A NOSE JOB FOR MOM – Marilyn Armstrong

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

At age 22

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 a bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

The first place she worked was in 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 get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. 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 so no one would ever do that to her again.Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “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 looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty enough. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought had never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

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. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

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

September 15, 1990 – My family at our wedding. I think most of us look a bit alike!

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered 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. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 72? That is a bit slow. You really didn’t know?” I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently, everyone else got it. Except me.



Categories: Marilyn Armstrong, Mother and motherhood, Personal, Racism and Bigotry, Relationships

Tags: , , , , , ,

56 replies

  1. I think it’s to your credit that it wasn’t the first thing you thought of. Your nose? Could be Italian as much as Jewish.

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  2. It’s so sad your mother felt she had to try to protect you. I had never thought about the shape of noses before. Ever. Until you mentioned it. So I am as innocent as you in this respect. Thank goodness. I think. I wonder why I didn’t know. My mother has always tried to protect me from unkind people. She definitely wanted me to ‘fit in’ rather than stand out. Sadly, all my life I have frustrated her efforts to keep me safe by putting my head above the parapet and drawing attention to myself. I think she is mortified that I speak on the radio and write for magazines. She would much rather I be anonymous- and safe.

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  3. It’s so interesting how we do that. I did that with my grandmother but only after she died. I had thought I was “bad” or “wrong” for so many things when it was really her either trying to help me or motivate me coming from a place of protection or fear. Knowing that has made me aware of my own attempts at doing this with my children. It’s different because of the culture and time, but it’s also so much the same. I absolutely loved your story–wonderfully told.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It took me such a long time to figure it out. But being a young woman in the 1960s was such a different experience than her growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. And yet — here we are again. How did we wind up back here again? It’s mind-boggling.

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  4. I’m kind of glad you went through life not knowing. Is that horrible of me? Do I prefer a rose-colored-glasses approach to dealing with the world? Maybe. But I hate to think of you always second-guessing whether racism/anti-semitism was behind every look, comment, or gesture. That sounds like a more painful rejection–for something you can’t change or control. Then again, being rejected for your personality or being a woman is probably not much better. None of us can control other people’s opinions and hate hurts no matter what ‘reason’ is behind it. I hope the realization hasn’t colored your world too much.

    By the way, I also fear the current regime, and its anti-immigration hostilities perpetrating atrocities which reveals a backwards kind of thinking in our nation. Please remember, not everyone feels this way. Let’s hope the majority wins in the next election. I’d like common sense to make a come-back.

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    • I think that these days, it’s like we’ve gone back to the 1930s. I wasn’t blind to the possibilities. I bumped into enough anti-Semitism … but usually, they were the kind of people with whom you couldn’t pay me to spend time. I never met a bigot with a brain.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s amazing. The story? Yes, worth the retell. I don’t think your nose looks particularly ‘Jewish’ and I’m glad to have been born in a time after that kind of thing was standard operating procedure. I’m doing a post today combining your blog post with another, about another ‘unseen’ prejudice, one that sadly has come back to life under the tender auspices of our alleged ‘leader’….bias because we’re WOMEN. Utah has always been male dominated and if you’re a man (even in 2019), you’ll get more money than a female applying for the same job. I’ve never known any other attitude, so it doesn’t bother me as it should, perhaps. But judging someone on their appearance, skin color, ethnicity or religious choice is something I find abhorrent. My father taught me that, and I’m glad he did. I’m glad you stuck to your roots and were proud of your heritage. I’m sorry your mother wasn’t similarly blessed…but that whole employer reaction she had as a young woman? Might have scarred the best people…

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    • Southern Italians have basically the same nose. In fact, everyone in the middle-east has the same nose, pretty much. There have always been a lot of mixed marriages, formal or non-official. The longer we are around, the fewer clear racial indicators people have.

      There are distinguishing things, though not all are visible. The tendency to some ailments are aligned with ethnic groups. Askenazi (European) Jewish women, as well as young black women, have a much higher likelihood of getting breast cancer … though now, it seems that everyone gets it. Just Jews and Black women tend to get it younger. Sickle Cell anemia runs to Black people. There are a few genetic ailments (Tay-Sachs and a few others) that generally go with Jews much more than others.

      But because of all the mixing over the centuries, it’s not as true as it was and I think getting less so with each year. These days, you have to test DNA to see if that physical issue runs in your group or not. Certain formations of teeth are related to different “tribes.” And African babies are not born with blue eyes. I didn’t have blue eyes either and I was born with long black hair — so it isn’t a rule. More like a guideline.

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    • I hate to rain on our parade … but it’s universal. We pay too much, we get paid too little — and if we want to make it “bigger,” we work alone. Will it ever change? Will we ever have a fair and equal world? Will we HAVE a world? My answers have been lost in the madness.

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  6. You do look like your mom in that last picture. I can’t wrap my mind around the hatred for other nationalities colours etc. It constantly stuns and horrifies me. I don’t get it. I just don’t. I’m glad you didn’t get the nose job done. It made you stronger more determined for yourself. You fight for what you believe in, say what you believe in and think. I admire that more than anything in life!

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  7. Why yesterday?
    I know that she was trying to lessen your burden in days where ethnicity and religion mattered a lot. We even do it today.

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  8. Don’t worry Marilyn, not that you would. I was born with a Jewish nose, and as the years passed it remained the biggest part of my face. I even thought perhaps we had some jewish attachments in the family, all my mum’s sisters looked a bit jewish. However, when I discovered that the paternal side of mum’s family were from France, Huguenots and dad’s name was even found in Normandie (de Relfe) I decided that was the influence I was looking for. On the other hand grandad’s brother, Sam, did look a little Jewish and the part of the East End of London where I grew up had a very large jewish population. And I felt at home in my part of London.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are so mixed at this point that it’s pretty hard to tell anything from facial construction OR names. I worked with a bunch of Black people in New York with names like Cohen. Mixed marriages and remnants of slavery and in some cases, an honorific for someone who’d been good to an ancestor.

      There’s no way to really know, but I think one day we will all look like everybody. Garry already looks like everybody — 1/3 English/Scottish, 1/3 African, and 1/3 who knows?, That’s about as “everybody” as anyone gets!

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  9. What a horrible experience for your mother, and I can see how she would have wanted to protect you (and that Garry let you figure this out on your own:)

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  10. Such a hateful and prejudiced society (world) we live in. Even though I grew up and went to school with people of all backgrounds, I wasn’t as aware as I wish I was about these things. The awareness my parents taught me was it was a sin to hate or make fun of another. I was a minority white in my neighborhood. I was really confused when kids in elementary school tried to bully me to tell them if I were Puerto Rican or Jewish. They didn’t believe me that I was just a white skinned “mutt.”

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    • I became aware that skin color was an issue when I got to college. Until then, I really thought we WERE all alike. I simply never paid any attention to it. Neither did Owen. We lived in a very mixed neighborhood when he was a child. I liked that because I wanted him to know that there were all kinds of people in the world. I used to keep track of how we were faring as a “hood.” We had started out around 50-50 white/non-white and I thought that was a good balance. It was very modestly middle-class which was gradually rising in value.

      Owen was a nosy little kid and used to see who moved in, who moved out. So I’d ask him if the new people were black or white. He never knew the answer. So finally, it came down to “do they look more like me or more like Garry?”

      The answer was usually, “Kind of in-between.” Which I assumed meant Hispanic or maybe from the Philippines or something like that. But he ALWAYS knew what kind of car they drove, what engine it had, color, year, etc. It wasn’t that he didn’t see color. But not on people. Just things.

      It’s so much worse now, though. I chose to live in a mixed neighborhood because I thought it would give him a healthy start knowing that kids are kids — mean ones and nice ones and had nothing to do with color. It’s so much worse now, though. The big lump of trash we call president is the ring-leader, so how can it NOT filter down?

      I also remember my 6-year-old granddaughter resentfully shouting that “Grandpa isn’t black. More like light coffee.” She thought black and white were not human colors and we were all some shade of beige or brown.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m sorry Marilyn, I did get a little chuckle from this. Your mother loved you and wanted to make your life better (as she saw it). She was a smart cookie.
    Leslie xoxo

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    • She was trying to help me. I think I might have understood better if she had told me why she wanted me to do it. I thought she was telling me I wasn’t pretty and that was not it at all. Compared to some of the girls I knew, I WASN’T pretty.

      I didn’t really develop a finished face until I was in my mid-20s and even then, it was in my 40s when I finally could see a real person in the mirror. Until then, I looked unfinished.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. My guess is that if they didn’t hire you because of your nose, you wouldn’t have wanted to work there anyway… If their hatred was that deep, you were better off without them.

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    • True, but I’ve never understood how people can tell you are Jewish — even WITH a “nose job.” A friend of mine at one of my jobs asked me if it really WAS our noses? I said I thought it was facial structure. Deep-set eyes, for example, and sharp, angular cheekbones.

      For example, I can recognize some Natives by the configuration of the area across the cheeks and nose, but not ALL of them. They do NOT all look alike and they are not all the same color, though as a rule, they have wonderful hair (oh how I envy that!).

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am the wrong person to ask. If you had never mentioned that you are Jewish (I don’t mean today, I mean ever), it would never have crossed my mind one way or another. If someone points to a person or a picture of a person, I see it. “Of course Bob Dylan is Jewish. How could anyone miss that?!!” But before it was pointed out, I DID miss it. Maybe because, I’m like, “who cares?” If forced, I am actually pretty good at knowing people’s root nationalities, even which part of Asia if they are Asian, and can tell if someone is Jewish, I just don’t do it unless asked. It most likely is facial features and hair (texture more than color). I’m talking heritage in general here.

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        • I think both my son and granddaughter were essentially blind to color and ethnicity. I wasn’t blind to it, but mostly I was very curious about different lifestyles, so I had a tendency to ask what their cultures were like. It’s how I met my best friend. She didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met (Native American, as it turned out), so finally, I just asked. We’ve been best friends ever since.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Despicable behaviour from your mother’s interviewer… and I can understand why she would want to save you from a similar situation. I think that the fact you never realised means that, in one way or another, she gave you the tools to do that for yourself.

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    • And it was the 1960s … and it was New York. At least half the population of my college was Jewish or half-Jewish. I don’t think anyone cared. Non-religious Jews have been marrying out of the “faith” for a couple of generations and there are very few “pure” Jews left except in super religious groups.

      I’ve also noticed — at least here in the blue north — there are just as many mixed marriages as anything else. If we were left in peace, there wouldn’t be any races. We would all be people, some of whom need more sun protection than others.

      Until recently, that’s where I thought we were heading. It’s heartbreaking that we aren’t. It was like this when my mother was growing up and to have it come back is horrible. Mom probably would be disgusted, but not surprised. She was always sure the bigots were hiding in the bushes, just waiting to jump us.

      Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks

  1. What about profiling and bias? | sparksfromacombustiblemind
  2. IN THE SPIRIT OF DOING WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING … Marilyn Armstrong | Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth

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