I’ve taken to writing posts in the late afternoon and then finishing them in the morning when I’m clear-headed. Good thing. I had a post prepared that was only tangentially related to Viktor Kornmehl, the subject of this part of the family history writing challenge. It was interesting in a look-what-I-found-I’m-so-clever kind of way, but it was bloodless. I’d veered pretty far from family history and was having a hard time finding my way back.
Then I woke up this morning and heard on the radio that it was George Washington’s birthday. February 22nd was my mother’s birthday too. I looked at the family tree section of this blog to check what I suspected and sure enough: My mother was born in 1913. She would have been 100 years old today.
Absences and Presents, Past
Where to begin?
The actual celebration of my mother’s birthday is as good a place as any. She was really annoyed when, in 1971, Lincoln’s Birthday and George Washington’s birthday were conflated into Presidents’ Day. Her birthday used to be a national holiday. Then it became lost in a generic shopping holiday observed on the third Monday in February. She complained about this every year.
I don’t remember what it was like to buy presents for my mother when we were younger, but in the last decade or so of her life, it was a struggle. One year I bought her a black cashmere scarf. “Black,” she said. “Isn’t that a little morbid?”
Another year I bought her a biography of Golda Meir. “You’re buying me a book about an old woman?” Seriously. She said that.
Then Valerie Jean Dates came to my rescue. I went on a trip with friends in the Palm Springs area — destination: Indio, for the camel races, but that’s a whole other story — and came across a funky little stand selling dates. I hadn’t realized until now that the stand was famous, home of original date shake, and that its mail order business had been patronized by everyone from Pope Pius II to the King of Morocco. I just knew that she was thrilled when the gift basket filled with selected dates — candied, chopped, coconut dusted… — arrived. She loved sweets and could justify eating as many dates as she liked because she believed they were healthy. She thanked me effusively, at surprising length.
I had Valerie Jean Dates sent to my mother every birthday for the rest of her life. I once asked her if she was bored by getting the same present, year after year, and she said, no, I love these. We were both happy, thanks to Valerie Jean.
This Year’s Present
I’ve often wondered what my mother would have thought of this blog and book to be. She didn’t talk much about her past and, to my endless regret now, I didn’t write down the few things she told me. She did translate for me a cache of letters from her parents during the war, she in America, they left behind in Vienna. Sadly, the original letters and translations were destroyed in a flood in my New York apartment building’s basement. This blog was started with a few pictures, a handwritten family tree, and my memories, though it’s gone much farther with the help of family and friends. And a lot of online history sites.
I’ve written two memorials here so far, one for a teacher who wrote a book about our family, one for a lawyer who co-founded a synagogue. I was glad to be able to honor their accomplishments. My mother did none of these things. She finished gymnasium (high school) I believe, and got her GED in the U.S., but she was a fur finisher. She wasn’t religious and she wasn’t a proud community member — if anything, she was anti-social.
And, as you might have surmised by the birthday gift saga, she sometimes drove me crazy. She could often be critical. But she loved me very much and I know she was proud of me. I loved her very much too, and the more I learn about her life, what she must have gone through, the prouder I am of her.
These writings have always been for her, to reclaim her family when they were in their prime, not old like Golda Meir. I’ve been attempting not to make them morbid, like a black scarf, though the Holocaust keeps intruding. Today, I try to emulate the sweetness — and substance — of the dates she loved. I hope this gift would have pleased my mother, born 100 years ago today.
This is day 22 in a Family History Writing Challenge that I’m very glad I’m taking. If I hadn’t gotten in the habit of writing every day, I might have missed this occasion entirely.