In honor of Mother's Day, I'd like to make some mention of my mother, who married my father in 1951. When he died in 1997, they were married almost 47 years.
As I've been doing this research about my father, I've been fortunate that I can ask my mother questions. She can add historical information, details about people whose names come up, and interesting stories. Sometimes when I start asking her my questions, though, she gets a little impatient. "I couldn't pay attention to all of that," she says. "I was taking care of your sisters. I had to keep the household together while he was doing all those things."
When Dad met Mom, she was 18 or 19, a pretty college student attending Sarah Lawrence College. She'd gone to the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School. She also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Her family, though firmly rooted in Jewish religious culture, was quite cosmopolitan. My maternal grandparents had a subscription to the New York Philharmonic for decades. They had a small art collection. They were politically progressive. My maternal grandmother was a member of the teacher's union in the 40s and requested teaching positions in Harlem. My parents met in the late 1940s through my mother's brother, who was a labor organizer, like my dad, and involved in the same radical circles.
My dad's radicalism and bohemianism were certainly things that must have attracted Mom when she first met him, but she was never really an activist: she was a "fellow traveler." Still she attended enough left wing political meetings and had enough friends who were radicals that she had trouble with McCarthyism when she was working as a teacher in the New York Citiy public schools in the 1950s.
At least as significant as my mother's background and her sophisticated, progressive family was that her family was tightly knit and financially stable. This was a stark contrast to my father's rocky family situation. His father, after whom I am named, was an irregular presence in his life. His mother, Gert, was under a lot of stress, with four sons to take care of and, at best, intermittent support from her husband. She was from the philanthropic Swig family, but their support was limited because they didn't trust her husband. The youngest of the Greenberg brothers, my dad lived alone with Gert during his teenage years in Brighton, MA. In addition to the obvious problems associated with having an absentee husband, Gert had other problems that led her to be cruel to Dad and to demand his emotional support in inappropriate ways. It was under these conditions that my father ran away to NYC when he was 17 years old and wound up as Frankie Newton's roommate. As one of my dad's sisters-in-law said to my mom at a recent Greenberg family reunion, "it's terrible what happened to Paul."
When it became evident that my mother and father would marry, Gert, said, "With Esther, Paul will be fine." To Gert it was clear that my mother could provide my father with an anchor that, to a point of negligence, his own family did not offer. The stability in my mother's family was clearly a big part of what drew my father to her. Once he found her, he pursued her relentlessly.
Despite all of the deficits he had in his upbringing, my father did remarkably well for himself. He was an autodidact who never finished high school and attended Columbia University for two years under the GI Bill. Without ever completing his formal education, he held good jobs and accomplished a great deal in his work life. Without good models from his own family, he nevertheless became a responsible, loving husband and father.
As a boy and as a teenager, my father suffered deep emotional and psychological wounds. There were basic social skills that he never developed. He was prone to fits of rage throughout his adulthood. He earned regular paychecks, and he took part in and relished his family life, but he never learned how to be an equal partner in running the household. He relied on my mother for a great deal and probably never entirely understood the toll it took on her when she was young or as she grew older. On some level, however, he knew very well how much he needed her in his life. Even during times when their relationship was very difficult, he maintained a deep romantic feeling for her.
On this Mother's Day I'd like to honor my mother for how she (and her parents) held our family together while my father did many of the things I am writing about in this blog. I'll end this with a short piece, which Dad wrote in 1994, to call up the romance that brought my parents together.
On a summer night in 1949 we were at a left wing rally. At the conclusion of the planning committee we marched through the crowd in a dramatic attempt to demonstrate a democratic spirit and to further whoop them up. I was carrying the red flag while the music blared the Internationale. I spotted her off to the side, took her hand, and we marched out together. Without having asked I had a "date" for the inner circle party after the rally. At the party the usual beer and pretzels and wild schemes for a non-existent revolution combined with guitars and folk songs.
The song leader started us on the Scottish ballad I Know Where I Am Going. When the song ended a comrade began to harangue: the song was "white chauvinist" because of the line "some say he is black but I say he is bonny." We were still holding hands. I leaned and whispered, "should we leave?" She put her head on my shoulder and said yes. Outside in the warm city night, in the light of the moon and a lamppost I looked into her pretty brown eyes and saw a place I had never been before. I kissed her forehead and then we were heading toward the subway. I could not speak. "Don't blow it" roared through my head. As we entered the subway my head stopped aching from the roar. We started to chatter about revolution. The words of the song were in my head now. "I know where I am going and I know who is going with me."