I bend forward in downward dog and the gold chain hangs down by my forehead. As I transition to the next pose, it tightens around my hairline. I tuck my head awkwardly to disengage it without causing it to break.
Half moon pose. The chain is draped across my lips. Do I use my hand to move it out of the way? My tongue? Should I jerk my head to get it out of my mouth?
I resent this necklace for taking me out of my yoga practice. Maybe I should take it off.
No, I will let the necklace be and stay present to my practice. I focus on long slow breaths. On stillness and quiet. I stretch and elongate my body, working around the chain. I grow in my poses, making them beautiful despite the chain’s presence—or maybe because of its presence.
Could it be that the necklace has made me ever more mindful of my intentions? Can this obstacle actually facilitate my stillness? Can it help in my quest to find radiance, joy, and love from within?
I have been wearing this necklace almost constantly—obsessively—for over two months now. It is a simple gold chain—of medium thickness—and it falls to just where my cleavage begins.
I am 47. It is two days after my mother’s funeral. I rummage through her jewelry boxes and then through her drawers looking for the simple gold chain that she seemed to wear almost constantly for as far back as I can remember. I finally find it in a white cardboard box hidden beneath her neatly folded pastel-colored half-slips. I gasp. I also keep my good jewelry hidden in my underwear drawer in plain cardboard boxes.
I slip the chain over my head and go to the mirror but Jewish law requires that all mirrors be covered in a house of shiva or mourning. I wonder if the gold chain looks on me like it did on her—if it makes me resemble her at all. Though my mother and I shared a love for jewelry and clothing, I am clear that I do not want to resemble her.
I wish I could think about my mother and remember openness and kindness. I want to remember her teaching me about tolerance and love. I want to remember her encouraging me and helping me to develop into the woman I have become—the mother, the writer, the attorney, the yogi, the feminist. But all I can remember are the obstacles she placed before me.
I am home in Austin. I am lighting Shabbat candles with my reluctant teen-agers impatiently watching.
“Mom, I have to leave in fifteen minutes,” Alexis says.
“Okay but we are going to have a brief Shabbat dinner first. We have skipped too many.” I say.
“Fine, I’ll have a piece of challah,” Alexis says and rolls her eyes.
I am 16. I am sitting at the Shabbat table as my mother produces stuffed grape leaves, roasted meat with carrots and potatoes, peas and artichokes, white rice with tiny brown noodles, green salad, and chicken in a cherry sauce. Her gold chain rests on a brown turtle-neck sweater that she wears with a long flowered skirt. I tell her I have a date with a boy on Saturday night.
“Ask him what he likes and pretend that you’re interested in it, too,” she instructs.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because that’s how you get a boy to like you.”
“Mom, he likes to watch sports. I hate sports.”
“Pretend that you like sports.”
“But I would be stuck watching sports. I would be miserable.”
She sighs deeply and shakes her head. “You should listen to me if you want a second date with this boy. I know these things.”
When he doesn’t call back after the first date, she asks me why I am so stubborn. Why I cannot listen to her advice. I try to explain my perspective, but it is useless. She cannot understand. Finally, she shrugs.
“Every head is a world,” she says. She says this a lot when she cannot understand other people’s views.
In her world a woman is defined by whether she can get and keep a man. In her world, I have failed.
Alexis’s SAT score comes to my email. With very little effort, she has scored well. Better than most ever hope to do. Still, I wonder if I could persuade her to study a bit, take it again. She could have a stellar score. If she cared. I consider what I will say to her. I resolve to choose my words carefully and to be supportive. To encourage her but let her know that it’s her decision.
I am 21 and still living at home as is traditional in my Syrian-Jewish community for the few girls who are not yet married. I rip open the envelope. My eyes grow wide. I did well. Really, really well. With this score I could get into any law school in the country. Instantly I feel giddy. I follow the only sounds in the house. My mother’s Spanish music blaring from the kitchen. With a drinking glass, she is cutting dough into circles for sambusak, a cheese-filled Syrian delicacy. She is swaying slightly to the music, as she stuffs the circles with cheese and then produces beautiful half moon shapes with crimped edges. The chain around her neck moves slightly between her breasts as she sways.
“Mom, I got my LSAT score.” I have to speak loudly to be heard above the music.
“What?” She knows nothing about higher education. I am the only one in the family to have a college degree.
“The test I took to get into law school,” I explain. “I did really well.”
“Good mi amor. I always knew you would.” She barely looks up.
“Mom. I got a 46 out of 48. That’s the 99th percentile.”
She nods blankly, as if I have spoken in a foreign tongue.
“It means I’m in the top 1% of the country.”
“Good,” she says, smiling. The phone rings. She answers and talks loudly in Spanish, above the music. She tells her best friend Emilia what she is baking and they chit chat about my sister’s new boyfriend. She doesn’t mention my LSAT score.
I sit there for a while longer staring at my score, congratulating myself silently.
I sit before my computer screen and try to get inspired to write the yoga article that I have promised my teacher. Once it is written I will be certified to teach yoga though really I don’t aspire to teach. My purpose in taking this training was to deepen my practice. My article will span the past twenty years and explain how yoga has profoundly changed me and inspired me to love myself, to pursue my writing, to handle life’s crises with serenity and calm.
I am 26. I am sitting at my mother’s table with Steve. We are newly married. We tell her that we are going to a yoga retreat for the weekend.
“Yoga is a cult,” she declares. There is fear in her eyes. In her world, learning about other cultures is a threat. In her world, yoga is a sin.
Steve laughs out loud. I breathe in deeply.
My mother clutches her heart. “Ay, ay yay, you kids are going to give me a heart attack,” she says. “Jewish people shouldn’t do yoga. They brainwash you. They try to convert you. They will drug you. You won’t know what happened. Don’t go!”
I get up to leave. “Mom, you are talking crazy.”
“Don’t call me crazy. I know these things,” she insists. I have caused her anxiety and pain. I vow to keep my yoga to myself from now on.
I hug her goodbye. Her gold chain brushes my chest.
I write Jesse’s Hebrew name on his camp application. Yitzchak. We never use this name and I pause and look at what I have written. His Hebrew name was chosen to commemorate the life of my Uncle Ike. When he comes home from school I call him Yitchak. He looks at me as though I have lost my mind.
I am 32. I am in my mother’s living room. Her brother Ike and his son Mauricio have died suddenly in an airplane explosion. My mother’s eyes are swollen from crying and she is absently fingering the gold chain around her neck.
“Mom, don’t you think you should be with your sisters at the funeral?”
“No,” she says emphatically. “I’m not going.” She looks at me for a long moment, fear palpable in her eyes. She cannot bear to face this. She shakes her head. “I’m not going to Panama. Ay, my Ikey,” she begins to sob again. “My Ikey is gone.”
I stand next to her and hold her, her head resting on my pregnant belly.
“Please, mom, I will call and get your ticket. It’s important.”
Even as I urge her, I know she won’t go. She is intimidated by her wealthy relatives in Panama and embarrassed to be living on my father’s meager income. She has not been to Panama to see her family in over twenty years—not even for her own mother’s funeral.
“You don’t understand how Maggie and Yvonne dress,” she says. “They will all be wearing designer clothes. I can’t go with these clothes.’ She pulls at her black skirt in disgust.
There’s nothing I can do.
“Shotgun,” Alexis says.
Jesse moans, “No fair,” and they have an extended negotiation, an improvement from the screaming arguments they’ve been having for years about who sits in the front.
Finally, they both get into the minivan. Alexis is in front. They buckle their seatbelts.
I am 32.
“I sat on ga-ma’s lap in the car,” Alexis says. She is two. “She let me wear her gold chain.”
My hand shakes as I dial her number. “Mom, I’ve told you hundreds of times. Alexis has to be in her car-seat. You are putting her life at risk.”
“I didn’t do that,” she lies. In her world, a “little white lie” is okay if it avoids an argument or saves someone from pain.
“Mom, I know you did.”
“What, who told you?” she asks.
“It was a short ride, just to her school.”
“Mom, she could’ve been killed.”
She sighs. “Okay.”
“Okay, I promise,” she humors me.
A short pause and she speaks again, “But, Esther, I am very upset about that school. I don’t want her going there. Leave her with me all day while you are at work.”
“She loves it. It’s a fantastic preschool.”
“Ugh, it’s awful. I saw the other kids today. They are all abeed.” She uses the Arabic word for black.
Her prejudice makes me angry and I have to remind myself that she was raised with a fear of differences. In her world, exposing Alexis to different races is unthinkable—like sending my child into a war zone. To her this is more dangerous than having Alexis ride in a car without a seatbelt.
Still, I try to get her to see it my way. “The school’s about 60% minority—African American, Asian, Latino. I want Alexis in a diverse environment. I selected the school for that reason.”
“She should be in a Jewish school. She should be with her own kind. I don’t want her mixing with those people.”
“I have to go, Mom.” I give up and hang up the phone.
I am in my home-office, writing. On the wall is a signed Fiddler on the Roof poster. I remember seeing that play on Broadway years ago with Steve when I was pregnant with Alexis—back when I thought my marriage would last forever.
I am 44. We are sitting in my parents’ living room watching Fiddler on the Roof on television. I feel relieved and happy that there is something all six of us can enjoy together. Common ground. But when the controversial part of the movie begins, tension enters the room.
“Alexis, Jesse, remember you must only date your own kind. Never date a goy,” My mother is talking over the movie. The kids and Steve look irritated. I shoot her a look and notice the gold chain glistening against her green velvet robe.
After the movie she tells a long story about her sister Julie who eloped with Fito, a gentile man. “God punished her,” she says. “She has been miserable with Fito. Her sin gave my father a heart attack.”
The kids don’t respond. Every now and again Alexis silently cautions me with her eyes not to tell that her current boyfriend is not Jewish.
“Mom, enough,” I finally say. “If the kids choose to marry, the most important thing is that they find partners that make them happy. Julie didn’t choose well. That had nothing to do with his religion.”
She gasps. “How can you say that? What are you teaching these kids?”
I stop myself from responding. She will never be able to understand my world, my kids’ world.
“We’re all tired.” I say. “Let’s go to bed.”
I am 47. I wake up at 4 in the morning. I am sleeping in my office. Steve is in our bedroom at the other end of the house. We are separated. Have been for months. I ponder the same issue again.
I should tell her. Should I tell her? When I tell her, she will become frantic. She will call me day and night to tell me that a woman’s place is with her husband. That I am making a mistake. In her world, women cannot be independent. In her world women need men to guide and anchor them.
In her world a good woman doesn’t lose her man.
It doesn’t feel quite real because she doesn’t know.
I will tell her soon. I must.
Absurd. Why has telling her taken on such significance when I know she cannot be there—cannot help—will not be supportive?
All at once the knowledge comes. Even though she is not sick. Even though I have no reason to know:
It is too late. She is going to die.
She dies of a heart attack later in the day.
I am 47. I wake up in the morning with the chain strangling me. I pull it away from my neck and realize that it has become tangled with the thin chain that I wear all the time. My chain is shorter and it has two outlines of rectangles hanging on the diagonal. The smaller rectangle is yellow-gold and it sits inside a larger white-gold rectangle. Both have tiny diamond chips around the rim. I wonder if Alexis will remember this as my signature necklace. The one she must have when I am gone.
I get up, look in the mirror, and begin the work of untangling. But it only gets worse. Finally I fix it by opening the clasp and taking off my mother’s chain.
It is the first time in over two months that I have taken it off. I put it down on the counter and suddenly I see that it is not one chain but two, twisted together. That is what gives the necklace its thickness, its substance, its beauty. After all the years of looking at this necklace I cannot believe I have never really seen it.
Then, there is another realization that stuns me: She was important to me. Despite my efforts to separate and distinguish myself from my mother, my world and hers are intricately tangled together. Without her, I would not be who I am. She acted as my obstacle—the chain that could have strangled me. The chain that facilitated my growth.
I stare at the necklace and I cry for the mother I still long for. The mother she never was. I cry because now she will never accept me. Understand me. See me.
It is a long time before I dry my eyes and get dressed for yoga class. I consider leaving the chain on the bathroom counter. Or maybe I should put it in a box and stash it in my underwear drawer. Instead, I slip it over my head, a warrior donning her medal. In the mirror, the familiar chain glistens against my bare skin—two golden strands permanently woven together. It is not as simple as I once thought. And for that, I am grateful.