My mother could have been president of the United States. She could have been chairman of General Motors, chief executive of Apple in the morning and of Google in the afternoon — and home in time to cook something for my father, quiz my sister and me on our school day and then rush off for a nightcap of canasta. She was the most competent person I’ve ever known, and her problem, if you could call it that, was she was born way before her time. She died last week, 22 days short of her birthday. She would have been 100.
My mother’s official birthday was May 5, but that was just the invention of some neighborhood kid who registered her in school — neither she nor her mother was able to speak a word of English. That was January 1921, just a couple of weeks after she had arrived in America, another disoriented child from the Polish ghetto. Her father met her at the dock and gave her an orange, a fruit redolent of the sunshiny New World. Out of habit, she pocketed it for later.
“What is your first memory?” my cousin the filmmaker once asked her, camera rolling.
“Hunger,” my mother said. “We were always hungry.”
World War I quick-marched through her town — the Germans and the Russians pummeling one another for the drab city of Ostrolenka, 75 miles from Warsaw. My grandmother worked the potato fields, filching the occasional one to bring home to her three children as their only meal of the day. At the end of 1920, they set out by horse and cart for Warsaw and then by train to Rotterdam and then by boat to America. From below deck in steerage, my mother couldn’t see the Statue of Liberty. Somehow she never lost sight of it.
My grandmother frequently uttered the phrase “only in America,” but while my mother never did, she felt it keenly. She was thrilled by the election of Barack Obama, a black man, after all. Like an old-fashioned ward boss, she helped turn out the vote where she lived, at the Golda Meir House in Newton, Mass. Just to make sure, she went up to New Hampshire to work an Obama phone bank.
“Hello, my name is Pat. I’m 96 years old and I came from Massachusetts this morning to talk to you about Barack Obama.” The place went still. Everyone listened. She made 78 phone calls in 21 / 2 hours — and didn’t get a single hang-up. Obama carried New Hampshire easily, and now you know why.
My mother was always feisty and independent — and not to be trifled with. In school, she learned the women stuff — typing and bookkeeping and shorthand, and after a while she set out from Brooklyn to Manhattan to find work. She was an adorable young woman, quite stunning, actually, but it was the Depression and jobs were scarce. She worked under the name of Pat Tyson to fool a fool who would not hire Jews, and she worked on Tin Pan Alley for the songwriter Al Piantadosi, and she worked for a plumbing supply business and for a paper company and in the business office where my sister and I went to school. For the longest time, she worked at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic hospital where she became the only non-nun to head a department. She was that good.
She worked all the time. She worked in her retirement in Florida — a dress shop and a bookkeeping job and then, after she retired from retirement, she volunteered in the gift shop of a hospital and worked the desk at the place where she lived. She could organize the disorganized and outsmart the smarty-pants and figure the odds at poker. She was my father’s champion, his love and, finally, his nurse, getting him out of his chair and out into the world. A week before she died, she was back working the gift shop.
I think my mother recognized in Obama a kindred spirit. Of course, he was a Democrat, like her, but the salient fact was that he was black and she was a woman. Because he was younger, he had done what she could not — employ his considerable intellect as he pleased. My mother was trapped in the social conventions of her time. Her ceiling wasn’t glass. It was gloomy, opaque — a leaden sky of fierce and smug sexism. She was a woman. She had to do women’s work.
My mother’s name was Pearl Rosenberg Cohen. Remember her. She was the president America never had.