‘Ethel at 100’ – a Poem by Ishmael Reed

Writing exclusively for Haaretz, the renowned American writer pens a poem in honor of his mother-in-law, Ethel Strasser, to mark her 100th birthday

Ishmael Reed
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Ishmael Reed.
Ishmael Reed. Credit: Noam Eshel
Ishmael Reed

Ethel Blank Strasser is my mother-in-law. I married her third daughter, Carla – a distinguished choreographer, director and author whose latest book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel,” about two women architects of the early 1900s. Ethel was born in 1917, the same year as my mother’s birth. When we think of The Greatest Generation, males are usually the stars in the Hollywood movies and books. Historians when writing about the World Wars and the Depression concentrate on Great men.

In their memoirs – Ethel’s “Under The Blankettes” and my mother Thelma Reed’s “Black Girl from Tannery Flats” – we get the point-of-view of how ordinary citizens coped with those traumatizing events.

I was alarmed by my students’ ignorance of the challenges faced by Ethel and Thelma’s generation. We’re lucky that they, excellent storytellers, have given us a record.

Credit: Video Production: Noam Eshel; Camera: John Picklap

Ethel at 100

For Ethel Strasser

The Quaker state offered your family refuge

From the hairy grasp of a mean Czar

Pittsburgh was a steel town, and you had

To be as firm as that metal as you girded

Against a Depression and World Wars

Like Thelma, my mom

You tolerated the foolish men

A ceiling that was not glass but


Like hers

Your career goals were stunted


You raised four girls, virtually alone

Which meant that while middle class

Families consulted travel agents

You were consulting the midnight oil

Clipping coupons

Stretching the dollar

Making do

Cutting corners and then there

Was the chicken pox



And symptoms that are yet

To be diagnosed and then

The dance lessons

The violin lessons

Art Lessons

Plus the boyfriends

Ethel Strasser

Your job at Carnegie Tech qualified

The children for free education

Like Thelma, you were a 1917er

Born in a world even

Messier than now

Something about which the


Have no notion as they sip

Their Blonde Cappuccinos

Peer over their tablets

And chat on Facebook

About their cats

And now you are 100

A survivor from a period

During which millions of

Your sisters perished

They are having

A party for you at

Blauvelt, New York’s

Oscar’s Italian Restaurant

Your daughters are there

Women of high distinction

Gail, Sonya, Carla and Judith

“The pride of Pittsburgh”

Their children are there

And grandchildren

And great-grandchildren

Who could form

A subcommittee for the U.N.,

The youngest, Lina, corrects her teacher’s


We have a choice of fish or


There are drinks

All around

And when they wheeled

You in

Below the hush that

Filled the room

I thought I heard

An angel whisper

That Ethel!

That Ethel!

Ishmael Reed

Copyright © 2018

Ishmael Reed is a Distinguished

Professor at California College

of the Arts

His new novel, “Conjugating Hindi,” was

published in April

Ishmael Reed photographed with him mother-in-law Ethel Strasser. Credit: Tennessee Reed

His new play “Life Among The Aryans”

A serious comedy, will premiere off

Broadway in June

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