One Funeral and One Bar Mitzvah

By Robin Talbert


Silver Spring, Maryland

As my mother was dying in a small hospital in the foothills of western North Carolina, my future husband, Bruce, turned 13, and he and his family were preparing his Bar Mitzvah in Bellmore, New York. We wouldn’t meet for 10 more years, in law school in St. Louis. It seems to me now that the confluence of those seminal events in our young lives created a subconscious emotional connection across the miles, and across the span of years, until we fell in love.  

Many remember 1968 for the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My memory of that year is of a more personal loss. She died from breast cancer at age 52 on March 2, 1968, 50 years ago. Her death shaped me in a multitude of ways, as did she during the 16 years and eight months she was my living mother.

Fifty years ago, my life was upended. My older sister Merry told me Mama was dying just one week before she passed away. As we walked down the gravel driveway to the mailbox, she said slowly, “Robin, what would you do if Mama didn’t make it?” I replied quickly. “I couldn’t live without her. I can’t even imagine that. That could not possibly happen.”

Merry didn’t have to respond. Just by posing the question, she was preparing me. Had she volunteered for this assignment to save our father the agony of telling me? Or had she just taken it upon herself? Or did she simply need me to know, too? Need me to share the burden of knowing.

Still, I protested this devastating news. “Daddy said the doctors got it all.” It had only been four months. How could it happen so quickly? I felt duped. But that feeling was a single raindrop in a coming hurricane of grief.

I went to school the next day and found my best friend Susan by our lockers, where we often met to talk. My mother taught English and French at my school. She was a favorite of students and teachers alike, but she had been absent since October.

I told Susan my mother was going to die. Soon. Susan, in her straightforward, no-nonsense, only-your-friends-tell-you-the-truth voice, said simply, “I know, Robin. Everyone knows.”

Everyone knows. I let that sink in. Another raindrop. But also, curiously, a relief. Everyone knows. I don’t have to tell them. Everyone knows. They were protecting me. Everyone knows. They knew I couldn’t handle it. Everyone knows.

The day my mother died, the doctor gave me a sedative to sleep. My friends brought me a small orange tree. Wrong climate. Eventually, it died, too.

I wore a brown tweed dress and jacket to the funeral. Our small Methodist church was packed. My father insisted to the ushers that our long time housekeeper, the sole African-American in a multitude of white mourners, be seated at the front of the sanctuary.

I went back to school the next day. My insides felt burned for days and weeks and months. But I could be distracted by all the things important to teenagers — television, food, parties. Boys.

Five hundred miles away in a suburban split level on Long Island, my future husband and his family gathered to celebrate his coming of age in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

Maybe, I think now as I reflect and take less of a hard line against the Protestant beliefs I was raised on, maybe Mama did end up in heaven. Perhaps she ascended into some other world where she could play backstage director in my life. Surely, she would have looked down on all the young men on earth and picked the perfect one for me. She would have recognized that smart, sardonic, egalitarian guy was way better than any of my high school boyfriends.

Perhaps, as Bruce was reading from the Torah, one week after her death, he got a special nod from a celestial rabbi, and my mother considered for the first time how fun and different it might be for her youngest daughter to marry a Jew. Now that she was there with all the other good dead people, she realized adherence to just one faith was too limiting for us earthlings. And then she created a complicated scheme so we would both end up at the same law school in St. Louis the same year, despite our age difference.

Your plan worked, Mama. Bruce and I have been happily married for 36 years. And happiest of all, our first grandchild arrived this year. Named after you, Helen Jane.