Yesterday evening I lit a 24-hour candle for my mother’s Yahrzeit, the sixteenth anniversary of her death. She passed away on this day in 2001. My daughter, Rachel, had stayed in her room over her last few days reading to her. Yesterday evening I went to synagogue to say kaddish. I will repeat the process this morning at the 7:30 am service.
In my first memory of my mother – well, not really a memory; more of a dream that seemed real – I was in her arms at the bottom of a stairs in my mother’s parental home. We were living with my grandparents at the time. My mother was looking up the stairs and sobbing. I had not seen my grandmother die. I do not even remember knowing her. I was just over a year old when the first of my grandparents passed away. In that dream/memory, however, my mother was not holding me; I was holding her – an impossibility since, according to family lore, I was a very fat baby who never learned to walk until I was 18 months old. It is also a very odd dream that I had many times, odd not simply because I was so young at the time. My mother was a very proud and independent woman. It is impossible to imagine my holding my mother and comforting her when I was just over a year old.
In another real memory, we were living in my father’s father’s house behind his chicken store in the Kensington Market. I was alone downstairs. I have no idea where my brother, who was a year older, was. He was not part of the memory. Nor was my father. However, my mother was. So was my younger brother, who was almost five years younger. The memory is one of sounds rather than of any presence. My brother was a very young baby. He kept coughing and coughing and coughing. My mother was not with me but upstairs soothing him, holding him wrapped in damp hot steamy towels. I knew that he too was going to die. But he did not. Shortly after, we moved out of that drafty and cold house around the corner to an apartment on the second floor, again in Kensington Market. My mother blamed that house for my brother’s whooping cough.
When we were living in that new place, my mother sent me to the chicken store to pay for chickens she had ordered and to bring them back. It was not my grandfather’s store. He had just died the year before, the last of my grandparents to die. All four had passed away when I was between the ages of one and six. They were very old people, worn out by life’s burdens. They were all between the ages of 52 and 55 when they died.
My mother had given me a $5 dollar bill. I held it in my hand and had not put it my pocket. When I was a half block from my house and a half block from the chicken store, a teenager grabbed me and stole the $5. I sobbed and sobbed when I returned home empty-handed. Though the $5 represented 40% of my mother’s weekly wage at the time, she did not reprimand me. She held me in her arms and comforted me, cursing herself for subjecting me to such a trauma.
We moved once again – finally out of the Kensington Market. My mother rented a whole house and we sublet the rooms on the second and third floors, except for one room on the second floor where my older bother and I slept. The other half of that semi-detached house was a grocery. I lived there in fear every night. For the rats took over the hallway. I learned to keep my bladder very full because I did not dare go down the hall to the bathroom. My brother and I even stuffed a towel under the door so that the rats would not come in. We never told my mother how frightened we were at night. We had both inherited my mother’s independence and pride.
One time, my mother surrendered that pride. She used to wash our clothes by hand in an old washtub. My aunt Doris who lived in Buffalo, New York and who had no children, once visited us and saw my mother scrubbing our clothes. She was infuriated. She went out there and then and bought my mother a washing machine with rollers to wring out the water from the clothes before they were hung up to dry. My mother cried in gratitude. But she would not let my aunt buy her a refrigerator. We still used an icebox.
The second half of my first dozen years was spent in that house. My father came and went. He once set up a business and cleared out the living room of furniture. He was a cutter of women’s clothes. But mostly he was not present. By the time we had moved once again when I was twelve, he disappeared from our lives during our teenage years. I never saw him until I was in university and passed him on the street. Only after I had gone by did I run back and say, “Dad!” He, of course, did not recognize who I was, for his little kid had turned into a long skinny and stringy stranger.
However, in spite of the rats, in spite of the intermittent and rising tension between my father and mother, my memories of the house when I was between 6 and 12 were of very happy times – not because my parents were together – they often were not. I have very fond memories of going for long walks with my mother along College Street, which was then like a promenade crowded with people. She loved when people stopped her to admire the cute child whom they almost always took to be her young brother. My mother was very youthful looking even though she worked every day and then came home to cook, clean and wash our clothes.
I do not remember my older brother walking with us. I do not recall a pram being pushed in front of us. In my deformed memory, my mother and I were boyfriend and girlfriend strutting down College Street. Just this past week when I was packing up my library, I read a story that my second youngest son had written when he was still in elementary school. The story had been included in a book of children’s writings. It was a tale that I clearly had told him of my mother and I going for such a walk and I tripped. I continued to walk for another block until the pain became too great. My mother took me to Sick Children’s Hospital on College Street and they put a cast on my foot. I had fractured my ankle.
On another occasion, I had been teasing my older brother about all the homework he had to do. He threw a pencil at me. It was a Thursday. By Monday morning, my eye was watering continually. My mother took me to the school nurse. She immediately sent us to Sick Children’s Hospital. I never came home for three weeks. They operated on me the next morning and removed a piece of pencil lead that had become lodged in my pupil. I had never caused so much distress for my mother. I was never able to see objects out of my left eye until I was in my fifties and suddenly the scar tissue had cleared up enough that I could see again out of the eye – not very clearly, but clear enough.
There were two occasions – and the only two that I remember – when my mother scolded me. In the first I was eight years old. My mother had left my older brother and I in charge of my younger brother. It was winter. We took him on a sleigh down Brunswick Avenue. For some reason, he bolted and ran across the street. A car was coming. It literally ran over him. Distraught, perhaps more about how my mother would feel at the death of her youngest son than at what had happened to my brother, we waited until the driver got out and pulled my brother out from under the car. My younger brother only had a bleeding nose. The car had not hit him. Stan had slipped on the ice in front of the car as the automobile went over him. We thanked the driver profusely and insisted my brother was alright.
The driver was not convinced. Though we did not see him, he followed us home. We were inside when he rang the bell and asked about how my young brother was. He insisted on driving him and my mother to the hospital to have him checked. I do not remember whether they went or not. I only remember the terrible scolding I and my older brother got from my mother afterwards. It was so unusual to have her get so angry at us – really irate and not pretend-angry.
In the second case, I was 10 years old. My brother and our friend were both eleven. Al and I convinced our friend to go to an early evening movie after dinner. We did not tell either his mother or my mother. We went off to the theatre on the north side of College just west of Spadina Avenue. We saw The Hunchback of Note Dame. The movie starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda was unforgettable. The fury with which my mother and my friend’s mother greeted us when they found us after the movie and after they had been pacing the streets for two hours in search of us was even more unforgettable. My friend can recall that evening today in great detail almost seventy years later.
My memories of my mother are not just from the early years of my life. All my six children have very fond recollections of their bubbie. Except once. She took care of my youngest two when my wife and I went on holiday. When we returned, they were very upset about the way their bubbie had treated them on one occasion. They were having hamburgers and they went to the fridge and got cheese to put on their burgers. Their bubbie became very distraught and insisted that cheese did not go with burgers. They were totally perplexed, both at the injunction not to eat cheese with burgers and at my mother’s betrayal of her general cheerfulness. It was the first thing they told us about when we returned. We then told them about keeping kosher; it was not an occasion that warmed them up to idea of the dietary laws of Orthodox Judaism.
My mother would come to our house often. She lived about five miles away and would take the Bathurst Street bus down to spend a day or evening with us. She strictly forbad us from picking her up or dropping her off at home afterwards. If we insisted, she insisted in return that she would not come. She was very stubborn. The bus, she claimed, dropped her off right in front of her door. Besides, after every trip she would tell us about the new friend she had made on the bus down – usually a Filipino nanny. She absolutely loved her Filipino nannies.
The most hilarious tale about my mother’s stubborn character took place when I was an established professor. A friend of my mother’s contacted me and asked if I would give a talk to my mother’s Hadassah chapter. It was intended to be a surprise for my mother. Besides, she had never heard me speak in public. Normally, it was not the type of occasion at which I would lecture. Philosophy and political theory were not the most pressing issues of any of her friends in their seventies and eighties. However, since it was a surprise for my mother, I agreed to the invitation.
My wife and I showed up just before noon on a Sunday where I would give the talk after a luncheon. My mother was nowhere to be seen. I asked her friend who had invited me where she was. Her friend confessed that my mother had learned of the planned surprise three days earlier and had become angry that she had not been told of what was supposed to have been an unexpected delight, quite oblivious to the contradiction. My mother said she would not come. I phoned to try to persuade her; we would immediately drive to her house and pick her up. She was adamant. She was still furious that she had not been told. I gave the talk anyway as I watched one after the other of her friends drop off for a nap. And my mother missed the experience.
Perhaps she knew and I was lucky that she never heard me speak.
With the help of Alex Zisman