Coincidentally, the anniversary of my mom's death falls near Mother's Day. Ten years later, I am thinking of her.
My mom was born Benna Gerber in Syracuse, New York. She attended the University of Minnesota, where my dad saw her play a rabbit in a sorority skit. He was struck by her beauty (many were). After that, he called her "Bunny," and the name stuck.
My parents were second generation Jewish Americans.
Bunny's family came from Lithuania on her mother's side, from Poland on her father's. Like my dad's family, who were from the Ukraine (see "My dad, 1919-2012" on this blog), the families had fled for their lives over the course of turn-of-the-century pre-holocausts in Eastern Europe and Russia. They were able to find new lives in America. Thank you, America!
I am the eldest of three brothers. My mom told me that she and my dad decided not to have children until Hitler was confirmed dead. When she told me that, I looked up Hitler's death and found it was in fact nine months before my birth.
Why didn't my parents want to have kids in a world where Hitler had won? Hitler laid out his pathology himself. Here's a quote from Hitler:
Hate is more lasting than dislike.
Like many of Hitler's statements, this one is true. Hitler used bits of truth to decorate his most awful ideas. The problem wasn't the truth or untruth of these bits (since the faithful don't care what's true anyway) but their intent. In the quote above, the intent is to show that hate is wonderful because it lasts so long. Here's another Hitler quote:
Mankind has grown strong in eternal struggles and it will only perish through eternal peace.
The first part is arguably true. The human lot has been tough. We lost our Eden- whatever savanna or jungle it was- and have struggled for a new one ever since. Hitler's intent, however, is to claim that humanity is noble only when it struggles against nature and itself. When and if there is some kind of peace or equilibrium for humankind, according to Hitler we will become useless and pathetic, not enlightened or happy or anything. Hitler, you asshole.
My mom said she was devastated when the Nazis took over Germany and, in two years, expelled its entire intellectual class, because she had loved German culture. I recall she liked Goethe. Here's something Goethe wrote:
Divide and rule, the politician cries;
unite and lead is the watchword of the wise.
She liked some German Jews, too, like Einstein and Freud. We had books by Freud lying around the house.
My mom saw a male Freudian shrink, and my dad saw another one, with opposite results.
My dad was a pharmacist and union activist trying to come to terms with his successful businessman father. His shrink urged him to go into business, which he did.
My mom was a full-time homemaker who was frustrated that much of her mind was not required for the job. In middle-school she took first place in the New York State Algebra Competition, but she did not pursue advanced math. She read history, literature and psychology, but had limited society to discuss her reading. She took a history class at a community college and became close to her professor. He urged her to seek a Masters and PhD in history at UCLA.
After an initial period of interest and excitement, my mom dropped the UCLA plan after her shrink told her that her desire for advanced degrees was caused by "penis envy." I heard this from my dad after she died. I will never know how she succumbed to this idea.
My mom could stand her ground.
She did so on the question of where she would raise her children. My dad's idea was that he would get his pharmacy degree and run the family drug and liquor store in Bismarck, North Dakota, where I was born. That would have been a far cry, for me and my brothers, from being raised in Los Angeles.
Bismarck was a town of about 8,000, with eight Jewish families among a largely German demographic. My dad's family (and my mom and I after I was born) lived over the store, in what is now designated the "historic Lasken building." During the war, a clerk translated the conversations of German patrons discussing who would take title of the store after Hitler won. When my dad was five years old, he watched from his second floor bedroom window as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the street in front of the store. He recognized the ringleader as Bismarck's police chief and husband of his kindergarten teacher.
I was born in a German hospital. My mom told me that people came into her room "to stare at the Jewish baby." A German doctor performed my circumcision. For abstruse reasons, the procedure had to be done a second time by a certified mohel (I have a strange scar and the periodic delusion that I’m Harry Potter).
My grandfather hung out with the gentile power-brokers of the town, who had promised him that his son and his new wife could join their country club at some point (entry had been denied my grandparents). When the time came, however, my parents were denied entry. That was it for my mom. She agreed with her father-in-law, who had already left Bismarck and retired in Los Angeles, where he was a founding member of the Brentwood Country Club. With my mom voting to ditch Bismarck, my dad could no longer resits. When I was one-and-a-half, we left my hometown (cue Anatevka).
My mom (like my grandfather) was right about moving to Los Angeles. As the world collapses into the memories of feuds past, L.A. benefits from its relative lack of history. There are ghosts of the Chumash and residuals of the Mexican-American War, but almost no imprint from the Civil War. The city is contentious, but it lacks the East Coast's- and much of the Midwest's- more intense memories of endlessly bloody Old World history, or memories of a painful European birth, which go back further on the East than on the West Coast. Every political persuasion lives in Los Angeles, but without sufficient historical memory, nothing comes to a boil. Good choice, Mom!
I know my mother's family mostly through her stories. Her father, an itinerant photographer who died before I was born, was hounded for not being ambitious. My grandmother's sisters (whom I met when I was fourteen on a trip to Syracuse) berated him for being a schlemiel with no money, but my mom knew who he was. She said he was good at cooperating, that in human situations he saw the cooperative routes.
When I met my mom's aunts, I was taken aback. They had been wild flappers in the '20's, and they still were in the '60's. Lithuania must have been some place!
My family on both sides had lost their cultures, extensive groups of families, now a few diminishing threads in America. My paternal great-grandfather had fourteen children. He was devout. When the Cossacks attacked on the Sabbath, the family (including my grandfather, who was ten) hid in the fields and escaped harm, but my great-grandfather refused to interrupt Shabbat prayers and was cut down wearing his prayer shawls.
My grandfather's philosophical take-away from his father's death, according to my dad, was that, When you're dead you're dead.
My dad told me and my brothers when we were small that there is no God and that when you die you are gone. My mom seemed to go along with this, but sometimes I was not sure. She told me that when she was a girl she saw God as a wise old man.
After my mom died, my dad struggled to remain secular. Two years into his grief, he told me that he simply could not accept a universe that did not include my mom in it. He said that either my mom's spirit exists in some form, or he would have to reject the universe.
My mom became ill in her 80's. I don't know a lot about her illness, other than it involved her heart, because she never talked about it, never shared her tsuris. On her 85th birthday, I drove to Oceanside, where my parents had retired, to see her. I picked up no clues that she was sick. It was a warm and unexpectedly positive visit, assuaging painful memories of the jerk I had been to her in my clueless adolescence. The night after my visit she called me. She said that she knew about death, and that it was Ok...really. The word really haunts me today.
Two weeks later she and my dad were sitting across from each other in the living room, reading. My dad said that my mom looked up suddenly and said, Ouch! She said Ouch! two more times, and then, according to my dad, her eyes opened wide in what appeared to be, not pain or fear, but amazement, as if she were seeing something impossible to describe. Then she was gone.
My dad had the idea that my mom's spirit helped him find parking places. I have the same idea, feeling her presence especially when a spot appears just when I'm about to give up and do valet parking.
When else do I feel my mom's spirit? I feel it when I think about what she said about her father's feel for cooperation, or her sadness at Hitler's killing German culture. I feel it now, in this political moment, when Pandora's box is being opened, yet again, by our history-obsessed chimp brains.
Somewhere my mom is watching, telling me it will be ok, really.
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