Fortune Teller

Whenever I open a fortune cookie, I seem to find my dead mother’s words of wisdom

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Sarah with her late mother. Top center, the heart hanging from the rearview mirror inside a Jerusalem taxicab.

My dead mother communicates with me through fortune cookies.

It sounds insane, I know. But really, she does.

First, you have to understand something about my mother. She was a woman of kavanah, Hebrew for “intention.” All of her actions, from choosing where to plant her pink roses at the start of spring to how she’d embrace the flickering light of the Sabbath candles, were purposeful.

And in the end, she chose how she would die. At home on an unusually sunny day in the middle of January, while she looked at the pink roses blooming outside her bedroom window.

Before she was too sick to get out of bed, she sat down at her desk. She sipped her cup of instant coffee in the ceramic mug I made at summer camp, smoked a cigarette (hey, she was a goner, anyway), opened her desk, and pulled out her favorite notepad — the one with the giraffes in the bottom corner that I had given her for Mother’s Day.

“Putting the ‘Fun’ in Funeral,” she wrote with a shaky hand, as she listed all the things that she wanted at her funeral service. The music (Bob Dylan and Bach), the speakers (my dad, her writing partner, me), and the food (Roll ’n Rye Deli — “extra chopped liver for your grandfather,” she wrote. “Or else he’ll be really depressed. And make sure you get lots and lots and lots of wine.”)

“Dear one,” she said in her reedy voice just before she died. “Remember no matter what, you are loved.” I squeezed her hand, and felt her pulse twang with purpose through her veins.

“Don’t be scared, dear one,” she continued, “Death is only the next big adventure.”

But I was more than scared, I was freaking terrified because my mother was my Due North. I was 23 years old, stumbling through college, unsure of myself, and I needed my mother to guide me through that murky space between adolescence and adulthood.

She could feel my hand shaking in hers. “Don’t be scared, dear one,” she said again, her voice soft but strong. “Even when I’m gone, I’ll still be with you.”

And I believed her. So, a few days after she died, I started looking for signs. Waiting for a breath of wind on my neck. Hoping to catch a whiff of her patchouli fragrance and cigarettes in an empty room. Anything.

Nothing.

“But mom, you promised,” I sobbed one afternoon when I was back at university. “You. Promised!”

I fell asleep crying, falling hard and fast into a wobbly dream, in which we all sat around the Shabbat dinner table as we had a thousand times. She whispered a blessing on my head, the way her mother and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother before had murmured to their daughters. In the glow of the candles, the message illuminated: You are loved.

When I woke up, sledged with sticky tears and smeared mascara, I saw it: Lying next to me on the pillow was a small strip of paper — the kind you unfold when you crack open a fortune cookie — with the words “You are Loved” written on it in small red typeset.

I hadn’t eaten Chinese food in weeks, and I didn’t remember seeing this particular message the last time I did. And even if I had cracked open a cookie to discover “You are Loved,” what the hell was it doing on my pillow when it hadn’t been there hours earlier?

I got out of bed and checked the door to the studio apartment: locked. I looked in the bathroom: empty The kitchen: clear. Crouched down, I checked under the bed: No monsters there.

Only the “plink plink plink” of the faucet dripping in the bathroom played with the stillness in the apartment.

All horror movies have this sound right before someone gets gutted.

“Plink plink plink.”

But then, just as I was thinking seriously about calling the police, a ray of light pierced the window and illuminated the fortune nestled on the pillow. And in my mind, I heard the words spoken clearly in my mom’s voice “You are Loved.” Slowly, I picked up the fortune again and whispered the words aloud “You are Loved.” I said it again, with more conviction: “You are Loved,” and for the first time since my mom died, I felt safe.

Because I believed my mom when she told me she would always be with me, and, I chose to find meaning in what happened that afternoon shortly after she died.

And yes, there here have been other messages in fortune cookies since then:

When I was in the throes of writing my senior thesis, she sent me this one: “Success comes to those who work hard.” And, like she promised, so it was.

When I gave birth to my first child and I vanished down the rabbit hole where midnight was the new morning and my baby would not stop crying and I doubted myself with every fiber of my being, she sent me this gem: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” And, like she promised, so it was.

Before I packed up my life into 12 suitcases and moved to Israel with my husband and kids, she sent me this: “Traveling more often is important for your health and happiness.” And, like she promised, so it was.

The fortune cookie thing has become a legend in my family and among her close friends: “Have you heard from your mom lately?” her writing partner asked recently.

The thing is, I live in Israel now, where the Dim Sum tastes just like my Grandma’s kneidlach, and fortune cookies are hard to find. So, I wasn’t hearing from my mom as much. And I miss her.

I miss her each day, especially when each day takes me further and further from the last day I saw her, as I begin to forget the sound of her voice, or the way that she moved. But still, she finds a way to remind me that no matter what, she’s still there. Even in a place almost as unlikely as the space between a crunchy fortune cookie.

And just the other day, when I got in a taxi from the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, I looked up and hanging from the driver’s rear view mirror was a pale pink heart inscribed with the words “You Are Loved.”

I blinked. It couldn’t be. But it was.

“Can I take a picture,” I asked the driver, my fingers trembling as I entered my iPhone password, and selected a photo app. “It’s a long story but my mother likes to send me messages like these even though she died eight years ago.”

I’m not sure which was harder for him to understand — my whacked-out Hebrew, or my whacked-out explanation. But no matter.

“Yes, dear one, take the picture,” he said. “And take the heart with you. That way you never forget.”

Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a Los Angeles expat growing roots in Israel. She is New Media Editor at The Times of Israel, and a contributing editor at Kveller.com.

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