Victories of the Heart
A memoir of my mother's hardest battles.
My mother was an astounding woman of great accomplishments. She never went to college. She never earned more than a meager salary. She never dressed fashionably -- nor lost the weight she wanted to, despite a lifetime of dieting. She never served as the head of any organization. After marrying my father, she never worked outside the home. All her victories were victories of the heart.
Highly intelligent, my mother graduated as valedictorian of her high school class. She should have gone to college. She wanted to go to college. But the year before her graduation, her father Izzy, an immigrant from Poland, who owned a dry goods store in Baltimore, suffered a major heart attack. He had to stop working. They sold the store, lived for a year off the proceeds, and waited for their daughter Leah to graduate high school, so she could go to work and support the family.
College could wait, Izzy and Hinda told her. First her younger brother Marvin had to go to college, then medical school, then he would support the family, with a doctor's lucrative salary, much more than any girl -- even one with a college degree -— could earn.
She did it. She did it happily. She loved her parents. She adored her brother Marvin. She went to secretarial school, with all the girls who couldn't get into college, and quickly got a job.
Lucky thing she did. A year later the Depression hit. As bread lines formed, my mother brought home her salary, paid in "script," not cash, which was used to buy food and necessities—and pay her brother's college tuition. A temporary arrangement. In a few years Marvin would support the family.
Anyway, she would be married by then. In those days, women did not pursue careers for their personal fulfillment. Only women who needed the money worked. She dreamed of getting married, resigning her job, staying home and decorating a living room and baking bobka and cooking blintzes and kreplach, just like her mother. She dreamed of having children, pushing baby carriages, knitting little caps and sweaters, just like all her cousins.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
The Great Depression, however, was a spoiler of dreams. No one could afford to get married. At least not the dutiful, family-oriented Jewish boys Leah was interested in. They lived at home, worked, and handed their whole salary over to Mama, who dispensed it frugally to feed and clothe the entire family, and they stayed single, just like Leah. To get married meant setting up a new household, which entailed buying another stove, another icebox, a double bed, and squeezing a second rental payment out of a skin-and-bones salary. Or it meant, God forbid, to stop contributing to the family coffers altogether, which was unthinkable.
Except to Marvin. Shortly before his medical school graduation, he announced that he was in love, and would be getting married soon. He brought his fiancée home to meet his family.
Margaret was beautiful, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She came from a family of German Jews, three generations in America. They were not at all like the Rabinowitzes. They didn't speak Yiddish, didn't keep kosher, didn't usher in Shabbos with lighting candles and making Kiddush, didn't keep a separate set of Passover dishes and pots in a large barrel in the basement, didn't belong to a synagogue, and didn't drop pennies into a blue-and-white pushka in the kitchen, for the sake of purchasing land in Palestine.
For Margaret, Europe meant the Louvre and Venetian canals. For Izzy and Hinda, Europe meant pogroms.
Margaret's family was American, and proud of it. Margaret had graduated from Vassar. The Rabinowitzes had never heard of Vassar. Margaret adored the poetry of Yeats. The Rabinowitzes had never heard of Yeats. Margaret dreamed of travel, of culture, of a life of privilege and wealth. For Margaret, Europe meant the Louvre and Venetian canals. For Izzy and Hinda, Europe meant pogroms, from which Hinda had fled at the age of fourteen, never to see her parents again. Why would any Jew want to go back there?
It is not that Izzy and Hinda did not give their approval to their only son's match. They were never asked.
A month before the wedding, Izzy had a heart attack and died. Leah and her mother were left alone in an apartment in a poor section of Baltimore. Marvin and Margaret bought their first house in a town far away. Leah took a second secretarial job to support herself and her mother.
How did my mother feel about her sister-in-law? Surely she must have felt some resentment at the interloper who usurped her brother's future and diverted his income, which should have supported their widowed mother, into trips to Paris. Surely she must have felt a tinge of regret for the education she had relinquished in Marvin's favor, only to be regarded condescendingly by her pretentious sister-in-law. Surely she must have felt disappointment that she and her mother could not even eat a cooked meal in Marvin's house, for Margaret believed that kashrus was a medieval superstition, a primitive vestige of an outdated religion.
I can only conjecture about the inner battles my mother waged against a battery of natural, destructive emotions. The outcome of the battle, however, was clear even to my juvenile eyes. Who she was by the time I was old enough to notice was a woman with no bitterness, no envy, no acrimonious regrets. Moreover, I never in my life heard my mother make any pejorative statement about Aunt Margaret. Nor let on, by her tone of voice or expression, that she disapproved of her sister-in-law in any way. For me, to whom every petty insult is a casus belli, my mother's victory on this front was nothing less than remarkable.
Decades later, when my parents, in their old age, moved from their suburban split-level house to an apartment, and I helped them clear out the junk in the basement, I came across a carton of old newspapers, carefully kept. They were a series from the Philadelphia Inquirer of 1941. I read them with curiosity, but could not understand why my mother had kept them.
The series started with a front-page Section B letter by a woman named Mary Jones. The letter eloquently, plaintively, described the plight of an apparently vast population of single women who had come of age during the Depression. By the time, a decade later, the Depression ended, and people could afford to get married, the men in their thirties were marrying women in their twenties. This left the women in their thirties stranded on an island of singlehood, waiting to be rescued, but by whom?
Mary Jones's letter sparked a lively debate. For the succeeding several Sundays, the Inquirer printed dozens of responses, supporting or refuting Mary's claim.
I understood why my mother related to this topic. By 1941, she was 31 years old, past the respectable age for a girl to get married. She was pretty, with short black hair and dark eyes, a good conversationalist, a committed Zionist who had served as the National Secretary of Junior Hadassah, and a skilled amateur photographer. She was also -- I discovered by asking -- Mary Jones.
Not until three long, lonely years later did her cousin Zundel's mother-in-law set up Leah on a blind date with a forty-year-old podiatrist, never married. They met in April and married in August. "He is the most wonderful man in the world," my mother exulted in a letter to her cousin in Palestine, a carbon copy of which she kept for posterity.
In 44 years of marriage, she never changed that opinion.
No one had ever told my mother that she should live for herself, so she lived for others.
No one had ever told my mother that she should live for herself, so she lived for my father and for us children and for her mother, who became disabled with Parkinson's disease. No one ever told her that domestic work was drudgery, so she reveled in it, cooking and baking and sewing and embroidering tablecloths that I, her liberated daughter, scorned as a mindless pastime, until she died, and I inherited the precious, every-stitch-laden-with-her-love keepsakes, my most treasured possessions.
My father, it turned out, was the only person who never disappointed her. My sister Susan and I went off and did our own thing, searched for ourselves, found ourselves far away from home, pursued careers, did not provide her with grandchildren, nor call her to ask for recipes for her delicious but cardiologically unhealthy dishes. Her brother Marvin, for whom she had sacrificed college, rarely called, never came to visit, and never contributed to their mother's upkeep. But as for my father-the knight who had rescued her from the workplace and the scourge of singlehood -- his armor never tarnished. Even when he was old and arthritic and hard of hearing, the sight of him entering a room lit up my mother's face.
In truth, she got very little of his attention. He worked 12-hour days, six days a week, to support our family, his mother, and his mother-in-law, and to send his daughters to expensive private colleges and graduate schools. He would leave the house at 7 AM, armed with his lunch, lovingly prepared, in a brown bag, and return after 7 PM, to find his dinner hot on the table. No instant foods, no TV dinners, no cake mixes ever trespassed into my mother's kitchen. She made every dish from scratch, flavored with love.
When I was a baby, my maternal grandmother Hinda, whom we called Bubbie, moved in with us. Parkinson's Disease, in that era before wonder drugs, left its victims shaking and paranoid. Bubbie needed constant care, and could not so much as get up from a chair without help. My mother bathed her, combed her hair, dressed her every morning and undressed her every night. A few times a year, when the Podiatrists' Association had an evening event, my mother would ask me or my sister Susan to take care of Bubbie. We did it, albeit grudgingly, and the next morning would let our mother know that we didn't like the smell of decrepitude in Bubbie's room. Our mother rarely imposed upon us to take care of Bubbie.
When nursing homes became popular repositories for elderly parents, friends kept suggesting to my mother that she put Bubbie in a nursing home. My mother would not hear of it. She did not consider her mother a burden. Her love was like a pool of water, making heavy weights buoyant and easy to bear.
When I was 15, Bubbie fell and broke her hip. Now it was impossible to get Bubbie into or out of bed without the muscles of a strong orderly. My mother, defeated, put her into a nursing home, and visited every day, for hours, although my grandmother, senile, was long beyond the point of recognizing her daughter.
After just one month in the nursing home, Bubbie died. I, an impudent 15, who did not learn the meaning of filial love until it was too late, thought that after all the years of labor and care, my mother would be relieved. Instead, she was shattered, inconsolable. At the funeral, she could not stop crying, until the rabbi, in his eulogy, mentioned the gallant way my father, throughout the years, had supported his mother-in-law. At that point, my mother told me afterwards, she felt like standing up and applauding.
HER FINEST HOUR
At the age of 58, my Uncle Marvin committed suicide.
At the age of 58, my Uncle Marvin committed suicide. Aunt Margaret telephoned my brother-in-law, a doctor, and told him that she woke up to find Uncle Marvin dead. On his bedside table were empty bottles of barbiturates. It would be such a disgrace if anyone were to find out! What should she do?
My brother-in-law told her to destroy the empty barbiturate bottles, then to go into her husband's medical office adjacent to their house, and to find medical samples labeled, "Nitroglycerin." She should put these, opened, with some missing, on the bedside table, so it would look like he suffered from a heart condition. Only then should she call an ambulance.
The truth was disclosed by my brother-in-law only to the immediate family.
The after-funeral-meal was my mother's finest hour. I felt that as long as Uncle Marvin was gone, there was no more need to be nice to Aunt Margaret. Now my mother could finally tell her off, or at least confront her with the terrible truth of my uncle's suicide.
My mother did no such thing. With all the nobility of her character, she kept Margaret's secret. Margaret, who had turned my mother's only brother against his family. Margaret, whose pretensions to a life of affluence had swallowed up the money which should have been used to support their mother. Margaret, whose unceasing, carping demands had driven Marvin to suicide. Neither in public nor in private, did my mother ever excoriate the woman who had ruined her brother's life.
More than that: for every Passover seder and Rosh Hashana dinner for the rest of her life, my mother insisted on inviting Aunt Margaret, who never had any children. "Why do we have to have Aunt Margaret?" I would complain. "With her stilted accent and her monotonous talk of her stock investments, she ruins every seder."
My mother's unwavering reply was: "If we don't invite her, she'll be alone on the holiday."
And I, who had infinite compassion for the faceless masses of Biafra and Cambodia, but could not stomach my Aunt Margaret, I could not fathom how my mother could feel such compassion and forgiveness for her sister-in-law.
I thought my mother was a sucker for giving so much to so many while receiving so little in return.
Somewhere in the middle of my second post-graduate degree, I got it into my head that my mother was an oppressed woman, whose intellect and talents had been stifled, and for what? A husband who never took her out to dinner and two ungrateful children! I started a campaign to get my mother to enroll in college courses, to earn a degree, to produce something significant with her life.
My mother strenuously resisted my campaign; she knew what her life was about. Although my mother did not articulate it, she believed that the purpose of life was relationship. To her way of thinking, devoting one's life to acquiring anything -- money, degrees, status, "professional fulfillment," -- was to miss the golden opportunity life provides: to be in relationship. Relationships, my mother felt, provided all that a human being needs in both challenge and fulfillment; succeeding in each relationship was its own unique feat. Becoming a good daughter demanded different skills than becoming a good sister or a good mother or a good wife—or a good sister-in-law.
When I was 25, I thought my mother had wasted her brains on being just a wife and mother.
Now that I'm 50, I wish I had devoted as much energy to my now defunct marriage as I did to my career.
When I was 25, I thought my mother was a sucker for giving so much to so many while receiving so little in return.
Now that I'm 50, I see that unconditional giving is godly, and I wish I had developed in myself such true altruism.
When I was 25, I wanted to be like those who wielded political power.
Now that I'm 50, I wish I was more like my mother, who wielded power over her own impulses and reactions.
When I was 25, I thought I was superior to my old-fashioned mother.
Now that I'm 50, I wish she were alive to read this.
L'aliyat neshamat Imi Morati Leah bat Yisrael, b'yahrzeit shela.