To Know Her Is to Love Her by Joyce Zonana


“As my mother passed from this life, she was surrounded by a great matrix of love. As she died I began to understand that I too am surrounded by love and always have been. This knowledge is a great mystery.”— Carol P. Christ, A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess (forthcoming, FAR Press, 2016)
Joyce Zonana head shot

It has taken me 66 years—my entire life—to learn to love my mother, and, even more importantly, to accept her love for me.

When I was younger, I could not distinguish that love from control, and I felt smothered by her constant attention, care, and what I took to be criticism. I felt overwhelmed, stifled. I resisted, fighting to assert my autonomy and freedom, my difference. Our relationship become one of painful, sometimes ugly conflict, extending well beyond my adolescence and into my adulthood. For too many years, it was almost impossible for me to be in the same room with her.

Today, I happily sit on the floor at her feet, holding her hand, basking in the glow of her love, offering what I can of my own.

Nelly Zonana Smiling croppedToday, she is 94 years old, living in a carefully-managed and beautifully-designed Assisted Living facility, with plenty of skilled assistance, including a home health aide who is with her for ten hours each day, from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., when she goes to sleep. Although she has no debilitating physical ailments, she struggles to walk, and her cognitive abilities have been diminishing over the years; at one point she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but that was over ten years ago, and we think it is unlikely that she actually has that terrible disease. Just garden-variety dementia, perhaps, or what was once called senility.

Except for her hearing, her senses remain acute: she can spot a seagull flying across the sky or a cat hair clinging to my black wool sweater; she listens with pleasure to classical music and her taste in food is discerning. Her critical ability is strong: she knows when someone is putting her on, and she enjoys reading small snatches of simple prose, cracking slight jokes. She still likes to tell me that I need to cut my hair or find a better outfit to wear.

But what happened yesterday? This morning? Even five minutes ago? Most of the past has vanished, and she cannot imagine the future. Each moment is new, unprecedented, precious—eternal. And when she feels good she feels very very good, and when she feels bad she feels horrid.

I visit her two, three times a a week, bringing stuffed animals and coloring books and illustrated children’s stories for her to read . . . . When she sees me, her face lights up, suffused with a gentle sweetness that surprises and moves me each time. “How are you?” she asks in French, her first language, and she is not satisfied until I assure her that I am well, very well indeed. What I leave unvoiced is that my new acceptance of her love is part of what makes me so very well these days.

“Good,” she says, “that is good. I want you to be happy.”

Of course this is what she always wanted, but I could neither accept nor understand the deep love that prompted that desire.

Now, perhaps because I have become her primary caregiver, and because she is so diminished, I am no longer threatened by her. She is, after all, almost entirely dependent on the care that I and others give to her. I can afford to feel her love and to give her mine because there has been a shift in power. That may well be part of it, but I think there is more.

Nelly Zonana painting croppedFor one thing, I have learned patience and care—and love—from the other women who work closely with my mother, the home health aides and Assisted Living staff who bathe and groom and dress her; the people who greet her each day and serve her meals; the nurses who administer her medications and respond to the small crises that constantly occur.

As I spend time, not only with my mother, but with these professional caregivers, getting to know them and building relationships, I find myself constantly humbled, filled with gratitude and admiration. The three beautiful women who are my mother’s daily companions, women who have worked beside her now for nearly three years, are my heroes, my role models. I watch them with awe, and they teach me lessons my many years of formal education never touched. Through their steady devotion and nonjudgmental attention, they bring me into the world, into my body, into the shared life of everyday—into the Divine.

For, as a child, driven by emotional pain and inspired by unconsciously imbibed patriarchal teachings, I had sought escape from this world into a realm of pure abstraction, of disembodiment. I put my faith in the mind, not the body, and sought to distance myself from the everyday. I excelled in school, convinced that cultivation of the intellect would somehow lead to freedom and joy. When I finally found myself dwelling in arid isolation, I began my long “odyssey with [or is it ‘to’?] the Goddess,” my own quest to re-embody myself and re-imagine the Divine.

My participation in Goddess ritual and Goddess studies have all brought me closer to the experience of embodied divinity I have longed for . . . but it is my mother, and the love that surrounds and emanates from her today—what Carol Christ calls “the great matrix of love” that surrounds us all—that has brought me into my self, into acceptance, peace, and joy.

My Mother’s love—the love we share—is now my primary way of experiencing the Goddess. And at long last I know—and am no longer afraid to say—that I am made in Her image, that we are, in fact, One.

Joyce Zonana is the author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile’s Journey, a memoir about her life growing up in the U.S. as an Egyptian Jewish woman. After participating in Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 1997, she served for a time as Co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.  She is currently a Professor of English at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a regular contributor to Lilith Magazine and Nola Diaspora

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Categories: Embodiment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality

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10 replies

  1. “I put my faith in the mind, not the body, and sought to distance myself from the everyday.” So true for so many of us who pursued “higher” education.The word “higher” says it all!

    ““Good,” she says, “that is good. I want you to be happy.”
    Of course this is what she always wanted, but I could neither accept nor understand the deep love that prompted that desire.”

    My mother always said this too, and as I was often unhappy, I felt this was a criticism of my choices. I felt she was saying: if you had chosen my life, you would have been happy. I actually don’t know if she was thinking that or not.

    Thanks for a beautiful depiction of the way back to our mothers’ love. In rejecting it, we did indeed reject ourselves, for who would we ever have become without someone’s love–usually love from a woman. That doesn’t mean we have to choose our mother’s lives, but it does mean that we should rethink what we did when we rejected our mother’s bodies for the fathers’ minds.

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  2. Thank you for your beautiful article. My own experience was very similar, as my mother’s caretaker for 5 years before she died last year at the age of 97. She also lived in the present moment, beaming love at me unconditionally. I miss so much being able to go see her, bring her flowers, just sit with her.

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  3. I love how your mother wears a flower in her hair, and are you wearing a flower too, just on the opposite side of your head?
    Wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing it here with us.
    So many people grieve about what is lost with dementia, but I think you have described quite courageously the kinds of things that can be gained from dementia. Thank you.

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  4. Such a beautiful post.

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  5. Thanks, Joyce! Warm and wonderful post. Your mom’s way of holding the brush is exactly how Chinese brush painting is taught — the handle straight up, and so gently guided.

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  6. That’s lovely to know. She’s created some beautiful images in the very sweet art class they have every few weeks. Makes me want to take up the brush myself!

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  7. When friends tell me stories of their struggles with parents which in some cases never end, I feel grateful that my relationship with mine was in general less difficult. Even when I did not always agree about something with my mother, I always knew she loved me. And it is very, very clear to me that I owe much of my success and the extremely pleasant and often a bit fascinating life I lead to the values they instilled.

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