A Melody So Pure

In all the years we lived under the same roof, I don’t remember ever giving my mother a card or present on Mother’s Day. This hardly seems possible since I loved my mother and father, and they made a happy home for me and my younger brother, Bill.

But I suppose it could be true. Our family was a bit nontraditional compared with others in our Bloomington, Indiana, neighborhood during the 1950s. Mom was a World War II refugee from Russia, and both my parents were classical musicians, a famously quirky, nonconformist lot.

This much I know for sure: If I did not celebrate Mom on the Hallmark holiday, it was no judgment on her mothering. Kids don’t grade their mothers and fathers on a parental FCAT scale, A to F. A child’s love is blind, unconditional. Every parent gets an A for life—even when it represents the triumph of hope and desperate wish over terrible experience.

Mine was anything but. My parents deserved an A with no asterisk. That’s why, on a Mother’s Day call many years past childhood, I was startled when she said, “I’m sorry I was not a very good mother. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

That froze me for a moment. Had I heard her right? This was a radical disconnect with my own cherished memories fixed in amber.
“That’s silly,” I said. “You were a wonderful mother.”

I’m now two years older than my dad when he died at 62. But to my mother I am forever 5 or 15, and in her mind she is somehow failing me.

Nearly every Mother’s Day we have the same exchange. I keep reassuring her.

“You were a wonderful mother.”

I’ve always known that, but I’ve come to know much more. Only when we leave the fierce gravitational pull of home and become self-aware adults do we begin to see our parents in that same way. We discover complex three-dimensional individuals—less perfect, more interesting than the cardboard cutouts we worshipped in childhood.

I never reached that stage with my father, David, who died when I was 25. He played viola. He hit me fly balls and pitched to me. He taught me how to grill, showed me the beauty of literature, and passed along his gift for punning. Cigarettes killed him. He died before I got to know the man behind the parent.

What I knew as a child about my mother was scant: She was Russian, made wonderful borscht, loved the sea, and spent hours a day practicing piano in our living room under a painting of Brahms at the keyboard. She never talked about her parents or her childhood, and I never asked.

Every night in bed, clutching my Papa Misha stuffed panda, I drifted off to passages of Chopin, Debussy and Beethoven, rehearsed over and over, blissfully unaware that answers to my unasked questions were embedded in the music.

I was nearly 30 when I got to know Zhanna Arshanskaya, the woman behind my mother, thanks to a TV miniseries, Holocaust. It led me to ask her for the first time about the war. Only then did I learn she was a Holocaust survivor and that music had saved her life—she had played for the Nazis while hiding from them the fact that she was Jewish. Her younger sister, Frina, survived with her. The rest of the family perished in a killing field.

Why had she never told me and my brother about the defining chapter of her life—the one that made ours possible?
“How can you tell children about such things?” she said. “It would be too cruel.”

She wished for us the “normal childhood” she never had, and kept the horrors to herself. This is the story I told in Hiding in the Spotlight in 2009. Writing that book has given me the chance to get know my mother, now 87, all over again in a new light. I see clearly now the beauty and talent I dimly sensed as a child. Above all, the resilience. We give talks together now, and at those events she sometimes plays Chopin. In those moments I am 5 again or 15. And she is not failing me.

Each Mother’s Day, the flowers I send seem more paltry and perishable next to my mother’s imperishable gifts to me—life, happiness, music. Yet, she needs to hear it.

“I’m sorry I was not a very good mother.”

“That’s silly,” I’ll say. “You are a wonderful mother.”

Email Greg at feedback@orlandomagazine.com

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