(May 17, 2022 / JNS) My mother died last Monday. It was noon when she took her last breath, mere hours after I arrived in New York from Tel Aviv.
It was barely dawn when I entered my parents’ apartment and dumped my suitcase in the foyer. As always, at 5 a.m., my father was already well into what he calls his “homework.”
This consists of reading every top news story and editorial on his bookmarked sites, then moving on to podcasts on politics and, with greater frequency of late, the Talmud. Normally, the latter takes up the bulk of our early-morning conversations—he sitting at the kitchen table facing his iPad, and I in front of the Nespresso machine.
But on this occasion, he didn’t engage me in lofty debate. Instead, he expressed relief at my presence and reported that Mom had had a “bad night.”
This didn’t come as too much of a surprise. The reason for my visit, originally scheduled for mid-June, was my sister Naomi’s WhatsApp message suggesting that I get on a plane sooner rather than later. Still, none of us believed that the end was so near.
I was sure that I’d have more time with the woman who has always been my rock, shrink, mentor, buddy—and by far, best audience. Though our roles had shifted somewhat over the past year as her body weakened and her focus grew fuzzier, she was still not only my mommy, but my nearly 95-year-old coffee-drinking, cigarette-smoking confidante.
She never awoke from her peaceful slumber, however. Thankfully, I got the chance to kiss her goodbye, but she couldn’t reciprocate. I tried to take consolation in the wishful thought that, on some level, she knew I was there.
I told myself that maybe she actually waited for me before making her blessedly painless, elegant exit. Meanwhile, my father, Naomi and our brother, John, voiced half-bemused hope that she’s having a happy reunion in heaven with our late sister, Rachel.
The flurry of funeral and shiva arrangements, including tasks as mundane as counting how many great-grandchildren would be riding in the limos from the funeral home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the cemetery in New Jersey, interrupted our tearful musings.
This was followed by dozens of newspaper and magazine articles lauding the life and legacy of Midge Decter: tough social critic, Democrat-turned-Ronald Reagan Republican, doyenne of neoconservatism and wife of Norman Podhoretz. Other than a sniper job in The Nation nastily and purposely misrepresenting one of her famously controversial pieces, “The Boys on the Beach,” the eulogies have been glowing tributes from lifelong admirers.
“These words are sincere,” my father stressed upon completing each one, as if letting my siblings and me in on a secret. At this, we all had to laugh.
We, Midge’s children, are completely different from one another in personality and temperament, but one thing we have in common—other than the nature-nurture blessing and curse of writing and editing—is the envy of our peers at having her as our mother.
To this day, even associates who haven’t met my mother ask me what she would say about this or that topic, yearning to hear her pearls of wit and wisdom. She wrote several books, but I could fill a tome with her observations and advice, always on point and never unsolicited.
Indeed, she never stuck her nose in anybody’s business unless asked to do so. This was one trait that turned her into a kind of unwitting oracle. Another was her utter lack of awareness about the profound effect that she had on the people who sought her counsel.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said with a smirk whenever I told her about running into someone who swore that she’d changed his life. “All I did was have lunch with him.”
She had a similar reaction when I recounted that a female colleague of mine claimed to have “converted” gradually from liberal-Jewish-feminist hippiedom in California to Orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem “as a result of Midge Decter’s essays.”
Ditto when I reported that a guy I know insisted that her writings made him “want to grow up and be the right kind of man.”
He was articulating one aspect of what all my mother’s acolytes were drawn to and strove to emulate: the taking of personal responsibility for one’s actions and the recognition that nothing is consequence-free. It was the credo at the root of her worldview, which she implemented at home and at the proverbial and literal ballot box.
Like a combination of a slap in the face and a warm embrace, her cutting through crap was simultaneously refreshing and comforting. It certainly was to me, her daughter. But it clearly helped so many others desperate to be treated to a dose of what nobody else would admit—let alone dare to announce aloud—whether from a podium in a packed hall or in a more intimate setting over a glass of wine.
She and I shared many of both. My move to Israel at the age of 19 didn’t shake our bond, though it meant fewer Friday-night dinners and more “sleepovers” at one another’s homes.
It was she who stayed by my side while I was giving birth to my eldest son. During a very long labor at Hadassah Medical Center at Mount Scopus almost four decades ago, she held my hand and quipped that my suffering was “all because of Adam and Eve,” but wept with joy as he was placed in her arms by the midwife.
It was also she to whom I and all of my four children—Noam, Alon, Avital and Boaz—easily poured out our hearts and revealed our anticipatory anxieties about everything from obtaining a learners’ permit to finding a job.
“Look around at all the employed morons driving cars,” she said with conviction. “You won’t have a problem.”
Years later, when I split from my husband, she flew to Israel to help me and my clan get settled in a new place. My closest friend, who was undergoing the same process under the disapproving eyes of her parents, was so jealous to learn that my own mother’s reaction was: “Well, kiddo, you’re about to get an education in divorcée economics. You won’t have a pot to piss in, but you’ll eat in the best restaurants.”
It’s no wonder that strangers to whom I’m introduced inevitably say, sometimes with a note of pity, “Midge is a tough act to follow.” Whatever their intentions, I take this remark as a fact and a compliment.
In contrast, my mother, whose unconditional love for and pride in her progeny was unwavering, scoffed at such a suggestion. Humility, as it happens, was among her many other virtues.
She is and will be sorely missed.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”
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