It’s Mom’s fault that I became a progressive. My earliest political memory is her patiently explaining to 5-year-old me why I could not have my favorite fruit, grapes. “We want the people who work picking grapes to be treated fairly,” she said. I didn’t really buy it, but I trusted her, and of course she was right. (Two years later, we had to boycott lettuce. This was far less of a problem.). The values were clear: play fair. Be good to people who have less than you. The earth is special, so don’t litter. Everybody is equal. (And of course, love your mother.). She was right about those, too.
Mom was born about ten years too early. In the early 1950’s, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study literature in Florence, specializing in Dante. Her friends from then tell me that her Italian was so good that Italians thought she was a native speaker. She was one of the best students in the then-new UCLA Italian Department. If it has been the 1960’s, she would have gotten her Ph.D. and spent her life studying the Divina Commedia. But it was the 1950’s. I once asked her, “why didn’t you get your doctorate?” She replied, “Quite honestly, it never occurred to me. It just never struck me that I could be a university professor.” And since it was the 1950’s, no one mentioned it. So she became a schoolteacher, entrancing years of students at Van Nuys High School with French, and Italian, and ancient, and even Latin (the last by staying one chapter ahead).
Then she settled down and raised two sons. The marriage didn’t work, but that didn’t matter: she threw all of her energy into raising her two boys. They weren’t perfect, but she did a hell of job. My brother and I always got what we needed. Once again, she was 10 years too early: in the mid-70’s, it started becoming okay to be a single Mom. In the 1960’s, it still held social stigma. Mom retooled her skills and became a librarian: that way, she could be home for us. She was not a careerist: her career was devoting herself to her children. That didn’t stop her from opening up the world of literature to dozens, maybe hundreds of schoolchildren.
She also sensed that we needed a Jewish education. My grandparents were from the generation that believed that you couldn’t be Jewish and American at the same time, and they chose American. (And liberal, which she got from them: “Ein veld (this world), onder veld (the world to come), und Roosevelt.”). So Mom didn’t know an Amidah from an Alienu, but she dragged us — sometimes kicking and screaming — to Hebrew School. “Imagine if you received a great treasure locked in an ugly, old, dirty box. It’s not very attractive because of the outside. But you would be crazy to throw away the box, right? So Judaism is the treasure.” Once again, she was right.
Always the house on Collins Street was there to come back to, through vacations, or joblessness, or breakups, or anything. Bartleby the Mom: she was always there. You can’t buy that for any amount of money. She spent the last 15 years studying at the UCLA PLATO Society, teaching other retired people about The Inferno, or the Mahabarata, or Mozart operas. And she loved it. And her friends loved her.
And then she wasn’t there. The first two strokes were in June, and she wasn’t the same. Her heart went into atrial fibrillation, pumping clots into her brain. My last conversation with her was with someone I barely recognized: too much of her brain had choked. Her right knee was in agony — her nerves just laughed at the Vicodin. So out came the morphine. And then another major stroke. And then she died.
So now she is gone. But we thank God for the precious gift of memory, for remembering the little things she did, and the big things, and the good things, and the ridiculous things. I love her very, very much. And I always will.