Thursday, January 1, 2009

One Helluva Mother

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last New Year’s, I wrote about why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. This Thanksgiving, I wrote about how many of my dreams have come true this year. So today, I’d like to write about my mother, who will have been gone ten years on January 3. It’s still hard to believe, sometimes, that I can’t simply pick up the phone and tell her something I’ve heard that only she would appreciate or ask her a question that only she could answer. My mother was a remarkable woman.

I’ve probably told some of these stories before, but this is how I’m telling it today. Judy was born in 1902 in a town in Hungary called Papa and emigrated to the US with her mother and her older sister in 1906. At Ellis Island, which she remembered as a vision of big arching windows, the immigration officials wrote her mother’s pronunciation of her name, Yoo-deet, as Edith, so she always signed herself Edith Judith or Edith J.—but we knew that anyone who called her Edith didn’t know her. With her father and two more little girls born in the US, they settled in Brooklyn. The older sister had a tragic story. A musical prodigy who was not quite good enough, she developed mental illness in her twenties and lived a wasted life in psychiatric institutions until she died at 81. She was the family secret, not revealed to the younger generation until after we were grown.

So my mother was the American daughter, the parentified child who helped her father in his struggling tailor’s shop, babysat her two younger sisters, spoke without a foreign accent, and had to take responsibility for institutionalizing her sister, a decision that haunted her her whole life. She was brilliant enough to graduate from high school at 15, enter law school (for which you didn’t need a college degree in 1921) at 19. She met my father in law school, and he was immediately smitten, but she was not. She wanted a career and a man who wasn’t honest and naive enough to tell her, “Judy, I’ll never be rich.” He became her faithful swain, and they finally married in 1936.

It was hard for a woman lawyer to get a job in the 1920s, and she finally found a niche writing and editing legal books for the publisher Prentice-Hall, at a time when employees’ bathroom breaks were clocked if not forbidden, and she and her writing partner were not only the first women in the legal department, but also the first Jews. She left the job when her children were born, but went back to work as a freelance writer and editor working from home when I was ten. I learned alphabetizing, editing, and proofreading literally at her knee. I also learned perfect sales resistance: “Hello? Sorry, I’m not interested.” CLUNK. I learned that it was good to have brains, that we were as good as anybody, and that women could do anything. We were all avid readers and champion spellers. I still remember my pride during one memorable Scrabble game when I spelled "exhilarated" correctly after my mother insisted it had an "i" and my father an "e" in the middle. Looking back, I wonder if they simply let the nine-year-old be right.

In 1960, when I went off to college, she dealt with her empty nest by returning to school herself. Within a few years she had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science and had to decide between being what we called “a Jewish dropout” and going on for a doctorate. She got her PhD at the age of 69, long before lifelong learning became commonplace, and taught Constitutional law at the City University of New York well into her seventies. She also edited a handbook of real estate appraisal—outlining exactly what she wanted from her expert contributors and rewriting the manuscripts they turned in with much more attention to quality than most books of the kind today—that sold steadily for years and went into a second edition, which she created as meticulously as the first. In her eighties, she struggled to learn about computers and always regretted that the Internet came along just too late for her to enjoy it.

In her nineties, she still swam, traveled, and rode the subway. She developed a friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she admired greatly and met by presenting herself as “the oldest living lawyer,” and who in turn saw her as a pioneering woman lawyer. She died at home at 96, still clever and funny and determined in spite of a stroke that slowed her down two years before her death. She was a source of inspiration for many younger women, especially those studying law or returning to school later in life.
She has three memorials: an inscription (with my father) on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island; a paving stone at her favorite spring-fed swimming pool in Central Jersey: “Bring a suit!” (13 characters more indicative of her attitude toward swimming than toward the law—I also learned “Never litigate!” at her knee); and her gravestone, which bears the epitaph she wrote for herself, found among her papers: “20th century American feminist from start to finish.”


Sharon Wildwind said...

What a wonderful woman. Your celebration of her made me feel all warm and mushy inside. My husband and I began our New Year's celebration by being the last two customers to leave the pool yesterday afternoon at closing time. I think "Bring a suit!" will be my motto for the coming year.

Hugs, and Happy New Year.

Julia Buckley said...

A beautiful tribute, Liz. Aside from what was obviously her indomitable spirit, I am guessing your mother's love of learning and her willingness to embrace it at any age helped to prolong her life. A wonderful example of the way that learning can illuminate from within.

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I've just discovered your entry, Liz. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman! I'm glad I read it today, on the January 3rd. I lost my first husband 11 years ago today.
Another coincidence--my grandmother was from Hungary. A town that I now how to pronounce but not spell--it sounds like Erdt, and is just outside of Budapest.