In celebration of Mother’s Day this weekend, I acknowledge how much of what I am is attributable to the lives and decisions of the women who came before me.
My mother, Janet M. Eisenberg, is 92 years old, in hospice care outside Chicago. She was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, raised 97 miles north of there in Cadillac, and moved after WW II to Chicago where she and my father raised three sons.
In 1965, as I was graduating high school, she called me to sit at the green, Formica table in our kitchen. “Let’s talk about college,” she said. “You can go anywhere you like as long as you live at home, help your father in his business, and pay for it yourself.”
I applied to Roosevelt, DePaul and the UofI in Chicago, getting into all three, and choosing DePaul. I commuted four years, was elected a class president, and graduated age 20 with a BA in economics.
For a long time, I thought that this had been a bad deal; that my brothers and cousins who had gone away to college had been treated better. I knew that Dad’s used car business had been started with $300 from my bar mitzvah savings, $300 from my brother’s bar mitzvah account and a like amount which Mom and Dad had saved, plus $1,000 borrowed on his life insurance. I knew that it only succeeded because she had begun to work. And that the idea of going to live on campus was implausible in any event.
What I didn’t appreciate was how much I had learned standing on a street corner, selling “Used Cars with Many Unused Miles” to people of modest means, or in accompanying Dad as he negotiated to buy numbers of traded in vehicles at a time. Far from a hindrance, it was a blessing.
My maternal grandmother, Fannie Goldblatt Young, was likewise critical in the definition of who I would become.
Fannie was born in 1900 in Kvedarna, a Lithuanian village 30 miles inland from the Baltic Sea port of Memel/Klaipeda. She,a sister, and her mother were abandoned by her father in 1903, moving to Chicago the following year with help from family in South Africa.
In Chicago, she met and married my grandfather, who moved them to Northern Michigan where he operated a scrap metal business. With conclusion of WW II, she announced that she would be taking their three daughters (and one son) to Chicago, not returning until each daughter had found a Jewish husband. That is how my parents were married.
Fannie’s mother was similarly determined. Three of her brothers had emigrated to the northeastern area of South Africa, trying at first to explore for gold but later operating a hotel, a general store, and agricultural properties. One brother in particular implored Gertrude to join them in SA, sending funds in hopes she would do so.
Whether it was what she had heard about the two Boer Wars (1890 to 1900), the concentration camps which women and children there had been sent to, the strange jungle animals, or the racial divides, she made the decision to try Chicago.
Once again rejected by the errant husband, she was matched with a widower whose wife had just died leaving him with six young children. Her two made eight, and they would have five more to make 13.
Each of these women – Gertrude, Fannie, and Mother – were strong in ways that modern women are not always called upon to be. If I am very, very lucky, some part of them lives within me.
Happy Mother’s Day.