A Memory Returns

First in a series.

I’m letting Picture a Conversation cards inspire this ongoing series of essays. Martin captured this image many years ago in California’s Huntington Gardens. 

Some weeks ago, I experienced the healing power of sensory memory. I doubt I have ever put those five words together before, but they capture the truth of a moment when mere touch opened a door to a long-submerged beautiful experience which in turn allowed me reconcile the loving and devastating ways my mother behaved throughout my life.   

I was attending a meditation workshop.  It had been enlightening and challenging. I was in the company of a small group of women whom I hoped found me as deep and delightful as I found them. 

“Before we go on,” our teacher said, “let’s take a moment to close our eyes and breathe. Place your palms on either side of your face. Starting at your scalp, gently let your palms travel down to your temples, then over your cheeks to meet at your chin.  Breathe quietly as you slowly repeat the pattern — open palms, scalp, temples, cheeks, chin.”

Before my palms even met at my chin I was weeping. The mere touch of my hands grazing my face instantly returned my mother to me. We were young. She was looking deeply into my eyes, her own eyes suffused with love for me. Stroking my face she said, “Sheyna velt. My beautiful world. Such a sweet heart-shaped face. My sheyna velt.”  I had completely forgotten these moments which, at one time in my life, were not uncommon.  

She called me chocolate-and-strawberry — chocolate for my dark hair and eyes;  strawberry for my pink cheeks. That she called my face heart-shaped made me feel that I was her Valentine. Yes, breathing quietly I felt her hands on my cheeks, I saw her unusual greenish-yellow eyes gazing into mine. A smile lit her face with love for me. I was indeed her beautiful sweet world.

As some of you know, or have read in a prior essay or two, our sheyna velt turned upside down. As the years went on there was less sheyna and more shouting, less velt and more viciousness that left me spinning in confusion, like a cartoon character whose head is haloed by a jumble of stars, lightning bolts and crazy lines.

But I stayed with the moment, my hands becoming her hands. I saw the arc of her life. A young, felicitous and loving mother whose troubles were yet to surface. An impetuous brilliant woman born in the wrong decade. A still beautiful, still brilliant seventy-something woman who turned down treatment when diagnosed with cancer. She went on to live four more years, years during which she excised me from her life even as she thrived in a new environment, making friends, illustrating publications, giving impromptu piano concerts several times a week. The why no longer matters; I could never answer that one anyway. Now, nearly ten years distant from her first salvo that left me keening in a public parking lot, I realize once again that our strongest lessons evolve from the greatest pain.

There are many spiritual understandings of the forces of opposition that inhabit us all. Jewish tradition teaches we are born with a pure soul that resides with us until the end. Equally embedded within us are twin urges — the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-rah — the inclination to do good and the inclination to do evil. It is up to us to hear the voice of the yetzer ha-tov over the cacophony of the yetzer ha-ra.

Native American tradition has a similar perspective. A Cherokee grandfather tells his grandson about the two wolves warring within all humanity. One is suffused with a grocery list of destructive traits — anger, envy, greed, resentment, falsehood, ego. The other’s list is just as long but contains qualities of peace, kindness, love, compassion, courage, faith. 

“Which wolf will win?” the grandson asks.

“The one you feed.” answers the grandfather.

I had always known my mother loved me. She delighted in me. She was proud of me and my professional accomplishments. Those early years of love came easily and joyously when I had my own sheynas velt. As my mother did before me, I would cover them in kisses. “Look!” I would call out. “Look at the beautiful world God gave us. See the newborn green of spring leaves? Look! A lady bug! A lightning bug! An ant, carrying such a heavy burden!”

What I couldn’t know then was what a heavy burden my mother was carrying. At the end, her yetzer ha-ra won. The wolf she fed, consciously or not for much of her life, ultimately devoured her. I struggled to reconcile these two mothers. How can someone who could stroke my face so lovingly, slap me from her life? Why couldn’t I summon the mother of my early years when her yetzer ha-tov was still in the lead?

My own hands brought the answer, allowing light to shine through the darkness. Intellectual memory can only take us so far.  I needed sensory memory to break open my heart and return my mother to me. To allow me to feel with my very skin what I knew I had been given, only to have seemingly lost it.

It has been many weeks since those strokes of revelation. Perhaps we have wolves of memory as well. The wolf of good memory has emerged from the thicket. It is becoming easier and easier to feed her.


Picture a Conversation makes a unique birthday, shower or engagement gift. Are you corporate? Each card  is a great ice breaker for your next off-site. Are you family? Begin a new dinner tradition. Picture a Conversation will transform your mealtime together.  Keep the conversation going. I would deeply appreciate your sharing this essay on your social media sites.  Order here

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15 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Chaya Mueller Bronstein says:

    Wow, how beautiful and touching! I can feel it!

  2. Ginger says:

    Thank you for sharing your inspired writing. ♡

  3. Beth Brown Ornstein says:

    So happy for you!

  4. Linda Trammell says:

    Such elegant emotional writing. Thank you for putting words to your personal experience, and opening and helping heal my heart with your authenticity and vulnerability. It seems, as one heals, we all heal. You’re such a blessing. Thank you dear one.

    • OH Linda,

      Thank you. I am deeply touched that the essay has been of help and
      support. There is so much to puzzle out. Thank you for letting me
      know that my words have been helpful.


  5. Tasha Gavan says:

    My heart echoes with the struggle you faced, as it is my own journey as well. Blessings to you for articulating the path so very well…heart breaking and heart nourishing all in the same lifetime. Gorgeous reminder to feed the right wolf!!!

    • Hi Tasha,
      I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by how many women wrote similar sentiments.
      The mother/daughter relationship is so complex. Where to they stop and we begin?
      How do we make sense of it all?
      Thank you so much for reading and responding.


  6. Dee Wind says:

    Dear Debra,

    Your essay has touched me so deeply. You write beautifully. Thanks for all the sharing that you do so well and so deeply.



  7. Alvina Wandres says:

    Thank you, Debra, for your beautiful and at the same time sad essay. It touches my heart and I can really feel you.
    All my love to you ❤️

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