May 7, 2021

Of Moms and Madness: A Brief Memoir

When I went to visit Harold Pinter for his birthday

By Ed Goldman

May’s milestones include May Day itself, which is also Labor Day in Mexico; the National day of Prayer and, probably little-known to non-Muslims, Eid al-Fitr, which is the conclusion of the month-long dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan and a test of your pronunciation skills. Sometimes, “sound it out” is woefully inept advice.

My own people have a 24-hour fast every autumn, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). It’s usually followed by a meal with three or four entrées, a dozen side dishes, a variety of pastries and accusations hurled across the table about whether a particular family in the congregation, not in attendance at the fast-breaking dinner, really did go without food for a full day—or, the implication seems to have been, could have even if they’d wanted to. Mine is a skeptical culture.

Edgy Cartoon

My parents and one of their issues

But in the United States, May’s major moment is, of course, Sunday: Mother’s Day. 

I was monitoring an argument on Facebook not long ago about whether the holiday’s name should be re-punctuated Mothers’ Day, since it’s meant to honor all moms, not just the lucky one who copped the apostrophe. I posted a comment arguing that the day required no apostrophe at all. We don’t call it Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day because it’s clear from the get-go who’s being honored; he doesn’t have to appear to possess it, as well.

It may be surprising to learn that Mother’s, Mothers’ or Mothers Day wasn’t invented by a snappy young advertising executive at Hallmark 50 or 60 years ago. In fact, it’s been around for 114 years, having been started in Grafton, West Virginia, by a woman named Anna Jarvis to honor her late mom, who’d been a community organizer.

For my two brothers and me, we could forget to pay tribute to our mom on her birthday (though only once), but God help us if we let Mother’s Day come and go without presenting her with handmade cards (as little kids), a trip to a fast-food restaurant (when we were teens) or an airline flight to visit one or more of us (when we were alleged adults). 

I was usually the one who did the latter since our mom lived in Seal Beach, only an hour from me via Southwest Airlines. I should point out that “an hour” hinged upon my having specified  “direct/non-stop” when purchasing her ticket; otherwise, as is Southwest’s apparent business model, Mom might have flown from Long Beach to Phoenix to Denver to Tacoma to Sacramento. Had she been a Frequent Flyer, this could have been a nice strategy—but flying just once or twice a decade was enough to make her feel like a jet setter.

Our mom had a tough childhood and I think the now-familiar psychological standby, fear of abandonment, characterized much of her life since the age of eight, when her parents divorced. Divorce was rare for my people in those days (the mid-1920s) and for five years, Betty was stigmatized. Then her mother, Gussie, married Mike Mirsky, a successful tailor in the shtetl (the Jewish ghetto, for want of a better term). Mike took such a shine to my 13-year-old mom that he adopted her and ended up exposing her to a world of art museums, literature and music.

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But since she never went to college, Mom had a lifelong inferiority/superiority complex about her intelligence. She had a fine appreciation for (and knowledge of) painting, for example, but her actual expertise was never quite enough for her, so by the time my brothers and I came along, she could occasionally be pretentious.

I remember one incident with tremendous affection for her. I was reviewing theatre for the college newspaper and stopped by the house to have dinner with her before attending a play. When I walked in, before I could say anything she asked, ”Where are you going tonight?”

I thought she’d asked what was I seeing tonight and answered, “The Birthday Party.”

“Whose?” she asked.

“Whose? Well, Harold Pinter’s,” I said.

“And you’re not taking a gift?”

I began to laugh at the who’s-on-first routine we were engaging in and explained that the great British playwright, Harold Pinter, had written a play called “The Birthday Party.” 

She didn’t miss a beat. “Oh!” she said. “That Harold Pinter! Of course! This I knew.”

I wish I could fly her up here this year. But she’s been gone since 2006. I hope her last journey was smooth, direct and non-stop.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).