Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remembering My Mother

As I was preparing for my father’s tenth yahrtzeit a few months ago, I wrote to you all about what I have come from a decade’s distance to consider to be the most important parts of my father’s legacy to me. At that time, I had the idea that I would follow up in a few months’ time when I would be preparing to observe my mother’s thirtieth yahrtzeit. And now that time is upon us—her yahrtzeit, the thirtieth anniversary of hear death, falls next week on Wednesday—and I would like to write today about my mother and the specific way in which her memory is a blessing for me still.

More than even my father (which is saying a lot), my mother seemed to me when I was young to have come to earth from a different planet. When my mother was a girl, people were still flying around the globe in giant zeppelins. She was born before penicillin, before pop-up toasters, before Prohibition, before the Yankees won their first World Series, before Kellogg’s invented Rice Krispies. When my mother was born in the spring of 1915, Ford was still producing and marketing the Model T, Woodrow Wilson was president, and New York’s “boy mayor,” John Purroy Mitchel, was in office. Where it hadn’t been banned, D.W. Griffith’s silent movie glorifying the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, was playing in theaters across the country. Workers in Washington were still building the Lincoln Memorial. The RMS Lusitania, soon to be sunk by a German U-boat, was still ferrying its passengers across the Atlantic. My mother was born before American women had the right to vote. You get the idea. A whole different world!

And, indeed, in many ways, my mother—her name was Mildred—in many ways my mother lived up to my boyhood sense of her being a guest from some other world…or at least from some other century. Like her mother and sister, she never learned to drive. She put on “shul clothes” to go into Manhattan even just to shop at Altman’s. She never raised her voice, never used profane language, other than during a blizzard hardly ever left the house wearing pants (which she invariably called “slacks”), put perfume on when she got dressed in the morning even when she wasn’t planning to go out anywhere. And my mother from a different planet lived in a home to match. We had one single telephone in our apartment for most of my life, a wall phone in the kitchen on which it was only possible to have a private conversation when no one else was home. I’m not even sure my parents had upgraded to color television before my mother died—we may still have had our ancient black-and-white set—nor am I entirely certain that my parents owned a car with automatic steering in my mother’s lifetime other than the white Cadillac convertible with red leather seats they inherited from my Uncle Herb. (Other than that Cadillac, which was also the only car of ours ever to be stolen, my parents certainly didn’t ever own one with power windows or brakes.)

I was fifteen when she became ill, then twenty-six when she died. As a result, my mother never met Joan or any of my children. She never heard me preach, never read even a single word I published, never knew me to own a home or a car or a dog. Of course my mother lived in the pre-modern world in most other ways as well, leaving behind when she died a world without cell phones, e-mail, digital cameras, or personal computers. When I think about her life and her death, it all seems like a long time ago.

And yet, when I think more carefully and allow myself to look past the inventions she didn’t live to see or the gadgets she never had a chance to own, I remember my mother as a woman possessed of the uncommon ability to grow intellectually and emotionally throughout the years of a lifetime. My mother entered the 1960s, her last full decade, as a child of her era. She had graduated from James Monroe High School, then earned her bachelor’s degree at Hunter College at age nineteen and went on from there to get an M.A. in Education from Columbia. She was dissuaded from considering law school (in most of which women weren’t welcome in her day anyway) and, forsaking her Columbia training, became a legal secretary instead. Then, when I was born, she left her firm and became, to use the demonized phrase, a housewife. Of course, looking after a home, a husband, and a child was considered a full-time job in those days. And that was how she herself saw it as well. When I was finally in school all day, she became a substitute teacher and worked for many years at Newtown High School in Elmhurst and at William Cullen Bryant High School in Long Island City. When she became too sick to work, she retired and looked after herself, my father, and me as best she could. She was sixty-four when she died on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1979.

But while all of this ordinary stuff was happening, my mother was also developing in unexpected ways. She was radicalized by the Vietnam War and began to attend anti-war rallies. She did not think much of President Nixon and eventually lost her reticence about saying so forcefully. Slightly to my father’s dismay, she began to listen to music far more in keeping with my own tastes than with his. (This, of course, I could barely stand—the last thing any fourteen-year-old in 1967 wanted was his mom borrowing his Jefferson Airplane albums—but now, after all these years, I find it more inspiring than merely charming to remember those incidents.) My mother joined the National Organization of Women after it was founded in 1966. She read—this also horrified me as a teenager—she read The Feminine Mystique and spoke openly and very admiringly about its author, Betty Friedan, and about Bella Abzug and the other leaders of the then-nascent feminist movement. She also had no compunctions about raising all sorts of women’s issues with girls I knew from high school when they came over to the house. (If that didn’t kill me, surely nothing else ever will.) And yet I remember it all with the greatest fondness now. Here was a woman who refused to be stuck in her own mud, who insisted on growing and on learning, who understood that education is only meaningful if it actually leads to new ideas and to the revision of old ones, who never became so old that she was afraid to embrace new ideas and new views. When I think of my teenaged self cringing as she gave forth to my friends about new ideas, about politics, about the war…it is myself of whom I’m ashamed, not her. Eventually, I got over it. But I wish I could revisit those scenes with her now and tell her how they seem to me from the vantage point of all these many intervening years, and how proud they make me to have been her son.

When my mother died in 1979, she was ravaged by her illness almost beyond anything I could have imagined was going to be the case when she first became sick. (My mother died of breast cancer, but I never heard her mention the name of her illness aloud, not even one single time. I’m not sure what that was about really, but it was common back then to refer to cancer either not at all or only obliquely with a euphemism or an abbreviation. So my mother was also a child of her times, even as she was busy transcending the norms of her generation in other ways.) But for all she seemed to be aging almost before my eyes, she retained her life-long ability to embrace life by learning new things and by embracing new ideas. She was teaching herself Italian that last year, hoping that remission would perhaps lead to a trip to Italy. A life-long artist—and quite a talented one at that, as was her mother before her—my mother actually realized at a certain moment that attempting to draw while she was just a bit detached from her regular moorings by the plenteous painkillers her doctors had prescribed for her could lead to new, interesting ways to see the world and to record the world in the context of art. I have some of the drawings from her “Demerol period”…and I treasure them almost above any others of her paintings or drawings. Here was a woman who knew how to find good in bad, how to squeeze something sweet out of even the bitterest lemon, how to find solace and comfort in artistic expression in a way most of the rest of us can only vaguely imagine being able to manage.

I don’t remember that much of my mother’s years of good health. I was, as I said, fifteen when she had her first mastectomy. And I was a young child for at least a third of those fifteen years, and really more than a third. I do remember her being healthy, of course. I remember her appearing at my bar-mitzvah in the most beautiful powder blue suit and looking elegant and striking seated in the front row of the synagogue with my father and her sister and her aunts and their husbands. And I remember many other happy moments as well. But the real legacy she left behind spans both eras, her years of health and her years of decline.

More than almost anyone else I’ve met, my mother was blessed with a supple intellect. She had no problem re-orienting herself in light of a new discovery made, a new book read, a new idea digested and accepted as reasonable. I’m sure there are people out there who remember her, but I myself am only in regular contact with fewer than a dozen who do. But that hardly matters…and what really does matter to me as I contemplate this thirtieth anniversary of her death is the hope that my mother’s memory inspires in me that it might one day also be said of me that I never grew too fixed in my ways or views to alter them in light of new ideas, and that I was truly a life-long lover of learning. My mom set the bar very high for me in that regard. I can only hope that I will live up to her fine example, and that it is in that particular way that her memory will remain a blessing for me and for my family always.

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