On October 7, ten years ago, my mother passed away. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just three months prior. When I spoke at her funeral, I noted that if you looked up "bleeding heart liberal" in the dictionary, you'd probably find a picture of her there.
Born in 1932, she grew up towards the end of the Great Depression. Her own father had been a jeweler, which, needless to say, was a profession that mostly got wiped out at the time. As a result, she was an only child, and both of her parents (both of whom were East European immigrants, or children of them) worked. I'm sure that upbringing contributed, although I don't know how much, to her liberal outlook (one of her favorite uncles, in the 1970's, regaled me with tales about how he proudly had cast his first presidential vote for Eugene Victor Debs).
But I do know that she had a life-changing moment during high school. In her senior year, 1950, her class (from Weequahic High School in Newark) took a trip to Washington, D.C. She arrived at Union Station with her class and saw a pair of water fountains. One had a small sign above it that said "Whites" and the other had a small sign that said "Coloreds." She was stunned. She had heard about racism, and was vaguely aware of ill-treatment of blacks in the South, but this was already 1950, and this was the premier train station in the Nation's Capital! She couldn't believe it -- it shocked her to the core.
After she finished having children and passed through the early child rearing years, she returned, in the mid-1960's, to her first profession: school teaching (while she simultaneously pursued a Master's Degree in Psychology). She found a job in East Orange, a very mixed race city. It was, quite frankly, not an easy thing to be a white teacher in a fairly black school district during the times of intense race-riots (in nearby Newark) and to come to school to teach young teenagers (she had 7th and 8th grades in 1968) the day after Martin Luther King's assassination. But her simple humanity, idealism, love of youth, and genuine empathy made her beloved by all. She told me of a contentious school board meeting (I have no idea what the issues were about) where an older student, or a parent, got up, and started off her statement with "we don't want some blonde, blue eyed, teacher telling us --", and then suddenly stopped, turned to my mother, and added, "of course, I don't mean you..."
As a precocious kid who devoured the news, I remember, at 12-1/2 years old, begging and pleading with my parents to let me accompany them to the "Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam" (look it up -- it was the big one -- November 15, 1969). They relented and the three of us were part of the half-million crowd that was there. (We have some home movies of that, somewhere...)
In the 1970's she became a counselor as part of an "EEO" program (Exceptional Educational Opportunities -- essentially an affirmative action program for the educationally and economically disadvantaged) at a local university. Basically, a certain number of disadvantaged kids (almost all of them were black and/or Hispanic), from poorly performing public schools, were admitted into the school despite not having the grades or scores. (The idea was: given a decent environment and decent teachers, they would have a chance to thrive, and break the cycle of poverty in which their families were mired). Her job, as a counselor, was, essentially, to help them get through college successfully. She threw her all into the job: there were some failures, but a lot of successes.
As I was a bright young college student home for the summer (the program started the summer before what should have been their freshman year, so they could get into the swing of things), I offered some free tutoring to some of the kids, and I hung out with them, and went to some of their parties (I was only one year older than they). Their stories were amazing. I'll never forget a guy named Henry Sumner, a young black student, who was talking about how pumped up he was about the program, and about how he was the first person in the history of his family to ever go to a college, and how he was going to make the most of his opportunity. (Alas, I only spent one summer with them, I have no idea how any of them turned out).
My mother made a lot of personal connections there. One of her students was into theater, and my mom, upon finding out that the kid's parents couldn't care less, showed up at his performances, just so that he would have somebody in the audience that he knew. It meant the world to him. She also saved somebody's life by "talking them off the ledge." Literally. The student was going to jump and commit suicide, and my mom talked him out of it. Only afterwards did my mom realize that she wasn't really qualified to do that, and was shaken up when she thought "what if I had done it incorrectly?" But the kid needed an emergency intervention and my mom was the only one there.
All in all, my college friends thought it odd: when they spoke about overbearing, inter-meddling, or distant and uncaring mothers, I raved about how great my own mom was.
At some point during that decade we took in, as a border, a distant cousin of ours. He was unemployed and had nowhere else to live. She helped counsel him on the side -- he eventually got some training, got a good job, and did well in his life.
My mom walked the walk, she didn't just talk the talk.
I don't want to ignore her successes as a parent. For all her activities, she enjoyed being a mom, and then a grandmother, the most. She always loved youth (get this: she introduced the Beatles, to her school kids, not the other way around) finding teenagers and young adults full of pure energy and optimism, and always loved hanging out with me, my girlfriends, then my wife, and our friends, and, later, our kids. All the way back to grade school my friends always thought of my mom as "different" -- as in: "you're not like other moms, I can talk to you." It was not unsurprising to find her at our kitchen table talking to, reassuring, or counseling one of my friends (or my sister's friends) about life. If that was true for my friends, how much more so was it for me. I was able to talk to her about anything, from politics, to drugs, to girlfriend-advice, and never did go through the rebellious stage: after all, what was there for me to rebel about?
Even more importantly she instilled within me a message that I lived: if I have things, whether it's a G-d given talent, or whether I'm financially successful, or anything in between, I am obligated to put it good use. It felt so correct to me, that I never did ask her why I had such an obligation: I just accepted it and tried to live it. I have since found my own reasons -- religious -- why I believe this obligation exists (but I digress...)
Anyway . . . back to ten years ago.
Summer drew to an end and autumn began, and my mother's July prognosis of "three months to live" seemed uncannily accurate. In the real world, a special recall election was going on in California. In my mother's world, she was, mercifully, spending her last days at home, with my father, and a full-time aide.
The election was on Tuesday, October 7, my mother's last day. In the morning, my father got up, and put on the TV so my mom could watch the news from her bed. She was very weak, couldn't eat the day before, and could barely speak, and her eyes were mostly shut, as she drifted in and out of consciousness. The news program started speaking about the California election, and interviewed the challenger: Arnold Schwarzenegger. My sweet dear mom, who cared about everybody, opened her eyes, and in one of the last utterances of her life, gathered her strength to tell my dad:
"Get that damn clown off my tv."
She passed away a few hours later. An un-reconstructed liberal to the end.
Fri Oct 04, 2013 at 7:37 AM PT: Community Spotlight? Then Rec List? Really?
I am touched beyond words, and thrilled that others have been touched by this.