17 January 2007

Thoughts on a Mother from a Lousy Son


My mother passed away 20 years ago about this time of year. I’m this unspecific because while on the Christian calendar, she died on 13 January 1987, on the Rabbinic calendar that we use to commemorate holidays, births, deaths, weddings, anniversaries, etc, she died on 12 Tevet 5747, which came out on 2 January of this year.

Thinking about my parents, both of whom have died, is painful not merely because of the normal sense of loss that one feels at the fact that one’s parents are no longer there to share one’s triumphs with, which is a sense of loss that never goes away. It is additionally painful because I was a lousy son. For example, I did not even think to light a memorial candle in my mother’s honor until last night (16 January) when I came home from patrol.

I wasn’t the kind of kid who got into trouble with the law; nor did I do nasty or malicious things to either my father or my mother. But I was unthinking and unable to fathom feelings in others, to such a degree that when a neighbor lady exclaimed to me forty years ago in a tone of disbelief, “can’t you see that your mother is lonely?” not only did I not know what to say, I had no emotional reaction at all. I probably had this unbelieving stare, the look of a child who had just been explained that 2+2=4, but who understood neither the meaning of one nor two and who therefore could not comprehend so elementary an equation. A high intelligence quotient does not signify emotional understanding, and for a good part of my life I probably had an emotional quotient running close to zero. But enough whining about me.

My mother was born in the summer of 1908 in New York County, and went to public schools in the Bronx. She had vivid memories of the Spanish flu of 1918-19 because she was already 10 years old. There is an old rolled up photo of a bunch of children apparently graduating elementary school. This photo was kept in the vault along with my grandmother’s pistol, as though it were a secret.

It was.

For reasons unknown to me, my mother lied to the United States Social Security Administration when she got her Social Security number. She said she was born in 1913. The fact that this was not true didn’t come out until she was in her sixties, when my father passed away. That was when we opened up the bank vault. At the time, New York had a law that required all the contents of a vault to be held for the probate court if not opened before the death of the owner, so we rushed to the bank to empty it before the bank got wind of my father’s death. When I looked at the photo, I could see the date on it, and the fact that my mother was in the picture along with the other children in the school. By the time I was twenty-five, I had read enough Sherlock Holmes novels to deduce the birth date of the children in the photo. Ten year olds do not generally graduate the sixth grade in America, and the date gave her age away. It turned out that my mother was the same age as my father.

Her diabetes was also a secret, at least until she had to get a pill for it called “Orinase.” The doctor had told her she could not have more children after I was born because of the diabetes, which is why I did not have any younger siblings. She very much wanted a daughter, and while my being a boy was a joy to my father, who wanted desperately to carry on the family name (I’m the only grandson of my paternal grandfather with the family name), it was a terrible disappointment to my mother, who wanted someone who could grow to be a companion to her in her old age, as she had been to her own mother.

Disappointment that I must have been, she kept her thoughts to herself and gave me love and attention. She was kind and affectionate, and defended me before my father, who had high standards that I never lived up to. But she had a poker face. You never knew what was going on in her mind, and she kept her own counsel very well.

If I didn’t understand this clearly already, it became crystal clear to me when I was 14 years of age. The symptoms of a neurological disorder I have made themselves known when I was twelve, and while I cowered in fear of attacks from this disorder, my mother merely told me to take my medicine and not to be afraid. Bookish lad that I was, scouring encyclopedias out of mere boredom, I ran across a disorder that sounded a lot like what my symptoms indicated. My mother, confronted by an angry teenager demanding the truth and worked up in a rage of righteous fury, couldn’t deny the facts on the table. But her desire to protect me killed what trust I had for her and soured my relationship with her. From then on, I was determined to leave home – though as I pointed out earlier, I was so unaware of my own feelings that I didn’t realize it. But my own studies now started to include a detailed study of ocean currents. Because New York is a port, the easiest way to get away (and the most dangerous) was by sea.

My mother was a poor woman from a poor family. Her father had died in 1928, just weeks after making the last payment on the family burial plot which was his, and is now my, only piece of real property. My mother had a job with a manufacturer of steam shovels, but when the market crashed in October 1929, the owner of the firm overbalanced himself from the window and wound up dead on a sidewalk in Jersey City.

My oldest uncle, a dentist, probably helped when he could, but he had to pay off the debts from dental school on the holes in people’s teeth. And as more and more people lost jobs from the deepening depression, fewer and fewer could pay for my uncle to fill up those holes with amalgam. My younger uncle left the Bronx to try his luck in Chicago. He met a young woman there and moved to El Paso Texas, changing his very Jewish name in the process, so that he could sell furniture to people who no longer would demand to see the horns on his head before making payment.

So my mother and my grandmother moved from apartment to apartment in the Bronx and elsewhere so that the landlords demanding rent would not be able to keep up with them. In the winter, they burned furniture to keep warm. She and my grandmother set up a table on the street and sold pencils and pen points made in Czechoslovakia to get money for food and ice (for the icebox). For the longest time, I had some of those pencils and pen points after she passed away. I always had pencils to write with as a child.

Finally, the Roosevelt administration was elected, and with it came a program that eased her poverty and gave her a sense of dignity – the National Reconstruction Administration. When the Supreme Court outlawed the National Reconstruction Administration, my mother got a job with the New York City’s Office of Home Relief, renamed the Department of Welfare. In the 1930’s she worked, took care of her mother and hoped to meet a man. In the 1940’s she joined the New York City Civil Guard, a paramilitary organization that would have taken over had the city come under attack from Germany or the Empire of Japan. She was already 40 years of age when she met my father, a widower who lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was the child of their old age.

My own childhood memories of her consist of running to various relatives as my mother attempted to patch up the vicious feuds that plagued her family, both on her mother’s and father’s sides. Once my father taught her to drive, she was happy to take the car and go to New Haven, Passaic and Newark, where her family had settled outside of New York. My father was happy to stay home on weekends, playing pinochle with his friends or watching baseball. When my mother was not dragging me off to see some relative, my father was. As she got older, funerals took more and more of her time…

My father lived long enough to be invited to my wedding with the young lady who became my first wife. After we got married, shortly after my father died (in Jewish tradition, one does NOT postpone a wedding because of a death, unless the ritual requirements of mourning make the wedding impossible) I did what little I could to make my mother’s adjustment to widowhood easier. She understood enough to keep her mind active, and joined the neighborhood crime watch programs. I encouraged her to join the Republican Party – not out of any ideological belief – she wouldn’t have been caught dead voting for a Republican for major office – not after what she had to endure during Herbert Hoover’s presidency. But since so few Republicans were registered in Brooklyn, the Republican party was always on the watch for people who could fill in as “election commissioners,” the folks who take one’s name, and sign one in to vote in primary and general elections. It paid, and it was money, and that was the key point for me. Finally, after much jawing, she agreed to do so, and did benefit.

When I moved to Minnesota to go to law school, I worried about my mother, but I didn’t have the money I needed to go home to visit like I ought to have. After my first marriage fell apart and I was living on the street, I always could have gone home to Brooklyn to live with my mother. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to go home like a beaten dog with my tail between my legs, a failure slinking back to mama. As much as my mother might have needed me, I needed to be on my own, even if that meant standing in the cold waiting on line to eat in a goyisher soup kitchen instead of helping her make dinner in her own kosher kitchen in Brooklyn.

But the price I paid for my independence, something which I should have obtained 10 years earlier, was my mother becoming depressed from loneliness. I could not possibly have expected her to move to Minnesota to be with me, not in her mid seventies, and I couldn’t move back to Brooklyn to be with her; it would have killed off what little sense of real independence I had developed. And my mother would have tried to interfere with my life, not for her sense of power, but for my own good. When I mentioned to her that I was dating a woman, her first question was, “is she Jewish?” When I equivocated, she said nothing, but the very next night I got a phone call from an old flame in Brooklyn who was unmistakably Jewish. I said nothing to my mother about the incident. I was more amused than angry. But, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a hint of what the future held for me. The woman who called me was born in Israel, and it is likely, had I pursued the unlikely course of coming back to Brooklyn to marry this girl (by now I was very serious about meeting a woman and having kids), that at some point we would have moved here to live.

My mother eventually began getting minor strokes, and my sister (the daughter of my father’s first marriage) would look in on her when she could. When I discovered my mother had cashed in her life insurance policy because she had no money, we had a major argument over her moving to Minnesota to be with me, or me moving back to Brooklyn. I wanted to make sure I’d at least have money for a funeral, so I bought a policy for her. When I spoke to her last around Christmas in 1986, I remember telling her about the bonus I had gotten as a manager at Burger King. A week later, my sister called, telling me that my mother had had a major stroke and that I should come back to Brooklyn and set her affairs in order.

Before I left, I called up the Sholom Home in St. Paul. I was determined that my mother would get good care if she even had the possibility of recovering from her stroke, and had determined that she would be close at hand – I saw a future of visiting her daily, making sure she was well taken care of, and making sure she at least had the attention and love of the son who had finally figured out that his lonely mother needed company. But it was not to be. Her stay in the hospital in Brooklyn caused her to develop pneumonia, and a week after she had suffered a stroke she died from a heart attack.

So why am I writing all this?

I’ve written a great deal about my father, may he rest in peace, and feel that I’ve done what I could to do what I feel he would have wanted me to do with my life. We have two good sons, two good boys who honor G-d, who honor their parents, who are decent to their friends, and who, G-d permitting, will be good fathers who will carry on the family name and pass on the family history to our descendants with honor.

But what about my mother, who wanted the daughter to comfort her in her old age? I was never a comfort to her at all, only a disappointment. Nevertheless, she raised me and loved me. She held on to life until she heard that I had earned a bonus on my job, indicating that I’d be alright, and that I’d finally grown up enough that she didn’t have to worry about me. And then she went to her eternal rest. What reward did she get?

And what reward can I give her now, twenty years after her death?

Every Sabbath we read at out table the last twenty-one verses of the Book of Proverbs, called Éshet Hayíl, ‘woman of valor.” In most homes, it is chanted in the Hebrew. In our home, it is chanted in the English, for my wife because she does not yet understand Hebrew. It is recognition of the Sabbath Queen, but it is, at its most basic level recognition of the woman who makes the Sabbath enjoyable with her hard work. Let this then, be my mother’s recognition, for all the world to know that her little boy misses her terribly and is truly sorry for all that he didn’t do to praise and comfort her in her life…

ברוך דיין אמת
Barúkh Dayán Emét - Blessed is the True Judge

Éshet Hayíl

Who can find a woman of valor? for her price is far above rubies.
The heart of her husband safely trusts in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeks wool, and flax, and works willingly with her hands.
She is like the merchants' ships; she brings her food from afar.
She rises while it is yet night, and gives meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.
She considers a field, and buys it: with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds her loins with strength, and strengthens her arms.
She perceives that her merchandise is good: her candle does not go out by night.
She lays her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
She stretches out her hand to the poor; she reaches forth her hands to the needy.
She is not afraid of snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet wool.
She makes herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.
Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.
She makes fine linen, and sells it; and delivers girdles unto the merchant.
Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the guide of kindness.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.
Many daughters have done virtuously, but you excel them all.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that fears G-d she shall be praised.
Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

Retrieved from The Book Proverbs at Wikipedia as edited by yours truly.


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