Lena. Just Lena. My mother didn’t have a middle name, which I thought smacked of parsimony—shortchanged at birth. Her parents were Orthodox Jews, rigid and humorless, who came to New York as part of the exodus from pogrom-infested Russia. I don’t think Lena knew much more about them; she wasn’t privy to stories or reminiscences from the old country. There wasn’t much about her own early years she wanted to recall or revisit either. Her life wasn’t easy, and she rarely talked about her family or childhood. She had a way of sidestepping questions—“Oh, I can’t remember that” or “What does it matter?”—and I lacked the courage or the curiosity to probe further. Her father died when she was twelve. After her older sister married, Lena left school and went to work to help make ends meet for her mother and herself. She was sixteen, and it was the peak of the Depression. I don’t know what kind of work she did, but I picture her as a shop girl in a department store, back when they were called that, before they were sales associates or product specialists. It must have seemed the right thing, the only thing to do, but her lack of education was always a source of shame and inferiority.
Earning her own way must have been liberating, though, and she had some good times as a young woman. I can see it in an old photo—her dark and vivacious beauty, the way she carried herself, the playful sparkle in her eyes. She met my father at Coney Island the summer they were both twenty. She was tall and slender with thick, shiny coal-black hair hugging her face in a flapper-like bob—I envision her smooth, tanned limbs in a red one-piece swimsuit. He was movie-star handsome, with wavy brown hair, sky blue eyes, and a thin dapper mustache. Their beach blankets were in close proximity amid throngs of sunbathers and frolickers that day, and there must have been mutual admiring glances and subtle smiles, fluttering of eyelashes and flexing of biceps before he ventured over and asked her to watch his pants while he went into the water. They were married six months later.
David, my brother, was born the next year, and I followed five years later. We lived in a cozy Long Island suburb in a house with a white picket fence, and my early memories of family life dwell in a dusky rose-colored haze. My brother, his recollections sharper, corroborates my sense of an unremarkable and mostly happy family.
“No more New York winters! They can keep their white Christmases.” I was six when we moved to California, and I remember Mom exulting when the holidays rolled around that first year. And yet—though she said she never regretted the move west—it was as if the lights had gone out. She seemed tense and troubled, became harsh and critical. “Were you unhappy?” is a question I never could have asked her; all I can do is ponder from my perch overlooking the past. She’d left everything and everyone in New York. She had her family core—her mother and sister—and a community there. She belonged; she knew who she was. Here she was isolated. It was the post-war ‘50s, and women were marginalized, captive in their kitchens. Working outside the home wasn’t an option when David and I were young. If she perceived an erosion of her spirit, she may not have recognized it or known that she wasn’t alone, that her condition was endemic, “the problem that has no name” that Betty Freidan later articulated as “the feminine mystique.”
She had so much energy and no place to put it. Cooking and keeping house were chores to be dispensed with, thankless tasks for which she got little appreciation. She didn’t have friends to do things with—shopping trips, lunches, book clubs—or the means to indulge in them. She became a Girl Scout leader and tackled the post with a gusto that I, trying to blend in as just one of the girls, found overzealous and embarrassing. She spent most of her spare time knitting and crocheting. She made sweaters, shawls, skirts and scarves, afghans, tablecloths, pillow covers—beautiful, intricate work. I remember a sage green and tawny gold three-piece suit that might have come off a designer rack. I’m sure she could have sold things to shops, developed a cottage industry, but though her creative outlet gave her satisfaction, it didn’t occur to her to take it further. She made gifts, things for the house, for herself and for me. I would roll my eyes, resentful that I couldn’t have the cookie-cutter name brands that my peers were wearing but were beyond our budget.
My father was a taciturn man, a benign presence in the household. Mom accepted it as her role to sustain a convivial family environment. We ate dinner together at the table every night, and I recall our mealtime interaction as bland and comforting if not memorable or stimulating. I remember jokes and silliness, my brother’s teasing, my father’s sly puns. The only vacations we took were occasional weekend camping trips and long dreary drives to visit my father’s relatives in San Francisco. It was all very prosaic—we weren’t deprived, there was little to complain about—yet why do I recall the atmosphere as one of forced cheer, as if we were simulating family life rather than living it?
Dad “took to drink”—I choose that phrase, evocative of willfulness, though I suppose it was just his way to blot out unspoken disappointment—and became even more remote at home. On the nights when he came in after I’d gone to bed, my mother would wait up, pacing, fuming, chain-smoking until he stumbled in. I’d hear their fights through my thin bedroom walls—her voice raised in anger, his a monotone of sullen or contrite muttering. They argued about his drinking, about money, about whatever unhappy people bicker about. Maybe it carried over, as my brother and I squabbled a lot too. He was a bully and I was a brat; we provoked each other the way you pick at pesky scabs. Mom would become exasperated with both of us, though I was sure at the time that she was siding with him.
He would sock me in the arm, and I’d whine—“David hit me!”
“I didn’t do anything,” he’d say. “She was pestering me.”
“Don’t tease her,” she would tell him; “you know what a crybaby she is.”
And to me: “Stop it or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
The four of us muddled along, and the distance grew over time, between husband and wife, parents and children, brother and sister. We settled into a peaceful-enough equilibrium, distinct clouds in the same patch of sky.
* * *
Then Mom went to work, and she blossomed in the world beyond our walls. Motivated both to supplement the family income and to quell the tediousness of daily life, she was ready and eager when we no longer needed her constant oversight. She started out waiting tables at a café, the kind that served “blue plate specials”—think Mel’s Diner in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Fast, efficient, and personable, she became the favorite of the regular clientele. She would bring home anecdotes along with day-old pies and hamburger buns. She laughed a lot—that was new. Then she took a job at Knorr’s candle factory, a notch up—less chaotic, better pay, easier on her feet. Instead of pouring candles from melted wax, they rolled them out of dyed, honeycomb-textured sheets of beeswax. Now she brought home candles, bent and misshapen, colors that didn’t sell or faded on display tables. She enjoyed the work and the camaraderie with co-workers, but she missed the interaction with customers.
One night over dinner she announced that she had answered an ad for a teller at Bank of America, the only bank in town then. It was a long shot, she figured, as she had no related experience, so she was surprised to be called in for an interview. Her application had stood out, but for the wrong reason. She had stated that she was a graduate of the Brooklyn high school she had only briefly attended. The manager welcomed her enthusiastically and said, “Can you believe the coincidence—I went to school there too!”
“That’s what I get for lying,” she told us in dismay that night.
Honest to a fault—she once ran after a door-to-door salesman who gave her too much change—now it was as if she’d been caught with her hand in the cashbox. But she didn’t own up, and they didn’t check. He wasn’t long out of college—just a boy, she said—and the twenty years’ difference in their ages kept her safe from detection. She could be vague, plead a fuzzy memory. They wouldn’t have had the same teachers, known the same people. Did she impress him with her stability, her deportment, her experience with customers and cash registers? Maybe all that too, but she was sure it was the way they’d hit it off: “It’s a Brooklyn thing,” she said when he offered her the job.
Going to work had provided the first boost, but this was a giant step that exceeded all expectations. She seamlessly inhabited the new persona of a savvy business woman. Her skills were a perfect fit; her maturity and common sense served her well in a milieu of educated but unseasoned youth. She was buoyed by constant validation and was soon the go-to person for residents and merchants, especially the older, more-established population. People greeted her with warmth and respect all over town. “That’s Lena from the bank,” I’d hear someone say, as if she was a local celebrity.
Tony, the owner of a popular family-run Mexican restaurant, was one of many who wouldn’t do his banking with anyone else. He treated our family like royalty when we came in. He’d seat us personally, flirting and laughing with Mom. “When are you going to leave this guy and run away with me?” he’d ask, bringing a dish of his secret-recipe guacamole to our table. She’d come back with a snappy retort, while my father and Caterina, Tony’s wife, looked on in amusement. I would stare at her as if she was a stranger. Was this my dowdy, boring mother?
Her paychecks were a significant boost to my dad’s earnings as a small-town TV repairman, and we breathed easier with our belts loosened. The atmosphere at home relaxed all around. Dad drank less, and their arguments became infrequent. There were no dramatic changes—we didn’t move to a bigger house or buy a new car—but there was less scrimping and more frills. Mom built up a wardrobe to go with her new identity; she became the smart dresser she always wanted to be. She went crazy over shoes. I don’t know how many pairs she had at the peak of her mania, but let’s say fifty: pointy-toed high heels, cork wedges with open toes, strappy sandals, whatever was in fashion. She looked for colors and shades she didn’t have—“yes, I have red, but not this brick red, not this stacked heel.” When she bought a new outfit—no time now for knitting—there would be matching shoes.
She wasn’t a vain woman, and it took me a long time to understand her absorption with presentation and self-image, with remaking herself. She was still living down her tenth-grade education, even if no one knew, and her self-perception required those outer trappings.
The real change was deeper but every bit as visible. A vibrant personality emerged, one that recalled the young Lena in that old photo. She entertained us with news and stories at the dinner table, bits of gossip, shrewd observations, implications of the latest rise in interest rates. She eschewed false modesty, proudly passing on the frequent praise that came her way. Like a desert shrub replanted next to a stream, she flourished and flowered. “I owe it all to the Bank of America,” she liked to say.
Her health became an obstacle after several years. Her battle with gastric ulcers was longstanding—I’d grown up with her bland cooking and bottles of Maalox in the medicine cabinet—but didn’t impede her activities for a while. Doctors told her it was psychosomatic, stress-related, but when her bouts of pain increased they began to take her seriously. Surgery helped, but other medical problems followed. She stopped working when chronic illness came to dominate her strength and energy. Smoking was her eventual undoing. Cigarettes were her crutch, no less in good times than in bad. She was a heavy smoker all her life and wouldn’t, couldn’t stop even after cancer was discovered, even after having a lung removed. “If one thing doesn’t get you, something else will,” she told me more than once when I tried to reason with her about her smoking.
The cancer reappeared in her bones and brain; she was beyond treatment and died at sixty. I kept two of her hand-knit capes and a yellow crocheted tablecloth, some costume jewelry and her wedding ring. I didn’t inherit her shoe collection, as I wore a size smaller. Instead I find myself hanging onto a closetful of regrets. How little I tried to know her, how unsupportive I was. How I should have tried to reach out and bridge the gap, daughter to mother, woman to woman. I allowed her reticence to throw me off, or maybe I used it as an excuse in my self-absorption. There’s so much I’ll never know. I have a picture taken of her shortly before her death when illness had taken its toll. Pale and pinched, she looks older than her years, her eyes dimmed with sadness. I also have that early photo—young and vibrant with her life ahead of her. Neither is as strong as the image that’s implanted in my mind from a time in between the two: Lena as I like to remember her, as I knew her for a short span, joyful, animated, dark eyes flashing, reeking confidence during that precious interlude when she’d found her niche. That’s Lena from the bank.