My mother, Dorothy Katziff Brass, has been gone 57 years. She died in April 1962, two weeks after her 60th birthday. She had been ill for two years with kidney disease, a result of the diabetes that had been passed down through her family through three generations. I was 20, and my sister, Sheila, was 25.
When I learned that she was sick, rather than pretending it wasn’t so, I did what had to be done. She raised me that way. She never liked shielding me from life because she wanted me to be independent and strong. That was her legacy. She never bragged about me, saying that people would tell her of my achievements. She liked it that way, and I came to like it that way, too. One of her favorite expressions was, “What would you do if I weren’t here?” I cried myself to sleep for six months after she died.
I came to realize that when you are young and lose your mother, she isn’t there to acknowledge you as an adult, and compensation has to be made. Her goal was to raise an educated woman who knew the difference between right and wrong and who would never let anyone rob her of her creativity. My mother never went to college. Girls didn’t need college educations in the early part of the 20th century, or so she was told. Instead, she helped both of her brothers obtain degrees in chemical engineering from Northeastern University.
I remember the fruit punch she made for us to take to the beach on hot summer days, and the blueberry pies she set on the kitchen windowsill to cool, and how wonderful it was to open the screen door off the back porch and walk into a kitchen that smelled of baking challah.
I remember my mother wearing her black Persian lamb coat, smelling of Coty’s Lilly of the Valley eau de toilette when she bent down to kiss me goodnight before leaving for a relative’s wedding, and how I played with the curly fur the way I played with her dark curls. She always wore ruby-colored lipstick that came in black plastic tubes and smelled of raspberries. She saved my life numerous times when croup attacked me, and she slept in her clothes in case she had to run into the hospital in the middle of the night.
What happened to me? I grew up, and found out some very important truths—you don’t have to give birth to be a mother, and you don’t have to be biologically related to mother someone.
The times in my life when I felt I needed a mother or didn’t even realize I needed a mother, I was fortunate to know some women who came to my rescue. They nurtured me, and they encouraged me, and they criticized me when I needed it. Because they were human, they weren’t always right, but the very fact that they were willing to spend the time to interact with me was invaluable.
When I ran away from home at the age of 26, Dorothy Ladd, the woman I worked for at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, took me in for the night until I could move to the Cambridge YWCA. She threw a crocheted afghan over me and comforted me with ice cream and chocolate cake. She remained a good friend and mentor.
Ilene Beyer, who was the residence director at the YWCA, helped me make the transition from leaving home to living in a communal atmosphere. I experienced the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, often stopping in her office for a chat and advice. We went to Weight Watchers together.
Aunt Dee Dee, my father’s sister, who had been a concert violinist as a child and was a lawyer for more than 50 years, never had children, but she brought up three generations of her nieces and nephews, giving advice, teaching us to type, and telling us that when people said good things about us it was like “vitamins for the soul.” She wasn’t a cook, didn’t like keeping house, took care of her elderly mother for years, and sent me off to Nantucket Island for a seminar on technical writing with a bag of fig newtons and a paperback copy of “The Greatest English Poets.”
We spent our Friday evenings with Aunt Ida for 15 years while Uncle Julius, our mother’s brother, did his charity work. Along with the turkey sandwiches on the day-old bagels (if you bought them fresh, they’d be day-old the next day in your own kitchen) she warmed in her toaster oven, and the home-baked “something sweet” she defrosted for dessert, we shared job fears, boyfriend woes, and weight-gain worries. She was particular about wanting her coffee hot and wouldn’t hesitate to grasp the wrist of a server to question the temperature of her cup. She thought every dress should have a belt, and she loved triple markdowns from Filene’s Basement.
I still remember the telephone conversations we had, and the time we took her to The Four Seasons Hotel for tea to celebrate her 80th birthday. We did a side trip to the newly opened Hermes store in Boston, where she told an understanding saleswoman that she already had a drawer full of scarves.
I’ve never had a child, and there was a time when I felt disappointed until I realized that I could help other people’s children. Once I understood my role, I was comfortable with it, and I’ve never let a child miss lunch, or act irresponsibly, even children I don’t know. There have been many times a parent has asked me to watch out for a son or daughter, even a grown-up son or daughter, and I do. It’s my job. I learned from the best.
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