How best to write about my two mothers? The one who brought me to the beach or the one who taught me to swim? The one who nursed me through a myriad of childhood illnesses (some serious), or the one who was squeamish but shared my room until I was thirteen?
The one who supervised my early education, told me to stand straight, shepherded me to all activities and was definitely the disciplinarian, or the one who unsnarled my tangled hair and then gently braided it? The one who read to me and took me to theatre and concerts, or the one who introduced me to art museums and travel? The one who gave birth to me or her sister, my maiden aunt, who lived with our family for all but her final three years?
My mother, Ida, and aunt, Ceil, emigrated from Russia at the ages of four and six with their mother and younger brother, to join my grandfather who had preceded them. It was only in the 1980s, when the Statue of Liberty was refurbished, that my mother spoke of her life in Russia. She recalled the pogroms and how she and her sister hid in the vegetable cellar to escape the marauding Cossacks. Once most of their relatives were safe in the USA, they never looked back nor referred to “the old country” as home.
As immigrants neither sister spoke or understood English. According to my mother, her first-grade teacher indicated by putting her hand over my mother’s mouth that in school only English would be allowed. By the end of that first year my mother was running the teacher’s errands; by the end of second grade she was assisting teaching the new immigrants. Both girls taught their brother and parents English. Ida skipped fifth grade and went on to become a teacher. After high school Ceil, who had a real head for business, went to work. She was instrumental in sending my uncle through Yale University and its medical school. For both these women succeeding in America meant being educated, industrious, and becoming assimilated without losing their religious heritage and values.
Ida worked as a teacher throughout WWI. She married my father when she was twenty-eight and continued to teach full time until my brother was born two years later. After that she became a substitute. As a teacher my mother probably ran a very tight ship. She certainly did at home.
Just before the Great Depression, and the year after my brother was born, my father scraped up enough funding to open a furniture store in an old speak-easy on a then desolate stretch of the Boston Post Road in the small New England town of Milford. Years later The Wall Street Journal would refer to this venture as the forerunner of highway mall shopping. Ceil was an integral part of the store’s success: A self-taught well-respected decorator, she not only worked with customers but also actively participated in the selection of merchandise. She later became a member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), the most prestigious design association. When I was much older I was better able to grasp the family dynamics. I am certain that my aunt’s and my father’s many business discussions over the dining room table must have seemed exclusionary to my mother.
I know my mother, father, and aunt worked hard and lived very modestly at first in a second-story flat, but by the time I was born (my mother was thirty-five) we had moved to a wonderful neighborhood in Milford. Our yard was beautiful and my mother maintained a magnificent garden. Although she was never invited to join the Garden Club, her flowers and plantings always received great praise. I still don’t have a green thumb, but some of my most pleasant memories are of the hours Mom and I spent working in that garden. Our home was always filled with the neighborhood kids. This was true right through college. I think that’s how Mom kept abreast of us!
In addition to teaching part-time, Ida was a very active home-front volunteer in WWII. By her deeds mother showed me that it was not only possible but imperative to include community volunteerism in your life.
Within a week of my brother leaving to attend Naval Training School, my mother became an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan. She followed every game, knew every score and every player’s batting average. This was an instant turn-around from complaining about the constant blast of the baseball games on the radio. Once my brother had gone, this was her way of “keeping in touch.”
As few children in our small town went beyond high school, and as we were one of only a few Jewish families, we moved to Hamden when I was thirteen. I no longer had to commute to attend Sabbath school. Like most college-bound kids growing up near an Ivy League school, we were groomed and packaged to go. My family knew that life in Russia would never have afforded us the opportunities that we enjoyed here and this awareness was central to their lifestyle and our nurturing.
Ida and Ceil both dressed stylishly and both loved having a beautiful and welcoming home. Throughout life each had a wonderful sense of self. Each had marvelous but different friends. Ida’s were bright, civic-minded, but definitely social: all great bridge and mahjong players and gracious party-givers. Ceil’s friends, all professional women, all maiden ladies, were well-read and well traveled. Ida also loved traveling but chose to do so only after I was in college. Both had many acquaintances, but each had her small cadre of friends who remained close for an entire lifetime. My aunt Ceil was adored and respected in the workplace, as was my mother Ida in her relations with household help and tradespeople. In later years she had beautiful relations with her healthcare companions. Mother was more taciturn than Ceil but neither was ever a gossip and both were seldom judgmental. Often heard in our home were adages such as Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? and Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. All the above speak much to my two mothers’ character and loyalty.
Much as they paid attention to how my brother and I achieved, behaved, and dressed, Mom and Ceil were most uncritical and loving when they became grandmother and greataunt to our children. In this they were also the finest of role models. It wasn’t until middle age that I began to look back and analyze our relationships. My aunt was a buffer in many situations—between Mom and Dad, between my brother and me, between my parents and us. As close as the sisters were, I think this was the foundation for the “good cop—bad cop” phenomenon that I, as a child, probably exploited. Perhaps that is the reason my relationship with my aunt was smoother.
Ida was a born caregiver. She nursed two husbands until each died, and my aunt until that became too difficult, physically and emotionally. The decision to move my aunt into a nursing facility was not easy for any of us. Some things changed as I became primarily responsible for overseeing my aunt’s care and for visiting her weekly until she died at age ninety-six. My mother and I became much closer and started to spend more time together. My husband, Harold, was very supportive as he too grew up living with a father, mother, and aunt. He was extremely close to Ceil, they having worked together professionally for many years.
My mother Ida lived independently until age ninety-three when, refusing to live anywhere but in her own familiar surroundings, she finally consented to have a live-in companion. In 1999 she died peacefully at home, aged one-hundred and one.
These were two extraordinary women who immensely influenced the lives of every member of our family with their generosity, with the examples they set, and the unconditional love they bestowed upon us. The respect and love that we, our children, their spouses, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gave in return contributed, in no small measure, to the beauty of My Two Mothers.
(published in Whitney Word-Vol. 32, No. 6-December 2016)
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