28 February 2009

My mother, the genius!

"Of course, you can have a horse," said my mother. "It just has to sleep under your bed!"

My mother was a genius in more ways than one, although her real talent was in situations like the "horse issue." When I became horse-mad, as many girls do at some point, I wanted a horse.

Now, where was such a four-footed creature supposed to live in a Brooklyn brownstone? How would it get up the outside stairs or to the second floor bedrooms?Obviously, we hadn't thought it out carefully. But what was important was that Mom said we could have one. It wasn't her fault that the horse couldn't possibly fit under our bed. We even measured it!

It's a good thing we didn't know about today's lofted beds, which would have provided at least a miniature pony-friendly environment.

"Of course, you two can have a piece of cake. One of you cuts it and the other one gets first pick." We pulled out the rulers and slide rules on that one. If computers had been around then, we'd have found a computer program to calculate the angle of the cut and the volume of the cake. God forbid that the other person should get one crumb more than the other. It worked very well. One cuts, the other chooses. So simple. I keep waiting to hear this solution on the SuperNanny television show.

"Of course, you can try it," she said, as she smoked a very rare cigarette. I was about 5 and thought it looked interesting. It worked. One puff and I've never gone anywhere near cigarettes since. Instead of lecturing me on why it was bad and not for kids, she thought the experiment might work better. I don't think the word "dangerous" came into her decision - who knew back then that it really was dangerous? The tiny puff, horrible taste and ensuing coughing were enough for me for life.

When my mother was born, her parents were both working and my mother was cared for by her maternal grandmother, Little Grandma, in Newark, New Jersey. For five years, she "lived" Yiddish.

When it came time for her to go to school, they tried to register her. Of course, the principal and teachers only spoke English. After some unsuccessful conversations and some talk of this child being mentally-challenged because she couldn't understand the simplest of English sentences, they decided to try something. They brought in a Yiddish-speaking teacher for a very animated session with the child. The result was that not only wasn't she mentally-challenged, but that she knew enough to to skip a grade as she already knew how to read and write (albeit in Yiddish).

An excellent student throughout school, she attended Samuel J. Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, where she received such grades as a 98 in Organic Chemistry - who gets grades like that? She had great hopes of becoming a doctor like her maternal uncle, Dr. Louis (Leib) Tollin. Cornell University accepted her for pre-med.

Unfortunately, times were different back then, and although her mother wanted her to do whatever she wanted, her father, perhaps harking back to his shtetl childhood in Suchastow (Galicia->Poland->Ukraine), refused to allow her to consider that future. I was told he insisted she become a teacher, a respected job for a Jewish girl.

Off she went on the bus and subway into the "city" to Greenwich Village and NYU, instead of to upstate Ithaca. However, throughout her life, she was interested in all things medical, read journals, and everything she could find.

As a child, she had a wonderful singing voice, inherited from her mother, and was the descendant and niece of several hazzanim (cantors). Mom auditioned for the Ted Mack Amateur Hour on the radio - the American Idol of its day - and was selected to perform. Always somewhat shy, her stage fright got the best of her and she just couldn't sing that day.

My grandparents had already bought a large piece of land in Kauneonga Lake, near White Lake, in the Catskills, which would become the future Kauneonga Park bungalow colony - the family spent summers and holidays there. My mother was an excellent swimmer. The story was that she used to regularly swim across the lake in summer and, in winter, would ice skate across it.

The women in my family were excellent cooks, and my mother continued the tradition. Although raised in a traditional kosher home, that wasn't part of her persona. So we went to the Italian butcher for the best veal cutlets that would become excellent veal parmigiana, and delicious tender roasts, but also to the Jewish butcher for the best brisket, freshest ground meat and kosher chickens.

A favorite treat was going to the kosher butcher for ground meat. We were little cannibals and loved to eat the fresh ground meat sprinkled with kosher salt. Who knew we were gourmets and were really eating steak tartare?

I'm sure people's eyes are rolling at this raw meat business, but we never got sick and it was the most delicious gastronomic experience at that time of my life. The butcher would place some beautiful fresh ground meat on a piece of brown butcher paper, sprinkle it with coarse kosher salt and we'd eat it up in a flash. I do remember horrified looks on the faces of customers.

We were never allowed to do this at the Italian butcher. And it could not be ready- ground meat in a tray, it could only be fresh-ground to her order.

That ground meat became the best-ever meat loaf - I still make it - or stuffed peppers or spaghetti sauce. In the summer, when we went to mountains, one of her specialities was Chinese-style spareribs (kosher short ribs from Mendelson's in the village). Those were superb, but I've never made them myself.

The only time I remember a really major culinary screw-up was when she decided to buy a new-fangled blender and tried to make tuna salad in it. What poured out was not tuna salad as this planet knew it. Guess what? When you put enough matzo meal or Italian bread crumbs in the "soup," you could form patties and fry them up.

Like my grandmother, she was an excellent sewer, knitter and crocheter. In particular, I remember a black silk dress with a ruffled collar, and also a black-and-white tweed winter skirt and jacket. When our daughter was an infant, she created amazing things - an entire trunkful of sweaters, buntings, hats and outfits. Most of it was from Italian-language magazines - she couldn't read the language but figured out the sophisticated designs from the patterns. When we moved from Los Angeles to Southern Nevada, the entire trunk disappeared and I was heartbroken over the loss.

When my husband and I lived in Teheran, Mom would visit us. It was a long trip in those days, with few non-stop flights from New York. She was never afraid of going off exploring on her own in a foreign country where she didn't speak the language. She'd call a taxi, go off to the museums and have a great day.

She believed in taking responsibility, and she generally found a good solution for problems. She was always calm - I wish I had inherited that - and I don't remember her ever yelling at me - I'm sure she must have, but I just don't remember it.

Of course, there was that time I was watching cartoons on our tiny television screen and I spilled a glass of milk while sitting on a tiny bench at the leather-topped coffee table. Something happened way back then, I knew she was angry, but it really was an accident ... honest.

My mother was the descendant of generations of women and men who lived through the 1391 pogroms in Spain; through the Inquisition; through disasters, epidemics and historic events in Eastern Europe, surmounted the trials of immigration and personal tragedy. They survived and flourished by being "lucky," which I think was merely another word for wisely utilizing innate intelligence and wit.

We have hopefully inherited some of these traits from our ancestors.

The next question: What will our descendants say about us?


  1. Anonymous7:59 AM

    What can I say? Reading this was the best way for me to start my morning...

    I do, however, need to remind you of the one food-related horror that I will never forget.
    One cold day Mom made cabbage-soup - that wonderful sweet & sour combination. I remember sitting down at dinner that night anticipating that comforting blended flavor. We all took that first spoonful as Mom watched us. After a lot of quizzical looks, and gallons of water, she admitted what had happened that day.
    She was adjusting the flavors of the cooking soup and needed to add some salt. As she tipped the salt shaker over the pot the top fell off and ALL the salt spilled in. She must have thought we wouldn't notice. Needless to say the soup had to get tossed. But I learned that lesson - I am still very careful whenever I add salt to any recipe!

  2. Hi, sweetie! I'm glad you enjoyed this post and that you remembered the tale of the soup! I had completely blocked this from my familial memory bank because cooked cabbage in any form isn't on my list of incredible edibles. When we were kids and Mom or Grandma made those huge pots of fragrant stuffed cabbage, I would unroll each one, put the leaf to one side and only eat the meat stuffing. Coleslaw is different!