Amid a rancorous national debate on the future of immigration, America lost an immigrant recently. She wasn’t a symbol or statistic. She was my mother. Olga E. Kagan was the strongest woman I knew — and probably the reason I’ve spent my life with other strong women.
Her iron will was evident at every major turning point in her life — and never more so than in her decision in 1976, as a single mother, to move to America with her elderly mother and 6-year-old son in tow. Coming from the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union to the United States, she might as well have been moving to another planet. She didn’t know how to drive or how to act in a job interview. She didn’t even know what french fries were. But she learned fast.
Having taught English to Russians, she switched in the United States to teaching Russian to Americans — first at the University of California at Riverside, then at the University of California at Los Angeles. She not only co-wrote more than 10 textbooks, but also created a whole new field of heritage- language studies focused on immigrants with only an imperfect grasp of their native tongue.
Mom developed an interest in heritage-language education after noticing an increasing number of students in her UCLA classes whose parents were Russian. These students were annoying their classmates because they spoke the language so effortlessly. Many instructors saw heritage speakers as disruptive nuisances who were just after easy grades, but Mom said, “If they come for an easy grade and that’s what we give them, it’s our fault, not theirs.”
She designed a class for heritage speakers at UCLA that advanced them to high-level coursework in one year by building on what they know rather than harping on their deficiencies. She went on to create the National Heritage Language Resource Center with a grant from the U.S. Education Department, because she thought it made sense, in a globalizing world, for more Americans to become bilingual. I like to think I inspired her professional success with the C that I earned in the only Russian-language class that I took in college.
At Mom’s funeral, mourner after mourner spoke about what a wonderful teacher she was. She was certainly devoted to her students. Even after she found out months ago that chemotherapy had failed, she was still making plans to return to her beloved classroom in the spring. On the day before she died, while she lay in bed at home looking gaunt, she was on the phone to her department chairman weighing in on personnel decisions. He was shocked to learn the next day that her input had ended forever.
My mother and I were alike in one crucial respect: We may have been Russian by birth, but we were English in spirit. She was intensely reserved and private, and seldom showed what she was feeling. I am the same way, which made it hard for me to tell her how much she meant to me. At least I saw a lot more of her in the last year of her life than I had in the previous 20. I went to Los Angeles last summer to do book research and felt as though I was 17 again, living at home, telling Mom when I would be late. After her illness was diagnosed last August, I got to spend even more time with her, often, admittedly, in the hospital — but then there is a lot of time to talk when someone is bed-bound. And talk we did, about all sorts of things, from the choices she had made in her life to the choices my kids are now making in theirs.
Mom was proud of being Jewish and loved the state of Israel, which she often visited, but, having been raised in an atheistic society, she was not very observant. When the hospital chaplain came to talk to her about the big guy in the sky, she invariably changed the topic to the books she was reading — a late-life favorite being the 1936 novel “The Brothers Ashkenazi” by Israel Joshua Singer, brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer. As a member of the Russian intelligentsia, she was more interested in high culture — she loved opera and ballet — than in grubby politics. But she had some political views, too.
Among her last words were: “He’s not just mean, he’s mean-spirited.” She said this to a friend who had selflessly flown across the country to take care of her. Startled, her friend asked: “Who are you talking about?” “You know who,” my dying mother said with unexpected vehemence. “Trump.”
Truly I am her son.