Posted on Tue 05 September 2023
This is what I would like you to know about my mother:
She didn’t like what people were doing to the world; she found some ways she could be effective at making things better; she did them.
It is not required of us that we fix the world, but it is required that we try to leave it better than when we came into it. Mom succeeded.
She was the ten thousandth accredited Leader of a La Leche League group; La Leche League is an international organization that was founded to teach women how to breastfeed, because that’s not actually a thing we have an instinct for.
People in my professional field have a saying about computer interfaces: “The only instinctive interface is the nipple; after that it’s all learned.” For baby humans, that’s half-true: if you rub a nipple on their lower lip, they will open their mouth and try to latch on. For new mothers, it’s not true at all. We learn how to nurse from watching other people do it. If nobody around you does that, you won’t know how to do it either.
So Mom spent forty-plus years teaching breastfeeding. Human breastmilk conveys antibodies that fortify a baby’s immune system. It changes over time to match changing nutritional needs. It’s full of fat and cholesterol because those are the things we use to grow brains.
When La Leche League had too many internal political battles, Mom helped found Breastfeeding USA. Same goal. Mostly the same methods. Less political angst. Mom had the basic liberal fallacy, one to which I often fall victim: she thought that if a person had all the facts, they would come to the right conclusion. It’s an optimistic viewpoint.
Mom taught me to read. I – and my sisters – all learned to read before we went to school. One day my parents decided to send me to a kindergarten class. Mom walked me in, made sure I was comfortable, left. At some point I picked up a book off the shelf and took it to the teacher or their assistant: “Could you help me with this?” I asked. They said “No.” I cried.
Eventually Mom was back, and wanted to know why I was in tears. She asked me. I explained. She asked them why they wouldn’t help. They said “Oh, we don’t teach reading until the first grade. We just do letters and numbers.” Mom said, “Dan knows how to read. He wanted help with any particularly big words.” She took me home. I did not go back there.
It is probably significant that I invited my favorite librarians to my bar mitzvah.
Mom loved reading mysteries and romances, and occasionally science fiction. Sometimes our tastes overlapped, and I was always glad to be able to make a recommendation to her.
Mom was on my side against the school system, whenever the school system was wrong. She talked to my first-grade teacher about my proclivity for finishing the assigned work in a few minutes and then reading any book I could get my hands on. They agreed to move me up to the second grade. I was rather frustrated in second grade – not academically. I was still bored. I got so bored that one day I finished my work, wrote “I’m going home” at the top of the worksheet, handed it in, went out to the hallway, got my coat and lunchbox, and walked. Out the front door of the school, down the street, over to the four-lane highway, crossed at the light, and so on about 2 miles home. I opened up the door to the mudroom, hung up my coat – Mom was rather surprised to see me – and I headed off to the bathroom. While I was taking care of that, Mom called the school. “Do you know where my son is?” she asked.
“In class,” said the secretary. “No, he’s not.” said my mother.
There were no negative repercussions from my parents. Obviously if I did something that drastic, something caused me to do it. There’s no more profound feeling of security than knowing that your parents are really and truly on your side.
This continued all the way through high school: in my senior year, I took what was billed as college freshman literature equivalent. The English department head taught the class; his plan was to let the seniors watch films all year long. I objected to a lack of education, Mom backed me up. Instead I had an independent study course supervised by another teacher.
Mom’s lesson: when the system is failing you, you can try to fix the system, or you can work around it. The system never proposes solutions outside its control; you have to do that yourself.
My mother taught me to cook. Though I haven’t used the skill in a handful of years, she taught me to bake bread. Mom made several excellent kinds of bread, but what she made most was a whole wheat sandwich loaf and a white loaf called bulka. Mom considered baking bread for her family and friends to be a political act, but it was also practical. Once she bartered 15 loaves of bread for a wheelbarrow.
I don’t bake much these days, but I do cook a fair bit. I am a better cook than my mother usually was, but I never reached her depth of understanding of baking. Her Pesach brownies, made with matzo meal and baking powder, were the best possible brownies. I am glad that she taught my sisters how to make them. I try from time to time, but I haven’t got them right yet.
Mom loved sewing, and made sure that I know how to mend a tear or attach a button. But I didn’t have any love for it, so she didn’t press me to do more. Love is taking care of other people, and sometimes that means not pushing them to do the things that you like to do.
Mom loved cats. She especially loved Pansy, who came over with her from England, and guarded me as I slept.
Mom’s last request was that Dad hold her hand as they took her off the medicine that was keeping her conscious. They told each other that they were each the most important person in the other one’s life. I am sure that this is true.
In memory of my mother (1945 - 2023)