In the golden heyday of silence, they were more than mere stars. They were gods and idols, and the fabulous picture palaces of the era were cathedrals where the adoring multitudes worshipped.
--from Movies of the Silent Years edited by Ann Lloyd
My mother got a raw deal when she was born on January 17, 1925 to a frightened teenage girl feeling pangs of guilt over her impulsivity. It all began two years earlier when a nearly-16 year-old Celia Schneider, my grandmother, went to the movies and fell in love (grandmother’s description was more licentious than mine) with a musician in the orchestra.
There was a uniform-wearing orchestra because those were the days of silent films and live music was routine. My grandfather, as he was to become, was Salvatore Pellecia who was born in the south of Italy and who played the clarinet and later the saxophone, then regarded as a risqué instrument.
“It was the uniform I fell in love with,” my grandmother later explained. Several times Celia and Salvatore ran off and got married. Several times my Jewish grandfather, known to me only by his Yiddish designation Zeda, tracked down Salvatore and put him in jail for running off with an underage woman. Finally, Zeda gave up trying to control his daughter whose persistence resulted in an unchallenged marriage ceremony in Elkton, Maryland. Celia’s Jewish family mourned her as if she were dead as was customary in the Jewish community at the time when a Jew married a non-Jew.
My mother was born in Lexington, Kentucky where Salvatore had a gig. The labor was long and difficult. The physician used a forceps to pull the baby out from my grandmother’s womb, and the physician held the instrument too tightly causing the infant to bleed profusely. Celia took the bleeding of her baby to be a sign of her guilt, and she had to force herself to hold her child whose wound did not heal quickly. [Years later, when my mother was a stunningly beautiful woman, she talked with some frequency about going to a plastic surgeon and having the then nearly-unnoticeable scar removed.]
When Mother was two and a half, the talking motion picture The Jazz Singer premiered. Talkies destroyed Salvatore’s career in a country-wide layoff of silent movie orchestra musicians. Salvatore could not find work and the young family moved in with Salvatore’s parents. Mother’s first language was Italian. Later, when she could bring herself to speak of that period, Mother would say, “If I were ever hypnotized, I probably would remember the Italian I have forgotten.”
Salvatore was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, a dramatically paralyzing illness to which Mother attributed multiple explanations for frightening behavior which caused Celia reluctantly to return to her Jewish relatives. My grandmother did not like having to say she was sorry. The Depression and the poverty it brought combined with an incident where Salvatore, unable to find work for himself, insisted that he would not allow his wife to work. Celia had obtained a hard-to-find job in a candy factory. Salvatore reportedly said [I do not know the source for this reporting] that if Celia went to work, Salvatore would hurt my mother. That, my mother explained, was the catalyst for Celia’s penitent return to the Bronx, where Celia’s father and mother lived and where a place was found for Celia and Muriel in the home of Celia’s sister Tanta Masha and my great great Uncle Sol, who worked in a delicatessen.
Muriel was my mother’s first name, as recorded on the birth certificate. When pregnant, Celia had read a novel in which Muriel was the blind heroine. Upon returning to her Jewish family, Mother changed her first name to Miriam. In Biblical times, Miriam had been the sister of Moses and she sang a beautiful song, recorded in Exodus, after learning that the Egyptian army had drown and died. According to Jewish law, Mother was Jewish because her mother was Jewish. Her new family did not always recognize this reality. Celia’s older brother Abe, an accountant, found his sister a job in a garment factory sewing bras and girdles. (“I did uplifting work,” she later said describing the same job she held for more than three decades.) However, while Abe found his sister work, he did not talk to her for ten years as punishment for having married a non-Jew. At Tanta Masha’s dinner table, Celia sat in perpetual penance while Tanta Masha’s two sons taunted Mother saying, “You are a shiksa,” shiksa being a disparaging Yiddish word for someone who is not Jewish.
Twenty years later, Mother began a novel with the words, “You are a shiksa. You are a shiksa,” leaving the rest of the sentence and the novel uncompleted I found her weeping in the other room after reading what she had typed. Did you read what I wrote, she asked. No, I lied.
This story does not end with my mother’s emergence with a Jewish first name and a determination to prove (as she subsequently did prove) that she could be more Jewish than anyone. This story does not end without the clear understanding, which I have yet to provide, of what Mother achieved with the life she was given, the obstacles she overcame, and the ability (yet to be discussed) she had to position herself at the forefront of society’s trends.
“I was a pioneer,” my mother said repeatedly to describe a litany of accomplishments that began with her early understanding that she must change her personality to reflect a love of self that had eluded her through childhood and adolescence. “I went to therapy before anyone around me had ever heard of therapy.” In later years she said that her work in analysis served not only to help her, but to be a model for her children. “I wanted my children to know that they should not be afraid to ask for help if they need it.”
It is now Tuesday, September 7th. The 2 p.m. funeral at the cemetery at Mother’s synagogue is ended. The mourners take turns with the shovel to cover her casket with dirt. “Psychologically, the heart-rending thud of earth on the casket is enormously beneficial,” writes Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. “In proclaiming finality, it helps the mourner overcome the illusion that his relative still lives; it answers his disbelief that death has indeed claimed its victim; it quiets his lingering doubts that this may be only a bad dream. The earth-filling process dispels such illusions and starts the mourner on the way to recovery and reconciliation. To attempt to spare him this unpleasantness merely retards the psychological healing process.”
The scene shifts from Greensboro, NC where Rabbi Eliezer Havivi delivered the eulogy and my sister Sarah, my daughter Joanna, and my former wife Diana go across the street for lunch at the Olive Garden after eating the ritually-required hard-boiled eggs Sarah has been carrying in her purse. Meanwhile, using Skype, I read the 23rd Psalm to daughter Amelia in Spain. “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want….”
At 6:30, Rabbi David Ostrich parks at Addison Court at State College where more than 10 of my friends have assembled in the social hall—enough to form the Jewish equivalent of a quorum so we can read the Mourner’s Prayer, written not in Hebrew, as you might think by looking at the letters, but in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. “Magnified and sanctified be the name of God,” Rabbis Sidney Greenberg and Jonathan D. Levine translate, “in the world created according to the Devine will.” “In the world created according to the Devine will” indeed, I bristle—thinking not only of the obvious atrocities that come to mind, but of the often cruel way He/She treated Mother, a sentiment she would have both approved of and disagreed with.
My Mother was no fool. How she tolerated this notion of God’s will, I understand but cannot yet express—not yet.
For a variety of technical reasons, the official mourning period known as shiva ends prematurely on Wednesday night. (“You and I still have mourning obligations for a year,” my sister noted helpfully.) Even though shiva ends, Rabbi Ostrich said, “That does not mean that you cannot feel sad.”
My mouth is dry. The tears are replaced by a feeling similar to anemia with its sense of unlimited fatigue. Sometime soon, I will reenter the world where there are bills to pay and the politics of Medicare to discuss, especially President Obama’s evil plan to establish competitive bidding for durable medical equipment such as oxygen and battery powered wheel chairs so poor disabled individuals will have to wait for low cost providers to bring them air to breathe or batteries so my power chair can can continue to take me from my bed to the bathroom.
But I am not ready. The sense of outrage at the injustices of the world continues to be subsumed by the sense, as Dylan Thomas wrote, that “death shall have no dominion.”
My plan is to return (when life’s obligations let me) to Mother’s story as a way of understanding my own.