A few more thoughts about my mother

She would be angry about Mitch McConnell’s current plan to filibuster the formation of a January 6 Commission, the 6-3 corporatist Supreme Court engineered to outlaw a woman’s right to choose — and poised to do so, the radical nihilism of a party become a violence-embracing cult steeped in insane conspiracies. Hell, she was still upset enough about the prospect of Sarah Palin in power to ask me, hours before she died (and two years after Palin ran for vice president), to promise her that Sarah Palin would never be president. When she got really angry, my mother would cry.

She’d bellow too, don’t get the wrong idea, she could snarl and yell with the best of them. She had no problem speaking her mind, even while angry, but when talking about something that unfair, and brutal, and in the face of which she felt so helpless, in the end she’d cry. Hard to blame her, really. I can imagine exactly how Kyrsten Fucking Sinema and Joe Shit-breath Manchin would sit, crosswise, in her craw, incoherently defending the bipartisan right of McConnell to use the filibuster, which, they senselessly claim, was created to foster bipartisanship, just as Mr. Trump’s decisive loss in 2020 was actually a landslide victory and the so-called riot to Stop the Steal was the fault of angry Blacks and radicals who dangerously and mistakenly believe there is institutional racism in our unimpeachably exceptional nation.

My mother liked Tom Hanks (as most people I know do, how can you not?) and would be horrified to hear he’d been singled out as one of the elite Hollywood pedophile child-blood drinkers, viciously persecuting the innocents unlikely hero Donald Trump was chosen to deliver from this monstrous evil, from Satanists. “Tom Hanks?!” I could hear her voice, incredulous, her intonation bristling with Bronx street outrage.

In that childhood in the Bronx, growing up in a first floor apartment on Eastburn Avenue, which meets the Grand Concourse on one end, a half block from her apartment (my mother always proudly claimed to have grown up on the Grand Concourse, the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx) she learned a certain amount of toughness and also, complete vulnerability.

She was vulnerable to loneliness, having grown up an only child, a “latch key” kid, as she said, someone who came home after school and let herself into the empty apartment. Both of her parents worked and she wouldn’t see them until dinner time. She was helplessly vulnerable to the giant engines of politics, as a teenager her entire large family was wiped out in Europe, when she was twenty Robert Moses cut Eastburn Avenue in half, condemning and demolishing two blocks of her neighbors homes and stores and beginning to dig the huge canyon that would accommodate the roaring Cross Bronx Expressway, and destroy a series of Bronx neighborhoods like my mother’s childhood home.

We never spoke much about any of this. Not the family taken to a ravine on the north west of town and shot in the back of their heads, not the destruction of her childhood home by hater of the working class Powerbroker Moses. I only saw the windows of her apartment toward the end of her life, when a friend and I took a bike ride in the Bronx to find Eastburn Avenue and I called her in Florida. She was very excited to describe exactly where her apartment was, lead me to the window, on the first floor, right side next to the front entrance, where she used to look out to see who was walking up the courtyard.

It was through this window that she first saw the gangly teenager who’d become my father, a countrified hick (to her way of thinking) who arrived with his tiny mother and younger brother to visit a cousin who lived in the building. She was horrified, a few years later, after her mother forcibly ended a romance between my mother and a suitor her mother hated, when her mother proposed, and later insisted, she go on a date with the bumpkin. The bumpkin turned out to be surprisingly smart, witty, tall, dark and fairly good looking, and he made her laugh — the rest, as they say…

Her mother, my grandmother Yetta, was tough as nails, in a certain way. Very strong willed and certain about what was right (like the fact that Dinche’s cousin was the perfect husband for her daughter), she took no back talk or rebellion from little Evelyn.

Odd little detail, Yetta had named her daughter Helen, my mother, as a child, somehow had that name legally changed to Evelyn. I don’t know more than that about her name. I do know that Yetta would not hesitate to break a yardstick over her daughter’s ass, whatever the girl wanted to call herself.

I know this because both of my parents nonchalantly tossed off that Yetta had broken countless yardsticks over her daughter’s ass. They usually mentioned this with a smile, for some reason. Yetta always had a yardstick handy because, since she was a girl, she’d been a talented seamstress. Her nickname among the Jews in her little town back in the Ukraine was der schneiderkeh “the little tailor”. She was apparently so good, at such a young age, and her services were so in demand in her small town, that she employed several women to help her turn out the orders.

None of this translated in New York City when she arrived in 1921, and she had to work her way up from sweatshop worker to special assistant to the designer herself– Helena Troy, the designer’s name was. Troy would send Yetta to fashion shows to steal design ideas. Yetta had an amazing visual memory, with no notes she’d go back to the office and replicate the most interesting new designs she’d seen, which Helena Troy would make a few small changes to and pass off as her own. My mother often said of her mother that if only she’d been perfectly fluent in English (she read and wrote haltingly in English, though her Yiddish was top shelf), and American born, her mother would have been the first woman president of the United States. I don’t know about that, but I later saw one of those yardsticks. Holy shit.

The yardsticks I was familiar with were flimsy 1/4″ thick slats that hardware stores gave away. We had several with “Eisner’s” printed across them (Eisner looked like Ed Asner and ran the hardware store we could walk to from our house). You could snap them in half easily, even as a young kid. So I always pictured these snapping harmlessly over my mother’s butt, little signs of my grandmother’s annoyance and nothing more.

Then I saw one of the old, stained wooden ones, the kind Yetta used. A sturdy piece of square lumber you could only break with a saw, or by swinging it with a good deal of violence at an object you didn’t care much about damaging.

Toward the end of her life, in a last futile attempt to bring a little more understanding between my mother and my sister, each locked in a struggle with the other, I mentioned that most mothers and daughters have conflict. I named a few examples, people we knew. Then I made a dangerous mistake.

“You know, mom, you had some serious conflict with your own mother…” I began, but was instantly cut off by an angry snarl.

“I had a great relationship with my mother!” she said, her nostrils flaring and her face becoming slightly red. We were standing a few feet apart in the little hallway between her bedroom and the guest room where I stayed when visiting Florida. She was close enough to lunge for my throat, her teeth were already out.

My mother had observed, a few years earlier, how much better I’d become at dealing with my anger. It was in the middle of a fight I was having with my father about whether people can meaningfully change things about themselves. My father was angrily insisting I was pathetically misguided, and just as fucking angry as I’d ever fucking been, that I was deluded, fooling myself to believe I had changed in any fundamental way, especially regarding my violent temper. My mother passed through the room where my father and I were duking it out.

“I’ve seen a big change in you,” she said, as she walked with her coffee back into the bedroom to continue reading a murder mystery.

The second my mother roared in pain when I suggested her own mother had been brutal to her I remembered my vow not to fight with her. I’d promised myself when my father died five years earlier, as I’d promised him on his deathbed I would take care of her, that I would not make her angry as she ticked off the final years of her life. In the next moment I was as nimble as a young Fred Astaire.

“Do you want to have dinner at Lester’s or the Thai place?” I asked her.

“Oooh, let’s have Thai!” she said, as happily as a baby who’d been furious a second before, now flushed with wonder and joy, absorbed in the tinkling of the keys waving magically in front of her face.

For a bit more about my mother.

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