MY MOTHER died a year ago on Sunday. Although I was there, stroking her arm as she uttered her final breaths, I still hoped, when the doctor came in, that she would say we were mistaken, that my mother — the centre of our family and the wisest person I shall ever know — was still with us. She wasn’t.
2016 was a terrible year. It was the year of Brexit, Trump and rising antisemitism. So for that year to be the worst year in my life too, was the biggest kind of irony.
If you’re lucky, like me, then your mother will be the person who loves you no matter what. You can say and do all sorts of stupid things, whether it’s losing your temper or getting lost in Brent Cross, but it won’t change her feelings about you. Even when I did something I knew my mum disapproved of — returning early from studying in America or leaving a good job at the BBC — I never doubted that she would support me.
Growing up, my mother was the mum all my friends wanted. She was wise, kind and endlessly patient, but also fun, doing all those things mums were supposed to do — from baking to days out.
She was always welcoming to our friends, never put pressure on us at school and had a gift for friendship which meant she and my father were always busy — and yet still had time for us. She was very empathetic and also fiercely intelligent (the first in her family to go to university), a true intellectual who loved to read. I have treasured memories of Shabbat afternoons, with the two of us lying on the sofas in the living room, just reading quietly, together.
I knew, of course, how wonderful she was before she died, but I — and my family — were still overwhelmed by the number of people who told us afterwards, in person, or by countless letters or emails, how she had changed their lives. The Ebner family in 1972. Sarah is the youngest. Below, with her mother, Ann They said she was the reason they could read (my mother, initially a teacher, later became an expert in adult literacy), why they successfully changed career, became a magistrate (she was one herself, with an expertise in family matters) or went to university. Ann Ebner was a quiet but hugely effective leader, totally without arrogance, but with a presence you couldn’t miss. She also had the most glorious voice (I still can’t believe I won’t ever hear it again) and even the most perfectly beautiful, clear writing.
My mother was also hugely organised. She knew she was ill, and so she prepared to die. It sounds morbid, but it wasn’t. It meant there was little left unsaid, and much, much less to worry about when the worst day happened.
I had discussed with her which rabbi she wanted for her funeral and what would happen if he was busy or away. She wanted all the family’s rabbis to take the service on different days of the shiva, and they did — from her own United Synagogue and that of her sister, my Masorti rabbi and my brother’s from Reform. We were a family and she respected all of our views throughout her life and even afterwards
We also discussed the kind of things that might come up in her eulogy. We chatted about her life and what was important to her. And although she was so intelligent and talented — a scholarship to North London Collegiate School was followed by early entry to Cambridge — she wanted at least an equal emphasis on the fact that she grew up happily as a child of the Edgware community (where her father, Simon Domb, was a founding member) and that being part of a loving Jewish family, both as a child and later a mother, was extremely important to her.
She wrote letters to us over a year before she died, and I read and re- read mine after she was gone. But then I had to put it away because it made me crease up with pain and tears. I could hear her voice and I wanted to, but just couldn’t on a regular basis.
She wrote to her seven grandchildren too. Or she meant to. Even my supremely organised mother didn’t manage to finish all those letters, but my son (who is the youngest and missed out) knows she loved him. It was clear throughout the time they spent together.
So much has happened since my mother died. One nephew had his barmitzvah, my son started secondary school and one of my nieces just got an offer from Cambridge. How could Mum not be here to enjoy all that My wonderful father has enjoyed it all instead.
Last year I understood a truth — that your life changes when you lose a parent. I joined a club which I knew I would have to belong to in time, but hoped not to. A year is a long time not to speak to your mum. What of two or 10 or 20?
The Jewish customs helped. Of course they did. From the shiva — which I found extremely comforting — to saying kaddish, and the tombstone setting, all of it seemed emotionally intelligent. But of course it can’t fill the void. And I felt nervous about the ending of the regular repetition of kaddish, as if stopping it means she isn’t being properly remembered any more.
As time goes by, although it gets easier on one level, it gets harder on another. As the year ends I feel as if Mum could be forgotten, as if saying “my mother died last year” somehow makes it sound less important than her dying this year. I feel people will expect me to move on. That they might not expect me to get upset (which I do, but not publicly).
I know my father misses her the most — after all, he lived with her. But I miss my mum all the time, especially on Fridays. If the phone rings then, at around 5pm, my heart still skips a beat and a huge part of me hopes it will be her, calling for a quick chat while cooking Shabbat dinner. In reality I know that she is gone, but I am forever grateful for the absolute, utter love that she gave me. I couldn’t have wished for more.