My mother was born on Flag Day and died one week shy of the Fourth of July. Over her 92 years she never saw the distinction between the personal and political, though she would never have phrased it that way. Had her parents not left the Old Country, she likely would have been a victim of a pogrom, destroyed in the Holocaust or become a Soviet serf in a miserable life behind the Iron Curtain.
But she was a lucky immigrant to the New World, born on a small farm in Ontario. Her parents brought her to the United States when she was 9. She bequeathed to me a favorite pin that I remember her wearing in the 1940s, a small globe set with a pearl, and framed with a red, white and blue banner exhorting one and all to "Remember Pearl Harbor."
She was an air raid warden in Washington during World War II, walking with her helmet and a flashlight through the darkened streets and alleys around Quackenbos Street, enforcing the blackout by making sure no light could show through curtains or shades. She recalled with a chuckle: "We were told we never knew when the Japanese or German bombers would show up."
She was the mother every teacher could count on to be a class mother, den mother or dance mother. She accompanied us to the library, zoo, botanical garden, the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. She baked heart-shaped cookies for Valentine's Day, ghost-shaped cookies for Halloween and flag-shaped cookies for the Fourth of July.
Mom loved being a mom. Some years ago she gave me a letter, sealed, with instructions to read it only after she died. I opened it when I sat by her bedside just after she breathed her last. Her soul had lifted from her body but her spirit remained in the words on the pages she wrote for her son, daughter, six grandchildren and three great grandchildren. It was filled with love and advice, nourishment and admonition, a carrot and (peppermint) stick.
"Please know," she wrote, in the strong handwriting I recognized from an earlier time, "how much love I had for you and although I know it's rare for so much love to be reciprocated I felt all of you loved me just as much."
She encouraged us to live up to our Jewish faith, to keep the traditions and observances as part of our roots, to understand the joy and pleasure she had in teaching us about them. Knowing that we might need a nudge, she added that "something that has lasted for over 6,000 years has to have something going for it."
"Above all, live your lives with Faith, Courage and Dignity and teach my beloved young ones to do so. I think the word dignity ties it all together. If you do anything that you all know I would wholeheartedly disapprove of, I'll haunt you. (Meanie, aren't I?)"
Mom was a beauty, often compared in her youth to Clara Bow, the silent movie actress with heart-shaped lips. She enjoyed her flapper days, but when she eloped (at 16) and became a mother a few years later she never thought she was missing out on anything more important than her husband, her children and her new responsibilities.
When I sent obituary information to a certain Washington newspaper (not my own), emphasizing her talents as the quintessential mother and grandmother and the pride she took in those homely talents - knitting sweaters and afghans, decorating the grandchildren's rooms with needlepoints of toy soldiers and trains, baking favorite cakes for birthdays and anniversaries - the young woman on the obituary desk was a bit impatient with me.
"But what did she actually do?"
I cited her volunteer work for charities. As a student at Eastern High School, she won a prize for being the fastest typist in Washington. She was once a secretary to a congressman, but all that was a long time ago. She shared an interest with her husband in the Redskins and the Senators.
"I guess we can use some of that."
I called back to see whether they could use a photograph. This time a man answered. "We don't use a photograph unless she's a movie star or a rock star." On the same page as my mom's obituary in that particular newspaper there was a big mug shot of rocker John Entwistle of The Who, whose bass guitar had a sound "you could wrap your arms around."
Well, I suppose that's the way we have to measure the importance of lives and the impact those lives make in our oh-so-hip culture. But I know several little people who would argue with that, preferring to wrap their arms around a great-grandmother, that's who.