My mother died young, before I ever published a book. Her name was Evelyn, and she hid a generous fund of sadness and anger behind an exquisite, heart-shaped mask. As a child, I learned to listen by listening to her memories of losing the grandmother who raised her, and her father losing his business in the Depression, and her family losing their home and a little girl leaving her bedroom in the middle of the night.
These memories tormented my mother, a chronic illness that was not alleviated by her having her own family or her husband’s climb into the upper middle class.
And all of these memories came packaged with one other story that shaped her vision of the historical territory she occupied, defining her place in a world that, in her mind, never lost its dangerous edge.
She was eight years old and running through an empty schoolyard chased by two older boys. The boys had German names and they were calling her a kike. In the midst of her terror, my mother was stunned by the word. She had never advertised her religion, and with her blond-brown hair and cameo features she resembled Shirley Temple. Yet somehow the boys knew, probably because she did not attend school on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the Jew holidays, a girl in her class had called them. Halfway across the schoolyard, the boys caught her and pushed her to the ground. One of them had his knees on her chest – he was laughing—and the other boy had unwound a wire hanger and jabbed the point toward her eye. My mother recalled the scene as drained of color and sound, as if she were watching another girl, a stranger, writhing and screaming in the black-and-white flicker of a silent movie, and suddenly the principal appeared, a burly man in a three-piece suit, and pulled the boys off her, dragging them both back to the school, and my mother stood up and ran home.
This was 1936. In Hillside, New Jersey.