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How My Mother Fooled Me


I was one of the lucky ones. I had a great mother. The fact that I did not fully appreciate that until after her death makes me typical -- I fear -- rather than special among sons. She easily forgave my obsession with my work, more than I now forgive myself for not making more of that time we had together.

I'm sure I sent her a card on Mother's Day, and I remembered her birthday -- October 13th -- and I bought her Christmas gifts (here with some help from my wife) but I regarded these as chores rather than pleasures. What do you buy for a woman whose only fashion weakness was earrings? More earrings? No, I did not neglect her. I lived a few blocks from her apartment and saw her once a week when I was in New York, mostly for dinner and to talk about the fortunes and misfortunes of our family. Most of all she expressed such pride in my young sons that she could never get enough of them. Although she was a constant presence in my life, I did not then realize that she was the great foundation on which my life was built. Freud noted that a son or daughter who early on experiences the unconditional love of a mother goes through life believing that he or she can achieve whatever he or she wishes. Well, I haven't achieved all my goals -- and I will probably never do so- - but I have never felt that they were beyond my reach -- and so I must agree with Sigmund in this matter. I owe "You can be anything you want" to my mother.

I went to college in an age of irony, rather than a time of greeting card sentiment so I rarely expressed the love I felt for my mother. That would have had all the soppiness of a Jolson song and I considered myself far above that. Sentiment, I believed, was feeling cheapened by a show of excessive emotion. So I abjured sentimentality. Because my mother did not achieve great things in a world that demands great things or offers oblivion -- it is hard to justify calling her a great woman -- but great she was. What made her so was not the obvious -- her beauty -- which was remarkable in that 1940's Hollywood way that made people look upon her so admiringly; the beauty that carried her from the most miserable poverty to work as a fashion model, then to marriage and motherhood -- her greatness lay in her great strength wedded to a compassion I have found in few others. People used to call it character. Best of all, she wore her character so lightly, never to make a show of virtue or to make another feel less of a human being because she, my mother, could feel deeply the pain of others while so many lived in a trap of self-love.

Best of all, she was no saint. She was stubborn as a mule, my father would say, and she clung to her beliefs which basically had to do with the rights of others to live their lives as they chose to live them -- without judgment -- a belief in a dignity that belongs to everyone born. She was lacking any of the bigotry which was so common in her generation, and it was a hard won personal view. If she had one great weakness it was her belief in the supremacy of family love above everything else. At the time I thought it a great limitation. Having claimed the role of mother it appeared that she rarely reached for more. Now I can understand that this family love is the way we first learn to care about others -- and the world beyond us. It is our school for loving. In 1963 when my first born son Nick was an infant suffering from a cold I heard the news on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. My mother arrived at my apartment moments later. I knew she was a great admirer of Kennedy and that his assassination would deeply upset her. I told her to sit down because I had some terrible news to convey. She looked up at me with those luminous brown eyes of hers, waiting for the worst. "President Kennedy has been assassinated," I told her. "That's awful," she replied, tears forming in her eyes, "but is the baby okay?"

Yes, she was somewhat limited I thought by bonds of family love that transcended all other feelings -- but it was the price she paid for having lived as a small child forced to endure the early death of her mother, her sister, and brother from tuberculosis in the squalor of poverty in the Lower East Side. She knew the importance of family by having lost her own. And yet, when she died, my late sister and I hired the smallest of rooms for the funeral service, we figured that few of her old friends were alive, and her first family, her brothers and sisters were long gone. We soon found the room overflowing with mourners and had to move the attendees to the largest chamber. My mother had fooled me. I thought that her devotion was mainly to family but here was a world of strangers coming to honor her life for the small but significant kindness that she had shown to them. She had succeeded in making everyone who knew her feel that they mattered. What an achievement for one lifetime.

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Author's postscript: Growing up during WW1, my mother came from a generation that hated waste.  Although she loved fine clothes she was a born recycler so clothes were carefully mended and worn for years. She instinctively understood the finite nature of the world's resources. Had she lived in our time I know she would have been a fervent environomentalist - in her simple way saying "it's enough - we don't need more of that." The idea of owning a new car every two years or falling in love with the latest gadget was not in her DNA. Yet she was very generous, never turning away anyone in need, be it for money to tide someone over during a hard time, or just offering to listen quietly to their troubles - without acting as a judge and jury.  SY.

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Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.
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