The date is not certain. It could be the third or maybe the second, probably not the fourth. But some immigration officer at Ellis Island took it upon himself to make the birthday the same as the country's. This is how my mother's birthday got to be July 4. The country will be 206. She will be 70. Happy birthday, Mother.
She came from Poland. She came from a place I later visited, a mean place of cold and fog. During World War I, the front moved back and forth though her town. Her mother worked on the railroad and the kids foraged for food. They didn't starve, but they nearly did and after the war they simply got out. They took the train to Rotterdam and the boat to New York and there my grandfather met them and gave my mother an orange to eat. She didn't know what to do with it.
She went to school and soon she went to work. She worked on Tin Pan Alley, for Al Piantadosi who wrote the World War I-era hit, "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier." Once during the Depression she had to work for a Jewish man who wouldn't hire Jews. She was light and fair and so she said her name was Pat Tyson and she worked for this man until she could find another job. When she did, she went in and quit, and when he asked why she said it was because he was a no-good anti-Semitic bastard. She told him that in Yiddish. A mother like that is a gift.
When she was a young woman, she had pictures taken. They show her wearing some kind of fur around her neck. There is a series of them, each one a different pose, most of them showing her smiling. As a little boy, I used to take out those pictures and just get lost in them. You have to admit that Sigmund Freud was on to something.
She worked. She worked most of the time when I was growing up. She worked because we needed the money, but she worked also because she wanted to. She was born too soon, really, and born in the wrong place. In a different era with a different education she could have a terrific career at something. She had the brains and she had the drive. I could not imagine someone not hiring my mother. She was always the most competent person I ever knew. It was her timing that was off--that's all, just her timing.
I remember as a kid trying to keep up with her. She seemed to walk so fast. I was always skipping or running, trying hard to stay by her side. She moved fast, efficiently, but if you asked me to tell you just one story about my mother I would tell you the time she pulled a chair up to my bed in the hospital and stayed with me the night before my tonsils were removed. It was the most scared I have ever been. It was good to have my mother with me.
It is normal, I know, for a son to love his mother. Richard Nixon slobbered over his; Abe Lincoln venerated his. But I grew away from mine. Different cities. Different lives. There were other reasons as well, some I understand, a few I do not. But the love the boy felt and the love the man feels were not seamless--not automatic. It thinned out for a time--a time of cynicism and self-obsession masquerading as self-appraisal.
So I started all over again. I watched her and got to know her and listened to what she said. She got older, but she also got younger. The older she becomes, the stronger she gets, the more fervent she gets, the more she hates injustice and the more critical she becomes--tolerant but critical. I can listen now to what she says and it is wonderful--wonderful and wise and very often funny.
She got a new valve for her heart and a new game for her retirement (golf) and she has never stopped learning and, of course, loving. She walks two miles a day for her exercise and takes guff from no one, and would, if she could, walk right up to Washington and give Ronald Reagan what she would call a piece of her mind. She'd tell him about fairness. My mother believes in fairness.
Soon we all will gather in the Berkshire Mountains near where my sister lives and toast my mother (and, of course, my father) and talk once again about whether her birthday is the third, as she believes, or the fourth, as some immigration officer wanted. He thought she and the country should have the same birthday. He was right. They have so much in common.