In Praise Of A Jewish MotherSunday, August 14, 2011
The Jewish mother or wife stereotype is a common stereotype and stock character used by Jewish comedians and authors whenever they discuss actual or fictional situations involving their mothers or other mother-like figures in their lives. The stereotype generally involves a nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, one who persists in interfering in her children's lives long after they have become adults. Lisa Aronson Fontes describes the stereotype as one of "endless caretaking and boundless self-sacrifice" by a mother who demonstrates her love by "constant overfeeding and unremitting solicitude about every aspect of her children's and husband's welfare".
|Rosemary, my mother & Ale|
If I had been given a choice, except for once, I would have chosen nothing.
Let me explain. In 1953 my grandmother who worked for the Philippine Legation in Buenos Aires was assigned to Mexico City. My mother was struggling as a single mom (my father had voluntarily left a few years ago because of his alcoholism) to give me an education while the political situation in Argentina was fanning itself into a soon to come explosion.
My grandmother had a knack of knowing when to leave a country. She had left the Philippines in the early 20s as a young widow with three children and with no opportunity for employment in Manila. She did well in New York City but saw the stock market crash coming and moved the family back to Manila. In Manila in 1938 she sensed the winds of war and immigrated to Argentina.
In my presence my grandmother raised the subject of having us follow her to Mexico. I tearfully objected and I remember most vividly saying, “I want to stay with my father. We cannot leave him behind.” My grandmother countered rhetorically, “If you want to stay with your father you can.” This was not to be and the choice was made by my mother. She had to hire a lawyer to deal with the paper work of spiriting my out of Argentina without my father’s permission.
Once in Mexico City, my mother did not contest the American School’s putting me back one year into the 5th grade. The school explained that the educational systems of Argentina and Mexico were not exactly compatible. I fought this and I was ashamed but I now understand that the decision by the school was a sound one and I had a bit more time to adapt to the language change from Argentine Spanish to Mexican Spanish.
My involvement with the American system of education was put to a test when I finished the 8th grade in Nueva Rosita, Coahuila, Mexico. My mother had been my teacher in a two-room school. She had two choices to have me continue in the Mexican educational system (I would have lost at least a year because of those compatibility problems or an impossibility of transferring my credits) or to send me to the nearest school in the American system. The closest was an expensive Catholic boarding school, St. Edward’s High School, in Austin, Texas. I was not given a choice and I was sent summarily to Austin where I languished in self-pity and homesickness for a few months. Until then I had been a student who had enough intelligence to get by without really trying. I was a mediocre good student. At St. Ed’s I was forced to have study halls and a study hall was imposed on us every evening. I learned to study and soon I was one of the best students in my class.
I had the choice of taking Latin or Spanish. I was lazy like most teenagers of my generation so I chose Spanish thinking I could get by without trying much. I was wrong about this twice over. In Latin I would have learned another language, in my Spanish class only my practical Spanish (I could speak it and write it) helped a tad. I had to learn the Spanish grammar and this was not easy. I now understand that learning grammatical Spanish has served me well to help me deal with the minutiae of differences between English and Spanish which have always fascinated me.
In short I chose the right decision by sheer accident.
In 1974 Rosemary and I were in a dead end job teaching English to Mexican executives in large American companies. On the side we were making some extra money teaching at an American private school. Rosemary then made a decision. She said that we would move to Canada where we would find better possibilities for us and better educational opportunities for our young daughters. I was not really given the choice. Rosemary then further informed me that we would not spend money buying a car in Canada. We would ship our belongings with a moving company but we would drive our VW beetle to Vancouver. She chose Vancouver (she was from New Dublin, Ontario) telling me that I would not be able to cope with snow in Toronto.
Once in Vancouver Rosemary made sure our daughters learned to swim and skate and plunked them into French immersion. When Ale’s English began to deteriorate she took her out of her Mallardville high school and placed her into the expensive York House. Our daughter rebelled but was not given a choice. I told Rosemary that to be competitive as a photographer in Vancouver I had to learn to print colour negatives. I procrastinated for a year. One day Rosemary told me," You are signed up this coming Monday at Ampro Photo Workshops. You are going to learn to colour print." And I did.
Both girls had ballet lessons at the Vancouver School of Music and Ale also had classical guitar lessons. Their ballet teacher was aggressive, shouted a lot and only dealt with the girls that had obvious talent. Hilary was allowed to quit. Ale wanted to quit both ballet and ther guitar. I put my foot down and told her she could only quit one of her classes.
Ale went to UBC to get a BA and a B Ed. At one point she wanted to quit and Rosemary told her she could only quit one of them. Ale graduated with a B Ed and if she had only gone for one more semester she would have finished her BA.
To this day Ale thanks us about having forced her to stay with her guitar as she learned to sight read very well and can even manage the piano at school in Lillooet where she teaches. She is glad that Rosemary forced her to stay on with the B Ed. She has a good job, with good benefits. She is happy.
The other daughter had problems in school with physics, math and chemistry and could not follow her career calling which would have been that of a nutritionist in a hospital. Instead she finished a BA with a Spanish major at Simon Fraser and has repeatedly told us that Rosemary forced her to do something she did not want to do.
Now she is beginning to explore her Spanish routes (she and her sister were born in Mexico City) and I know that soon she will be reading in Spanish.
In this 21st century it seems that my wife and I are at odds with the prevailing idea that children must be given a choice.
With some sacrifice we financed piano classes and ballet/dance classes at Arts Umbrella for Rebecca. She finally gave up the piano. The head of Arts Umbrella, noting an obvious talent offered Rebecca a year’s scholarship. This was rejected by her parents as they asserted that Rebecca did not want to become a dancer.
From my mother Rebecca inherited a talent for swimming. We paid for these classes until Rebecca could swim with style in spades. At that point her parents commented that now that she would not drown, she could quit, as she was never going to be life guard or a professional swimmer.
After having not done too well in riding a beautiful cutting horse in south Texas last year Rosemary convinced (it was strong convincing on her part) Rebecca to take horse whispering classes in Southlands. With lots of confidence she was able to ride the same cutting horse this year but after five minutes told the surprised owner of the horse (my friend Mike East) that she was through. That was the end of her riding career. I would guess that she thinks she would never want to be a professional rider.
My stylist for many years, Maureen Willick told me a few years ago that Rebecca had lots of beauty and presence to make a killing in TV and billboard model advertising. Willick pointed me into the right direction and for a few months Rebecca was making very good money. But her parents did not want her to grow up in the modeling atmosphere and wanted her to grow up normally. The modeling was abandoned.
It was last year that Rebecca wanted to join her school’s volleyball team. She soon found out she was competing against girls and boys who had played it enough years that they had skills that the school did not think worth imparting to my granddaughter.
I can see how it is and I wonder how my mother would have coped. If you somehow want to play tennis competitively you have to start at age 8, ditto for ballet or gymnastics or swimming. If you do not want to be a professional pianist there is no reason to start piano classes. They would be a waste of time even if one considers that learning to read music is a way of developing one’s mind.
The story is going to be repeated with the younger granddaughter. She can barely skate. Classed are being offered on Sundays that involve 30 minute classes with free skating. Rosemary called up Hilary to ask her if this was a good idea. Her answer was the predictable one, “Ask Lauren.” She was asked. Her answer,” I skate well enough. I don’t want any classes.”
My wife is the perfect Jewish mother even though she isn’t Jewish. To this day I wonder what would have happened to my life had I indeed been able to choose to remain in Buenos Aires with my father. For one I would not be writing this. And I do know that if a child is given the choice of choosing, the utlimate choice will be not to.