July Fourth is the nation's birthday. It is also my mother's. They are both very old, as these things go -- America for a nation, especially a democracy, my mother for a person, especially one born in such inauspicious circumstances. Within two years of her birth, in 1912 and in Poland, Europe was at war and my mother and her family were refugees. They slept four in a bed, eight in a room and ate, on a good day, a potato or two that my grandmother had filched (under pain of death) from the farm where she was forced to work. In my family, we don't talk about the good old days.
My mother is a rebuke to science. She did not have a balanced diet when she was a kid. She had almost no diet at all. When my cousin, the filmmaker, and her sister, the photographer, decided to record our family's history, they sat my mother and father down on two chairs, asked some questions and trained a camera on them. "What is your most vivid childhood memory, Aunt Pat?"
"I remember being hungry."
It was summer. The doors and windows were open and I was sitting on the deck out back, listening. "Hungry," she said. The word had a physical, concussive quality. We don't know hunger here anymore. It's like smallpox or diphtheria -- gone, or virtually so. We throw out food, and even the homeless can eat -- maybe not well, but enough. I forget sometimes what it was like for my mother because she is not inclined to talk much about it. Besides, she prefers to look to the future.
The past, though, intrudes occasionally. The TV pictures from Kosovo upset her -- the rivers of refugees fleeing into Macedonia and Albania. "I know what that is like," she said. It was then she told about how the army in the First World War kicked them out of their home and they became refugees. They didn't go far, just to some place where they could find some shelter. Still, they lost their home. It has never happened to me. Has it ever happened to you?
By the end of 1920, my mother was in America. She went to school here, learned her remarkable penmanship here, learned to speak English without any accent and was trained, as was the custom then, in the skills of typing and bookkeeping. She worked in Tin Pan Alley and in the garment industry. She worked for the school my sister and I attended, and then for a Catholic hospital where, I think, she did everything but open-heart surgery. She is, I tell you, the most amazingly competent person I have ever met.
Here is the truth, the tragic truth: My mother was born too soon. If she were my age, if she were even younger, she would have gone to college, to graduate school, interned here and interned there, semestered in Paris and then in Florence and by now be the CEO of some smashing company. She would be into the Internet and cyberspace and, as she still does, she would be walking four miles a day at a pace that would make anyone else her age just plain quit. My mother -- not any book or op-ed piece -- made a feminist out of me.
Here is another truth: My mother has kept my father alive. He is 90 and hurting from arthritis. He cannot button his shirt. He cannot tie his shoes. He cannot, of course, prepare his own food because, among other things, he never did it even when he could. My mother does all this -- and gets him out of the house to boot. They go to the movies. They go to the theater. They go to lectures, and until recently they went to college in the summer. They are two remarkable people. They are not only my good fortune, they are my fortune.
My mother does not understand her mirror. It shows an old woman. But she does not feel old or act old. Her heart valves get replaced every 20 years or so, and occasionally an injury forces her to suspend her walking regime. But she (and my father) volunteer at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., and she would, if she could, go right back to work, as if she were 30 or 40 years younger. She's great at caring and great at laughing and -- always and still -- great when you skin your knee and need a real pal. My mother and my country -- both born on the 4th, both somehow still young.
Happy Birthday to them both.