My mother died last week. This is about her.
She was born in New York City, raised as an only child on the Lower East Side, and was the proud product of city public schools and City College. She was an accomplished student and, as was common in those days, was accelerated through grade school, so that she graduated high school at the top of her class at age 16 and college at age 20. As was also common in those days, she married my father of blessed memory the same year she graduated from college, in August of 1949.
She and my father lived with her parents for a bit, with her teaching in the NYC public schools and then went off to Boston, where my father went to graduate school, and she taught 2nd grade in the Brookline public schools. When her father – a grandfather I never met, and for whom I am named – became ill, they moved back to NY, eventually becoming part of the great migration from the LES to Kew Gardens, Queens, and then, in 1960 with 2 little boys to Merrick, Long Island. She used to like to tell the story that she voted for JFK in the morning, and moved in that afternoon.
She and my dad lived in the house in Merrick for over 40 years, raising 2 sons, and seeing us marry and bring 5 grandchildren into her and my father’s lives. She went back to teaching, both in our synagogue’s Hebrew School and in the local Merrick elementary school, retiring after many years without ever making it out of 5th grade. My folks then continued the migration south Florida in 2004.
My father died in 2008, and my mother entered the next chapter of her life. While her world shrank because of the loss of friends and loss of hearing, she seemed content.
Finally, because of illness, we brought her to NY for care. She rallied after a long struggle, and moved into assisted living up here, only to succumb ultimately to the complications of a series of falls.
My mother was, in many ways, a school teacher in and out of the classroom. She had a lot of rules in her class, most of which applied at home as well. She was, she would often say, “strict but fair.” She made sure that idle students (or idle sons) were always engaged in something productive. You did not want to hear my mother ask, “Nothing to do?”
It is impossible to paint a picture of my mother without talking about the great dark cloud that hovered over her head. My mother had a life-long struggle with recurrent major depression. I had her in mind when I wrote recently of the need to talk more openly about mental illness. I did not share her story then, only because she could not consent, and I did not want to violate her privacy.
While my mother avoided the early cancer deaths that took both her parents in their 50s, she was hospitalized many times over the years – the first when my brother and I were just little kids, and most recently this year, which started the cascade that ultimately led to her death. In many ways large and small, her depression shaped her and our entire family. In fact, it was only after overcoming the bout of depression that overtook her after my father died that she seemed to gain serenity and contentment that often seemed to elude her earlier in life.
She was, also, in many ways, a woman of her time. Smart and academically accomplished, she became a teacher because that’s what women did in 1949. She stopped working when my older brother was born, and only returned to full time teaching when I was in 6th grade, because that’s what women did. She managed the household, balanced the checkbook, cooked the meals, took us to the doctor and directed my parents’ social life, because that‘s what women did.
How will I remember her?
I will try hard to blot out the long, painful journey she traveled this year.
I will try instead to think of her as she was over the preceding years, when she would travel to New York for Passover and Thanksgiving, and how we had fallen into a routine of doing something special on the Friday after Thanksgiving before she went back down to Florida.
One year touring the Eldridge Street Synagogue and having lunch at the Harvard Club.
One year visiting her parents’ graves for what she knew to be her last time.
Or, just this last Thanksgiving, having lunch in the city with my family, and then joining my brother and his wife for a matinee performance of Fiddler on the Roof.
Like Fiddler’s Tevya, my mother struggled with change and, in some ways, with modernity. But like him, she ended her struggle in a better place.
May she rest in peace.