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Lifetakes: Generations

Beth Rachael Shapiro

I am the official matriarch of our family. Too young for the job, in my mind, but it is mine nonetheless

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

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T here’s a photograph taken just after my oldest daughter was born. My mother and grandmother had flown from New York to Ohio to visit us, and we were standing in a local bagel store. I can still hear my mother’s voice catch as she said, “We are four generations of Jewish women in our family.”

This picture was nothing to take for granted. My grandmother, who married at the spinsterly age of 34, was 89 at the time, and among the last of her friends still alive. My mother had already survived two cancers, the first when I was a sophomore in high school, the second during my senior year of college. She had worried that she would not see me graduate from high school. The fact that 13 years later she was cancer-free and holding her newborn granddaughter in her arms seemed unfathomable to her.

I was different. I liked the picture but didn’t understand its significance. My mother’s illnesses did nothing to connect me to the fragility of life. Instead, they convinced me that my mother was invincible. I never saw her sick — she sent me to summer camp during her first treatment, and I was on a semester abroad during her second treatment.

She didn’t like to talk about it. It came out more in a Jewish mother guilt-trip sort of way: “How could you do X,Y, or Z?” she would say. “Don’t you know I had cancer? You should be happy I’m alive.” And I was. I just didn’t think she wouldn’t be, so it didn’t really concern me — much like I don’t worry whether the sun will rise in the morning.

Fast forward 12 years to that daughter’s bat mitzvah. This time I hired a professional photographer to document the event. We got out our hair done and purchased matching dresses for the occasion. But the picture will be different. Instead of four generations, there will be just two.

My beloved grandmother died peacefully in her sleep at age 95. As for my mother, her one goal when the cancer came back was, “I need to get well because I want to be at Naomi’s bat mitzvah.” Apparently, I was wrong about her invincibility. Just because you survived cancer doesn’t mean you can keep doing it. After two more bouts of cancer, my mother died in August 2011.

When I stand next to my daughter, the sole woman at her momentous life passage, I think to myself, I’m so proud of you, of the girl that you are, the woman you are becoming. Do I, the lone surviving woman in our family line, have it in me to bestow upon you all of the blessings and love these women would want me to give you?

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