This would have been my mother’s 105th birthday. It’s a dreary, cold day not unlike the November day she died nine years ago. It’s a day to think of the ancestors and perhaps do them the honor of a story.
When she was born in 1912 in Flatbush, Brooklyn to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, the streets were still unpaved. The Flatbush Avenue Trolley Line had come through over the Brooklyn Bridge just four years before. Horse-drawn wagons, trucks, and buggies were still common, along with the workers whose job it was to scoop their manure, day after day.
Her sister, Betty, had been the first child to arrive in the young family not long after the marriage. One imagines a nurse or a midwife might have been in attendance. It was unlikely she was born in a hospital.
My mother, Pearl, was the second, maybe two years later. These details are lost in the expanse of time. She was followed by three more sisters, Edna, Lynn and Gus. The five Jewish sisters, adored by their doting father who earned, somehow, an honest living, grew up valuing culture, education, and music. In their Brooklyn neighborhood they were surrounded by extended family. My mother’s uncle was a “butter and eggs man” and kept them well supplied with those good things that, in Kosher combinations, became ingredients in her mother, Fanny’s, prodigious and marvelous cooking. My mother often spoke to me about her loving father, who bounced them all on his knee. When he was asked whether five daughters was perhaps too many females, he always responded that his only sorrow was there were not more.
It was this the warmth of the family and Fanny’s cooking that drew a constant stream of visitors and family boarders. The five sisters were constantly moving around in the small apartment to make space for mattresses for cousins, uncles, aunts newly arrived or traveling from other parts of America to the city of opportunity. Her mother took to hiding food as she cooked it so it wouldn’t somehow disappear before she could lay it out on the family table. The sisters were constantly finding roasted sweet potatoes, kugel, covered dishes of soup or tzimmes under mattresses and shoved in the caves under dressers and forgotten. Though money did not flow freely, there was always more than enough food for everyone. The important things were somehow provided. When my mother had wanted badly to play the violin when she was twelve, her mother had somehow found the money to buy one. They had well-made stylish clothes, sometimes made by their mother, repaired frequently and shared between the sisters, sometimes generously, sometimes with peevish reluctance.
It wasn’t until she was in her nineties that I asked I decided to ask her again what the Great Depression had been like for her and her family. Until then I’d gotten only a piecemeal impression. Time had claimed much of her short term memory and was beginning to encroach on the long span. She replied they had hardly felt it. They had always scraped along, surrounded by extended family protecting and caring for each other. They were happy. They didn’t think of themselves as poor. In the summers, they spent many days at the Jewish community clubs at Brighton Beach, swimming, playing tennis, sunning and socializing. Sometimes she and her sister went to the Yiddish Theater on the boardwalk to see a play put on my the Jewish community for the Jewish community. The theater had been built in 1918 to allow this vibrant expression to breathe. Life for the sisters just continued, circumscribed by the boundaries of the city within a city.
She was seventeen when the crash came. She had been accepted to Vassar College, but the family’s resources would never have come close to stretching that far so, instead, fighting her enormous disappointment at the opportunity of prestige, she decided to become a policewoman and bring in an income. Without telling her sister, she borrowed her good skirt and good leather shoes and went to take the exam at the Police Academy. The examiners were surprised at her success on the exam. Not many women even tried. But, on discovering her plans, her mother forbade her to take such a dangerous job. Her sister wouldn’t talk to her for days. She had had a date that day and had counted on her skirt and good shoes. When she came home after work to change and realized what had happened, she raged for hours at her mother.
Determined to move forward, my mother passed the rigorous entrance exam for Hunter College (known for decades as the Jewish Girls’ Radcliffe) which trained teachers, tuition free, for the City of New York’s demanding public schools. She went to classes at night, working as a librarian during the day and studying on the subway. She ate little and worked or studied constantly.
Sometime in the early ‘30s, a cousin had come to stay at the family’s apartment in Brooklyn. They discovered soon after that he had tuberculosis. My mother, tired and thin from her rigorous schedule, contracted TB soon after. As she was recovering, her mother was diagnosed with TB.
Within the year, Fanny had contracted meningitis as a result of the TB. She died fairly quickly, a woman in her mid-50s. TB had been one of the most significant causes of death, particularly among the young, for at least 9000 years of human history. It is likely one of the first species-jumper diseases that humans encountered as a result of their agricultural expansion. Our species recent horrific experiences with HIV and Ebola are not new kinds of events. Yet when my mother was young, the knowledge that this ancient disease was, in fact, contagious, was less than fifty years old. Since the time of Herodotus, it had been thought to be inherited. The antibiotics that proved to be a cure were not discovered until 1944. In the 1930s, public health efforts to reduce crowding and improve sanitation had improved the odds of avoiding TB and cholera in urban areas, but crowded immigrant areas still had higher instances of these diseases than more affluent areas of the city. My mother felt lucky that she’d escaped with just a remnant spot or two on her lung.
After she was fully recovered, she resumed classes at Hunter, completed her studies and passed the difficult exams to become a teacher in New York. When she began her teaching in the ’30s, work must have been hard to come by, but she managed to hold on to her library jobs and begin teaching high school English and French in the city. In the challenging, crowded city schools where she found work, she remembered as we talked about those times how she sometimes had to intervene in fist fights and, from time to time, to confiscate packets of heroin being passed from desk to desk. Teaching has never been an easy profession. Growing up with her after-work stories of principals and school boards, I did whatever I could to avoid following in her footsteps.
The war was on. Relatives were dying in concentration camps across the ocean. My mother never spoke to me of these times. Perhaps life just went on.
In her twenties, she was courted by young Jewish intellectual men, one or two of whom she found delightful. She played tennis with them, went to the ballet, to the opera, to Broadway plays. She evidently wasn’t swept off her feet, although she looked back on at least one of these relationships with regret. Perhaps she was jilted. But she had lots to keep her occupied and, as it does for women today, time went by.
At the age of thirty, a vivacious, smart, attractive woman with waving, lush mahogany hair, she met my father on a blind date set up by a friend. After being talked into this risky business, she learned through a mutual friend he was not Jewish. But he was a writer, certainly an aphrodisiac in the eyes of a young, intellectual woman in New York. She and her older sister were part of the New York Intellectual scene–readers of the Partisan Review, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Dwight McDonnald, John Cheever, Mary McCarthy, Virginia Woolf, Norman Mailer… Despite the fact she heard her prospective date was barely making a living by editing for a publishing company in Manhattan, the prospect of a career in the great cerebral profession of writing seemed to overcome all else for her.
Having gotten over the obstacle of his shegetz status, she took up the dare of the blind date. It turned out he was a charmingly handsome and gallant young man from a Polish coal mining family in Pennsylvania, self-educated and extremely bright, with a head of dark, wavy hair, combed back like Gary Cooper or Cary Grant, walking with a limp from an accident in his childhood. Despite the limp, he was athletic and slim, played tennis and baseball and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge every weekend to come and see her. He could recite poetry and quote Shakespeare, despite the fact he’d never been able to attend any college except the free socialist college in New York. By the time he’d graduated from high school, having missed most of the classes due to multiple surgeries on his leg and acing all the exams, he had read every book in his small town library, starting with the top shelf near the librarian’s desk and progressing to the last book on the bottom shelf in the dark alcove at the back.
Her family thought she would be marrying beneath her. He was not from the intellectual class. His blue-collar family thought that Jewish women were stuck-up, shrewish snobs. They probably suspected them of somehow being implicated in the death of Jesus. Their parents had both immigrated from parts of what was known as Poland at the time, yet their cultures were as different as if they had come from different worlds.
My mother eventually took the risk and married him. She was in love.
For the times, she was practically an old maid. They were married at the registry, accompanied by friends and a bottle of champagne. My father continued to write when he could and work for a publishing company to make money. His family, with the exception of his mother, never really accepted her. It was two years before V-Day. My father spent part of the war working in the shipyards as a 4F deferral due to his crippled leg. Like my mother, he never spoke of the war days.
They lived in Flatbush in a small apartment and were probably fairly happy. They went to rent parties to raise money for friends also struggling to make ends meet. She kept teaching, but was hungry for more intellectual challenge. Sometime in the ‘40s, she began a Ph.D. at Columbia, again attending classes at night. She completed a thesis on the Abbey Theater of Ireland, a copy of which I have in the papers I can’t figure out what to do with before I move to France.
And meanwhile, they tried to have a child. She miscarried twice and was told she was now unable to carry a child to term. Who knows how this would have shifted had she been a woman today, but at the time, adoption was the only route. She knew she was already too old to qualify as an adoptive parent, even though there was an ample supply of babies in a pre-legal abortion world. She was already forty. Her solution—she lied. She began dying her hair that had begun to have strands of gray, and she lied on the paperwork. She was still dying her hair red when she was ninety-six.
It didn’t take long. They looked good. They were middle-class, educated, with professional jobs. They found an agency in New York where there was a good supply of babies given up by women who were in sticky situations. They were babies who had been placed in foster care days after their birth, dressed in lovely clothing to charm the families who cared for them, and were waiting, all unaware in their babbling babyhood, for eligible adults to claim them for their own.
My mother and father were shown several examples of babies that could be a “fit”, matched for genetic background by socio-economic status of the biological and adoptive parents, for similar ethnic profiles, for similar physiognomy. Babies were brought to the agency for display in the bassinettes set up for these occasions. They were eventually attracted to a baby with blond hair who smiled at them and cooed. All my Jewish mother and atheist father had to do was to sign on the dotted line that I would be baptized in a Methodist Church. One Saturday, the social worker called them and told them I was ready for them to come and pick up. Perhaps my foster mother had had it with me. Who knows.
They went to get me up on the subway. I was nine months old. They had a crib and a high chair, blankets and some baby clothes, but they had no baby food. My father went out on the Sabbath in the neighborhood and found a Goy butcher who was open. He bought some filet mignon and had him grind it fine. He brought it home to the apartment in a brown paper packet. He had no baby spoons, so he fed me my first meal in my new home from the tip of a clean tablespoon.
Pearl continued to teach for more than twenty-five years after that day. All her life she had many friends, mostly a generation or two younger than she. She eventually taught what were then called “Gifted Students” and invented wonderful curricula for her small and eager classes. Many of those students returned to see her as successful adults, full of gratitude and love. Wherever she was, she approached strangers and interviewed them with curiosity. As an old woman, walking with me along the street, she would often stop young people, ask them a question and end up in a long conversation. She gave advice freely and mostly wisely. Her interest won her friends in every circle of life. She knew the families and aspirations of the cab drivers, the bus drivers, the checkout clerks, the bank tellers, the professors on our street, the famous figures at the University. She encouraged them all. They were all her familiars. Her one regret was never finishing her Ph.D. in the Irish Theater, but by the end of her life, she had resolved even that loose end. Wherever she went, she would extend a hand and say “Hello! What degree do you have? I have a Ph.D. from Columbia.”