For years, I tried to figure out what my mother must have suffered to make her so obsessed with her bodily functions and those of the ones she loved, why she was so compulsive about keeping our modest ranch house in the Catskills so neat and spotless, why she was so certain our vacations would be ruined by rain or some worse catastrophe. When Rachel Dratch introduced Debbie Downer on “Saturday Night Live,” my brother sent me a montage of clips and captioned it, “Remind you of anyone we know?
I was well aware that my parents were the children of immigrant Jews who had fled the poverty and persecution of Eastern Europe. They survived the Depression and World War II. My mother lost her beloved father to a heart attack when she was in her teens. The family’s vulnerability to high cholesterol felled her older siblings. The same bad genes caused my mother to require not one but two bypasses; she suffered her own heart attack anyway, although it was Parkinson’s that killed her.
Her father’s death meant she couldn’t afford to go to college — not that anyone encouraged her to apply for a scholarship. A brilliant woman, she found a job as an executive secretary, but her boss kept chasing her around her desk, trying to pinch her bottom, so she was happy to quit when she married my father. No one in our family was stricken by the polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, so I laughed at her insistence that my siblings and I change out of our wet bathing suits immediately upon leaving any swimming pool. How could sitting around in a wet suit infect us with a virus, especially after we had been given the new vaccine? And how could any of these events have caused my mother to be so nervous, so obsessive, so pessimistic? My therapist was sure she must have been the victim of a devastating trauma. For decades, I tried to solve the mystery, as if my mother’s life were the Freudian puzzle in a movie by Alfred Hitchcock.
Only lately have I come to understand that her obsessions and fears were the product of all the events she experienced, the way a swimmer can be overcome not by a single rogue wave but a succession of smaller swells that keep knocking her off her feet, robbing her of breath and balance. Year after year, my mother must have learned that protecting yourself and your loved ones requires constant vigilance.
What changed my perspective? Studying history, paying attention to the news — and living through similar events myself.
As I’ve watched millions of families flee Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Central America and now Ukraine, I have felt how frightening it must have been for my grandparents to leave everyone and everything they knew and start over in a country where the language and customs baffled them. Not long ago, I got stuck in a traffic jam in the Bronx, where my mother grew up. There, amid the vendors hawking their wares on the crowded sidewalk, the homeless men rolled up in filthy blankets, the young mothers clutching babies to their chests while leading toddlers by the hand, I could see my mother as a little girl, desperate to attain a better life. No wonder she viewed every speck of dust and every microbe as a threat to her newfound safety and prosperity. How lonely and vulnerable she must have felt when she lost her father! And why did I ever think it funny that she kept getting chased by a boss who was determined to pinch her bottom?
Unlike my father, my mother didn’t serve in World War II. But the older I have grown —now the mother of a son, the teacher of so many draft-age students — the more sympathy I have developed for all those women who watched nearly every young man they knew march off to war.
I grew up thinking my family hadn’t lost anyone in the Holocaust, only to learn my grandmother’s brother and his family were slaughtered by the Nazis and/or their Ukrainian neighbors, most likely by being chased into a barn which was then set on fire. I hope I never know what the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe felt as they watched Nazi thugs march through their streets, beating up Jews and torching Jewish businesses. But I have a better idea than I used to now that I have witnessed white supremacists marching through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” terrorists shooting up synagogues, celebrities and politicians denouncing the supposed Jewish conspiracy to take over America, and a rabid mob storming our nation’s Capitol.
Until recently, I had no idea the KKK was very active in the small town in Sullivan County — the heart of the Borscht Belt — where I grew up. In the 1920s and ‘30s, fewer than 100 Black people lived in our area; rather, the Klan’s targets were Jews who, like my grandparents, had bought local farms and turned them into boardinghouses and hotels. The Klan regularly burned crosses on the hill behind my house. What effect must the lingering stench of those cross-burnings have had on my parents? How did they feel listening to America’s own Father Charles Coughlin ranting on the radio about the godless Jews who had created Communism and were conspiring to take over the world and kill all the Christians? Tens of millions of Americans tuned into Coughlin’s sermons every week. After Kristallnacht, he went on the air to proclaim that the German Jews were getting what they deserved.
My parents rarely went into detail about the antisemitism that must have frightened them when they were young. Maybe they didn’t want to scare us children. Maybe they thought antisemitism was so common that my siblings and I would notice it on our own. Neither did they discuss Senator Joseph McCarthy’s frenzied rampage against Communists and homosexuals. I don’t think any of our relatives were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but my mother’s father had been a card-carrying Socialist. Two of her cousins fought in the Abe Lincoln Brigade in Spain. And she knew or suspected that many of her cousins, nieces and nephews were gay.
Nor were Nazis, McCarthyites and right-wing Christian hate groups the only threat to my parents’ and grandparents’ health. Doctors could do little to save my mother’s father and siblings from the fatty sludge that blocked their arteries. My father was born in 1918, in the midst of the Spanish flu epidemic, which was particularly lethal for pregnant women. Childbirth, even in a normal year, must have terrified most women. Tuberculosis still raged through the Lower East Side, where my grandparents labored in the sweatshops. Two of my great-aunts became infected with TB, which is how my family ended up in the Catskills: My father’s father and his siblings bought a farm “in the mountains” so their sisters could clear their lungs. (Jews wouldn’t have been accepted as patients at most sanitariums.) As often as my mother invoked polio as a kind of boogeyman lurking in our hotel’s swimming pool, I didn’t credit the threat until I met people my age who had been stricken as children and still couldn’t walk. How anxious most parents must have been. One minute your child was fine; the next, that same child might drop down dead, lose the use of their legs or need an iron lung to continue breathing.
My life has been easier than my mother’s. But I now understand her better than I did when I was young. Like most of us, I recently received a crash course in the panic and sorrow a pandemic can instill. In 2020, I was holed up in Manhattan, listening to ambulances scream by outside. Leaving my apartment meant passing a trailer that contained the corpses the morgue at St. Luke’s could no longer hold or the tent hospital that had been set up in Central Park—people were dying in Central Park! Once, I saw two cops emerge from a building carrying a man by the arms and legs, trying to get the poor man to the hospital before he died. When I think of all we have lost, I can barely imagine the consequences we will suffer for years to come.
Not only do I forgive my parents for worrying I might fall ill or succumb to injury, I understand why they were so uneasy about my sister and me living and traveling on our own. Over the years, I have been sexually assaulted by a drunk who got into my bedroom while I was sleeping; ridden in a bus that some bored Oklahomans riddled with bullets (though no one inside was hurt); been kidnapped by two fake taxi drivers, who, thank goodness, only wanted to steal my wallet. As a result, I avoid sleeping in any room whose door can’t be bolted from the inside, taking a bus across the western United States or using ride-sharing apps instead of licensed taxis. I imagine that my grandchildren will laugh to hear that I washed down my groceries with bleach, roll their eyes when I caution them to put on masks before boarding a plane, and think I’m overreacting when I warn them about Uber and Lyft.
I will never completely solve the mystery of why my mother acted the way she did. Like me, many of us have underestimated the effects of bigotry, poverty, war, xenophobia and homophobia on earlier generations. Did surviving the Great Depression, losing her father or being chased around a desk by a lecherous boss explain why my mother so rarely hugged or kissed me, tucked me in or comforted me when I cried? No. But now that I am in my 60s, I understand her foibles, fears, and idiosyncrasies in ways I couldn’t when I was young. Sadly, it’s too late to let her know.