From Catholic Childhood to the Toast of Caracas Jewry: A Mother's Day Tribute

I never knew the prolific woman who penned the stack of letters given to me after her death - but my mother's world could have filled a book.

Wikimedia Commons

Had my mother lived among the ancient Greeks, she would have rolled her eyes at their methods of maternal worship. Statues of Cybele, a maternal goddess of Anatolian origin known as Mountain Mother, show the deity propped on a lion-drawn chariot and lavishly robed, looking matriarchal and not entirely happy with all her entitlements. Rites surrounding Cybele were intense – a lot of wild dancing and self-flagellation to stir up feelings of ecstasy. Later, the more sober-minded Romans discouraged this sort of spiritual frenzy, and Cybele found her way into a more subdued role as protector of Virgil’s wandering hero in The Aeneid.

My mother once marveled with me at the matricidal excesses in Medea, a play we saw together in New York. But she was more Roman in temperament. Controlled amounts of adoration were okay (restaurant outings were her favorite form of tribute), but anything overdone or sentimental got an eye roll. A Philadelphian of Scotch-Irish roots who converted to Judaism, she mastered Jewish cuisine and instinctively understood its culture. She also tossed out elements that didn’t meld with her Anglo-Saxon self-restraint, like the overwrought mothering. “What’s important is to be happy,” she told me as a child when I came home with failing math grades. (I went about the business of being happy and my grades didn’t improve.)

Despite her reserve, my mother quietly looked forward to whatever tokens of gratitude society afforded her as a woman raising three girls. Well-selected birthday presents and Mother’s Day flowers were always welcome, and here understatement was also key. No funereal-looking arrangements. When her first child (my older sister) was born, she ordered my father not to bring her any fancy bouquets, but bunches of field flowers instead. On a holiday once, my family descended on her with breakfast in bed for her birthday. This was a mistake. Hemmed in by the toast and eggs, my mother looked like a hospital patient staring down at a tray-table meal and made mocking remarks about the whole food-in-bed ritual. Then she got up and served us all breakfast at the table, very much in the spirit of the “matchless service” for which mothers should be honored, according to Anna Jarvis, founder of Mother’s Day in the U.S. That my father had just presented her with a Colombian emerald the size of a large beetle didn’t hurt as she whipped up our meal.

For a while as a young woman, my mother avoided the roles reserved for women of her generation. The Baldwin School, an elite private school where she was a scholarship student, had a particular vision for its 1955 graduates. Girls in the senior class were urged to go forth and create future Baldwinites, according to a yearbook inscription.

Instead, my mother worked for a major publisher in New York, then converted to Judaism and moved to Venezuela. There, she married my father in a civil ceremony in view of a jailhouse filled with brawling prisoners. She began a life helping my father build his business, which eventually involved selling Israeli arms and military technology in Latin America. This work he would later keep secret from his children with the intrigue of a James Bond film.

A stack of letters

A few years ago, a close friend of my mother sent me a stash of letters she’d written from the 1960s and early '70s, chronicling her early years in Caracas with my father. The letters brim with style, self-deprecatory humor, gentle indictments of the Israeli expat wives who apparently never read a book and lively anecdotes about the players in my father’s business world. Tasked with navigating a politically fraught community of Israeli transplants, my mother put her mainline Philadelphian upbringing and social finesse to good use, at one point hosting military hero Moshe Dayan. A telex she and my father received about the upcoming visit, which provoked a small war between expat groups pining for Dayan’s attention, said simply, “Dayan arriving Thursday P.M. must leave Saturday A.M. Wants to see country while there.”

“We have been up to our scrubby necks in activities,” my mother wrote in 1966, “which has resulted in our becoming the toasts of Caracas Jewry. Since this was always our biggest ambition in life, you can imagine how elated we are.”

On one occasion, the “small, isolated” Jewish community of the city of Valencia, having heard of the crammed party in their small home where General Dayan was honored, invited my father to play his accordion at its Purim party. My parents were put up at the city’s best hotel, and arrived at a lobby “littered with English proletariat porch furniture of the rattan and chintz-cushion school.” Their suite was large and dusty, and contained a single plain wooden table “of the sort that unemployed coal miners bang fists on.” The walls were "bilge-peach." If you wanted to commit suicide in a hotel, this was the one, my mother wrote, dubbing the place "Hang-Yourself House."

At the time, my father was working to find investors for the Jewish settlement construction company, Rassco, and was considered to be in a noble line of work. In general, my mother observed that the Israelis in Venezuela were divided into two groups: “those sent here on specific ‘missions’ by the government (they all tend to describe themselves as Albert Schweitzers) and those who ‘came down’ from the Promised Land to Venezuela to make a little ice.” The first group ostracized the second, and had convinced my father that he was actually a missionary and belonged with them. “Personally, I want ice,” my mother wrote.

The letters allowed me to meet my mother as a young woman, happily married, not yet engulfed in new motherhood, not yet locked in conflict with her adolescent middle daughter (me). She cast her life in mock-epic terms, describing my father as "our hero...winging off into the sunset." She scoured local bookshops for authors she admired – Bernard Malamud, Henry Roth – and commented on the yearly Pulitzer Prize in literature with Oscars-watch fervor. In that brief moment of poise, of things yet to happen, her ambition to become a writer seemed possible: “After I’m famous and dead, they’ll have a hell of a time publishing even a slim volume of my letters,” she wrote in 1965, not entirely in jest and fearing she wasn't writing enough.

After my older sister was born, the letters describe a young woman making marmalade from Fannie Farmer recipes and fretting over being the type of overanxious mother Dr. Spock would disapprove of. “I have lately surrendered my individuality to Farmer and Spock,” she wrote. But she remained cool to the feminist battle-cries of the '60s, embraced motherhood, and chronicled my sister’s babbling and early dancing to the sound of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band. The letters are no longer 10-page typed epistles, but shorter, handwritten accounts.

In the last letter, dated October 3, 1974, my grandmother, whom I’d met once, had suddenly died. Leaving me and my sisters behind, my mother traveled to Philadelphia by herself to attend the funeral and revisit her former life: “You can imagine that the funeral itself was a bit of a trauma, particularly finding myself not only in a Catholic church, but in the very neighborhood Catholic church that I hated as a teenager and that had effectively smothered whatever religious tendencies I might have had.”

My mother goes on to suggest that my parents’ years in Venezuela may soon be over, and that a move was imminent: “If this takes place, I for one will be happy, as I am fed up with Caracas and South America and life in general.”

They didn’t leave, and my mother raised three children in the city she grew to love, largely on her own as my father was often away. She did not lack adventure. She traveled the world. She hosted members of the Ecuadorean military with whom my father did business (one of them staged a failed coup attempt). She laughed with my father when he was implicated, by a published conspiracy theorist, in the plane-crash death of Ecuadorean president Jaime Roldos Aguilera. And she didn’t miss a PTA meeting or school play. But as the years passed, my parents led separate lives and rarely hosted the “soirees” that fill my mother’s writing. My mother spent hours locked in her private suite.

Hoarded mementos

I never knew the prolific woman from the letters, which I received years after her death. Many women bargain with themselves when children are born and ambitions are shelved. As my mother entered motherhood fully, with all its depths and giddy traumas, she didn’t lose sight of her unwritten books. When I was in college and mulling over my own writing prospects, she handed me a copy of Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye,” a book she’d just read and admired, as though passing a baton. She couldn’t write a novel like that one, she said. “I lack the content and vision, but you have the talent.” Later, I insisted too loudly, like an overinvested parent, that she should pursue her writing, "If you keep pushing, I won't write a thing!" she threatened.

At the time of her death a few years later, when we were all out of the house, my mother left behind a stack of young adult mystery novels she’d been reading and a few notes for the one she planned to write. She also left behind the keepsakes of motherhood: her children’s milk-teeth, locks of baby hair, the poems I wrote as a young child that she typed up and filed away. I know she would have urged me, whatever I was in the middle of doing or forever wanting to do, to hoard the evidence of my own child’s life – his robot drawings, his love-song lyrics.

Anna Jarvis disapproved of a commercialized Mother’s Day, but my mother didn’t. Our yearly offerings to her – the card, the yellow roses, the dinner at a Portuguese seafood restaurant near our house – were received with expectant pleasure. These small acts had nothing on the ancient Greeks and their mother-worship partying, but this is how my mother wanted things, and how she taught me to be in life – measured, no false notes, able to laugh at myself as she laughed at all “the hysterical inanities” in her world that could have filled a book.