We visited my mom yesterday, and as we drove away from the nursing home, I asked myself the unanswerable question that floats through my head so often these days: Why has she lived to be 99? The only reason that I’ve been able to come up with is that she feels compelled to be here on this earth until her only grand-daughter is grown up and living a happy, independent life. I know that my mother has really never trusted me to do a good enough job protecting my child, and that she has always believed that things will only go well if she personally prays to God hard enough for it to happen the way she wants it to be. It’s always worked before, she thinks, and her belief has only solidified over time.
My mother and I had a contentious relationship from the time that I was a teen-ager. She is a dictator and a perfectionist, as many remarkable, strong people are. It is a direct line from her mother, who was even more stubborn and heroic than her youngest daughter. My grandmother, whose family owned an estate in an area that Russia and Poland continually battle over, was the iron hand that held my rebellious mother in place until World War II shook everything apart in their world.
My mother was in medical school, married to a doctor and helped transport the wounded officers from Poland to Hungary when the bombs began falling on Warsaw. My grandmother was forced onto a cattle car and shipped to a gulag in Siberia with her daughter-in-law who was pregnant. All she took was pillows, blankets and a pair of long white gloves. My grandfather was killed in the bombings, and one of her sons, whom I am named after, was tortured by the Nazis.
When my grandmother got to the gulag, there was nothing but some piles of wood, and they were told to build their own shelter. She marched into the office of the Russian who was in charge, wearing her white gloves. There were two soldiers blocking her path with their bayonets, and she pushed them aside, throwing her gloves disdainfully on the floor because she had soiled them. In perfect Russian, she insisted that the Commandant give milk and food to the women and children, lying that she was friends with a high-ranking official in Moscow who would learn if they were mistreated. Completely cowed by her, the man in charge gave her what she asked.
After six years in Siberia, one day, the gates of the gulag were opened, and everyone in it was told that they were free to go because the war was over. Their captors assumed that everyone would starve or freeze to death out there in the middle of nowhere. My grandmother found a farmer who was willing to take the small frail group of old people, women and children on horses as far as he would go to another farm, where she persuaded the next farmer to do the same. Eventually, she managed to get them all back to Warsaw. She lived there until she was 96.
My mother’s family was excellent horsemen and horsewomen. Two of my uncles were Calvary officers. My grandmother and my mother could both ride sidesaddle and bareback effortlessly. It’s no wonder that I was riding a horse at the same time that I learned to walk, or that my daughter is also blessed with the ability to ride like that. But horses are not the point of this story.
Both my grandmother and my mother felt that through their faith and their actions, they were able to control what happened and keep others safe. I’ve always marveled at it, but never believed that anyone can really do that. Yet, at the points in my mother’s life in recent years when I’ve been faced with making scary decisions about caring for my mom, I find myself looking upward and saying, “Okay, God, you drive.” Miraculously, the best outcome for her always occurs. So, even though I can not have any way of seeing it now, I often wonder if there is still some reason that my mother is here with us.
Her love for my daughter far outshines her love for me. As my child becomes a woman, I see the similarities in her and my mother. My daughter is never afraid to stand up for someone else. She has no idea of her own strength and persuasive abilities, but others clearly see them the moment they meet her. She deeply connects to my mother, and it always grabs me by the heart to see them conspiring and laughing, while my daughter helps my mother eat a piece of cake or walk down the hall. So, maybe that really is why this old warrior is still here, to ease the passage for this young being from childhood to adulthood in a way that was more gentle than her own transition in 1939. At least, that’s what I’d like to believe.