October 21, 2004
On Jewish Mothers
I was raised on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx by a woman who could have taken Olympic gold in Jewish mothering. Sonia, Abie-the-tailor's
wife, never stopped fearing for my life. She made me wear galoshes on sunny days ("It might rain, you never know!"), and warned that if I left the house with wet hair Iwould die one hour later of pneumonia.The worst thing is when my mother does her worrying in front of other people -- like boys! When I'm 13, I have my first solo piano recital. I'm wearing a sleeveless, scooped-neck dress that Abie copied from Seventeen. The whole building is there, including Stanley Eichenholtz from 5B. I think Stanley likes me. Whenever we pass on the staircase, he always punches my arm.
I finish the last piece, and I stand up to do the curtsy that Mrs. Blitzer taught me. This is my favorite part. Suddenly, in the middle of my moment of glory, my lunatic mother runs up on the stage, throws a schmattadickeh old cardigan over my bare shoulders, and screams in a heavy Yiddish accent, "Cover up! You're perspiring! You're gonna catch a bug!"
The humiliation is not over, because the next time Stanley passes me on the staircase, he says, "Cover up! You're gonna catch a bug, ha, ha!" And then he punches me on the arm. I am so ashamed. Why must my parents be such immigrants?
I have to acknowledge that, in her better moments, my mother also paid for piano lessons, took me to movie musicals and saved nickels and dimes for years so that I could go to Europe after college. Also, my mother never left the house without a pocket full of crumbs for the sparrows and a pocket full of change "for the poor people" -- totally innocent of the fact that she was the poor people. And as little as she had, she would share it.
Mama rented a room to a recent immigrant from Poland. The man had been a professor, but now was scraping by as a janitor. My mother felt very sorry for him, but she knew he'd be too proud to take charity. So when he came home at night she would make up a story: "Oy, Mr. Rabinovitz, I made this all this food and now my daughter's not coming over for dinner. Do me a favor, have some or I'll have to throw it out."
So Mr. Rabinovitz would "do her a favor" and have some.
Ashamed? I should have been proud. But she was still a constant source of embarrassment to me, and after the Stanley Eichenholtz incident I swore that when I grew up and had a child of my own, I would never be an overprotective, interfering, super-doting Jewish mother.
Then I became a parent and -- you guessed it -- history repeated itself. My son treated hip, worldly, sophisticated me with the same scornful superiority I dished out to my simple, old-country mother.
Back in his college years, he announces he's going to Vegas for the weekend with some friends. I ask how he's getting there, and he rolls his eyes and heaves one of those "parents-are-such-a-pain" sighs. He patiently informs me that they're going in Dave's car.
I look at Dave's car, and I see Death. Dave's car is an open jeep: no roof and no sides. We are a family that drives Volvos. I point out that if they take that car through the desert, not only will they be burned to a crisp, but they won't have any protection in a collision. I suggest that they rent a nice four-door sedan. More eye-rolling, more sighing and then the killer accusation: "Would you please stop being such a Jewish mother!"
Why fight it? I decide to plead guilty: "Listen, I am a Jewish Mother! And maybe one day you'll thank me for it! Here's some money. Rent a real car!"
The boys are driving back from Vegas. There's a van in front of them with a heavy glass door strapped to the roof. Suddenly this glass door comes loose, flies through the air, and crashes right onto the top of the rented car. But the heavy steel roof protects the kids and nobody gets hurt! So I do the best I can to protect my child. Just like my poor mother did the best she could.
Then I read "The Joy Luck Club," and I think, "Those Chinese mothers are very familiar."
And I see this movie, "My Left Foot," and I think, "That Irish mother is very familiar."
Then a black girlfriend calls about her teenage son. She's concerned because he can't find a summer job, so she asks me to find him a little computer work.
"I will pay his salary," she says. "Just don't tell him where the money's coming from."
This sounds very familiar.
Then I get my nails done and the Vietnamese manicurist, Kim, tells me she has six children and they all live in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in a very bad neighborhood.
"All children full scholarship: Berkeley, UCLA, M.I.T., Harvard, Amherst, Yale," she says. "You want to cut cuticles?"
Well, I may have turned into my mother, but I am not alone. Everyone has turned into my mother!
Annie Korzen ("Seinfeld's" Doris Klompus) tours and lectures worldwide with her solo show, "Yenta Unplugged." Her humorous essays have aired on NPR's "Morning Edition," and will appear in freshyarn.com and theknish.com. Her web site is www.anniekorzen.com.