I Thought I'd Given My Mom A Good Eulogy. Years Later, A Phone Call Made Me Question Everything.

The author as a baby with her mother
The author as a baby with her mother Courtesy of Alyson Pomerantz

The most biting piece of writing criticism I ever received came from my little sister. She’d been packing up her apartment in New York City when she discovered a copy of the eulogy I’d given for my mother 11 years earlier, when I was 25.

She called me, flustered. It was 2013 and I’d recently given up my career as a corporate lawyer to attend graduate school for creative writing. In my new life, classmates and I crowded around a worn, wooden table, avoiding eye contact while giving feedback on one another’s stories. Because of this, I should have been prepared for whatever my sister had to say. But I wasn’t.

“You made Mom sound like a crazy person,” my sister told me.

I struggled to process her words. My beloved mother? Who I looked up to more than anyone?

While I couldn’t remember exactly what I said in the eulogy, I could still hear the mourners’ reactions as they streamed out of the synagogue.

“You really captured your mother,” one of her colleagues told me.

“You were so funny,” said a family friend.

These recollections made my sister’s criticism these years later all the more confusing.

My mother’s eulogy was the first one I’d ever written, and I didn’t have much time to prepare because Jewish funerals are held within 24 hours of death. In my childhood bedroom, still covered in the purple wallpaper I’d once begged my mother to buy for me, I had called up a life’s worth of details.

My mother had two master’s degrees. She added the syllable “er” to words like soda and took it off words like drawer, a product of her Bronx upbringing. She had received her first cancer diagnosis at 26, a second at 33 and a third at 50.

The list went on: She wore Uggs before they were cool. She loved bread with olive oil and anchovies on pizza and the texture of banana taffy. On weekdays, she’d always be up for a 6 a.m. spin class before work. I knew so many things about her, but as I started to put pen to paper, all of them seemed so mundane. Who cared that she liked sheepskin boots or chewy candy or stationary bikes?

I panicked. Normally, in an instance like that, I would have turned to my mother for help. She was my Google before Google — my personal Dear Abby. But, obviously, that was not possible.

If I had consulted with my rabbi, I might have learned that the earliest mention of a eulogy in a Jewish text appears in Genesis, when Abraham delivers a hesped for his beloved Sarah. The Torah doesn’t specify his words, but some believe he wrote the “Woman of Valor” lines in the Book of Proverbs about her.

In a translation of the prayer, the speaker describes a woman who truly excels as a human. She is industrious, strong, wise and so much more. “Woman of Valor” teaches us that we should honor the deceased with positive words. The Shulchan Aruch, the most widely accepted code of Jewish law, elaborates on this: “It is an important religious duty to lament the dead fittingly.” 

Without this wisdom, I took a different approach. Closing my eyes, I tried to picture myself with my mother. A few memories came to mind almost instantly. These were the stories I’d told and retold over the years because I believed they most exemplified our relationship.

The author (left) and her sister on her sister's wedding day.
The author (left) and her sister on her sister's wedding day. Photo by Jacqueline Schlossman

Apparently it was these stories — the backbone of my eulogy —that gave my sister pause when she re-read it all those years later.

“You started with Leo,” she reminded me over the phone.

Leo was a boy whom I’d dated for two weeks in seventh grade before he dumped me in the cafeteria. By eighth grade, I’d recovered from the embarrassment, and we became friends. Then I found out that he didn’t invite me to a party at his house. I was devastated.

I shared my disappointment with my mother. She was convinced that it had to be an oversight. In her typical take-charge manner, she suggested we clear up the misunderstanding by dropping by his house after school.

“What was so bad about that?” I asked my sister.

“A 40-year-old woman is so desperate to get her teenage daughter invited to a boy’s party that she drives to his house to confront him?” my sister said, condescension dripping from her voice.

A line of sweat formed on my upper lip.

“You make it sound worse than it was,” I replied, though as I said the words, I suddenly wasn’t so sure.

“He still didn’t invite you! How much worse could it have been?”

“It’s just one anecdote,” I said, my heart rate rising.

“Then you told the story about the time in college when Mom marched you down to the academic advising office — ”

“Maybe I took some creative license when I described it as a march,” I said, cutting my sister off.

I sat down on the couch because I felt a little light-headed, not unlike how I felt during the episode in question, which took place on a sweltering late-summer day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Once I’d been accepted to college, my mother read all the materials I’d been sent, which included a description of the honors program I hadn’t been invited to join. My mother insisted we talk to a university administrator. As usual, I went along with her plan.

Without batting an eyelash, the administrator lobbed me a series of questions.

“Were you valedictorian?”

I shook my head no.

“Get over a 1500 on your SATs?”

Another head shake.

“All fives on your AP exams?”

By then, I was ready to crawl back out of the building, but my mother shrugged it off.

“She just wanted what was best for me,” I said to my sister, but mostly to myself.

"Here I am rocking a perm, with my mother, at a Bat Mitzvah," the author writes. <span class="copyright">Courtesy of Alyson Pomerantz</span>
"Here I am rocking a perm, with my mother, at a Bat Mitzvah," the author writes. Courtesy of Alyson Pomerantz

Even as I justified my mother’s behavior, I could see what my sister was getting at. In telling these stories, I had inadvertently highlighted some of her less attractive qualities: She could be pushy and overprotective, and ignorant of the pain she might have caused while trying to defend me.

Was my sister right? Had I given my mother more of a roast than a toast?

If so, I wasn’t alone.

Search “worst eulogies of all time” on the internet and one result is the speeches Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr. Trump gave at their mother Ivana’s funeral. When I read the quotes, I was especially drawn to Don Jr.’s. He described his mother’s behavior as “emasculating” and revealed how she showed him “what Eastern European discipline was really all about.”

While Don Jr.’s tone is wry, these anecdotes certainly don’t exactly paint Ivana in the best light. On X (then Twitter), someone called the excerpts the “darkest thing” they had ever read. Others talked about how traumatized the kids must be.

I’m normally not one to defend the Trump family, but I felt sympathy for Don Jr. when I read many of the reactions to his eulogy — especially after I saw his Instagram post about how much he will miss his mom. Perhaps Don Jr. used humor as a shield for memories that were likely painful or, at the very least, represented complicated aspects of his relationship with his mother. Maybe his words revealed more than he had intended. Did mine do the same?

I had always told myself that my relationship with my mother was perfect. She fed into this idealization, once confiding in my aunt that she made me “in her image.” We were not a family that normally went around citing the Torah, so she might have been kidding. But I was her first born — the child who couldn’t wait to grow up and have a closet full of business suits, just like her. At the heart of our relationship was an understanding: I would do my best to live up to the example she set for me, and she would do her best to protect me. But the way she tried to do that could be complicated, as illustrated by the anecdotes I shared.

And one I didn’t share.

A few years before my mother’s death, when I was a senior in college, I started dating a woman for the first time. Despite our closeness, I kept this from my mother, in part because I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t sure that I was a lesbian, or even bisexual. But perhaps the real reason I didn’t say anything was that I feared her reaction.

Though my mother been supportive of a male friend of mine who had come out in high school, I sensed what her expectations were for me, the child who dwelled in her image. During our phone calls, she might ask about a Jewish boy I’d befriended at the campus Hillel. She combed The New York Times’ wedding announcements for clues about how she might get me my very own blurb one day. She joked about sewing a piece of my baby blanket into my wedding dress. A daughter-in-law was clearly not part of this fantasy.

Eventually I told her about the relationship, but only after it was over — more of a coming clean than a coming out. Her reaction was disapproving, nonetheless. Instead of speaking to the version of me that was on the other end of the phone — a confused and afraid 21-year-old — my mother addressed a future version of me.

“If you live your life with a woman,” she said, her tone chilly and distant, “it will be so much harder.”

The author (age 20) and her mother on a trip to England
The author (age 20) and her mother on a trip to England Courtesy of Alyson Pomerantz

I believe, on some level, she was trying to protect me. This was the mid-90s, and less than a third of Americans supported marriage equality. President Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act. After Ellen DeGeneres came out on her own primetime sitcom, companies pulled their advertising and a year later her show was canceled.

Despite all of this, I was still hurt by my mother’s reaction. But I didn’t confront her about it. I can’t say why, but I suspect I was afraid to alienate her further. I wanted to remain in her image.

When I moved closer to home for law school, I mostly dated men and didn’t discuss my occasional visits to a lesbian bar in the West Village. Then, just a year after I finished law school, she died, before we ever got the chance to revisit our conversation.

It wasn’t until years after her death that I started dating women again and came out to my family. Throughout that process, I uncovered a lot of anger that I had toward my mother about how she reacted to my initial confession.

I also began to see how I had internalized her fears and, at times, confused her expectations with my own. With her gone, I learned who I was apart from her. It wasn’t always an easy journey. There were career missteps, failed relationships and many moments of wishing she was still there to guide me. But I started to find my own way and eventually married a woman and started a family of my own.

I now see the eulogy as a key point in this personal trajectory. Both writing it and reflecting on it many years later, in part because of my sister’s criticism, gave me the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamic my mother and I shared — and also myself as my own person.

And yet, I can’t escape the fact that I gave my mom a pretty poor send-off. In addition to my speech being unflattering, I now realized the stories I picked were more about me than her. Some eulogy.

What would I say now if I could do it over? Like the exemplary woman honored in the Book of Proverbs, my mother led her life with notable strength and determination. She survived cancer twice and went back to school while raising three kids, including my brother, who has Down Syndrome and struggled with a cancer diagnosis of his own. She worked her way up to become the head of an inpatient psychiatric unit and was active in many local nonprofits. One of the last things she did before she died was help establish a small group home for my brother in our community so he could live his adulthood with some independence from our family. She made so many things look easy, whether offering therapy, creating a beautiful home, or finding that perfect shirt on a Loehmann’s discount rack. A woman of valor, indeed.

It turns out she was also an accomplished eulogist. I recently found a printed copy of the remarks she gave for her own mother. In them, she describes my grandmother’s volunteer work at a free dental clinic on the Lower East Side and the many sacrifices my grandmother made over the years for family and friends. She captures my grandmother’s spirit — her dark sense of humor and her can-do attitude.

There is one moment where my mother’s all-praising voice falters. She describes the broken hip that precipitated my grandmother’s death. I remember that summer well. We all expected my grandmother to recover, but she didn’t. My mother often came home from the hospital in tears, frustrated by my grandmother’s lack of progress. In the eulogy, my mother frames this as my grandmother’s choice. For years, my grandmother chastised my mother for not visiting enough, not calling enough, not loving enough. Now it was my grandmother’s turn to disappoint her daughter by not fighting hard enough to live.

This moment — where my mother’s consternation seeps out — comforts me. It reminds me that I wasn’t the only one who brought my hurt into a situation intended to celebrate another’s strengths. It also made me realize that while my issues with my mother were specific to us, many others have also struggled with their relationship with a parent. And haven’t most of us carried some of that struggle into our adulthoods? Where do we hide these hurts? And when do they slip out?

The author, age 10, with her mother in their backyard.
The author, age 10, with her mother in their backyard. "This is my favorite photo of us together," she writes. Courtesy of Alyson Pomerantz

I don’t think that I intentionally chose to make my mother look bad in my eulogy. As I searched for the right words to talk about who she was, perhaps I was facing the uncomfortable fact that she never did the same for me. And now, never would.

While I might not be my mother’s carbon copy, as she had once believed, this is one place where our images certainly and squarely overlapped: We both shared an inability to truly see each other separate from one another.

In the final words of my eulogy, I remember addressing my mother directly. “I love you, Mom,” I said, crying at “Mom” — a word that had taken up so much space in my life and now would have new meaning without her.

I might have botched the eulogy, but no one could mistake my emotion: I loved my mother very much. And while our love for each other couldn’t completely bridge our differences, I hold onto the thought that had my mother lived, this love would have enabled us to work through our issues.

Unlike a eulogy, a relationship does not exist at a fixed moment in time. The story of my mother and me continues to write itself in my head. In my imagination, there is always room for a do-over.

Alyson Pomerantz writes memoir and screenplays, mostly while commuting by train to New York City. She is at work on a memoir about understanding her sexuality and finding love in her 20s and 30s after the death of her mother.

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