21 04 2007

My mother died ten days ago. This is the eulogy I read at her funeral, not part of a radio show, at least not yet.   In some ways her death was a great relief, because she has been in declining health for years, and I have been mourning her gradual departure for a long time, but the actual fact of her passage is a tremendous shock. Wordsmith that I am, I am at a loss for words to express my feelings. “Don’t cry for me, ” she said as she lay dying, and, so far, I haven’t. Her death is a tremendous reminder to me to work as hard as I can for what I believe in while I still have the strength.

Without further preface, here it is:

My mother was born April 6, 1912, in New York City, the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants on one side and French Jewish immigrants on the other. Her grandfather was a door-to-door peddler in Illinois; her father was the leading floor covering salesman in New York City—but my mom graduated from high school in 1930, into a society that was falling apart from the Great Depression. So, she had to figure out her own way through the world—choosing to work and travel and be her own person instead of following the traditional path of marrying out of her parents’ home and into her husband’s.

She journeyed to San Francisco in search of a new life thirty years before I did, and I grew up on her stories of being penniless in San Francisco and hitchhiking to Canada with her friends, little dreaming that, as a young man, I too would hitchhike around the country and find myself penniless in San Francisco. She imbued the stories she told with a sense of excitement and wonder that taught me to see my life as a series of adventures—when I could just as easily see it as a series of trials.

As an independent woman, my mother also developed a strong sense of social justice that led her into political activism in the heady, radical thirties, and her passionate stories of strikes, leafleting, and picket lines, (sometimes joined by my grandmother, a feminist in her own right), of partying with the young Communists and taking part in huge anti-Nazi demonstrations when German passenger ships would dock in New York, likewise helped form my view of proper adult behavior. But she was not all seriousness; she aspired to start a dance school where people could learn dances from around the world, as a way of fostering international understanding.

And it was her passionate commitment to social justice, her desire to do as much as she could to stop the Nazi menace, that led her to volunteer for the U.S. Army when war broke out. She started out cleaning airplanes, but soon her natural talent for understanding and expressing the human situation was recognized, and she spent much of the war on the staff of various Army publications as a writer and editor, in England and France.

And it was in England that she met my father, a soldier and a shy country boy from western Ohio with a conservative, traditional Christian upbringing. I think neither had ever met anyone quite like the other. Although she had vowed at twenty-five never to marry and have children, the attraction of opposites and the ticking of her thirty-three year old biological clock combined to pull her and my father into marriage.

So, she moved with him to central Ohio, where she and my father soon began to suffer from culture clash long before it had a name. In an attempt to solidify their disintegrating marriage, she bore me, at the relatively late age of thirty-six. The pregnancy, after several miscarriages, was difficult, leading her doctor to recommend that she never attempt pregnancy again. The final difficulty came when she still had not gone into labor a month past her due date. After one exam, her doctor told her to come back the next day. “NO!” my mother said. “I’m not leaving this hospital until I have my baby!” My ten-months pregnant mother was so forceful about this that the doctor gave in and set up an immediate c-section, in the course of which he discovered that my mother had the beginnings of an infection that, in another 24 hours, would have had serious consequences for both of us. Thanks, Mom.

I was only a year old when my mother went back to college, part-time, with the aim of becoming a schoolteacher. Graduation and divorce happened close on each other, and she found herself with a new life as a single mother and a substitute teacher. Work was unpredictable, my father was not forthcoming with alimony, and there were times when money was short and we didn’t have a whole lot to eat. The penny-pinching skills my mother had learned in the Great Depression came in handy, as did her upbeat attitude. Life was always an adventure.

Then, unexpectedly, one of her substitute teaching assignments turned into a full-time teaching position—eighth grade English—in a Dayton, Ohio suburb, a job she would hold for over twenty-five years. Every night, over dinner and between grading a never-ending stream of papers, she would tell me her day’s adventures. Adventures challenging her students to read, to think, and to write. Adventures working with, and sometimes clashing with, conservative school administrators who found her as fascinating and difficult as my father had, but had to respect her talent as a teacher. Adventures starting a branch of the National Federation of Teachers—a bona fide, militant, AF of L union—when she grew frustrated with the compromises brokered by the National Education Association in her school district. She did not rest until her upstart union was the recognized bargaining agent for Kettering’s teachers. She taught me that you can take on the status quo and win.  (Note–Since writing this, I discovered that her AFT chapter sputtered and died when she retired, which is just as good a lesson–don’t worry about whether you win or lose!)

Through all this time, she stayed connected with her family in New York, Every summer, she and I would head for New York City, where we rented a room in a large, old, ramshackle beach house. My grandparents summered in the room next door, and there were two other couples in the other rooms on that floor, each with its own tiny refrigerator and stove. We all shared the same bathroom. Other couples and families with kids took slightly larger apartments in the attic, ground floor, and basement. Old men smoked cigars, played pinochle, and read Yiddish newspapers. Some of them bore the tattoos they had been branded with in concentration camps. We were on the beach block, and a very long way from Wonderbread, suburban Ohio. It was my first experience of living in community, and I loved it. Thanks, Ma.

So, she shouldn’t have been too surprised when I joined the Caravan, and the the Farm. She came and visited me on the Caravan when we arrived back in Nashville, and spent a night on the bus with me—and the eight or ten other single people living in it. A few months later, when we had settled on the Martin Farm, she arrived on a Sunday morning and found the gate locked and deserted—we were all at Sunday Morning Services. she just climbed over it—in her high heels—and walked in. She was not afraid of adventure.

In addition to her union activities, she had become active in the Democratic Party, working at the neighborhood level to educate people and get out the vote. This led to her running as a Democratic candidate for the Ohio state legislature, but it was a strongly Republican district and a strongly Republican year—1980. At least she made her opponent work for his seat! She was never afraid to challenge power and authority in the name of social justice.

A few years later, in 1984, she was selected as a delegate to the Democratic convention, and helped nominate Walter Mondale. It was not a high point for the Democratic Party, but it was one of the high points of her life. One of my most treasured photographs of her was taken at that convention. She is holding a Mondale sign over her head and looking absolutely fierce.

Her commitment to her family diverted from politics, back into teaching, after that. Our kids were coming into their teenage years and we invited her to come down to the farm and work some of her English teacher magic on them. She devoted a stormy, but fruitful, year to our young wild ones, deciding at the end of it that she had had enough of butting heads with teenagers—but she succeeded in maintaining warm, friendly relations with all those little butt-heads that have continued through the years as they have grown into adults with teenagers of their own. She had a way of finding what kids were good at, and encouraging them, even as she gave them a hard time for their shortcomings.

She returned to Ohio and resumed her Democratic Party work, always pushing for the Democrats to take more populist stances, never hesitating to challenge entrenched elitism wherever she found it. Although age and heart disease were slowing her down, she had not lost her taste for novelty and adventure—so she accepted our invitation to move to Tennessee three years ago and started a new life her at 92, with verve and gusto. She never felt that she was too old to do something to make the world a better place, and she was a tremendous inspiration to everyone who came in contact with her. Although she is gone, her spirit and intentions live on in many, many people.

Goodbye, Mom, and thank you for so very much.


hello there. i am your cousin of some sort, i believe second, as you know my mother is your first cousin. my name is steffani and i am 31 years old as of tuesday. :) my mother told me she mentioned me profusely when the two of you met last year, so maybe i am a tiny bit familiar. i have WANTED to contact you for a while, but my mother said that maybe i should wait. anyway, i can no longer wait because i want to share that i really admired your mother when i was a child. i used to be babysat by aunts eva and dot. your mother used to visit randomly, at least in my memory, and i just KNEW she and i were some kind of RELATIVES, partially because even as a young child there was no one remotely like me in our family and mostly because i could keenly feel that unlike every other grownup i had ever met, i had SOMETHING in common with her. my memory of her was that she was ballsy and beautiful and earthy and exotic and SOMEHOW “what i wanted to be when i grew up.”..and of course her DEMOCRAT STICKERS on her car…. i am now the democrat sticker lady in my family (though maybe not so much so anymore i am more “green”, i would say, this time around) and would hope and pray that SOMEDAY would have been an INSPIRATION for some other small child in close minded Ohio (and our family, bless them all) like your mother was for me. losing a parent is an experience that is daunting, enlightening, awful, and transformative, and i want to share with you that my thoughts are with you during this time and my memories are of your dear and wonderful mother, who as you can see meant a LOT to MANY people, even me. thank you and blessings… steffani (jennings) crummett
Posted by steffani (jennings)crummett (sandy’s daughter) on 05/11/2007 02:46:36 PM




3 responses

29 02 2008

Hi Martin,

Growing up, I heard a lot about you. I had your mom as an English teacher at Barnes.
Initially, I was terrified to learn that I was assigned to her English class, I learned to really respect her and be fascinated by her. She lived a couple of blocks from my on-off again boyfriend throughout jr and sr high, your mom had great lessons for me. I used to visit her at her home whenever I could. She was such a colorful character, and had great stories. She was such an inspiration! She told me frequently ” You don’t need a man to define you”, which is what I’ve told my own daughter and her friends frequently.I’m sorry to hear that she passed. She was one of a kind!

29 02 2008

there’s a memorial site for my mom at
lots of pictures, not much text yet–if you knew my mom, please send me your stories!

29 03 2008
David Belcher

Hi Martin,
It;s David Belcher. I grew up two houses from you on Colonial Ave. Do you remember Okey and Mary Belle Belcher, my parents? We lived on the other side of the Rehrigs. I have this amazing memory of a piano company delivering our piano and you (with your long, 60s hair) playing it in the back of the truck before they took it out. A huge old upright. I was about 6 years old.

I googled your mom’s name because she was such a big influence on me as a child. We moved to New Mexico in 1977 after my father died of brain cancer. My mom is still with us. I’m heading to NM tomrrow to help her move. My sister Debra, closer to your age, lives in Lexington, KY. I live in New York and work as a designer and sometimes writer for the New York Times. I don’t miss Ohio….I’ve only been back four times in 31 years. We saw your mom in 1996 when we were back there. Deb is still close with Sue Rehrig. Callie is still alive. Jim died about five years ago.

Please let me know that you received this. I remember so many wonderful conversations with your mom and grandma. I was always so drawn to living in New York as a child thanks in part to her stories of growing up here.

Such a wonderful tribute you’ve written here. A truly amazing woman. I will print this out and take it to my mom. She had so much respect for your mom and credits her with “converting” her to being a Demorat, something Mary Belle is now fervent about.

Let me know if you’re ever in New York!

David Belcher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: