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A journey through life with five moms

I’ve had five moms. At almost 70 years old, I think I’ve had my fill, but I’m not making any promises. I still want and need occasional mothering. And you?

I spent most of my 17th year fleeing my troubled home. After school, I went to my first love, Karen’s, house, and stayed there until my late-night walk home. Karen’s mom, Lenore, welcomed me into their home, where every dusty surface was covered by stacks of books, magazines, newspapers, knitting projects and Freddy, a rotund, aging gray cat.

Lenore hid her chocolate deep in cupboards filled with mismatched dishes. Dinners were chaotic cross conversations and laughter over hearty Jewish- and Italian-inspired casseroles. Their house was loud and loving except for Freddy. I only saw him move quickly one time when I was chasing Karen, and Freddy leapt off the couch and clawed me. Lenore called me “Stevie.”

At 26, I met my then-partner’s mom, Barbara, a lively and secret Tina Turner wannabe who roller-bladed through the long hallways of their home. We took an immediate liking to each other, discussing the latest novels and unraveling the mysteries of being human, most specifically the mystery of her deeply introverted and beautiful daughter.

She and Lita were the same size and body shape. I came up behind Barbara several times, thinking she was Lita, in order to wrap my arms around her, only to realize at the last moment my mistake.

We lost Lita, my wife of 32 years and Barbara’s daughter of 59 years in 2013, and I have spent the years since cherishing our connection. I am now her second son and, yes, we still love and puzzle over her daughter.

Three years after meeting Barbara, Shirley entered my life. I was beginning 10 years of working for a labor union, and Shirley, with political smarts as sharp as her stylish outfits, took me under her wing. Shirley and I did our part to grow the union in size and power but, more importantly, she always had my back and I had her ear and heart as I navigated the shoals of the multiple roles of husband, dad, union organizer and son.

Long after my career with the union and having moved from the Bay Area to Ashland, Shirley and I spoke weekly and visited when I went to the Bay Area. Throughout our three-plus decades of connection, her two slightly older daughters called me their “baby brother.”

In 1988, at 36, I was running an office for the Dukakis campaign in Oakland. On election day morning, a landslide for George H. Bush, I got a call from my sister telling me that her husband had died after jumping off the roof of the parking structure at her workplace.

My brother-in-law’s suicide seemed inexplicable and devastated our entire family. I felt listless and sad. Less than a year later, just after my daughter’s birth, I began what turned out to be 14 years of therapy with Susan. In only my second meeting with Susan, I asked her if I could lie down on the couch. I needed help.

Susan sat with me as I regressed under a knitted afghan of fall colors. She moved her chair from the traditional positioning so that I could gaze at her. I held her gaze in silence for months. Our journey over the 14 years was often silent, with some of her most significant offerings being a gasp in response to my narrative. I was her last client prior to her retirement. Her parting gift to me, other than telling me that I had “a deep capacity for love,” was her Grandma Ida’s afghan. I now wrap it around my shoulders when I meditate.

When my Mom, Phyllis Neuberger, died in 2019 at 94 years old, she had often expressed her deep appreciation for Lenore, Barbara, Shirley and Susan. While all four of them had known or witnessed fraught and tumultuous moments in our relationship, the three survivors, Lenore, Barbara and Susan, knew how grateful I was that, in our last decade, my Mom became one of my best friends.

As my Mom entered her 80s and 90s, her body was no longer able to tolerate more than an occasional drink. She still wrote twice-weekly newspaper articles for the Pompano Beach Pelican. When I was a teen, she’d written a column, “How to Live with a Teenager,” for the Chicago Tribune.

In her last years, Mom moved from certainty and adamance to humility and uncertainty. She moved from being an advice giver to believing she couldn’t change others. She moved from competing with the primary women in my life to a loving relationship with my partner, Kate, and the two of them were able to bravely talk through moments of discomfort.

Mom and I shared, when she wasn’t in the middle of writing an article for her paper, meandering Sunday conversations about books, movies and politics. My visits to Florida often found us side by side on her couch, in stitches over an old Woody Allen movie. We treasured each other’s well-being.

Her love for me knew no bounds despite our boundary issues. As I discovered after Lita died, there are often no final conversations. Questions remain and mysteries abound. There are memories that are pleasant for one of us and painful for the other. What I know is that my mother’s love led me on a journey that took me through four more “moms,” and that having five moms is, so far, good enough for me.

Steve Neuberger lives in Ashland.

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