My mother, Marilyn Oguss Prever, 1942-2021

My mother had wonderful hair, Jewish girl’s hair, thick and dark and wavy. She wore it up sometimes, but mostly I remember it down, tied back with a kerchief as she worked. Our favorite kerchief was a black triangle embroidered with gold thread that I believe she got in Israel. Sometimes she would wear her hair in braids.

When she got old, her hair turned bright glossy silver, like milkweed fluff at the crown. She always said it looked silly for old women to have long hair; that it made them look witchy. But my father preferred it long, so she usually let it grow. Her hair was the only part that still looked like her when I went to view her body yesterday. Her hair is in two long braids, and we told them to leave it that way. She looked so fragile, I was afraid it would fall off her scalp if anyone touched it.

If you had any doubts that death is final, you should go see my mother. She is on a gurney, lying like a mannequin under someone’s blanket, with ludicrously luxe maroon drapery as a backdrop behind her. There is a light-up cross mounted above, and she’s absolutely refusing to bathe in its cafeteria glow. Her mouth is all wrong, wronger than it was when I saw her strapped into a wheelchair padded with velcro so she wouldn’t scratch herself to bits. But her hands were worse than witchy. They are waxy and useless, twisted up past all repair. Hands of no return. 

I’d seen my mother looking tired so many times before. This was the other side of tired: Gone. Utterly exhausted, as in used up, empty, finished. I don’t know anyone else who used up so much of her life. 

No one tried harder than my mother to be all things to all people. A shy and bashful person who always let people in: Linda, the gravely disabled epileptic neighbor with a seamed and smiling doll face, who used to come visiting for hours at a time, telling endless stories of her childhood. Boisterous college students with nowhere else to go over Thanksgiving break. Random seminarians who showed up at our house thinking it was a book store. She let them browse and gave them three bean salad for lunch. She was an absolute magnet for strange and lost people, and although the last thing she wanted was company, she always let them come. The real trial for her was ordinary, savvy people who knew how to act and dress and what to say.

What she really wanted to do was pray on the dark back stairs with her icons, and read about evolution and quantum physics. She had a trick of reading so deeply that her tongue would come wandering out of her mouth and stretch further and further down her chin the harder she concentrated, which made us laugh and laugh until we broke her focus, and she looked up, confused and annoyed. “It’s always open season on Ima,” she would growl. But then she would read to us, endlessly, tirelessly, everything that she thought was good enough to belong in our heads, doing funny voices when it was called for. And at night, she saw visions: Glowing, wheeling fractals and gears. Which was migraines, no doubt, but also my mother’s brain beholding the cosmos from her bed. 

Her other great desire was to hold the baby — any baby. She told me she had taken a personality test as a teenager, and the results said she was best suited to be a housewife and mother. Everyone who knew her laughed at this absurdity. She, Marilyn Susan Oguss, “Marxie-Suxie-Oxie” of Brooklyn, was the one who climbed telephone poles and dared her friends to touch the various wires. She met my father when they were both cutting class in college, and she was the one who painted a bright mural of Shiva on their apartment wall (a Shiva they tried and tried to paint over when they moved out, making way for a newly impoverished family. My mother felt so bad when the goddess kept coming through).

I just found out my mother (who carefully measured out a juice glass of supermarket wine every afternoon, for a treat) used to love LSD. Her brain was already a fairly psychedelic place, and you could not keep up with her. She could only really connect with very simple or very complex people, but everyday people were a mystery to her. This is why, when we talked, it was mostly about babies.

She did end up a housewife, as well as a writer, and a pioneer homeschooler, and she had eight children who lived, and five more who did not. I once heard my mother say to my father, “I used to be afraid of you,” and he said, “Yeah, now I’m afraid of you,” and they both laughed. 

What is there to say. We loved her, and she loved us. My mother and I didn’t understand each other very well. I used to think I disappointed her, but finally caught on that she was afraid for me, which is different. She was glad to see me having children of my own, and she read to them, too, tirelessly, with funny voices.

When her mind started to go, she had to abandon her intricate system of calendars, lists, and reminders, and my father started making lists for her: Get dressed. Drink coffee. I found one that said at the end, “I still love you.” I hated her dementia, her mind blasted and her affectionate heart so fretful and wandering, and now that is done. I feel like I’ve already done the hard part of grieving while she lived, but we will see.

The funeral home director told me that he’d been to the nursing home, and those people didn’t seem to have much quality of life. But for the last two years of my father’s life, my mother sat in her wheelchair and prepared him to die, and by the time he died, he saw life as a gift. Then he died and stopped coming to see her and feed her. I imagine her saying, “Abba should have been here by now. I’m gonna go see if I can find him.” So she went.

This is all wrong. I haven’t told you how funny she was, what a ham she was when she was comfortable, how much she laughed, and how hard she laughed when she got going. One time, she met the president of a college, and, having just been at a science museum, she said, “Have you ever seen Archimedes’ Screw? Oh no, that’s a terrible thing to say!” and then laughed until she cried. She loved science, loved astronomy, loved poetry. Loved the Marx Brothers. Loved Jesus. Loved to slosh cheap salsa on leftovers and gobble it up for lunch. Hated bullshit of every kind.  

She used to say that, when she died, we should put her in a garbage bag and throw her in the woods, but she changed her mind about that. She was always ready to accept that she had been wrong. 

I went to see her yesterday, and she was well and truly gone. Even her mouth was wrong. They laid her out under the glowing cross with a brown stuffed dog at her feet. She hated stuffed animals. They collected dust, which aggravated her allergies. I suppose this dog was in bed with her at the nursing home, and the men who collected her body weren’t taking any chances about what was important and what wasn’t; so the dog came with her. We told them to get rid of the dog, but to leave her hair just as it was. She always had wonderful hair. 

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50 thoughts on “My mother, Marilyn Oguss Prever, 1942-2021”

  1. Just astounding. And beautiful.

    I am new to your blog and had just (for some reason) listened to the podcast with your father about the Six Days War. And then this.

    Just astounding. And beautiful. And touching.

  2. Simcha, I follow your site avidly.
    My deepest condolences; you’ve been through hell, with the loss of your parents. May their memory be a blessing forever!

  3. Eternal rest, the Light of the Holy Face of Jesus shine on her and on your father.

    Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
    which He has created according to His will.

    May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
    and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
    and say, Amen.

    May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.

    Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
    adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
    beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
    are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

    May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
    and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

    He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
    may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
    and say, Amen.

  4. I saw the title of the post and remembered that not too long ago you told us of the loss of your father. I am so sorry that your mother has now passed. May God bring her through purgatory into heaven and bring all of you consolation and much grace. Your family, including your mother’s soul, will be in my prayers.

  5. I was wondering a few days ago how your mother was doing… then saw this today. A lovely tribute. My prayers to you, your siblings and your family. My father is struggling with dementia and it has helped to read your perspective on it.

  6. My father died of early-onset Alzheimer’s. I wasn’t present when he died, and I remember being reluctant to see his body, standing next to the coffin looking down. And it was as if something tight and imprisoned inside me suddenly broke free, because he wasn’t there! That was his body, but he just wasn’t there. He was gone. He didn’t need anything ever again from me or anyone or anything on this earth. He had gone to where all needs are fulfilled. I think I actually felt happy.

    And I did find that I had already done a great deal of my grieving. It was a lot harder for my siblings who lived far away and had not been able to spend as much time with him.

  7. Your mother loves you still!

    May she enjoy her eternal reward!

    I know she will be loving you perfectly now and praying for you always

  8. I’m so sorry Simcha. What a bright Mom you had. No wonder you have such a way with words.
    God bless all of you and keep you in his heart right now.

    My Dad reached out to me in little ways after he died to let me know he was at peace. It helped.

  9. So sorry, Simcha. I’ve always remembered that essay about your mother’s dementia revealing a cultivated love. Prayers for you and your family.

  10. Oh Herr, gib ihr die ewige Ruhe. Und das ewige Licht leuchte ihr. Herr lass sie ruhen in Frieden. Amen
    With my deepest sympathy.

  11. How very hard it is to explain a person in words. Thank you for trying. It was a joy and a sorrow to read about her. Prayers from WA state.

  12. Your Mother sounds absolutely amazing. Such a unique person in this world and obviously loved by many. I would have loved knowing her. I know this is a loss that will take time. My Mom also died of Alzheimers after years of suffering with it. When we were with her the day before the night she died she actually mouthed the Twenty-third Psalm with us. May the good times of your Mother’s memory and God’s peace stay with you .

  13. I’m so sorry Simcha. You’ve been through a lot in the past few years. That photo of your mother is beautiful, as is your tribute that you shared with us.

  14. Simcha, I’m so very sorry to read of your mother’s death. This has been such a very, very hard year for your family. I send love to you all, and offer prayers for you all, and for the repose of your dear mother’s soul. Rest eternal.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss, both over the last few years as your mother’s dementia worsened and now at her passing. You have such a gift with words — thank you for sharing your mother with us. I’ll be praying for you and your family.

  15. How very lovely. Thank you for painting this beautiful picture of your mother. I will remember her, and your family in my prayers.

    Rest eternal grant unto Ima, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

  16. This is so beautiful, and you are too. It sounds like your mom was the same, beautiful woman, beautiful reader, beautiful writer. May she Rest In Peace 💜

  17. Such a courageous jumble of grief… I lost my mother not long ago as well. After a while I found myself healing and changing in a new way… I wish you peace through all of this.

  18. This is a beautiful tribute, Simcha. How fortunate you were to have this wonderful woman in your life. Your mother will be in my prayers.

  19. Beautiful, moving, and real. Thank you for sharing her (and the facets of you reflecting on her) with such openness. Praying for her and all of you who love her.

  20. What a beautiful picture. So very sorry for your loss. Prayers for your Mom’s soul and for you. What a touching tribute to her!

    1. I have kept this on my iPad to read every once in a while. I just emailed it to myself so I can read it over and over.

      I am so sorry that your Momma has died.

      I am your fan.

    1. Rest in peace, wonderful and complex woman gone.

      Prayers for you and your family, Simcha. However grief comes, let it come. <3

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