Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mumsie: Woman of the Century

My mother claimed January 1st, 1900 as her birthday and NYC as her birthplace. I’m told many others born offshore and prior also chose that day but I happily grant her that auspicious date as the curtain went up for the 20th century. If nothing else she deserves credit for creativity.

It took a good deal of pluck and spunk to get by with five brothers to contend with in the mean streets of the Bronx as her father scraped by as a peddler and house-painter. I expect my uncles teased and tormented her in those tenement years. She learned how to become tough.

I addressed her as Ma early on. Mother was out of the question. Later she was Mom and after she died I somehow hit upon Mumsie as her reference for reigning matriarch; meant as a term of endearment along with my daughter’s memory of her unforgettable ways.

Mumsie did battle with the world. Marketing was a form of combat. Eyeing the fruit vendor if he put a thumb on the scale. If the butcher gave her a proper cut and good weight. If the landlord cheated on the radiator heat. If that truck was an assassin as we crossed the wide avenues. All this time, while she fought in the trenches, my father was behind the lines back in general headquarters, strategizing our survival, sticking pins in the map.

I remember how she would climb up the three flights of our walk-up apartment with groceries from the A & P, put everything away and then check the addition wondering what cost eleven cents. After ten minutes of verbal abuse she would say, Oh, yeah, the lemons.

She got my father through the high school equivalency test. And then tutored him through Pharmacy College which was a mere two year course. My Dad was a very slow reader, probably dyslexic. He was as non-confrontational as she was in your face. She cursed the shopkeepers (gonifs), damned the landlord (the momser should burn in hell) and even cursed God for God knows what.

I was called a good-for-nothing-kid. Not entirely inaccurate. I also had to fend off a barrage of Yiddish damnations, which supplied me with a rather limited vocabulary of the mother tongue. Suffice it to say Mumsie had a mouth on her. My well-being depended upon turning a deaf ear to her rants, a faculty I borrowed from my father.

However all is forgiven. She was making her way in what she perceived as a hostile world, masking her fears, which morphed into nastiness. I suspect my mother had many models of behavior by siblings in her growing years and later in those hard times during the Depression. I never heard of such a thing, she often muttered when someone crossed the line, a demarcation which left her behind. I also doubt that she ever heard her own words. They just poured out of her unconsciously. She gave voice to the aggravations of a generation.

Yet in spite of all that she also nurtured, encouraged and offered affection that only I could have received. The fundamental values came through so I was deprived of a deprived childhood.

She was fierce in her need to assimilate. To speak with proper, unaccented grammar and elocution. To dis-identify with old world ways. We observed no holidays yet in her rush to become WASPY she got a bit confused. Maybe she couldn’t cook a turkey because Thanksgiving was decreed to be for gentiles.

In her twilight years Mumsie mellowed revealing a frightened little girl. Even if she never ran from Cossacks she carried the shtetl in her bones. When I drove her around neighborhoods with pretty homes and flowering trees she couldn’t take her eye off the road warning me of reckless drivers. Mumsie, dear Mumsie, what a price you paid… not for the flounder at the fish market but for those decades unable to laugh at jokes or see a bloody rose bloom on the apron of the butcher in the midst of sawdust and fly paper.

She had a thing for cross ventilation as if bad air like an ill-wind, could enter from one window and exit as fresh air through another. I’d like to believe she left this world transformed having rid herself of a dreaded miasma able to finally manage a deep inhalation in the safe unknown.      
She had  for cross ventilation s if bad air like an ill-


  1. What an interesting and loving remembrance of your Mumsie!

  2. Thanks, Alone. Through all her unease in the world, amazingly her humanity still came through.