Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Father's Day Tribute to My Mom

Having just read Timothy Egan’s tribute to his father in The New York Times (, I considered writing one for my dad. But it occurred to me that when I write about my parents it is mostly about my patrimony. So, with the comment my mother used to make, that without her Kopel Forseter would not have been a father, here's a posting about my maternal heritage.

The second of four sisters and an older brother, Sylvia Gerson came to New York from Lodg, Poland, in 1921 when she was four. Her father, Louis, was a jeweler, successful enough to move his family to an apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx that cost her a boyfriend. With an air of upward social mobility she enjoyed conveying, my mother would relate that the boyfriend stopped calling on her because, he explained to her years later, she had attained an address status beyond his station.

A mutual friend set up my parents. Perhaps the story's apocryphal, but the way she told it, my father fell off a ladder in his store when he first saw her. It wasn't from her good looks. Rather, it was her wild and frizzy hair. They agreed, nevertheless, to go out that Friday night to a performance of Die Fledermaus, a comic opera. When Kopel came to her family apartment he didn't recognize her. She was all dolled up and beautiful. They were married six weeks later, Labor Day weekend 1942.

If six weeks seems like a whirlwind courtship, consider this. For several weeks they were apart because Sylvia went on vacation. During one of their times together my mother garnered one of her favorite stories.

Kopel took her back to an apartment he shared. Speaking Yiddish, his roommate asked if they would like to be alone, to which my father replied, also in Yiddish, “No, this one I am going to marry.” Unbeknownst to my father, Sylvia was fluent in Yiddish.

Their union was also a work partnership. As a full charge bookkeeper Sylvia ran the one-person office while Kopel ran the factory where they produced half-slips and panties sold mostly to chain stores across the country. For a little more than four years Sylvia stayed home to raise their three children. I propelled her back to work with my poor eating and an exasperating habit of flinging peas off of my high chair tray. Funny. Today peas are among my favorite vegetable.

Sylvia taught my brother and me to play ball. She made sure we went to Broadway shows and the opera. She took us to the Catskills. She enrolled us in private Hebrew schools and eight week sleepaway Jewish summer camps. She made our house the center of activity. Friday night poker games with my brother’s friends. Passover seders with as many as 40 participants. Overnight guests that prompted her to call our home Malon Forseter, malon being the Hebrew word for hotel. Her dinette table was never too full. Unexpected guests were met with the standard retort, “I'll just add another cup of water to the soup.”

Though I wrote earlier that my poor eating sent her back to work, truth is Sylvia was a woman ahead of her time. Not just a homemaker and club woman—head of the PTA and active in temple and social groups—she also was an accomplished businesswoman not content or fulfilled in a stay-at-home mother role. Because of their business my parents could not always vacation together. My mother was confident and independent enough to travel to Israel and Europe by herself in the mid 1950s when she was just 40.

These are memories from my youth. As she aged my mother's joie de vivre deteriorated. She chain smoked. She was diabetic. She suffered bouts of congestive heart failure. A little dementia. She had one leg amputated below the knee because of her diabetes. A few years later on the eve of an amputation of her second leg she died of cardiac arrest.

My brother sister and I don't dwell on the last decade or so of her life when she no longer was the vibrant source of our family life. It is enough to know that together with our father she molded us into the people we are today. And we are happy with the results.

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