Cellular Love

By Amy Hirshberg Lederman

My mother called tonight while I was cooking dinner. Again, for the third time today. I knew who it was because the words “Mom’s cell” lit up my own cell phone like a marquee on Times Square. I lay down my cutting knife and shook the pieces of onion and red pepper from my hands. Mom with a cell-phone; boy, have things changed!

There was a time in my life, B.C. (Before Cell phones) when my mother would become anxious, depressed and even mildly hysterical because she couldn’t reach me by phone. No matter that I worked full-time and ran a marathon life shuttling kids, groceries and the dog from one end of town to the other. If she called the house and I didn’t answer, something had to be wrong.

“Where are you? I’ve tried a hundred times but you don’t answer. Is anybody there?” were the plaintive words I’d find on my answering machine. If my mother got lucky, she’d reach my daughter and tell her to leave me a message, which I’d usually find about a week later written in crayon on the back of the phone bill. “Call gramma. She wants to know if you still live here.”

At 78, my mother now lives in a country whose borders are defined by mountains of fear. Its landscape is restricted by age, illness and the loss of much of what and whom she has cherished all her life. The roads she traveled on so easily in her youth have become more treacherous as she loses confidence in her ability to understand and navigate through the world we live in today.

I toss the salad as my mother shares the events of her day: a doctor’s appointment for my father who can’t see as well as he thinks but she lets him drive anyway, lunch with a friend whose husband has Alzheimer’s disease, and an exercise class for   osteoporosis even though she’s sure the teacher has shrunk two inches since she began taking the class. It doesn’t really matter what we talk about. What matters most is the invisible line of connection we create in spite of the time and distance between us.

There are times when she calls and I become irritated by her vast generalizations about people or annoyed that she has told me the same story numerous times. Other times I am too preoccupied or tired to talk, and I simply listen to her stories while I fold clothes or cook dinner.

Sometimes I wonder if I am being a good daughter. Am I giving her the kind of attention she deserves, listening to her conversation with one ear while the other one is focused on the evening news?

Family relationships, especially those between parents and children, are perhaps the most complex of all relationships. From the beginning of time, they have fascinated the human mind and dominated the human spirit. Nowhere is this clearer than in way the Torah elevates the relationship between parents and children.

The Fifth Commandment tells us what is expected of us as children when it says:   “Honor your father and your mother.” A passage in Leviticus expands upon this duty by commanding: “Let each of you revere your mother and father.” (19:3)

Jewish tradition is clear: the two fundamental obligations that a Jewish child owes his or her parents are to honor and revere them.

According to the Talmud, honoring our parents is expressed through the performance of positive deeds, such as providing them with food, clothing, shelter and assistance. Much like our parents cared for us when we were young and vulnerable; we are expected to do the same for them in their time of need.

Revering our parents is different from honoring them in that it takes the form of restraining from doing certain things, such as not contradicting them in public, taking sides against them or “sitting or standing” in their place. In essence, we do our best as children to avoid causing our parents harm or emotional pain.

These commandments to honor and revere our parents are not without exceptions, however. Judaism does not expect a child to blindly comply with every parental demand if the request is unreasonable or will damage the child’s own financial, emotional or spiritual needs. For example, a child can refuse a parent’s demand to do something immoral (such as lie) or to violate a Jewish law (such as drive on the Sabbath.)  Moreover a child is not expected to use his or her own resources (financial as well as psychological) to provide for a parent if the parent has the ability to do so.

I say goodbye to my mother, cell phone falling from my ear like an oversized clip-on earring.  I hope that in the days ahead I can give her what she so well deserves –   honor, respect, an open heart and willing hand. Whatever the cost or whenever the time, I know she has my number: it’s called Cellular Love.