My mother died 30 years ago. The wonderful circle of women friends who gathered around my mother during her life are all gone as well; most of them, just recently. At a memorial service a few months ago for the last of those remarkable women, we--their sons and daughters--began to talk about the amazing community they created. Although most of us are in our 40s and 50s, our mothers understood many aspects of life that we are still struggling with mightily.
These women--Dena, Freyda, Lula, and Pearl--were in no way perfect examples of spiritual development. Born between 1908 and 1920, in New York City, of Jewish immigrant parents, they came of age during the Great Depression. Most of them smoked until the 1960s and occasionally sneaked cigarettes throughout the rest of their lives. And although my mother's book shelves were filled with works by Alan Watts and books like "Zen and the Art of Archery," if you had asked any of them about their religious views, they might have only said something funny like, "I pray when I go up in a plane--it can't hurt."
All of them struggled financially, but that did not dampen their adventurousness. They hung around the theater world and among bohemians in the 1930s. Or followed their husbands to a dozen Army camps during World War II. By the time the 1950s ended, all but one was divorced. All had given up careers to raise their children. None--a writer, an acting teacher, a film editor, and a school teacher--lived up to their potential, and many of their creative dreams were stillborn. None had good marriages; each accepted too little in their relationships with men, and given their era, they all missed out on the second wave of feminism. But each of these women had an earthy wisdom and a belief in the power of joy. Together, they created a sisterhood, a group of friends so deep and close that it took one's breath away. Not one of their children has been able to create a community as powerful or as lasting.
What was their magic? Part of it was their unshakable belief that there was always more to life. I once watched Pearlie, the acting teacher, chastise a young man for his interpretation of a passage in Shakespeare. "Don't bring Shakespeare down to you," she said. "Bring yourself up to Shakespeare!" In 1982, after Israeli soldiers had massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Dena, the film editor, told me how ashamed she felt as a Jew. "After all," she said, "why be a Jew if you can't be better, a more moral person, than everyone else?" It's not an attitude that all Jews would agree with, but Gandhi would certainly have understood.
And my own mother, in a letter during my freshman year in college, wrote, "The choice you will have to make is to be a good average student with time to live life to the hilt, or an A student plodding away at the cost of missing the real purpose of college, which is to make life more, and not less, meaningful, to get a sense of values to live by, a way of saying Yes to life, not No."
1. Always act like you belong. My mother had an amazing ability to feel at home everywhere. During World War II, while riding on an overcrowded train, she found a seat in the segregated Jim Crow car. The conductors interrogated her at length and tried to make her leave, but she refused, saying, "These are my people." After a while, the passengers in the car opened up and came to her defense. At the end of the ride when she attempted to tip the porter who took her bags, he said, "No, Lady, after all, you're my people."
2. Always go to the top. This was the maxim that was most mortifying as a child. My mother could act like Auntie Mame. Often outrageous and flamboyant, she was hugely embarrassing to a teenage daughter. You know, the kind of woman with the loud voice who calls out for the manager in a department store, sending her children scurrying in fear, hiding behind racks of clothes, anything to pretend they are not related. But it usually worked, and she got what she wanted.
3. It's once around on the merry go-round. I identified the moment when I realized my mother had more to teach me about wisdom than any guru. She was taking me to college in California, and since I had never been west of Delaware, we did some touring on the way. Some plans went awry, and after a last minute phone call, we found ourselves on one of those awful tour buses, cruising through the Rocky Mountains with a guide whose descriptions were in such bad taste they verged on pornographic. There was a 20-minute rest stop in Estes Park, Colorado, right in front of a store selling ugly, fake Native American pottery.