Cropped image of an artist's hands using a fine paintbrush while painting on paper at a desk with art and craft equipment all around

I Thought I Knew My Mother

Yesterday, on my family’s Whatsapp chat, my mother shared a picture of a painting she just completed at a Torah learning and art class she attends. I could almost hear the collective, shocked gasp of my siblings and father through my phone – her painting is so good. It’s whimsical. The patterns and colors pop and dance. Her art is alive.

I soak in the lines and shapes of the painted objects and then my eyes find this: on the bottom corner of the watercolor, she signed her name, her signature warm and effortless, as though she signed a million paintings before. Soli— her nickname since girlhood.

I didn’t know my mother could paint. In all my years as her child, I do not remember her doing anything overtly artistic. Yes, she worked alongside my father for years, selling handmade oriental rugs. She most definitely has an aesthetic. But creative in this way? I feel almost cheated, confused. What other talents is she hiding? What other surprises is she saving?

What else do I not know about my mother?

This moment is slightly unnerving- and incredibly illuminating.

I am curious to learn more about her, my mother. What was she afraid of most as a child? Did she ever feel unlovable? Who was her first crush? How did she interview for her first job? When did he feel proudest of herself? What did she want to be ‘grew up’? Does she still allow herself to dream? Why does she believe in G-d? What are her regrets? What makes her feel beautiful? To whom does she reveal her secrets? Does she ever allow herself to be vulnerable?

I thought I knew my mother. I assumed she was already exposed; her likes, interests and passions fully blossomed. I didn’t imagine what still lay hidden in buds of possibility.

How utterly arrogant of me.

My mother is my rock. She’s the strongest, kindest, most generous, principled person I know. She would drop anything to help anyone, anywhere, anytime. She never tires of giving to others. She’s opinionated, strong willed, and courageous. I love her.

And in some way, I’ve always wondered what lurked behind that strong, sometimes rough, persona. I knew there was so much to her. I was just too busy growing up to notice.

Yet slowly, and still, my mother evolves from being a character in my story to being a person– dynamic, changing, and separate from me.

I wonder what my four children believe to be true about me. Who am I to them? And who will I become for them?

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I wonder if I will ever surprise them, and how. Will they be curious about the deeper, even darker, sides of me? I think about my life – the stories I already tell, the ones that still unfold – and wonder, what will grab their hearts and imaginations?

What boxes will they hold me in?

I remember being eighteen years old, an Early Admissions Freshman at Stern College. I decided to attend seminary in Israel for my Sophomore year. “Oh, you’re totally gonna change in Israel,” my college roommate remarked, almost contemptuously, almost encouragingly. “No I’m not,” I asserted. “I am who I am. I’m not going to change.”

How utterly arrogant of me. How utterly false.

We change. We grow. We continue to unravel and reveal layers and layers of nuance and truth. We just need to wait for it. To create the space for it.

Maybe there’s security in believing we fully know the ones we love. Maybe it is scary to imagine how much might lay beyond our grasp, waiting to emerge. Maybe we are afraid of what we don’t know yet about ourselves, hidden inside.

But when I saw my mother’s painting last night, I did discover this– it is so invigorating to discover something new. To witness the dynamic richness of life and identity. To behold the process of becoming who we were all along.

Dear Mommy,

I will never underestimate you.