on my father’s mother Sallie. You read about her in “Sallie and Joe” in Ballet Review in 2011. Now, my father Joseph writes about her in his autobiography, “Out of Time.”
This is the first half of a chapter. I don’t like the title he had so I’m not giving any!
“I first met my friend Asa’s mother soon after he told me that her entire post-Columbia-law-school career had been raising three children. This was part of his hesitant, wavering and confused prep talk. When the moment arrived, there were no introductory chit-chat or meaningless pleasantries. Her first and last and only words to me that day were , “So, Lobenthal, what are you, Sephardic or Ashkanazi? Which?”
I then understood his hesitancy when talking about this woman. He must have thought he could never get it right in his own head. Now I, too, am similarly placed. Like first wives, mothers are famously difficult to explain and describe accurately. The story also much depends on siblings present or absent, and everyone’s time of life. I’m sure, Lila and Richard and Stanley would have each described their own parents – – as the same but different from mine.
And our mother would be disappointed in me for saying certain things, particularly about her, which she would have thought should remain appropriately entombed in the family vault – – and more so for my having ever noted or thought or remembered them. In truth, I do feel a little traitorous. So in this opus I may have done and be doing my own mother, and also you the reader a great disservice.
Have I depicted her as harsh, perhaps monomaniacal? A social climber? A culture hound? An adventuress? A dilettante? But just wait. Until you see all her parts and consider who else she actually was and what else she did.
The French horn. I don’t think anyone in the family had any idea that she’d been taking it up. Do not know why or when, where or with whom she learned or practiced it. But Mother had apparently decided that she needed to take up an instrument of her own. Perhaps it was her sister Betty’s decision to take up mid-life the violin. But I have a distinct recollection of standing on the sidewalk, with my father and younger siblings in tow, watching one of the town parades – – probably July Fourth – – marching down the middle of Main. There were the few skinny, slumped-over and shriveled shufflers whom I knew to be remnants of the Civil War. Then a few more from the Spanish-American, sturdier although middle-aged at the youngest. Then, but somehow not my father with them, the American Legion gang, with their stiff blue sharp-peaked hats and Legion uniforms, proudly worn in the Great War.
And there, in front or behind, I don’t remember, amid a gang of strutting civilians, was my marching mother carefully in line and blowing her own horn, with music holder attached – – from which she was reading! I was proud and embarrassed, both. And baffled. Who were these people in line with her? Now that I’ve thought about it, maybe ti was the fire department, but they always have uniforms (and I don’t remember if she or they did). Or was it the Masons or some ladies’ auxiliary?
Another of her stealth activities about which we were told nothing: her drawing lessons. One evening we were seated at the dining room table. She silently produced a sketch pad and handed it around. It contained two penciled landscapes. There were gently rubbed areas for dusk and graceful tall trees in an open field. and a few sturdy bushes in the foreground. More than sketches, to me they were beautiful completed pictures. “Who did these?” I asked, too impressed to imagine she’d been the artist. But she just smiled and I knew.
As with the French horn, this venture soon faded into oblivion – – as far as anyone knew. Without explanation we saw no more of those wonderful first or any later drawings. I wish I had just one of them today.
Throughout she knit. Richard and I received identical green and gray wool sweater vests. I loved to wear mine. And in colors that never before or since coexisted she showed her whimsy by producing a torrent of yarmulke-like caps to warm my father’s hair-free pate. He donned one or another around the house after doffing his business uniform, or in other situations in which his dignity wouldn’t be betrayed.
I did, literally, hear of her next venture. This time it was possibly when she was just beginning to get interested. One afternoon I came home and found her at the breakfast-room table, eyes closed and her right-hand fingers softly drumming the tabletop, almost as if she were playing a right-hand piano solo. This was the beginning of a hobby that became a passion. She was practicing Morse code.
Her radio involvement became ever-more-acute. Of course, in short order she became expert in using the Code. She sent away for a kit and, following the complicated instructions, first mastering the skill of soldering, built her own very- elaborate-looking transmitter and receiver, ultimately housed in the den. She soon studied and became a certified “ham”. And she “met” via Morse transmission a number of apparently-similarly-situated housewife ham operators. Soon they had established an informal alliance named YLRL, the Young Ladies’ Radio League. They dined in person a couple of times and I think worked with her in her subsequent military endeavor.
We had entered World War II. First she spent several months as a volunteer ambulance driver for a hospital at a nearby Army Air Corps base. Then she was recruited by the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division. There she worked in secret every day at a location she was forbidden to reveal, doing what she wasn’t allowed to say, but was certainly associated with her ham radio skills. For this after the war she was commemorated by a certificate that “appreciatively” acknowledged her five months “loyalty and devotion to duty” in the Intelligence Division. And it’s to be noted that this in no way conflicted with her continuing to supervise our music on an hourly basis.
And please don’t forget all the people who came up to me all the time up to the very end of her life and said, “Your mother’s too good. We’re afraid to play with or against her. But we love it. She’s the best, the fiercest, the finest bridge player any of us ever saw.” All this is well and good, you might say, but what about your personal interactions, your memories of her as a person and a parent, your own feelings?”
c Copyright 2019
All Rights Reserved by Joseph S. Lobenthal