Marcia Evelyn Rosenberg Edelman
Sept. 19, 1938-July 12, 1981
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the elasticity of time, especially this past year and a half, when time seemed to pass both slowly and quickly at once.
We’ve been conditioned to conceive of time as linear, like a relentless arrow moving us in one direction from birth to death. We call the loss of young people “out-of-time” deaths, because they don’t occur where we believe they should along that trajectory. But the more I live, the more I think time is really just a human-created construct, and may not work the way we think it does, not at all.
I’m not sure it’s circular, either, though this past year I have felt more like my 25-year-old self than I have in 30 years, as I loop back in some fairly significant ways. No, I think time is synchronous, that the past, present and future really do exist simultaneously. The future being something we project and imagine and have at least some agency over bringing into being.
Memory + present experience + imagination = time. Like that.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death. And while in some ways that day in 1981 feels like a full lifetime ago, and on the calendar it is, that morning remains exquisitely everpresent in my memory as if little time has passed at all. It feels dishonest to pretend that morning has been sequestered into something called “the past”. And equally wrong to criticize myself for still carrying those details close to heart. Because that’s just how this works. The details and the impact of big losses travel with us forever. They just do.
When I think that 40 years have passed since that vivid, impressionable morning in Good Samaritan Hospital, my first thought is, my mother has been gone for almost as long as she lived. 42 years seemed like a lot to me at seventeen. Now it seems like only half a life. And the sadness of that statement can gut me, when I let it. So sometimes, like today, I let it. Because bottling up emotion rarely serves anyone well.
For several years the details of the morning of July 12, 1981 were lost to me. Trauma successfully suppressed most of them, as trauma often does. But once they’d returned, those same details came to mean different things to me at different times in my life. That’s how the long arc of loss works: The facts of a loss remain immutable and unchanged, but our relationship to those facts, our personal interpretation of them, can change quite a bit over time.
At Motherless Daughters retreats, workshops, and calls we have a saying: She was more than a woman who died. She was also a woman who lived. I can endlessly recount the details of how my mom died, but she was so much more than a single day of her life. So I’d much rather share some of those other details with you today.
Her name is Marcia – “is”, because it’s still her name – and she was born on September 19, 1938, the oldest of three daughters. Her father owned a manufacturing business in New York City and her mother, trained as a legal secretary, became a homemaker. Both of my grandparents large extended families, and their house became the hub for many holidays and celebrations.
My mom exhibited musical talent from a very early age, mainly on the piano, and studied music and education at Adelphi University. She met my father while she was still in college and married him right after graduation in July 1960.
For about four years she taught music at an elementary school in Amityville, New York, until she became pregnant with me. Then she stopped teaching – as women were expected to do in the 60s — to raise three children in the New York suburbs.
My earliest and most vivid memories of her have her either sitting at the piano or standing at the kitchen island, playing music or cooking. And also sitting at the kitchen table with her neighborhood friends, smoking Kent Golden Lights and drinking Lipton instant iced tea in tall glasses printed with daisies, talking and laughing about all manner of things.
It was the 1970s. The kitchen was decorated in tones of avocado and gold. There was carpet on the floor. Striped and flowered wallpaper on the walls. An avocado green telephone with a long cord affixed to the wall. She used to sit at the desk, talking to friends, and wind the phone cord around and around her fingers. Sometimes she’d doodle little drawings on a pad while she spoke, mostly spirals and curlicues and loopy patterns that repeated around the notepad’s edge.
She always closed her eyes for photos, which is why she preferred to be the one taking them. She volunteered for so many causes I can’t count them all – school PTAs; synagogue sisterhood; Women’s American ORT, which raised money to create tech school in Israel. Many years later I would date a man who had graduated from an ORT school in Israel and the present and the past would come together like two ends of a string brought around to touch each other and create a sudden spark.
Service to others and devotion to family: Those have been my mother’s defining legacies to me. Helping other women has been my job for more than 25 years, but it’s been much more than a job – it’s a passion that was deeply ingrained in me from the seventeen years I got to spend with a woman who modeled the same. And who also was goofy in all the right ways, at the best times.
I was lucky: I had a very kind, generous, loving mom. I know that not everyone does, and the emotional hole that an unattentive or unavailable mother creates is real and profound. It makes these milestone anniversaries more complicated, because a daughter then mourns both what did exist and what didn’t. If this is your story, I’m sending you a big hug across the ether today. I see you. And I know it’s an intense story to carry forward.
At my younger daughter’s elementary school conferences, the word her teachers always used to describe her was “social”. They meant she spent too much time talking with and visiting her friends in class instead of focusing on her work or sitting at her desk. This always made me smile, because that’s my mother writ large in her third grandchild. My mom always had a wide network of friends, another legacy she left me. She and I are both avowed extroverts. Knowing the value of social interaction, I emphasize the social element of grief in all of my work. Humans are innately social beings. We need each other to help each other heal, and to walk together on this jagged pathway through time.
I’ve written extensively about anniversary events, especially about how certain ones – the first, the tenth, the twentieth, twenty-fifth, etc. – hold certain, significant weight. Some years I’ve nearly forgotten to mark the day. The 18th year, the 32nd year, in some respects these felt like just another 365-day period that created more distance from the day when so much changed. Some years I barely felt anything on that day at all, other than marveling about how much time had passed.
I can’t explain exactly why this 40th anniversary would hit me so much harder than the 39th, but it has. Maybe it’s cultural conditioning to focus on round numbers. Maybe the body maintains its own silent calendar linked to revolutions around the sun. Or maybe I’m feeling more vulnerable this year because of all that’s occurred both in my life and in the world over the past 18 months. Honestly, I don’t know. But it did blindside me this morning.
I have what I’ve considered a bad habit of checking texts on my phone most mornings before I even get out of bed, and then staying for a while in what my friend Sally and I call the “horizontal office.” But this morning I couldn’t consider it a bad habit, because I woke up to several texts from women in this community who had marked the date on their calendar and were wishing me a peaceful day. It made starting this day so much easier. I’m grateful beyond measure for all of you. I mean that with my whole heart.
At Motherless Daughters Retreats, we often talk about:
1. How much we wish our mothers hadn’t died,
2. How every adverse event contains within itself the ability to set in motion a chain of other events that eventually lead to something good, and also
3. How both things can be absolutely true.
The group then offers examples of good things that exist in their lives today that they can trace directly back to the fateful day their mothers died. And at that moment I always think this: If my mother Marcia hadn’t died in 1981, we wouldn’t all be sitting together in this room, helping each other heal, today.
I think that would make her happy, to know that her out-of-time death resulted in these retreats and books and in other forms of in-person and online support.
People often ask me how to commemorate an anniversary or honor a mother on a special holiday. My answer is always the same: Think of a quality that your mother embodied and that you’d like to emulate and amplify in the world. Then find a way to put that quality into action on this day.
Because my mother was so committed to serving others, I’ll spend a portion of today answering emails from readers and creating some new Motherless Daughters programs to launch this fall. And because she so valued friend and family, I’ll Zoom with my brother and sister (who I adore more than words can say) and speak with both of my daughters, each of whom carries a part of her name.
And because my mother nurtured her children well, I’ll eat three good meals and get some exercise for my physical body, and do a meditation and some yoga for mental wellness. And then I’ll do the ritual for death anniversaries that was created by a group of motherless daughters in conjunction with Be Ceremonial, and feel solidarity with others who’ve done and will do a similar ritual this year.
A few weeks ago, a surprise package came in the mail. (Or was it longer ago, or more recently? I can’t remember. That’s what I mean about a loose grip on linear time.) It was a gift from my dear friends at EmpowerHER, a delicate silver necklace that features my mother’s first name. I put it on this morning with my “Live What You Love” T-shirt. So now the name Marcia sits above “Live What You Love” on my body, which feels like a perfect way to walk through the day.
Forty years. It’s half a lifetime. It’s also a blink on the historical record. Most of all, it’s four decades of experience and wisdom and growth and change.
Am I still that seventeen-year-old girl who lost her mom? In some ways, yes, I am. And I’m also a grown woman capable of feeling both sad and grateful for all that’s happened since that day.
Either way, I’m still my mother’s daughter. No matter how many years pass, that will never change.
Love you forever, Mom. Thank you for the gifts of my siblings, and my daughters, and for this life. It’s everything. What I’ve made of it is in large part because of you.