HOW FINALLY I UNDERSTAND MY MOTHER

96-Me-Young-HPCR-1I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story and I have, in another context, told it to you too.

My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as bookkeeper, a respectable profession. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

The first place she worked was a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to seek a better paid job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. And of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them.

My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant because no one would ever do that to her again.

I’ve told this story before, but I needed to retell it. Because I finally made a leap of understanding between this anecdote and connected it to a part of my mother I never quite “got.”


My mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It’s looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister, by the way, took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is still the original model with which I was born.

Following the last time I retold this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty or suggesting my nose was hideous. She was asking me if I wouldn’t prefer to “fit in” with the rest of society, if I wanted to not look so Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.Mom1973Paint

I always knew many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I knew non-white mothers frequently sent their lightest skinned children north at young ages hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until a few weeks ago, did it occur to me that my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I’ve heard stories from a lot of people who use racial discrimination as an excuse for all their failures. They see racists behind every rock, anti-Semites behind every smile. There are plenty of racists and bigots no matter where you go, but I’ve sailed through life ignoring it. I was always “just me.”

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. My personality was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age, and I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion I “get my nose fixed” was an attempt on her part to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered that anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. If Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 67? That is slow. You really didn’t know?”

I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently everyone else got it. Except me.


 

Second-Hand Stories – Daily Prompt



Categories: Anecdote, Daily Prompt, Racism and Bigotry

Tags: , , , , ,

40 replies

  1. Great twist to a story that must be told and retold!

    Like

  2. You great mother wanted the best for you. Today she definitely would think differently. I congratulate you. You have been a strong woman from the very beginning.I can forgive the people who judged others from their religion. Their education limited them.

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    • I’m sure the times in which she grew up shaped her. Born in 1910 and raised when horses were more common than cars, World War II and the Great Depression were her formative experiences, the major events that shaped her. I’m not sure our times are better.

      Ethnic cleansing? Race riots? Some of the most vitriolic hate posting on the Internet? I’m not sure she was wrong. I wish I could say she was.

      Like

  3. I’m with Garry. Stupified. And I’m also right there with you, Mrs. A….. Never know when stupidity will rear its ugly head. I always am rather please with myself when I don’t “get it” in this particular venue. Must mean I was well-raised from that standpoint. 😉

    And BTW… yer nose is hella nice. So is Mr A’s. So is mine, dammit. 😉

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  4. Amazing story Marilyn, and sad too, for your mother to have lived in a time when hiding her Jewishness, or yours, was something to consider. I am glad you came to understand her motivation, happy that it changes the perspective- and I assume puts the “nose job discussion” in a new light.

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  5. Great story! At first I was sad that your mother felt that she had to protect you like that (suggesting the nose job) but in the end, I did understand her point of view. We still live in an ugly world and it was her way of making your world better (in her mind). I am glad that you kept your nose. I agree. We are who we are and I see no reason for you to change ❤ ever…

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  6. I am always shocked when I hear you tell this story. I was born to the great master race, German. Yet my parents never made me feel superior because of my heritage. In fact, my father was always getting into trouble with the labor unions for hiring blacks and never hiring union carpenters to help him build his houses. It got him thrown off the roof of one of his houses one time. The unions said they wanted to teach him a lesson. He carried a gun to work after that.

    Like

  7. It’s a shame how people can internalize this kind of thing. I wonder about some of the people I grew up with- whether being Mexican was something holding them back or whether they just thought it was, or what. Hard to say.

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    • I know people who attribute every failure in their life to racism or some other form of bigotry. I’ve never subscribed to that, though certainly it can and does play a role in a lot of lives. Maybe it depends on where you live, where you are coming from, how you were raised, what kind of education you got. I simply never thought about it at all. I suppose it’s easier when one is white, Jewish or not.

      Like

  8. Quite a revelation after so long. If it had been me, I don’t know whether I’d’ve wanted to realise or not. Angry at the world or consider myself “not good enough”. Tough one.

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    • My career is over. It was what it was. All I can do at this point is wonder. I did well enough. I don’t feel cheated. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would have lasted longer, but that was just bad luck. I think maybe it was just as well I never considered bigotry as part of my equation. I just assumed it was up to me to make my world the way I wanted it and it worked out okay.

      Like

  9. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. Insight to the events of the past makes things weird, doesn’t it? It doesn’t change the events, but it makes them different somehow. Bigotry in any form usually confuses the hell out of me because I’m just… not.

    I remember a few years ago sitting at a table full of Korean students (they were visiting my college) when I suggested another student, who was sitting by herself at another table, might join us. To a person they all shook their heads and giggled. When I asked why not, one put her hand on my shoulder and said, very patiently, “She’s Chinese” as if that explained everything. I was like… wow.

    I made a point of sitting next to her on the bus home, because that shit don’t fly, not in my garden,

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  10. I’m glad you didn’t know until now. These truths hurt, even at our age, but, I’m still glad you didn’t figure it out until now. I’m sure you are much stronger than you were back when she suggested a nose-job and are better able to express your disappointment with prejudices of all sorts.

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  11. Humans continue cruelty and prejudice daily against other humans – I’m not sure society has evolved st all. It’s discouraging that it is 2014 and this is the state of humanity.

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  12. What a good mother. Despite her frequent hints to get you nosed fixed, she managed to raise you in such a way that you never realized you might ever be discriminated against due to your religion. Discrimination in any form is just so senseless.

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    • Yet it’s always with us, on some level or another. That I totally ignored it was as much a matter of my personality and tendency to assume everything is somehow both my fault and my responsibility as anything else. My mother was so non religious in her raising of us, I didn’t know I WAS Jewish until I hit the third grade and someone told me. I literally didn’t know. Even after that, it never occurred to me that it was socially significant. Weird.

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  13. Oh Marilyn, bless your heart. Your mother loved you and wanted to make life a little easier for you. That this BS existed is a horrible testament to our society. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it still exists to some degree and our society is so much the poorer for it.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    • And me? I totally missed the point for my entire life. Go figure, right?

      Like

    • Sometime it takes a little time for the message to get through. Nevertheless, it was there and you got it.
      Leslie

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    • This “BS” still exists. On our recent trek across northern New England, I was aware of people staring at us/me several times. I felt very uncomfortable. It was NOT the recognition of a familiar TV news celebrity. Yes, friends, it was something about the color of my skin. Unlike Marilyn, I have been aware since I was youngster who saw the looks and heard the words. Sad but not shocking.

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  14. I remember your write about filling out the form. Although I grew up in a predominantly jewish part of London, there were never any big problems. At the moment I am reading, for the first tim, A Tree Grew in Brooklyn. Am only 100 pages through, but it impresses me (again) the circumstances in NY at the beginning of the 20th century. Hard times for the immigrants all settling in their own parts of the town it seems. I see a lot of realistic wartime news programmes on the german TV and I see and hear reports that I wold never have throught possible in my naive London years.

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    • It wasn’t that I didn’t know about all that stuff that had gone on and to some degree, still WAS going on. I heard, I listened. I just never factored myself into the equation. Whatever happened to me, I figured it was my fault, my responsibility. It literally never crossed my mind to think “Antisemitism” as something that might actually affect me. I think maybe I was a bit dense.

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      • I grew up in a partially destroyed London. There was a lot of evidence in my part of the town, being near the docks. Our playgrounds were “debris” remainders of houses that once were, with cellars to explore and empty rooms, a real adventure playground. I just grew up in a postwar atmosphere, where my mum and dad made no secret of why there was a war. It was just part of my life, although I was a “goy”. I remember my high school had two kitchens and the cutlery with a “k” marked on it was for the jewish members (about 50% of the school children). They had there own prayers in the morning an we had ours. It was just part of daily life.

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        • A better way for the school system to behave than ours where if you are not Christian, you are out of luck. Not accommodating to any other faith … and now they whine that school prayer has been abolished. Gee. I wonder why!

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  15. Reblogged this on 61chrissterry and commented:
    It does not say much for any society, if people are to be judged solely on their religion, race, gender, or disability. We are all what we are and should be judged on how we conduct ourselves.

    Like

    • We should be judged as individuals, but I’m not sure that will ever happen. Forgetting, for the moment, about racism and other skin based bigotries, there’s always ageism and sexism which has not only NOT disappeared, I think it’s worse.

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      • Garry will relate. While it was hard for us to hide what we were having people, in my family, in all colors of the “racial rainbow”, one thing my mother was adamant about was speech patterns. No street slang or garbled words were allowed in the house. It was also recommended that we not do it outside of the home if we expected to communicate with the world, which, of course, was out to get us. And like you, Marilyn, I didn’t get the full weight of this until later in my life. Of course rather than giving it to us as a “suggestion”, it was a “rule” and breaking it meant tough love episodes. Michael Jackson screwed with his nose and his skin. What did it get him? More weirdness. He didn’t fool anyone, I could still tell he was black, and so could everyone else :-). We are what, and who, we are forever! But first and foremost we are human beings, people.

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        • From what he has told me, Garry grew up with the same rules you did. And he took those rules seriously. He still does and he really resents Black comedians who use street language and talk trash.

          I doubt plastic surgery, etc. ever fooled a bigot. They can sniff us out. I’m not even sure how, but they do. Maybe it’s in our eyes or something. But you, me, Garry … we all shared a belief we would forge our own path in the world. I doubt any of us used discrimination as an excuse, even though it probably DID come into play more than a few times. We just worked harder.

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  16. It does not say much for any society, if people are to be judged solely on their religion or race. We are all what we are and should be judged on how we conduct ourselves.

    Like

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