Text size

She's a master of the short story on the telephone, my mother. This genre, which has not yet been researched by any literature department of any university, has its own rules: The plot will almost always deal with illnesses, her illnesses or Dad's, and those of the near and distant family. These illnesses always occur, according to the rules of the genre, on the days when I didn't bother to call them. It was then that she was afflicted with the pains in the legs and in the stomach - and, oh, Dad's back pains!

According to the unbending rules of the genre, the conversation ends with the announcement that chocolate cookies await me in case I should decide to visit, and the bourekas from the Turkish place in the Carmel Market, the one who had a worker from Turkey, who used to make them Turkish coffee the way they like it, until one day the Turkish worker disappeared because he didn't have papers - but that's already a secondary story, which is woven into the plot of the main story, which is always the story of the refusal of the son (me) to interest himself in the fate of his parents more frequently.

For example, my mother tripped on the corner of the carpet in the dining area. She lay on the floor like that for a quarter of an hour. There was no one there to help them. Dad pushed a chair over to where the was and held it fast so that she could hold onto it and get up. By the time I came to visit, she was almost fine. The chocolate cookies smiled at me from the white tins. I told her that I had to write about her for the paper and together we tried to come up with an interesting subject.

We perused the photos in her album from when she was young. My mother was born in Istanbul. Her family lived in a neat suburb on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus. She spoke French with her parents, attended an English kindergarten and studied Turkish in school. In 1936, when she was 12, she went with her mother to Berlin to visit uncles who had businesses there and had been forced to liquidate them and waste the money quickly because there was no way to get it out of Germany. Her mother bought fur coats. My mother got short pants and she was photographed wearing them on the banks of Glienicke Lake in western Berlin, where the family rented a vacation cottage. Uncle Raphael took her to the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics and she saw Hitler from a distance.

My mother studied medicine at the University of Istanbul and after immigrating to this country, she was a family doctor in the Kupat Holim Clalit health maintenance organization, initially in kibbutzim of the western Negev and the settlements along the "hunger road," and afterward in Jaffa, and from the end of the 1950s, in Katowitz Clinic on Kehillat Katowitz Street in Tel Aviv - a small street that runs down to the Yarkon River, which was also the site of Yavneh Elementary School.

I attended the school in second and third grade, sometimes in the second shift in the afternoon. We were a "mobile class," as classes that didn't have a permanent classroom were called. We were transferred there from Ahavat Tzion School on Pinkas Street, and we used the classrooms whose regular students were in gym class or carpentry. I didn't mind at all wandering, because in the entire territory between Pinkas Street and the Yarkon, and from Jamussin neighborhood to Tiger Hill and Alexander Yanai Street, I was known as Dr. Ziffer's son - at the barber and in the grocery store, in Rasler's kiosk on Stricker Street, and even by the driver of the No. 5 bus, which we took together, Mother and I, she bound for the clinic and I for school, and the school nurse, who skipped over me in the periodic examination for fleas, declaring that there was no need to check the scalp of "the doctor's son."

When I began to miss Mother more urgently, I would walk out of the schoolyard and go to the second floor of the clinic. My private entrance was through the nurses' room. I passed people with their rear ends exposed, waiting for an injection, and knocked twice on Mother's door. "Right away," she would say, and open the door.

In her gleaming white robe, with a stethoscope around her neck, she was a different woman, not in the least my mother from home, enveloped in an intoxicating scent of the drugstore and of vanquished death. Oh, Mother, my liberator from gym class. And you, dear notes to the teacher, bearing a Hebrew sentence along the lines of: "The student Binyamin Ziffer has come down with an attack of ...," and her hand would shift to Latin, from the right to the left, to fill in the name of the saving illness, spastic bronchitis, the key to happiness.

Mother closed the photo album and said that what had always connected us was in fact illnesses. I was one of the first to receive cortisone treatments for asthma. The drug was still banned in the country. We went to a private physician who gave me two shots of cortisone that had been imported from Switzerland. In the midst of the treatment, the army discovered that the doctor had given out false certificates of sickness to soldiers, and he had to flee the country. Afterward I contracted hepatitis. Mother took me to Dr. Shapira from Hasharon Hospital in Petah Tikva. After the first visit we found out that he had been murdered by a former patient. He was walking down the street, and the patient ran him over on the sidewalk.

My mother also had no shortage of enemies. One of her patients, a Mizrahi - a Jew of Middle Eastern descent - claimed that my mother had discriminated against her son by refusing time and again to give him notes to be released from school. Mother received a letter of reprimand and was summoned for a clarification to the secretary-general of the Histadrut labor federation, the owner of the HMO - at the time, Comrade Becker. On the appointed day she went to Histadrut headquarters. Comrade Becker did not show up. Someone else would have been bitter. Not my mother, who to this day is an ardent supporter of the Histadrut and a party member. When I hear predictions about the disintegration of the Labor Party, I tell myself that as long as my mother is here, socialism shall prevail in the world.

Occasionally I still meet people who tell me that they were patients of my mother. Others remember her as a young girl, in shorts, driving with Father in a Kupat Holim Jeep on the roads of the Negev. Everyone agrees that she was an excellent physician and also a "mentsch." And I nod my head, because who knows better than I that the doctor in the white robe who safeguarded my childhood was simply forbidden to abandon her duties and become sick herself. Otherwise, what would become of me, and who would call out "Right away" and open the secret door to the world of scents of the drugstore and death, out of which, we know, all the stories in the world are made.

Benny Ziffer is the editor of the Culture and Literature section in Friday's Haaretz (Hebrew edition) and writes a column on television.