The Dark Wit.


One of the ladies looking after my cancer sick mother Louise said she was a “sweet lady”.

There are other adjectives I might use but “sweet” never paired with her.

Mordant, witty, nervous, quick, intuitive, emotional, sad, empathetic, petty, vicarious, excitable, energetic, humorous, treacherous, dark, vindictive, resentful; these are also her traits.

She came up in the Depression, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood that she shared with her older sister, her parents and a boarder.

Her father was a dentist, her mother made hats and they aspired, as Russian immigrants, to see their children educated and prosperous.

She had few things, but books, Sinatra records and Hollywood.

One day, reading, she was startled by Monarch butterfly and spent the rest of her life running away from them. In 1969, she was almost hit by a car, on a family vacation, when she ran into the street to avoid one in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Why did she fear butterflies? What would Freud think?

She was not a rebel, but a rebel with children.

Born in 1933, her college wardrobe at the University of Illinois was largely borrowed from friends. Her parents struggled to pay the $75 a semester tuition. In photos, back then, she wore dark lipstick, long skirts, cashmere sweaters and her hair was neatly curled and sprayed in place.

Cousin Elissa said Louise was always “the injured party”. My mom believed in the good fortune of others, their successes, their achievements, their blessings. And she fervently and sadly came to imagine living under a curse.

It’s unfair to eulogize and wrap up another person’s life in selected events presented by subjective opinions. But I am her son, duly positioned for such thoughts and imagined journeys into my mother’s conscience.

She hated doctors, rabbis, and God, but loved the strong men on screen, the noble and not so noble characters who made love, lived life in the public eye and went to the White House.

She loved Bruce Jay Friedman’s 1970 play “Steambath” which portrayed a Puerto Rican bath attendant as the Almighty and his bath as Afterlife.

God was a sick fucker. He made deformed children. He allowed war and suffering.

We used to crack up at Passover, my mother and me, when we read the Four Questions. “Why is this night different than all the other nights?” put us into hysteric laughter. My father was not amused.

But she lit the yartzeit candles for both her parents every year. One was put out on January 13, 2014, and stayed unlit when she fell to the floor of her apartment and was rescued 20 hours later.

She hated God but loved her parents. One President of the United States became her God.

Working at WBBM-TV in 1960, she was eye-to-eye with Kennedy and Nixon at their first public debate. As Time Magazine later put it, she voted for Kennedy at face value.

Naïve in the ways of the Mad Men, she did not believe men cheated, but was always quick to believe in the duplicity of women.

She was not sweet.
She is not sweet.
She is angry and full of love.

She is made of that particular strain of Russian Jew who came up hearing violins, futile prayers, flickering candles and melancholy music, who cried often and drowned in tears running from death and fearing for life.

She is made of winter in Chicago, that sullen city of ice and snow, chapped lips and dry skin, loud radiators, frozen waters and people pushing into trains and streetcars, buses and sidewalks; small people numbering millions, passing by the heroic towers of the Wrigley and Tribune buildings, alive in life and moment; sparkling, electric, a place of marquees and nightclubs, Rush Street and Michigan Avenue, fur coats and the Drake Hotel.

And then silence.

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