“Mom, I’m bored.”
“Go play with your sister.”
“Go read a book.”
“I already did.”
“Then draw a picture.”
“My crayons are broken.”
Geh shlog zich kop en vant. (Literal translation: “Go bang your head against the wall.”)
This is only one example of the Yiddish disciplinary tactics employed by my mother when we were kids. Yiddish was Mom’s first language. She was not even exposed to English until she went to kindergarten. Yiddish was also the secret language that my grandparents reverted to when they did not want us to understand them.
We caught on fast and learned to crack the code. We knew that gib a cook meant “take a look”; that gay gezunte hate meant “go in good health”; that tsorris was “suffering.”
And, of course, my grandmother bathed us in Yiddish endearments that were well understood: shayna meydela, shayna velt, shayna mamela (literal translations: beautiful maiden, beautiful world, beautiful little mother).
I am bruised, not just by my mother’s death, but also by the passing of the Yiddish language and the first generation American-Jewish experience. Ancient voices spoke to me through my mother’s flesh. Her presence kept me linked to her history and the heartbeat of those who came before her. Encircled by the reverberation of past life experiences, I gained comfort and strength. Now that she is gone, precious ties have been severed.
I am a marionette whose strings have been dropped. Not that Mom controlled my every move like some manic puppeteer, but her presence was a lifeline that kept me linked to those who came before. Without her I feel rootless, lifeless. When I move my arm to gesture to a stranger or lift my leg to walk, there is nothing holding me in place. I am in free fall with no point of reference. No one to slip an arm through mine and keep me linked to tradition, ritual, custom.
Mom’s Yiddish expressions—vibrant word salads—both entertained and annoyed. She held high expectations that I would rise to the occasion and be a good sport. When I complained about life being unfair, her stock response was, “I never promised you a rose garden.” When my grousing persisted, she said, “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your mouth, young lady.” When I persevered with no end in sight, she switched to Yiddish.
Gay hack mir nisht kan chinik. (Literal translation: “Don’t bang me a teakettle,” as in “stop nudging me!”)
I can also hear her voice of derision when she would see something in a store that was too kitschy: Ach, so ongepatshket! (Literal translation: “Too fussy.”)
The word ferblunjit was used when she was feeling “at sixes and sevens” or out of sorts.
(Literal translation: “Mixed up and lost.”)
When we sneezed, a Zay gezunt was bestowed for the first three sneezes. (Literal translation: “To your health.”)
Sneeze number four, however, invoked, Gay en drered du krigst shein a kalt. (Literal translation: “Into the earth with you already; you’re getting a cold.”)
When we did good, Mom would kvell (Literal translation: burst with pride); when we did her proud, she would shep naches (Literal translation: derive pride and joy); when we were bad, she’d cry, gay avek. (Literal translation: go away!)
Without the melody of my mother’s song, my strength falters. No wall of wisdom to push against so that I can rebound. I have lost all ricochet power. And without the strings that have kept me tethered to Mom’s story, my life appears flat, one-dimensional. And on top of this, I regret dropping the ancestral ball, having never used Yiddish expressions with my own children with the exception of the occasional oy vey.
As we grew older and our children matured, Mom’s Yiddishisms shifted to expressions of grandmotherly endearment.
Ahz m’lebt der lebt mir. (Literal translation: “If you live long enough, you will live to see it happen.”)
And her favorite: Mishugeneh ganz, mashugeneh griben. (Literal translation: “Crazy geese, crazy goslings.”)
I am a marionette whose strings have gone slack. I forget birthdays and punch lines and how our family first met certain friends. Lose track of bloodlines and which cousins are on which side of the family.
I look at photographs and cannot decipher whether the girl next to me in the photo is an elementary school friend or my next-door neighbor’s sister. What will bring me back to life now that Mom is gone? Who will repeat the stories to me with such care and precision? An entire civilization is heaving its final, inconsolable breath.
I search through boxes of mementos for reassurance that I will not lose sight of my familial footprint. In among the greeting cards and photographs I find lined paper, folded in thirds. A four-page summary of her lineage, her first generation American-Jewish experience in her perfectly appointed handwriting. I take a deep breath and say thank you.
I dream one night after Mom’s death that she is crying. She tells me that she is feeling undone. “You mean ferblunjit, Mom?” I tell her that I am a marionette who has lost her strings. “We make a fine pair,” I say.
For weeks, I sob myself into a stupor before sleep. Each wave of tears evokes another level of loss. Who would ever love me the way my mother did? Who would hold my strings with such tenacity? Who would kvell over my every triumph no matter how small? She knew every soppy detail of my life story. The name of every boy I ever loved, every girl who turned against me. She was the one who soothed me through the endless falling outs and rapprochements with my younger sister. Who else would ever be so enchanted by the tiny particles of my life? And who else but my mother would tell me to bang my head against the wall?
Megan Vered is an essayist whose first-person writing focuses on family, friendship, faith, and the fantasia of her youth. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Lake Effect, Silk Road Review, and The Coachella Review, among others. Megan holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives with her husband and West Highland White Terrier, Hamish, in Marin County, where she serves on the board of the UC Berkeley Library as well as Heyday Books and leads both local and international writing workshops.
This piece, I am a Marionette, was originally published in Grief Dialogues: The Book.
Visit Megan at www.meganvered.com.