Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My mother-in-law, z"l

This upcoming weekend is the yartzheit (anniversary of death) of my mother-in-law Bella Feldman z"l.
Of all the jokes out there aimed at a specific group of people, most people relate to the ones directed at mothers-in-law.  Or "out-laws" as some prefer to say.  I'm sure you've all heard your share of mother-in-law jokes...like this one:

Two men were in a pub.  One says to his friend, "My mother-in-law is an angel."  His friend replies,  "You're lucky.  Mine is still alive."

So, while yes, that's funny and gets a little chuckle, I honestly can't relate.  I have plenty of friends who have tumultuous relationships - if any - with their mothers-in-law.  And I've heard it all: She sticks her nose where it doesn't belong, gives back-handed compliments, mutters snide remarks under her breath, tries to undermine me in front of my kids etc.  Thankfully, I don't belong to this particular group.

Unfortunately, my mother-in-law died 9 years ago.  She died too young, relatively, and in much pain. My kids were really small, and the loss was devastating, especially after losing my father-in-law three years earlier.  Tali, who was 6 at the time of her death, thought it grossly unfair and expressed her anger at G-d.  She couldn't come to terms with the fact that I, at age 34, still had four grandparents alive, and she at age 6 had already lost two.  Those facts just didn't add up, and her grief was justified.

When I entered the Feldman clan, I was a young girl still in college.  The Feldmans of Toronto were a well-known family - incredibly involved in all things Jewish: Eitz Chaim Schools, yeshivot, COR, Canadian Jewish Congress, their local shul etc.  At first I was intimidated.  Bella had a dry sense of humor, information that might have been beneficial to me when, meeting me for the first time, she said deadpan: "I hope you have good intentions regarding my son."  Flustered, completely taken aback and rendered mute, I stood there like a complete moron while Yisrael chuckled quietly off to the side.  Ironically, his father, the one who I initially thought to be more intimidating, came to my rescue.  But along with her dry quick wit, I got to know her strength, her determination and her loyalty.  My father-in-law put his family and his commitment to Jewish causes first and foremost in his life, and his wife, my mother-in-law Bella, was his trusty sidekick.  As amazing an individual that my father-in-law was, she was the great woman behind the man.  If not for her encouragement and support, he may not have been as involved as he was.  But I don't want to write about their commitment to Toronto Jewry.  I want to write about her role as my mother-in-law and grandmother to my children.

Always kind, but straightforward and honest, she was the greatest sounding board.  If I was going through a dilemma, she was the perfect person to ask for advice.  She managed to always stay objective, not choose sides, but clarify whatever it was that was clouding my brain so that I could come to some sort of decision.  She always said to me that while she was free to give me advice, I didn't have to take it - that simple comment alone took the burden off if I had chosen not to take her advice.  She made it clear that she would not be insulted in the least, that she was just there to present things a little differently, maybe give me a little perspective.  I once told her I was worried that I had made a wrong decision.  Her response was classic Bella.  She said, "so what?  The world won't come crashing down if you made the wrong decision.  You'll only learn from it, so that can't be a bad thing in the long run."  And just like that, my anxiety would dissipate.

She was not without her faults.  She kept food in the fridge for long past their expiration date - the residual effects of that have long since traumatized my husband - but we laugh about it now.  She kept ketchup out of the fridge (in our house, that's a no-no...) and she might have inadvertently given me some advance notice about the upcoming proposal that Yisrael had been meticulously planning.  Not terrible transgressions in my book....

But forget about the way she always treated me (with respect, love, affection, patience...) she will mostly be remembered for how she was with my kids.  My in-laws made Aliya when I was pregnant with Eden.  So about 14 years ago.  They moved to Petach Tikva and settled in nicely.  I made sure that my kids were completely free on Monday afternoons, and after school, we'd pile up in the car and head to Petach Tikva for the afternoon.  She'd have art supplies ready, along with a Disney video, the not-to-be-forgotten Tofutti-cuties, a fresh batch of popcorn and she always made sure the ice machine attached to the fridge was in full working order.  We'd go to the park sometimes, or just lounge out in the living room and chat.  She particularly enjoyed reading books to my kids and they enjoyed being read to by their Savta.  I once told a friend about my Monday afternoon excursions and she was a little surprised that I went alone with the kids, without Yisrael.  "You'd never in a million years find me doing something like that on my own," is what she said.  But I really loved her; and living so far away from my own parents, she had become like a second mother to me.

Bella, afraid to use her almost non-existent Hebrew, would call me from her apartment and ask me to call her local pizza place and order pizza for her.  I wondered how they'd get along after living in Toronto their whole lives.  It couldn't have been easy - moving to a different country at their age, with my father-in-law in a wheelchair and their lack of Hebrew.  Just dealing with the infinite red tape that this country is perpetually tied up in, let alone learning how to navigate the health-care system isn't a walk in the park for young and able-bodied Olim.  Turns out, I didn't have to worry.  She managed eventually to make herself understood, joined the local Emunah group, a scrabble club and organized her own private Ulpan with an upstairs neighbor.  And when my father-in-law died, when we all really began to worry, she found some secret source of strength to keep moving forward, to always focus on the positive, to spot that silver lining among a sky-full of clouds.

Unfortunately, she suffered from renal cell carcinoma.  After removing one kidney and keeping the cancer at bay with medications and radiation, the cancer came back.  It was almost 5 years since the initial diagnosis but this time the prognosis was not good.  After she was admitted to Beilinson about a week before her death, she was unable to talk anymore but that didn't stop her from communicating via one of the many notepads she kept.  She wrote a to-do list for the things she wanted to do once they released her from the hospital and the first item on her list was to find out how to volunteer at Beilinson.  That was the kind of woman she was.  And those who remember her, will remember her wide smile, her genuine warmth and her generous spirit.  She was a woman who knew how to love unconditionally, how to connect with her grandchildren and how to include me into their family.  

I'm not a mother-in-law yet, but when that time comes IY"H, I'll know that I learned from the best....


  1. I had the priviledge also of knowing her and your post is incredibly beautiful.

  2. Ditto, Toby. Beautifully written, Chavi. I am a M.I.L. and, tho' I have a very warm relationship w/ my D.I.L., one can still learn from Bella, z"l. She reminds me so much of my mother, who was a good friend of Bella & Yitz, z"l. Yehi Zichram Baruch.
    Chaviva (Newman)

  3. So beautifully written! I was privileged to be her machatainister. She was all you wrote and more. I remember her smile most, which was always there, and her inclusiveness. Her life was not the easiest, but she never complained. She was her husband's true aishet chayil and what a wonderful mother-in-law she was to you and a wonderful grandmother to your kids. Everyone was richer for having known her! May her neshama have an aliya.