For those who know me, this may seem surprising, since today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of my mother Marie. (Marie was not her real name, but it’s what we called her, for a host of simple and complicated family reasons. I even insisted that it be put on her tombstone along with her “real” name.) In the past, in the years shortly after her death, I marked the days coming up to it and the anniversary itself with copious private tears, with the tears getting more private with every passing year. Big girls (and certainly not big boys) are not supposed to cry, right? I have, correspondingly, trained myself to cry less at her memory. Even now when I cry I think of how my mother used to complain about my crying as a child. I was the cryingist and whiningist child in America, she used to say. My crying and whining by themselves didn’t so much upset my mother; it was the reasons that I cried and whined. Like many children, I cried for many minor matters, assuredly. But I more often cried for things that were beyond my own personal childish grievances. I was always wanting things to be better and different, big things, things for everybody.
So, for example, I used to cry when my mother had to go off to one of her three jobs. I wondered why she had to work so hard and be gone all the time. (I remember, for example, overhearing my mother confiding to a friend that one of her employers owed her a dollar and a quarter from a previous week. She then spent at least half an hour trying to answer my query about what a dollar and a quarter was and why it mattered so much. Once I understood, I ended up crying because I didn’t want us to need the money. ) I didn’t understand that the days of my infancy and early toddlerhood, when she had no job at all and was with me much more of the time, were some of the worst days of her life. As a teen-aged mother she had struggled every day in a home where she contended with her own mother and with a community that looked down on her.
Later, when my mother sent me to live with my aunt while she, as she called it, “got her life together” (she eventually remarried and then spent time smoothing the way for her children to join her in her new home), I used to hide in the closet at my aunt’s house and cry. I cried not only because I felt abandoned but also because my mother couldn’t live like the mothers I read about in Dick and Jane books. When I was finally able to rejoin my mother I almost never cried in front of her. I had learned many things during my time away from her, among them that it was best to be as little trouble as possible if I expected to fit into her new life. She had enough troubles of her own and really didn’t need the added burden of dealing with America’s cryingist and whiningist child. The only time I remember crying in front of my mother between third and twelfth grades was when we were in an auto accident together when I was 14. During those years my tears were in private at all times, and even in private my tears were more like prayers, fervid supplications that my life and her life would be better at some point in the future.
When Marie died I cried incessantly for months afterward, so much so that my toddler twins used to take up stations on either side of me and pat my back while chanting “Don’t cry mommy, don’t cry.” Except at Marie’s funeral, however, I never cried public tears. Mostly I cried at home in front of my children. I suppose that some would say that tears should especially be hidden from young children, so as not to upset them. I felt the opposite, though. My tears were a signal to them and to myself that I was at home and they were at home, and that at home grief should no more be hidden than happiness. Moreover, I cried at the realization that besides me my children now had no other female relative in the world who would adore them, and I blamed myself for somehow not having a large, loving family to give to them. I cried the most at the realization that Marie’s life, and my life, had finally gotten better, and she wasn’t here to enjoy it.
Today for the first time in many years I cried just a little, even with full freedom to give voice to my sadness. Instead of crying I laughed a lot at the joy her memory evoked. In the years right before her death, when I was first starting off in law practice, I began to put away the stoic pose of my late childhood and college years and had taken to sharing with Marie the trials and tribulations of my work life. Marie, bless her soul, would have none of it. At the beginning of any such conversation she would ignore my complaints and engage me on what she felt to be the truly important stuff of life. “What did you eat today?” she would ask. When I persisted in complaining about something at work she would grow exasperated. “Why are you upset about these things?” she would ask. “Don’t whine, work. I raised you so that you could be in a position not to kiss anybody’s [behind. Though Marie could be as polished as a wealthy suburban matron in public, she could at times curse like a sailor when the situation called for it.] Work hard not only for the sake of hard work, but so that you can get out if you must. Vote with your feet.” Then, my mother would go back to her conversation about the real substance of life. “Now, what did you eat today? And did you spend some time outside today?”
I thought at first that the reason my mother refused to engage me in the details of my professional life was that it was too alien for her, too far removed from her own life. My mother had, after all, scarcely attended a regular high school, having studied much of the time at a “continuation school” for pregnant girls and later finishing up at a night school. But I figured out that this wasn’t the reason at all that my mother behaved this way. She was not well educated, but she was certainly bright. She understood the details of my lawyer’s life. The fact was, she understood them better that I did. What she understood was that as important as I thought that my professional life was, it was but a shadow of the seemingly simple but immensely rich and complex internal workings of my personal life. Only when that personal part of my life was well founded could any of the rest of it come together.
I am reminded of a book that I came across recently called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Roger Taylor. In it the authors discuss one of the less-publicized aspects of Einstein’s life, his personal interactions with black people. Notwithstanding the almost shocking absence of black people from the movie “IQ,” a lighthearted fiction that portrays aspects of Einstein's life in the town of Princeton, there were a significant number of black people living in the town during Einstein’s years there, and he had close associations with many of them. The book offers insights from many members of Princeton’s black community on why Einstein was seemingly so comfortable in the black community, both within Princeton and outside of it. It was more than a great man’s admiration for a “simple” folk; after all, he counted among his friends some of the most brilliant and accomplished blacks of the day, such as Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson. What, I think, made Einstein so comfortable was that just walking around Princeton’s Witherspoon Street black community and talking with the residents there about apparently small things, as Einstein often did, made his own scientific work make sense. Such walks and talks were, I would argue, the real stuff of Einstein’s life. As one respondent in the book wrote about Einstein’s walks in the black community, there “he was free.”
So, my mother Marie, like Einstein (she would be tickled by the pairing, because she would know that it was, at the same time, improbable yet highly probable), understood that if life could not be reduced to its smallest elements, then larger structures, such as Law and Science, stood in peril of toppling.
Rest in peace, Marie.