Who She Was: A Son's Search - One night in Beijing some years ago, I happened to attend a banquet celebrating an exchange program between American and Chinese scientists. The feast was held in a restaurant specializing in duck and renowned for utilizing every body part at some point in the meal. Just before all the participants toasted, a waiter brought us the roasted bird's head and a very sharp, very large cleaver. He then proceeded to split the skull so that the brain fell into two perfectly matched hemispheres.
I will spare you the details of what exactly became of that gray matter. What matters more to my purposes here is to say that the memory of one brain split into two complementary halves came to me often during the three years I spent researching and writing a book, Who She Was, about my late mother's coming-of-age in the Jewish immigrant Bronx of the Depression and World War II years. The image especially struck when friends, colleagues, and later readers, would ask me how it felt to have plunged back into the life of my mother. The operative word in the question, of course, was feel, because it presumed that my odyssey had been made purely through sentiment.
Yet the reality for me is that to discover and then tell my mother's story I had to operate with two distinct, if interdependent parts of my brain. One was the rational sector that let me function as a journalist and a social historian—locating sources, conducting interviews, searching for primary-source documents, drafting an outline and then choosing the most precise sentences and words for the printed page. The other sector was the emotional one, the one that was constantly, subtly reacting to what I found and producing—like some chemical secretion—the visceral responses for which I had to select a vocabulary.
We live in a country and a culture that is experiencing a boom in memoir, family history, and confessional narrative, and one of the dangers in our fixation is to believe that only feelings matter in reckoning with personal or parental experience. I certainly began my own project with more than enough strong emotions. I felt the unresolved grief of having lost my mother, Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, when she was 50 and I was 19. I felt the shame of having pushed her away from me in the last stages of her life, no matter how developmentally normal such distancing is for a teenaged boy, and for having failed to visit her grave for years after our family buried her. I felt haunted by the inability to remember the sound of her voice.
Even as I began my quest for her life as a young woman, however, I knew I sought more than the airbrushed portrait that might have seemed the balm for my wounds. I also knew I did not seek the kind of indictment one often reads by adult children against their parents, the litany of all the ways Mom or Dad did them wrong. I did not expect to discover any skeletons in any closets. I went in search of the quotidian details of my mother's existence, the elements of what I have come to call the Periodic Table of Human Nature—her loves, her yearnings, her ambitions, her frustrations, her mistakes. I could only mourn the real person, and the real person was a person with flaws and complexities.
It mattered tremendously to me that I get as close to provable truth as humanly possible. If imagination could have answered my soul-deep need to be reconciled to my mother, then I would have written a novel. But the only way I could bring my mother back to me from beyond the grave, the only way to understand the forces that made her into the woman I knew as my mother, was to explore her life and times with a researcher's tools. My conscious self tracked down her history, and my unconscious self reacted to each unearthed fact. Each half of my brain required the other. I could not have written the book without both the intellect and the spirit. I could not have resurrected my mother and I could not have made peace for myself.
I think back on my research process as a journey through concentric circles of informants. I started with the handful of people in the bull's-eye, those closest to my mother—her sister Fannie, her brother Seymour, her high school girlfriends Marion, Lillian and Vickie. All, to my good fortune, were alive and possessed of sharp memories. From them, I learned whom to look for in the next ring, the old boyfriends and would-be boyfriends, bosses and coworkers on jobs, classmates from night school. Then, to search for the potential sources who I could not even name, I posted inquiries on websites devoted to the Bronx and more specifically to alumni of my mother's alma mater of Morris High. I hired a Columbia graduate student to stuff a thousand envelopes with a form letter from me, soliciting information from the men and women, now elderly, who had attended City College's downtown branch at the same time as my mother in the 1940s.
Inevitably, I discovered, too, who was no longer alive. My mother's most confessional friend, Ruth, had died about three years before I started searching for her. As for Charlie, the Catholic man my mother had loved and at one time intended to marry, he had passed away nearly twenty years earlier. Having learned persistence and resourcefulness, if nothing else, in my years as a newspaper reporter, I tracked down their survivors—Ruth's sister, brother, and daughter; Charlie's widow, one living sister, and closest childhood friends.
Internet as Gateway
My efforts were made immeasurably more possible by the Internet. A few people told me, for example, that my mother had gone to the senior prom with a fellow named Howard Gropper. They also told me he lived somewhere on Long Island. I could find no person of the appropriate age of that name anywhere in New York State. Since the name was not an entirely common one, though, I decided to search through a public-records database, locateplus.com, and on my computer screen arose the home address and phone number of a Howard Gropper, age 80, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had made hundreds of cold-calls over the years as a reporter, so the prospect of one more did not phase me. Sure enough, Howard had been my mother's date, and a few months later I was sitting in his living room, hearing about how he treated my mother to a flower, a taxi, and a nightclub nightcap in addition to the prom, only to get a perfunctory, polite goodnight kiss for his trouble.
With Howard, as with everyone I interviewed, I made it clear that I was interested in my real mother, the complex and fallible person. I assured them I was prepared to hear anything they had to say. It is not that they immediately confided secrets or ruptured decades-old vows of silence. But if the confessional turn in our national culture has produced an unbearable narcissism among the young and middle-aged, then it has wonderfully liberated the older generation from an ingrained stoicism. For the first time in my life, I heard about the depths of poverty in which my mother grew up, something well beyond the family bromide I had often heard: "We were poor but everybody was poor, nobody knew the difference." They indeed were poor, so poor that, because my grandmother was too proud to go on home relief, she often resorted to picking discarded vegetables from the trash bins in the Jennings Street market.
Gingerly at times, never salaciously, my mother's contemporaries talked to me about the sexual code of their era, and how my mother felt constrained by it. A boyfriend of hers briefly during the war years delicately recalled the way she kissed him at the end of a date, so bold, and how he heard later from a mutual friend that my mother was upset he had not gone further. This boyfriend knew that neighborhood chippies were for sexual practice and nice girls like my mother were for marrying. My mother, I came to realize, wanted to obliterate the barrier between love and sexuality.
I was not shocked or shamed to encounter that carnal side of her. The mother I knew during my lifetime was a beautiful and vain woman, one who resisted having a mastectomy for breast cancer because she could not bear to be, as she put it, "mutilated" and "disfigured." Her allure was part of her life-force, something inextricably tied to her passions for intellectual growth and artistic expression. In hearing about her desires, I was achieving very much what I had set out to do, bringing her back from the dead.
Still, no amount of interviewing could answer all my questions, sate all my needs. Ideally, a biographer wants the primary-source materials such as diaries and letters to capture a subject in his or her own words. My mother was never a diarist, and she lived so close to her best friends that she never needed to correspond; they could just meet at the benches along Crotona Park. In a storage closet of my father's house, I did come upon a set of autobiographical short stories that my mother had written for various fiction classes at the New School in the 1960s. They still bore rejection letters from the New Yorker or Saturday Review, clipped to the manuscript with rusting paper clips. I circulated the stories to the relatives and friends in the innermost circle, and they helped mewinnow the facts from the inventions. I went through microfilm reels of the Bronx Home News, the borough's daily newspaper, and chanced upon a few mentions of my mother's academic awards and just as importantly the texture of daily life—the local German American Bund branch holding a party on Hitler's birthday, an unemployed man dying as he picketed for a job outside a WPA office, air-raid wardens being disciplined for holding rooftop parties when they were supposed to be surveilling. My mother's high school transcript had been destroyed in a fire at Morris, but I got her college records from the City College archives, and the employment records for her and my grandfather from the Social Security Administration.
Some of the most emotional moments of my mission took place in the company of those documents. I always had heard that my mother won a college scholarship, and there on her City transcript was a handwritten notation: State Scholarship #424 1941 Series. I called up the state Department of Education to find out how she had qualified for it and how much money it had provided. From the state archives came a photocopy of a list of scholarship recipients. Between my mother's name and her high school average (95.24) was a handwritten notation: Revoked.
The college transcript and Social Security records combined to explain why. My mother had started in February 1941 at Brooklyn College, the finest co-ed liberal-arts school in the public university system. After a semester, she transferred to City's downtown campus, which emphasized business classes. A year later, she shifted into the night division. There, she could not fit in enough credits to qualify as a full-time student, a stipulation of her scholarship. Starting at age 18, I could see in the employment records, my mother had become the primary breadwinner for her family. My grandfather was cursed with being a slow piece-worker, a sweet, ineffectual man who went jobless months at a time. So it fell to my mother, the eldest of the children, to drop her day classes in favor of a full-time position doing cost-accounting for an engineering firm. She wound up taking eight years to earn her degree, and far from graduating cum laude, as she had led friends and family to believe, she limped along with middling grades. No wonder: She was taking utilitarian courses in business administration, City downtown's specialty, having left her beloved languages and literature back in Brooklyn. In those archival pages, supposedly so dry, I found one of my mother's broken dreams.
A Mystery Suitor
Artifacts and snapshots also opened her past to me. Years before starting on my book, I was flipping through my aunt's photo album. I stopped at a shot of my mother as a teenager. Half of the photo had been cut away with scissors, omitting the person standing beside her. But a hand, a male hand, still held her left arm. I asked my aunt whose presence my mother had tried to eradicate. "That was Hy Keltz," my aunt replied. "Eleanor's first boyfriend." I never forgot that name, Hy Keltz, so resonant, and early in my book research I went looking for him. After some intermediate steps, I was ringing the doorbell on his apartment in Westchester County. Hy was cautious with me that day, mannerly but guarded, as I could well understand. He did acknowledge, though, that he and my mother had gone together—twice, in fact, once in high school and about five years later, during the war.
I brought the news of my meeting with Hy to my aunt, and she told me, "I have something to show you." She retreated into her bedroom and emerged with a small jewelry box. "After Eleanor died," she explained, "your father said I could take any of her jewelry I wanted. I didn't care about the expensive things. I just took a few that reminded me of her." Now she lifted up a silvery bracelet in the shape of two hearts coinciding in a third. On the outside were etched the words Forever Yours, and inside, All My Love, Hy To Ellie.
When I returned to see Hy a few weeks later, I handed him the bracelet. Now he was the one who said, "I have something to show you," and went into his bedroom. He came out holding a manila envelope, containing his war diary and the snapshots of him courting my mother while on home leave in 1944. Then he shared the story of the bracelet. On Hy's aircraft carrier in the Pacific, the main mechanic earned side money making jewelry from pieces of scrap aluminum otherwise used for repairs.
Back on ship after the eventful, amorous home leave, Hy decided he wanted to marry my mother. So he commissioned the bracelet as a kind of engagement ring, and had it inscribed at a Woolworth's in San Francisco on his way home at war's end.
As it turned out, my mother said no. Hy's plan was to open up a grocery in Brooklyn, and he wanted my mother to be a grocer's wife. After all she had given up already to support her family, I think, my mother could not bear to consign herself to the grocery counter, even alongside a man she loved. One of her closest friends told me my mother even offered to give Hy her weekly salary from the cost-accounting job so he could afford to hire someone else. He said no. My mother, the friend went on, had slid down to the floor crying. And so, in that bracelet, that piece of excess metal, I found another part of my lost mother, another unrealized dream.
On many nights during my years of researching and writing Who She Was, I sat up late in bed with my wife telling her what I had learned that day and letting the emotions flow out. I felt as if the passage from day into night mirrored the passage of information from the conscious self that had collected it to the unconscious self that reacted in a visceral way. I exulted when I relived my mother's academic achievements. I winced when I relived the humiliations of her first marriage. Sometimes I could only let out long sighs, as if exhaling from the burden, and the blessing, of carrying so much intimate history.