"Mention the one thing that's most memorable about my mother?" What an impossible assignment! "Let me tell you what other people have told me about my mother instead," I said.
My life-long friend Joan Roth introduced me to her friends at the Jewish Women's Archive by saying, "Linda had the most incredibly wonderful mother—everyone wished they had a mother like her." Throughout our lives, my siblings and I have had the experience of meeting people who say to us, "Oh, how lucky you are (were) to have Esther as your mother. She taught me…she helped me…she introduced me…she included me…she gave me the confidence to…she was such an important part of my life." And they (mostly women) would go on to tell us stories about how our mother mentored them, gave them advice, gave them ideas, and served as a role model – as a mother, a community leader, a generous and devoted friend, and an arbiter of taste and elegance. Everyone had a favorite Esther story.
My mother, Esther Kasle Jones, was born in 1915 in Toledo, Ohio, of very young parents who had come to the United States from Belarus less than ten years earlier. They began with nothing; by the time my grandfather died he was a very successful leader of the Jewish community of Detroit, where they had settled when my mother was quite young. Mother was the oldest. She had three brothers; the youngest of whom was fourteen years younger than she, and I think my mother felt like a second mother to him.
I don't know much about Mother as a student (she went through Detroit public schools, attended the University of Michigan for two years, left, and a few years later married my father), but I do know about her summers. Each summer my mother, her brothers, and her cousins would drive from Detroit to a Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire. One year when she was a counselor, my mother met my father who was working there for the summer (his sister-in-law's mother was the founder of the camp). The camp became a central part of our family life, not just because my parents met there (one of my mother's brothers met his wife there, too). All of my generation went there – my siblings and all of my cousins on both sides of my family. Almost all of the next generation went there as well (my children and all of their cousins). And today there are already four young campers of the next generation! My mother was an important part of the history of the camp. As in so many other areas, Esther was a community and social leader. If she did something, many others followed. It was not accidental that by the mid-1950s almost half the camp came from Detroit! When Mother died, the camp established a prize in her memory—for the camper who was kindest and most welcoming to all her bunkmates and friends.
My father was the love of my mother's life, and she of his. I don't know if he ever said "no" to her. Once they were married and settled in Detroit, Mother turned her attention to her family. She was never the caricatural "Jewish mother"— no insisting that we eat, and no guilt for not writing or calling. But she was the farthest thing from a push-over. She had extraordinarily high expectations for all of us (you had to be strong to be part of our family), and she made no bones about it. "Remember who you are," she would say, meaning that we should know ourselves and make the best of our abilities. One of her other favorite sayings was "Think tall," meaning that we should aspire to be the best that we can, and we should take pride in who we are and what we do.
Her chief philanthropic activities were with the Jewish community. She was a strong leader—head of the women's division of the UJA in Detroit, and later on the national women's division board (she never made a fuss about that—it was her turn to do it so she did it; this was her attitude). In all these and other philanthropic enterprises she preferred to be in the background; she let others take credit for successes and worked quietly for what she thought was important. But she always went out of her way to work with the next generation, mentoring them and training them to become the leaders of tomorrow.
She not only worked for the community but she also started her own business: a boutique inside a larger women's clothing store, selling things she thought were beautiful: linens, towels, and gifts. Her friends and colleagues, who knew her good taste, would come to her for help in choosing "just the right thing," and they were never disappointed. She closed the boutique when she and my father decided to spend more time in Longboat Key, Florida (a place that was little known when they started going there—independent as always, they chose what was best, and, as always, others followed).
"Domestic virtues?" She drove every car pool imaginable. She was the Brownie and Girl Scout leader, and the camp recruiter. She was a wonderful cook in the "Jewish" tradition and beyond. We have a wonderful family collection of her recipes, including gefilte fish and the best cheesecake imaginable. She excelled at needlework and knitting; gardening and flower arranging; and entertaining with a flare. The list goes on and on.
Jewish traditions were of great importance to Mother. We called her "Queen Esther"; her beauty and unique sense of elegance entitled her to that nickname. She was also a model "woman of valor" who believed in, and acted upon, the traditions of tikkun olam.
All these are the visible qualities, but it's the invisible ones that are really important. How did she react inside the family? As with any family, and particularly one with high expectations for their children, there were tense moments. Mother may have worried about choices we made, but once we made them, she was one hundred percent supportive. She had high standards, as I've said, but we also felt enormous love and equally enormous respect and encouragement. When I chose to work full time after having children, she never questioned my decision but rather actively helped me work out the details. If I had to travel out of town on short notice and had no one to stay with the children, she would drop everything to fly in from Detroit.
There was also humor and a great deal of laughter. Nothing was sacred; we could joke about just about anything, and we did, with Mother often taking the lead. When my older sister and I started to argue onstage while we were playing a duet in a piano recital, we could hear Mother laughing so hard she was crying from her seat in the third row.
Family was hugely important to her. She played an active role in the lives of all of her children and grandchildren. Though none of my siblings lived in Detroit, she traveled to all of us, and we to her—winter vacations, spring breaks, summer visits to camp, Jewish holidays, and in between.
The support she gave so freely to her family was also given to others. So many women have told me that Esther was their role model—starting her own business, working in the philanthropic world and devoting herself to her family. So many have said, "Your mother gave me the impetus to do what I'm doing, and showed me how to do it." What was important to her? Being true to yourself, developing your abilities, connecting with the family, the community, and the world.
The Jewish Women's Archive started the We Remember project to celebrate contemporary American Jewish women who had a strong, positive, lasting influence on others. They may not have had public recognition (certainly my mother didn't seek that) but their contributions to others, one by one, have left enduring legacies in their local communities and in the world at large. Too often we base our judgments on professional achievement alone; we need to remember that human interactions, though perhaps less publicly visible, are indispensable. Every day I wear something that belonged to my mother (I am not the only person in my family who does that); every day I see her in the mirror; every day I miss her; every day she is a model for what women can accomplish and be.