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What I Got from My Mother

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My mom is an incredibly stylish and put-together human. Don’t get me wrong, I get to see her in hair curlers and stained pajama pants regularly, but you guys never will.

She shops almost exclusively at Goodwill, which she brags about a little too much, but still finds ways to look effortlessly chic and outrageously well-assembled whenever she goes out.

Oh, and if you attempt to compliment her on any of this, she will deflect your praise by informing you that her whole outfit costs less than the hipsters charge for a latte around here. Compliment averted. I’ll also share that she’s going on 73, and her silver hair is the exact color of the moon.

My mom was born in a displaced person’s camp in Germany after World War II. She, her parents, and older brother came to New York through the docks of Brooklyn when she was a small child. (She corrects me when I mistake Ellis Island as their point of entry because, well, they just weren’t that fancy.)

Her parents opened a successful leather clothing factory in the loft district of Manhattan, where they encouraged their workers to unionize and made fringey, white leather wedding costumes for rock and roll royalty.

When they finally closed up Practical Leather and made the move to join the rest of us in Berkeley, California, they brought dress forms and industrial sewing machines with them. I remember playing in their garage as a kid and marveling at the huge bolts of leather and snakeskin.

My mom tells me about her childhood sometimes. She talks about how her mom would shame her, make her feel unloveable, and devalue her achievements compared to her older brother’s. “Who’s going to love you— you’re so fat,” her mom would say. And when my mom was thin, “I’ve seen people in concentration camps with more meat on their bones.”

It makes sense that these childhood experiences, against the backdrop of the Holocaust, informed many of my mom’s beliefs about herself. These were core beliefs like I have to suffer to earn my keep, and I don’t deserve to get my needs met, except in indirect and backhanded ways. Or I have to protect myself from pain and abandonment by keeping my outsides looking good no matter what.

Though my mother was loving and kind to me in a way her mother never was to her, I learned by example that the same truths applied to me.

Some of these core beliefs played out in fairly lighthearted ways. For instance, I grew up thinking that department store prices were literally insane, that it wasn’t okay to pay retail value, like, ever, and that the sneaky mental math that went along with these patterns entitled me to spend money on myself sometimes as if I actually deserved it. Don’t know what I mean when I say “mental math”? Allow me to expand.

It’s a Saturday, and my mom and I make a trip to the Goodwill flagship store in San Francisco. It’s that bright corner building at Mission and South Van Ness (alas, since relocated, but bear with me). There, we buy a new coat for $12.99 (we agree, the Bay Area thrift prices are disconcertingly high these days).

The original tags are intact, informing us that the coat’s retail value is in the neighborhood of, say, $200. According to our calculations, we’ve actually saved $187.01. The same applies to that vintage silk dress we get for $8.99, the fur-lined boots at $10.99, and the snakeskin belt for $4.99. This brings our total savings up to nearly $400.

After the friendly woman at the register rings us up, she lets us know how much we saved that day, which is when mom delivers her routine response. “Keandra,” she says, reading the woman’s name tag, “if we keep saving like this, we’ll go bankrupt!” Keandra laughs, and her twinkling eyes make contact with mom’s for a moment. Mom smiles obediently. We gather our new treasures and toss them in the back of mom’s beat-up Prius.

Since we’d scrimped and saved on all these items, mom reasons, we deserve a fancy coffee or lunch out. Our favorite sushi spot is right across the street.

Over sashimi and miso soup, mom tells me about what it was like to practice law as a woman many decades ago. I raise my eyebrows in disbelief when she tells me about the male law professor in London who called her “the Jewess.”

She recounts how the rotating cast of men who made up her opposing counsel tried to undermine her stature in court by asking her out for lunch in front of her clients. We laugh as she recalls the witty one-liners she’d use to stand her ground and lay claim to her authority as an attorney. “Not sure I’d be able to stomach food in your presence, Larry,” she’d respond. “Only if your wife will be joining us, Roger.”

My mom is a great storyteller, something else I hope will be part of my inheritance. She has a definite penchant for drama, and she speaks with conviction and emotion. Sometimes when she addresses me in the lawyer voice, poignant and righteous, I feel like I’ll burst into tears without warning.

It’s not that my heart breaks for the sick and broken world she’s describing or because of her dark projections about today’s political climate. My heart breaks because of hope. It breaks for the human potential for basic goodness, empathy, and justice.

The truth is, my heart breaks a lot. I’m a very sensitive person, she’s always told me. And it’s often too much for her when I cry. Hearing the hope in her message and feeling the swell of emotions within myself, I clench up instinctively. My jaw starts to quiver, and the insides of my mouth pucker as if from tart citrus.

Sometimes she’ll look over, puzzled by my apparent lack of response, to see my face contorted with the stubbornness of a small child who refuses to submit to the pain of her freshly skinned knee. The lawyer voice disappears suddenly.

“Enough of that,” she declares cheerfully. “Let’s get you a coffee, Rosie girl.” In addition to being extremely sensitive, she also considers me an unabashed sensualist. Both are now labels I have come to wear with a certain amount of pride and ownership.

We wind down the steep road that snakes from the hills to the gourmet flatlands of Berkeley. She has introduced me to a coffee drink called the “special” at the Cheese Board Collective. We drink our rich coffees in the dappled sunlight and admire the two-headed monkey puzzle across the street.

“Mother Nature is very dramatic, wouldn’t you say?” She smiles mischievously. “Such a showoff,” I agree. I shake my head at the flamboyant tree and tell her that to me, a monkey puzzle has come to serve as a representation of god. (The worst part is, I’m totally serious.)

I should have stopped myself. I know that word is very troubling to mom, so I take a deep breath and prepare for the coming debate. She’s a lawyer, for god’s sake. I’ll never win.

Despite my best intentions not to argue, I find myself clarifying with only slight indignation that for me, that word is just a container, a placeholder, that god means interconnectedness.

It describes the earth’s intelligent sense of humor or whatever she considers divine in this world. Certainly, there is divinity in this world. Take this strange dinosaur tree, for example.

But she won’t have any of it. Instead, she tells me one of my favorite stories about the family opinion of god, one she has long espoused. It’s one part of her that isn’t mine, but of course, I love the story.

When her mom, my Bubba, was in the hospital near death, the hospital staff sent for a rabbi. Because she was a Jew, the hospital staff assumed she’d like her last rites administered by a person of faith. But they were wrong.

Bubba was staunchly anti-religious and had joined the communist party many decades ago. In the old countries, she and her husband would set up lavish food tables outside the orthodox synagogue when religious Jews were fasting for the high holidays, if that gives you some idea. They wanted to clarify to the religious folk that they wouldn’t be struck dead for eating food on fast days.

It was an act at once meant to demonstrate the utter stupidity of religion and Bubba’s spirited insurrection, not so different from what happened later in the hospital.

When the rabbi came into her room, weak though she was, Bubba rolled over to expose her backside to the man of god. I like to think it took him a moment to understand the gesture, truly. Of course, the rabbi left, furious.

Later, my mom asked her, “Pesl, what will you do if you discover you’re wrong, that there really is a god?” Without missing a beat, Bubba delivered the story’s punchline: “I’ll break every window in his house.” Mom and I laugh uproariously and toast our artisanal coffees to Bubba’s spirit.

A few days earlier, in a fit of hypoxia, Bubba’s brain had mistaken her hospital room for a Nazi holding cell. She spoke angry Yiddish to my mom. “You’re stupid. You were always stupid— now you’re going to get us all killed!” she screamed. “Take the child out of here! What have you done? You stupid, stupid girl.” I try to reconcile the two stories in my mind but fail.

You see, in my mind, Bubba has become something of a legend. She’s the woman who peeled grapes for me, delicate child that I was. She made me hot chocolate in a pan by simmering a generous handful of chocolate chips with whole milk.

But in reality, she’s not a legend. She was a woman deeply traumatized by fear and war, by a grief that was too big to safely feel, that needed to be protected by a hard exterior. I wonder, once again, about what that must have been like for mom.

A trauma still too big to heal from, the defining history of a family, of too many families. A child’s confusion and adaptability, the unspoken agreement that the world would never be safe again, and the set of behaviors and attitudes designed to protect her from all the unfriendliness.

We can’t help but be products of our experience. That’s why I understood, even agreed with, mom’s justifiable hatred of Germany for so many years. Other kinds of racism are wrong, inexcusable, but this kind was absolutely warranted.

When I was twelve, she spent thousands of dollars more on family air travel to avoid a short layover in Frankfurt. It was just a few years ago that mom finally bought something German-made.

But she has changed. Perhaps mom will even have a German daughter-in-law. She had visited the Polish concentration camps and spent time with my younger brother when he lived in Berlin. I have watched with great admiration and hope as she learns to surrender the most burdensome pieces of her own inheritance.

Some beliefs are handed to us when we are too young to refuse them, but I watch as the space finally opens up for her to have a choice about these warped family heirlooms. For her parents, it seems that choice never came. And hers has just now become possible. She finally gets a choice after decades of carrying a backbreaking load she didn’t know she was allowed to put down.

It strikes me that mine is the first generation with the possibility of enduring healing from this trauma, and I feel grateful. For mom, the vulnerability was to let go of angry hate against an enemy out there, against a world of hatred and misunderstanding and violence.

But for me, it feels different. And this truth is almost too heartbreaking to admit. But somehow, I know that this profoundly shameful reality is mine to reckon with, that it’s the work I need to do to unburden my own heart, and that I may be free only by sharing it.

And here’s the truth: I don’t hate the Nazis. I don’t even hate Trump. Their actions make me sad and scared, but it’s not hatred I feel for them. I can see how sick they are, how their hearts and minds have been warped inhumanly by contempt and fear.

I imagine what it’s like to live a day in their bodies and hearts and feel glad I get to live in mine instead. The truth is that I don’t hate the Nazis. What I have come to hate and fear is my own Jewishness.

It seems that the final victory of racism or antisemitism isn’t the extermination of a people. The war is won when the beliefs of those who would violate us become the beliefs we secretly carry inside our own hearts.

See, I learned about the Holocaust at my Jewish day school. I was taught, quite inadvertently, I imagine, that my Jewishness was dangerous. I was taught that an unexcisable part of my identity was unsafe, a cause for great violence and hostility.

Instinctively, I learned that when people asked me about my “nationality” (I’m American, you asshole), the appropriate answer was Italian, never Eastern European, read: Jewish. No, that part of myself was untrustworthy, not to be admitted carelessly to a curious stranger at the bar.

So I hope what I got from my mother is more than an eye for thrift store cashmere and a flair for dramatic storytelling. There is a legacy much richer that I have my eye on.

Recently, mom told me that when she was 29, she realized she needed to practice law to make sense of her world. The law was a tool for creating justice when there was none. There was too much disparity in the world.

Amid a fractured world that might otherwise have swallowed her up, the law was her way of offering herself truly to Life. She wanted to represent the disenfranchised, to help people who were systematically taken advantage of and couldn’t advocate for themselves.

But this is the part I’ve always known instinctively: that she also practiced law because of the kind of hope that brings me to tears. To be defeated in spirit by the world’s injustice would mean she had forfeited her chance at ever truly belonging to life.

To do nothing in the wake of genocide, to surrender to the tragedy and the powerlessness of it all, would be the same as agreeing to her own annihilation. Sheep to the slaughter. So she chose hope, and she chose life, and she chose power. She made her life and work mean something in the face of overwhelming loss, tragedy, and despair.

Actually, that’s when hope is the most heartbreaking. It was only in sorting through her own inherited identity that this ethos emerged to free her from despair and meaninglessness.

The core beliefs that have sustained her in this effort to belong to life are the assets I want to claim as my birthright. And what are they?

These are the rallying words that enjoin me to action: Freedom is my personal responsibility, and I cannot be truly free in a world where others suffer so desperately. And most of all that, the real Final Solution is Love.

So that’s what I really hope I got from my mother. I want the will to fight for hope and love and justice, first within myself and then for others. I want her commitment to freedom from the bondage of hatred. I want the unshakable faith that what I do with my strange and precious life matters.

I want the family stubbornness because it will nowhere be more important than in the battle for the freedom of a beating heart. It’s why I think what Woody Guthrie said is most true when applied to a tender and fully human heart: “This machine kills fascists.”

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