Tales of My Mother
Only in Victorian novels do we find good women who are also universally beloved. Here, from the annals of literary memoir, is the view of my mother taken by the well-known writer, Diana Trilling. Diana was the wife of the even better known critic, Lionel Trilling. Lionel and my father had been best friends in college.
“With her Europeanism and her obscure past,” Diana writes, “her redundant figure and her strangely accented name [pronounced Rachelle], Rachel was irremediably unlike the other wives of our acquaintance, and indeed both she and Henry regarded the rest of us as but poor specimens of our sex: thin-bodied, thin-blooded, deficient in physical and emotional substance .” There is plenty more cutting and slashing, but I’ll omit it, if you don’t mind.
At the time Diana’s memoir was published, Lionel was gone and my parents were gone. There are thirteen indexed references to my parents in her memoir, almost every one of them unflattering. In consequence, I wrote a letter to Diana, whom I’d never met, correcting what I hoped were misunderstandings carried over from youthful days. She never replied.
I used to think that, if I could only have lived the life of a traditional wife and mother, no one would have been mean to me. But it isn’t so. My mother spent her adult life inside that template, and did it so well that my oldest friend said of her, when I telephoned with the news of her death,
She was a jewel of a human being.
However, a jewel of a human being can be hated because that’s what she is!
I’d like to tell some of the stories that collected in her wake as she moved through her life. Possibly some of them have been told in earlier columns. Forgive me. I just like to repeat them. For me, the tales of my mother never grow old.
She was highly intuitive. Not that she was always right, but she frequently detected features of a person or situation that others would overlook. She was not afraid of people, nor to say what she saw.
“How your grandmother must have loved you!” With these words, my mother greeted a young Moroccan artist, introduced to her by a girl I’d met in my travels.
“When she died, I left home,” he replied in a low tone, looking directly at my mother.
“How do you feel about being in a house of Jews?” she said to two young German students brought to the apartment by another friend of mine. Sorry, I don’t remember how they answered. Probably with coughing politeness.
She and I had been watching television on the evening of the day the Polish Pope came to Warsaw. At the time of his visit, as far as any pundit could tell, communism reigned in full strength. The Pope stood on the balcony of his hotel to say the mass for people in the street below. The crowd filled the square and stretched to the end of every street as far as the eye could scan. Since the Russians took Poland at the end of World War II, and set up their communist puppet regime in that country, religion had been virtually outlawed. No one could remember anything like this crowd.
“What do you think, mother?”
“It’s the end of communism.”
The sovietologists caught up with it later. At the time of the Pope’s visit, none of them had made that prediction. How did she do it? My mother understood people.
During the War years, my family lived on the fourth floor of a walkup apartment at the corner of 86th and Park Avenue. In those days, that part of town, Yorkville, was an ethnically German neighborhood. Those old buildings were kept habitable by their superintendents and the tenants understood that. One of the rules our super laid down was that tenants were not to carry their own trunks down the stairs to the lowest level. Trunks were to be handed over to him for basement storage. Nobody but my mother was given pause by that rule.
“It will be very good when Hitler gets here,” the super remarked offhandedly to my mother one day, as she stood watching while he repaired a radiator in our apartment. It was a second clue.
A few days later, on her way downstairs, my mother noticed two unfamiliar, middle-aged German gentlemen pressing a doorbell on the second floor. The door was opened by a middle-aged woman whose hair was pulled tightly back in an old-fashioned dark bun.
“Guten tag, grossmutter,” said her two visitors, with extra-wide courtly smiles.
She wasn’t old enough to be their grandmother.
The third clue. My mother continued down the stairs to street level, saw their parked car, and repeated the license number to herself with every step she took climbing back up the four flights to our apartment. Where she wrote it down. Then she took the bus to FBI headquarters in midtown. They made a raid on the building, found the shortwave radio setup in the basement that enabled our super to maintain contact with the U-boats in New York harbor. He was packed off to what I suppose was Enemy Agent Summer Camp for the duration of the hostilities.
I can’t say mother won the War, but it sure didn’t hurt the Allied efforts. After the War, she caught sight of him again walking down 87th and Park. She said he gave her “a very sour look.”
Among the people my parents worked to save from the Holocaust was a French woman friend married to a Jewish scientist. The State Department’s paper barriers were as long as your arm. Till the last paper was signed, she did not tell anyone that she’d been hemorraging. Then she went directly to the hospital, where the staff received her with shock.
She appears in a scene of womanly wisdom in my forthcoming book, Unhidden Depths: Confessions of A Young Philosopher.
One of the last things my mother said to me was, “Don’t think you understand all about life because you are intelligent.
“It’s not enough
to be intelligent.”