Once, I came up behind her as she walked to Taliaferro Hall and tried to goad her into beer and a slice of pizza, but she wouldn’t cut her class. On another occasion, she was headed toward the undergraduate library and I was on a mission to the campus dairy for ice cream, blazed on midafternoon joints in the student newspaper office.
The sharpest memory is that of a sociology professor, handing me back a solid-C term paper and inquiring as to whether I was, in fact, the son of a woman enrolled in one of his other upper-level electives. I affirmed as much.
“The apple rolls a bit from the tree, eh?” he observed.
In her late 50s, Dorothy Simon accompanied her youngest child to the University of Maryland to complete an arc that she had abandoned four decades before. It was, for her, an essential return, but bittersweet. She had excelled as a student; she had both the mind and the discipline for this kind of life.
Unfortunately, she was born in 1923, in Brooklyn, into a Jewish working-class family that believed sons were there to be sent to college campuses and professional schools and daughters existed to marry early and well. My mother graduated from James Monroe High School in 1940, attended a couple semesters at Hunter College and then married my father.
In every sense, she became a homemaker — and a great one, in fact. She personified perhaps the last generation of American women who almost completely sublimated their own ambitions for those of their children. She raised one son to be a professor of medicine and the other a television producer. She insisted — as her parents never did — that her daughter pursue her own intellectual identity to the greatest possible extent, supporting my sister in an artist’s career and making clear to my father that Linda’s master’s degree in fine art was every bit as essential as anything her brothers might undertake.
As our mother, she exuded a firm confidence in what she knew to be true and right; my father was accomplished in his field, but the intellectual center of the family was Dorothy Simon, delivering gravitas and ethics from her kitchen table. She wasn’t merely smart. She was wise.
But in her family of origin, in the 1930s, the child caught reading quietly in the upstairs rooms of the Rockaway rooming houses her mother managed was a black sheep.
While her sisters and brother were turning mattresses and cleaning bathrooms, she was shirking. She had no head for business. She was no favorite. When the romance with my father beckoned, her ambitions slipped. No one argued. Not her, certainly.
She ventured again into the greater world once I made it to middle school, first working at the Black Student Fund, a Washington nonprofit that sponsored promising students in D.C. private schools. After returning to study psychology and sociology at Montgomery College, she embarked on a late career as a crisis counselor at a McLean facility for runaway adolescents, and then began taking clients as a personal and marital therapist. She worked out of her kitchen.
She was skilled at this. Word got around.
Finally, to complete the long arc, she followed me to College Park, intent on the academic degree. She beat me to the finish, graduating in the spring of 1983; I still needed to tack on summer sessions to a five-year college career to acquire the same parchment as bachelor of general studies.
My mother went to her commencement with the name of her first grandchild taped to her mortarboard so he might make her out in the Cole Field House throng. It was a triumph. But that day, she told me bluntly that she felt cheated, that she had waited too long, that she was too old now to construct the long career of a woman who considered a professional life to be her due.
Ten years after Dorothy Simon graduated from James Monroe, another young Jewish woman emerged from a New York public high school. And while the expectations for young women were still largely rooted in domesticity, there were now cracks in the facade. They began with the war that had thrown women into factories and offices: My mother spent two-and-a-half years at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, shipping war materiel to Europe — but by then she was married. A year after my father’s discharge from the Army, my brother was born. The family began.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of the James Madison High School Class of 1950, who was able to marry the whole of her life to the cause of equality and aspiration for every woman, died Friday. My mother, of the James Monroe Class of 1940, followed her three days later. In the decade that separated the two, a great awakening, long overdue.