was true.
We had a difficult relationship. Did I like my mother? No, I didn’t. I always joked about the shame of not being able to divorce her.
But did I love her? Yes, I did probably. I admired a lot about her. She was a survivor.
She had the knack of achieving the impossible.
My mother died last month.
Head injury, falling down the stairs. She was just going to have to move to another apartment because of the house where she lived was undergoing reconstruction.
She did not want to move. In the end, she did not have to. She died three days before the moving.
Maybe she did what we all probably want to do. She died when she wanted to.
Regrets? Yes, many.
I regret not having been close to her. I regret disappointing her in lots of things. I regret never being able to make her stop hurting me and pushing me away, and learning how to love her. I feel as if I in some way failed as a daughter.
But she failed as a mother. We both failed.
And now she is dead.
But did we fail?
Now, a month after her death, I started remembering the nice things. Watching tennis with her, taking her shopping, buying her clothes she liked, but she found too expensive. I remember how proud she was of my career. I remember those rare moments when we got on, the laughs.I remember how despite being very difficult to live this, she was always there for me in a crisis. I remember her generosity.
I should have been more understanding once I was an adult.
But there was a reason behind this.
I had an example of my grandmother, my mother’s mum Hana.
She was an amazing woman. The worst what could have happened had happened to her already. Death of her husband, son, mother, many other relatives. 2 years in a concentration camp.
The experience made her laid back, optimistic, calm in crisis. ” We have seen worse things!”, she said.
She was a complete contrast to my mother, never histrionic, no scenes, kind and level headed. She was supportive and loving to my mother, she run our household, she looked after my mum as if she was a child. Maybe that was also the reason why my mother never grew up.
My grandma was from a very wealthy family, and had a privileged life till the war. But after the war, she once told me how she is enjoying not having servants and being able to shop and cook, not having to behave like a lady. This was the early sixties, long queues in shops…she looked at everything from the bright side.
My mother loved her, and claimed she only survived the camp because she was with her mother. I think it was true.
So I had the example of my grandmother, and wanted to be like her. I did not realise she was unusual.
I compared my selfless stoical grandmother to my mother, and found my mother immature, histrionic, self-centred. But my grandmother did not get robbed of her childhood by the Nazis.
I knew I loved my grandmother.
I did not know if I loved my mother and if she loved me.
But clearing her apartment, I found she kept all my letters, from the time I was a child. Despite my horrible handwriting.
If she did not love me, why did she keep those letters?
And if I did not love her, why watching Wimbledon makes me cry, because I regret not being able to discuss the matches with her?
I should have been more forgiving, because she was damaged, and it was not her fault.
And I do not want to be damaged, so I will work on it.
I want to be a good mother, and friend, and maybe grandmother one day. I do not want to transfer the damage to the next generation like my mum did.
I will always admire and love my grandmother Hana, but maybe that by being so strong, she made other people around her weaker. She looked after them.
And I also admire my mother Eva, who never quite grew up, but who never gave up, and often achieved the impossible.
I loved them both, I just didn’t know it.
They are both buried in the New Jewish cemetery in Prague. It is a melancholy beautiful place.
And I am kind of writing this in a blog for all those among you who are not sure if you love your parents.
You probably do, you just don’t realise it. And they love you.