At my mother’s funeral, I discovered that she was a cult leader. Without telling me, she’d started her own religion, a mashup of Judaism, Jesus and herself. Those who believed in her called her “Momma.” She and her husband conducted services in a triple-wide mobile home on their property. She told her followers who to marry and what jobs to pursue. She gave them new names. She was their Solomon in Southern drag.
As I entered the triple-wide’s room of worship, I detected a few double takes from the followers. The air became electric around me. People twisted in their folding chairs to behold a version of my mother’s face and halo of white, fluffy hair. It felt like I could seize control in the moment as my mother’s reincarnation. I ignored their stares, walked down the middle aisle and perched on a hard chair in the front row. My husband sat by my side and squeezed my hand. I felt the laser gaze of her followers on my back.
On the dais lay tallises, white strips of cloth adorned with blue Stars of David. A painting of Jesus stood on top of one of the Jewish prayer shawls. My mother’s husband, whom the true believers called “Daddy,” loomed from an enormous carved chair on the stage in the front of the room. He cleared his throat, and the congregants sang what he deemed my mother’s favorite song. It was a peppy little ditty with a chorus praising Jesus.
After the ceremony, while my husband headed to the coffee urn, the followers buzzed around me. One, a pretty middle-aged woman, told me my mother was so proud of the businesswoman I’d become. Another waited her turn to talk to me. When it was just the two of us, she grabbed my hands and leaned in. I could smell the too-sweet scent of her hair.
“You really hurt your mother,” she said. I tried to pull my hands from hers but she only grasped tighter. “And I curse you. Every year on her death, on Mother’s Day, I will go to her grave and curse you.” I scanned the room looking for my husband. I caught his eye, and he swam against the crowd to my side.
Before dropping my hands, she said, “Every bad thing that happens to you is because of those curses.” Then she disappeared out the triple-wide’s door.
I stood there in shock. My husband ushered me outside and into our rental car. A couple of weeks later, my brother called me about the will. It began with “I have two natural born children, neither of whom are my inheritors.” Then she left my brother a little chunk of change.
Before becoming a cult leader, my mother was a model with long, shapely legs. She drew people into her web with a red, lipsticked smile — close enough to be caught by her charm, but not close enough to see under the spackle. I had an overbite and won awards: spelling bees, science fairs, even tallest student. (In third grade, I convinced the beanstalk in front of me that I was taller and took her place at the front of the line.) But none of these accolades would draw my mother’s attention away from her mirror.
I did know how to get her negative attention, though. Once, when I was a teenager, we stood screaming at each other in her bathroom.
“You are a child of the devil,” she hissed, her syrupy Southern accent stripped away. “I’ll never love you as much as your brother.”
I pushed her, too angry to reply. She lost her balance and slammed into the bathtub. The shame I felt overwhelmed me. We never talked about it.
At 40, I’d had enough and told my mother not to contact me. After 16 years without hearing her voice, my brother called. She was deep in dementia. And dying. Would I talk to her one last time? I thought about who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t forgive.
Her husband answered.
“Hi,” he said. “Let me get your mom.”
The phone changed hands. “Yeeess?” she said. Her voice was spidery, but it was still her voice. The lump in my throat grew at the sound of it.
“Ma.” I heard her breathing. “I want to wish you a good journey to wherever it is you are going. And to tell you what I appreciated about you being my mother.”
I wasn’t sure she understood what I was saying. I read her my thank-you list, the paper trembling in my hands. Thanks for the hand-drawn cartoons she hid under the PB&J sandwich in my lunchbox when I was a kid. For being able to talk to strangers, as I learned by watching her in the grocery line at the Piggly Wiggly. And for teaching me how to read and my love of reading, which has saved me over and over throughout my life. When I finished, we both just breathed.
“I love you, Ma,” I said.
Suddenly the air stilled. It was as if my mother was emerging from underwater.
“I love you,” she said.
My mother died the next day. On Mother’s Day.
Years before her death, before I cut off contact with her, our phone chats had the power to send me to the orange velour couch I’d dragged with me to the other coast after college. It was my adult blankie.
“I’ve met the most beautiful maaan,” she said during one of those calls. She drew out the vowels as if she were gliding down a spiral staircase.
This was news to me. She had left my father less than six months earlier.
My mother’s honeyed accent, whispery in my ear, grated on me. She’d grown up in New Jersey in an Orthodox Jewish home. Her transformation into a Southern belle started when I was a child and we moved to Georgia. First, it was the accent. Then, it was changing her hair color from Northeast black to bombshell blond. The one constant was her ability to shape-shift — especially around men.
The thick falsetto of her voice coated me over the airwaves. I felt my gut tighten. “He really is the most handsome maaan. He’s tall. He’s good with his hands.” She made a throaty sound full of desire. I wasn’t her girlfriend. Why was she talking to me this way?
I hung up. The calls kept coming every few days about her magical mystery man.
Later, I found out the identity of the handsome man — not through her, but through my brother. My brother had stood waiting for her on the porch of our family home to help her move out. When our mother finally drove up, my brother was surprised to see her business partner behind the wheel.
Our father appeared on the porch and barred the front door. He pointed a damning finger at the business partner.
“You can come in,” he called to my mother, “but not him. He’s not welcome here.”
Eventually my mother did the big reveal: She’d married the business partner — who was to become Daddy to her followers, but never to me.
I watched my wedding ring sparkle as I drummed my fingers on the arm of the couch. By this time, I’d married, and moved as far away from her as I could while still being in the same country (excluding Hawaii). Our contact was a phone call every few weeks.
“I saw the most beautiful maaan,” she began. I sighed. Wasn’t she happily remarried?
“He came down through my bedroom ceiling.”
Wait, what? I wondered when my husband would be home so I could grab the tether of his sanity.
“What are you talking about, Ma?” I stroked the orange velour on the couch first in one direction, then the next.
Apparently, the man floated down and hovered over her in bed. His long, wavy brown hair blew in an invisible wind. His white robe, cinched at the waist, revealed a trim figure. He gave her a look of pure love that warmed her in all the right places.
“It was Jesus,” she said a bit primly, as if I should have known.
I had a million questions. The biggest one being, how does a Jewish Southern belle from New Jersey meet Jesus in her bedroom? I never asked her that question. I did ask her: If Hitler had accepted Jesus on his deathbed, would he go to heaven?
The voice undulating over the phone said, “Yeeess.” My gut tightened.
“And if a righteous rabbi doesn’t accept Jesus, he’s going to hell?” I was now speaking to her from the kitchen, pacing, grasping the phone so hard it could break.
My mother answered in the affirmative. I had no idea then that she would start collecting true believers who gave her the adoration she sought in the mirror and couldn’t find in me.
Mother’s Day is almost here. I think of her follower, the woman who cursed me, kneeling at Ma’s grave with a dozen roses cradled in her arms. She stands up, muttering vile words. Will I hear them in my dreams?
My heart hurts imagining what my mother must have said about me to fuel the curse.
In Judaism, when you visit the dead, you leave a rock on top of the headstone. Rock upon rock. Roses fade, but rocks can endure through time — portable, visible signs that the person was loved.
I now know my love for my mother is like a rock that can be infinitely broken — even with a hammer from beyond the grave — but that will never entirely disappear.
And with that never-ending love, I realize her follower doesn’t need to curse me on Mother’s Day. The true curse is that there will always be a jagged sliver of love for my mother wedged into my heart, like a ghost who never leaves. Like a rock on a headstone.
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