My mother fascinated my friends with how unmotherish she was; how charming, vivacious, flirtatious; how much like a girlfriend. Back then mothers stayed home but she went to work every day in high heels and bracelets; people thought she was my sister.
But I wanted her to be like their apron clad moms who didn’t scare and excite and hypnotize and then slip away like ether. I longed for safer plumper arms, the smell of dinner cooking in a warm kitchen. My mother brought home cardboard cartons of Chinese food for our dinner smelling of her office and stale perfume.
After being raised in an Dickensian orphanage in 1901, from the age of 3, widowed at 26 by my bootlegging father’s murder by the Mafia, she was too damaged for mothering and shipped me around to relatives while she lived the life of a flapper. When the Great Depression hit and she lost her money she came home to my brother and me.
Self-educated in literature, music and art, fluent in the German and Hebrew that she learned growing up in the Jewish Orphan Home, she had nothing but scorn for the institutions the rest of the world lives by—school, organized religion, government, marriage, politics. But anyone who dared label her iconoclast, existentialist or feminist or any other “ist” would have been met with a withering look. Her independence and courage thrilled me because I always knew how alone and frightened she was.
She could electrify a room with her brilliance and charm but she didn’t know when or how to stop; people became restless, they looked away; they would leave if they could. I was ashamed of her. I was proud of her. But I didn’t know what I had learned from her. That is, until my divorce. Needing independence and courage, I discovered it within myself, put there by her spirit. Also, the pleasure of learning and the life of the mind. Integrity of the self. Compassion from watching her struggle, and even, from my own unmet needs, how to mother my children.