top of page

Mommy Was a Complicated Woman

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

I had a small, private psychotherapy practice, from 1979 when I bought the brownstone in Park Slope until Morri was born in 1998. I have very fond memories of many of these patients, although I remember very little of what brought them to psychotherapy or what I may have done which they found helpful. I saw some of them for years. What I do remember are the things that they taught me.

One was an actor. He had had a big role in a very popular TV commercial, created a character who appeared in many ads and was rerun again and again. He was living largely on the residuals from that gig. He was having difficulty getting acting jobs which paid as well, but he kept acting, often for no salary.

I may have wondered why he did this.

“Actors act.”

What a teaching. Actors act. Writers write. Painters paint.

Mommy was a complicated woman.

Spiritually, she was a daughter of the suffragettes. Unheard of in her day, she moved out of her parents’ house without getting married. She had a commitment to social justice which came from I don’t know where. I never heard anything to suggest that she got it from her parents. Neither of her siblings shared her passion. But there she was, with my dad, a lifelong dedicated communist.

Was she radicalized by the depression? Was she radicalized by her childhood?

Her parents were not-so-atypical, non-observant, eastern European Jews, immigrants from Romania who settled in Hell’s Kitchen on Manhattan’s west side and managed somehow to open a haberdashery. In those days, business was all cash and each day, the proceeds had to be taken to the bank and deposited. Apparently, the trip to the bank was a dangerous walk. My grandfather figured that no one would suspect that a little girl was carrying cash, so Mommy would be sent with the money in a brown paper bag to make the deposits.

In those days trolleys were still pulled by horses. Mommy remembered seeing horses fall on the winter ice. A broken leg meant that the horse would have to be shot, apparently not an unusual occurrence.

Mommy became a teacher at a time when elementary school teachers were not required to have college degrees. She went to Normal School. As she told it, the key things to master in becoming a teacher were penmanship and posture. In her 90’s, my mother still had great posture, even as Alzheimer’s was robbing her memory. And she learned beautiful cursive writing, script. She could write on a blackboard with chalk. When I was struggling with sloppiness in 8th grade, mommy offered to help me with my penmanship. I wouldn’t hear of it. I am still writing illegibly.

She was a woman ahead of her time.

When I was young, she smoked Pall Malls — unfiltered, of course. Daddy did too. And she enjoyed a rye and ginger ale. Daddy was a scotch and soda man. They both quit smoking as soon as the evidence on cancer came out. She quit drinking, too, by the time I graduated from high school.

Mommy was always health conscious. Growing up, she had me drinking skim milk. She was an early adopter of No-Cal soda. Over the years, inspired by Linus Pauling whom she admired because of his courageous opposition to nuclear testing and the arms race, Mommy became more sophisticatedly health conscious. She followed Pauling’s advice: lots of vitamin C.

She was the first person we knew who went to a psychoanalyst. And she got my father to go and many of her friends. She took me to her shrink because I stammered when I was five and again at seven when I came home with nightmares from a terrible, first sleep-away camp experience.

Forced from her job as an elementary school teacher by the McCarthyite witch hunt in 1954, — fortunately she was able to get a “medical” retirement; she had been plagued by a stomach ulcer for years — she started a private tutoring practice. Very successful, she was the primary breadwinner in the family.

The year after my father died, Mommy travelled to Mongolia and slept in a yurt.

When she moved in with us in Brooklyn, she found a political club to join. She took public transportation to Manhattan for weekly high colonics, even as undiagnosed Alzheimer’s was making it harder for her to find her bus home.

Mommy was complicated. Her family joked about her fears, particularly of the rain. I grew up with her fear of the rain and catching cold, of fire and matches. But she also had the fearlessness of a suffragette.

I grew up with her stories of protest marches. She took me on my first protest when I was eight. My recollection is that we went to Washington to march outside the Supreme Court Building protesting the pending execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of spying for the Russians.

That was the big fear, beyond rain and matches. We were easy targets. The Jews are always easy targets. Mommy tried to reassure me: If I ever came home from school and they weren’t there, if they were arrested and falsely accused of spying because they stood up for peace and justice, their friends would take care of me. I understood “friends in the party.” I was frightened, frightened for years.

Mommy was complicated, an independent thinker, open to new ideas in politics and psychology and health.

And she was a wife, very sensitive to Daddy’s feelings. Never, ever did she throw in his face that she was the primary earner in the family. When Daddy brought home a new, beautiful piece of furniture that he had built, she always enthused although I knew, -- maybe he did too, -- that it worried her: He only made furniture for us when he had no paying jobs.

She was very smart. She knew her limitations. She knew I needed to get out from under her wing, and somehow found the money to send me to summer camp and then away to college.

During those summers, pretty much all the family vacation money went to pay for my camp. My parents’ vacations were pretty much road trips to visit me in Vermont. And they would add some meandering, usually along the Maine coast in Daddy’s second-hand station wagon. Daddy would bring his oil paints and a portable easel. One summer he put together an easel and a paint box for Mommy so that she could paint too.

They had stopped to paint on a roadside beach near Ogunquit. Ogunquit was quite an artist colony in those days and attracted not only artists but aficionados. There they are painting, and this guy stops and is standing behind Mommy as she works at her seascape.

He says something very flattering.

She points to Daddy. “He’s the real artist.”

“No, I like yours better.”

Mommy never painted again until after Daddy had died.

Then she painted often, took lessons, went to a summer, artists’ camp for adults.

Painters paint.

But Mommy never thought of herself as a painter. She just painted. We have her paintings hanging in our house along side Daddy’s. Maybe some of them are better.

Mommy lived thirty years longer than Daddy, but she too has been gone now twenty years. And now, I am appreciating her more.

As I retired, I looked forward to writing. I have always loved writing and been frightened of writing. I have spent years channeling my writing energy to things like grant proposals. I have been frightened of actually having the time to write. As I retired, I was asking myself, “Do you have the courage for a third career as a writer?”

And I argued with myself. Do you think you’ll be able to write as well as Alice Munro? How can I possibly learn to write that well? And then I had to laugh at myself. I am just beginning to let myself write. Munro has been doing this all her life. She’s a pro. Not just any pro. A Nobel Prize pro. The laughter was good.

Now appreciating Mommy, I can see the possibility of just writing without asking, “But are you a writer?”

And then maybe the question does answer itself.

“Writers write.”

59 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page