The seats on either side of me appear empty, but I know my mother is sitting in one of them.  The scent of her perfume, (why didn’t I ever ask the name? ) blends with that of the white flowers banked on either side of the bima.  I can sense her eyes shining with tears.  (I cry easily too; we share that.) There was rarely any physical contact—no hugs, no gentle touches–I always wondered why, but I can imagine the soft skin of her face, unlined and glowing even as she turned ninety.  When we air kissed there was sometimes a brief contact, actually, quick as a wink, but I have always wondered how a real kiss from her would feel.

I sit quietly, breathing her in, certain that she must be here. As I stand to recite the prayers I look down and imagine her size 9 1/2, narrow feet clad in elegant black leather heels next to my slightly scuffed, still-summer open-toed black sandals.  My shoes are really her shoes; I’ve worn them now for three years and I wonder if she notices, if she minds. I hear a deep sigh and I turn to her, but, instead, I see the woman a few seats away yawning and flipping through the pages of the prayer book.

When it is time to read the appropriate remembrance silently, I pause briefly, as I have done every time for the last fifteen years, at the one for a father.  I am never sure that I want to honour his memory. But after skimming it quickly, I stop at the one for a mother.  My mother would be thinking of her mother too, dead too young, in her early sixties.  I don’t recall grieving. I was only fourteen when my grandmother died but I wish I knew how my mother dealt with her mother’s death. Would that help me deal better with the death of mine?

The cantor and a female soloist sing an achingly beautiful duet. Everyone recites Kaddish.  I think about all the times when I was growing up, how during the High Holidays all of the children were shuttled off to separate young peoples’ services in the Glass Auditorium, which always ended what seemed like hours before the adult services.  Along with all the other briefly parentless children and young teens, we would slip out of the service,  pace the halls underneath the main sanctuary, and make numerous trips to the bathroom, where some of the temporary orphans would skip out of services altogether and spend the hours styling their hair or giggling about boys; the air in the bathroom smelled faintly of hair spray and…cigarette smoke.

Whenever anyone mentioned Yizkor, there was a hush, and adults spoke about it in whispers; it wasn’t something for the kinder to know about. No one ever told us that it was traditional not to attend Yizkor unless, God forbid, we’d lost a parent or sibling. Now I look around the synagogue at some children and numerous teenagers standing with their parents; there are even some babies resting peacefully in a parent’s arms.  I don’t notice lightening striking them dead, and I wonder if the rules have changed.

With a collective sigh, we take our seats , and the rabbi approaches the lectern to deliver his sermon. I half listen to him, but focus more on thoughts of my mother. I know that she is here, and  wish that I could see her, just once.  I want to remember her as the elegantly attired woman with perfect makeup and hair, with legs she loved to show off with almost-too-short skirts. (One of her mantras: the legs are the last to go) I want to  erase the image of her when she died: white-haired, with bruised, puffy arms and chipped nails—she would have been horrified by those and tubes coming out of unthinkable places.  As my siblings and I watched the numbers on the machines go lower and lower, as she approached her actual death, one eye remained stubbornly open, as though she wasn’t ready to stop watching the world or put away forever that startling, marble blue eye, which at the end a nurse taped closed, as though she was sealing a package to be put away for storage.

I feel motion and again look toward the seats on either side of me, sure that I will see her.  But it is only the whoosh of the congregation rising for more prayers.

I have fantasised about my mother returning from the dead. She would be confused by the changes in our city, our world, delighted to have more grandchildren and great grandchildren. But it is here in the synagogue, where we sat together for so many years, that I feel both her presence and her absence.  Maybe her spirit floats at the top of the impossibly high, white-tiled ceiling of this sanctuary, hovering there to listen to whispered conversations, to check out women’s outfits and hats as we used to do, tsking at mismatched clothes, oohing at a blue jacket, a perfect match for my mother’s eyes.

The rabbi has completed his sermon, and now he announces times for the remainder of the services, which will go on for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until, at sunset, we hear the blowing of the shofar and Yom Kippur is done for another year.  I glance at the worshippers sitting near me. I recognise a few who have sat in the same seats for years, but others have replaced those who have died or who have decided not to pay for the privilege of sitting near the front of the synagogue. I remember how long it took my mother to leave the sanctuary, as she chatted with nearly everyone around her on the way out.  Most of those people are dead now.

As I file out of the synagogue with the rest of the congregation, I long to hear my mother’s conversations. Even now I occasionally see someone who remembers her as the animated woman who always had something to say.  When we were together in the synagogue I relished being Ruby’s daughter, which gave me a certain status as the offspring not only of one of the Jewish community’s top fund raisers, but of the elegant woman known for always looking stunning. For my mother, looking good was akin to godliness.

Before I approach the double doors where people are emerging from the synagogue into the bright sunshine of an early fall day, I take a moment to glance back at the now empty seats.  Once again I imagine the scent of my mother’s perfume, and I feel a slight breeze; although I know it’s coming from the outside doors opening, I like to think it’s the passing of the many souls everyone has prayed for today.   I imagine my mother’s spirit hovering high above me, just out of reach,  and I don’t want to leave her, so I stand still for a few more minutes, thinking about the prayers I have said today.

Perhaps the synagogue is the only place my mother will truly be with me. Moving apart from the exiting congregation, I open my prayer book and recite the Yizkor prayer:  “May God remember the soul of my beloved mother who has gone to her eternal rest. In tribute to her memory I pledge to perform acts of charity and goodness.  May the deeds I perform and the prayers I offer help to keep her soul bound up in the bond of life, as an enduring source of blessing.  Amen.”

Article by Author/s
Gail Arnoff
After thirty years in the Cleveland Municipal School District, Gail began teaching at two universities. When she is not teaching, writing, running, practicing yoga, gardening, eating cookie dough, or reading, she dotes on her six grandchildren, two in Cleveland, Ohio ,and four in Jerusalem. Her work has been published in Lilith (online), Gordon Square Review and Persimmon Tree.


  1. Alice Gould Butts Reply

    Thanks, Gail! This is wonderful! Each piece of writing from you illuminates so much! Keep pondering and exploring the things that made you – she must have done many other things well in addition to her coiffure, style perfection, and her contributions to the life of the synagogue. Another one of her legacies is YOU! I’m glad you’re in my life!

  2. Lynn Haney Reply

    Such a deeply personal presentation of the power of the maternal connection that forever dwells within women’s lives.
    For me, it challenges a conception of an ambiguous relationship to an adoptive mother versus a bitter conception of a birth mother whom I choose to embrace and reject.
    Yet the past and present dialogue continues as we try to define our perception of our individual selves. Thank you, Gail, for your relentless journey into the need for
    connection to a mother that forever haunts us.

    Lynn Haney

  3. Laurie Rodney Reply

    A loving tribute and connection to everyone who has lost someone they love as we hold some faint piece of their presence. You also touch on the complexity of human relationships and the imperfection of human love.

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