from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A memory of a mother long gone 

My mother died in 1963, less than week after the high school graduation she was too drunk to attend. It would be easy to remember only the last few years, or her spiraling down, her bad health, her anger and depression, her alcoholism. She was only 47 when she died, and the last few years should not occlude the brilliance of so much else of her life. She is a major part of who I am, why I am teacher, and why I am politically involved. So please bear with me as I offer yet one more mother’s day diary.

Sylvia Livingston was born in 1915, the oldest child of two jews of eastern European background - the last name was the result of the heavily accented Polish saying of “Levistky” being turned into a more recognizable name for New Yorkers when my 2 year old great-Grandfather Harry and his parents entered New York in 1862. Her father George was born during the blizzard of 1888. When he graduated from Brooklyn Law,as the child of immigrant Jews he could not get a job, so he went to the Police department and persuaded them if their recruits were going to enforce the law perhaps someone should teach them the law. George Livingston's first job was teaching practical legal procedures to the cadets of the New York City Police Academy. And this started a pattern, one mother and I both followed, of taking the initiative to accomplish something we thought important, even though we were relatively young and of no practical importance.

Her mother’s father had been a baker in Bialystok who had befriended the local cop with a morning cup of coffee and a bialy, so that when the Cossacks were going to come through, the cop warned great-grandfather Brodznicky and he had the metal shutters down. When the looting and killing died down, the policeman’s farmer brother took my great-grandfather and his eldest daughter, my grandmother Regina, out in a haywagon, on the start of their voyage to the U.S., with the rest of the family following later.

Sylvia was a precocious child. She was part of an experiment of a group of children who went through the New York City public schools as fast as they could. She got to participate because George’s sister Sadie quickly became a rising star in the school system, starting as a teacher and ending as an assistant superintendent with the power to pull strings (my sister, not a resident of the city, somehow got to play with an all-city orchestra). Even early in her career she had connections.

My mother was New York City debate champ at 12, but was then disqualified because she had taken an honorarium for appearing on a radio show and they decided she was therefore a professional. She graduated from Hunter College High School at 14, too young to be taken by Cornell, which insisted that students be at least 16. After one year at Hunter, they waived the rule and took her. She went to Ithaca with the incoming freshmen and was shocked that the most important part of orientation seemed to be the rushing for Greek life. With the modified and seemingly prominent New York name with which she arrived, she received invitations to every prominent sorority, which of course were quickly withdrawn once they realized she was Jewish. By the end of her first (sophomore) year, she had followed her father’s example of taking initiative by getting the University to postpone rushing for Greek life to the second semester so that students had the opportunity to adjust especially to academic life. And as a 17 year old freshman at Haverford in 1963-64 I unwittingly followed her example. I had a 5 day a week Noon Russian class. The first semester it was at Haverford, which had lunch from Noon until 1:10. The second semester it was at Bryn Mawr, and they stuck 5 of us in a cab to get us there by 12:10 when the class started. I was not getting lunch, but by the end of March as a freshman I had negotiated the first official meal exchange between Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges.

But by then my mother’s influence was far greater than most people realized. My mother had been a child prodigy in many ways, which is why I was not. Our school system did not believe in skipping children, but as I was preparing to enter kindergarten they wanted to accelerate me. MY mother had been badly scarred emotionally by her experience, so she said no, just as she said no to my first piano teacher at age 4 who wanted to put me on a concert stage. She continued to say no throughout elementary school, until finally, when I was obviously bored stiff at the beginning of 6th grade, she and my father talked to me, explained all the times the issue had been raised, then left the decision up to me. After 4 weeks in 6th grade, I transferred to Junior High School. My mother had not been given such choices, and she tried to let me decide when I was ready.

But she also insisted I be challenged. I had a small taste of what her life had been like. There were four elementary schools in the Mamaroneck school system, as well as a junior and a senior high school. The reading specialist did not have enough children with reading needs to occupy her weekly half day at Murray Avenue elementary, so a group of us became part of program to accelerate our reading. I am told I began that second grade reading on about a 5th grade level and finished the year reading around an 8th or 9th grade level. I do not remember the details, but I do know that by the time I was 11 I was using the adult library, and driving them nuts. I would walk in on a Saturday morning and take out five books and try to return them in the afternoon before the library closed so that I could take out more. But in the days before computers the cards had not even been filed yet, and they could not accommodate my needs by normal methods, so they gave me permission to take out 10 books at a time.

Both of my parents were musical. My sister took up violin after my father. And like my mother I was already doing piano. My mother had developed bursitis in her shoulder, and at the suggestion of an orthopedist had taken up cello when I was in 1st grade. By then she had already become active in the PTA for the sole purpose of getting a string program into the schools, because of my sister playing violin. As it happens her cello teacher came to Murray Avenue. So I decided to start learning cello. I had been taking lesson for a monthly when the teacher, Ruby Wentzel, asked me when my parents were going to pay her. You see, I had done this entirely on my own. I was only 6 years old. My mother did agree to pay.

My sister and I spent that summer in an informal camp at Ruby’s house, something that today would probably require all kinds of licenses. In the morning we did music, baked bread, and in the afternoon went swimming. As a result of Ruby’s influence, the following year the two of us wen to Interlochen, to National Music Camp, what for me would be the first of 8 summers that were incredibly important in shaping me -- music did not make me a freak, I learned to camp and cook over an outdoor fire, and first played soccer.

There is open other major influence my mother had on me. Both she and my father were involved in politics for most of their adult lives. MY Dad really was a moderate Northeastern Republican. My guess is that given her druthers my mother would have been a liberal Democrat, but in Westchester County in the 1950’s the name of the game was the Republican primary, so people like my mother changed their registrations when they moved from the city to the suburbs. I know that she never pulled a straight party lever in her life, even when every candidate for which she voted was a Republican, which was rare. She explained to me that party loyalty should never override commonsense in the privacy of the voting both. Externally she appeared as a loyal Republican, having risen to co-chair of the Town of Mamaroneck Republican Committee, party activity that, after the election of Nelson Rockefellar in 1958 got her an appointment as an Assistant Attorney General. In that position she used to share her legal work with me, and I learned to read briefs, make arguments, read decisions and the like, and although it was eventually my sister who became the lawyer, it did influence me in my passion about law and government and my own enjoyment in reading Supreme Court opinions.

I should note that my mother graduated from Columbia Law School 2nd in her class at age 21, and then - like her father before and Sandra Day O’Connor later -- could not get a job as a lawyer. She served as a clerk to the chair of the committee that did the restatement of definition of property, then joined the law firm founded by her father and uncle. My sister was also 2nd in her law school class, at Western Mass, so I am not the only one who reflected in my life our mother.

In 1960 neither of my parents voted for Nixon. They had encountered him in the Office of Price Administration, where they had reconnected after having known one another at Cornell (my dad graduated in 1932, my mom in 1934) and they decided to get married. In those days Dorothy Schiff published the New York Post, which was considered the Jewish paper. Schiff endorsed Kennedy and at home my mother was very blunt -- if a Catholic could not get elected in 1960, then there was no hope that a jew would ever be able to get elected. By my junior year of high school I was already active -- with her complete blessing -- in teen Dems. And even as she spiraled down with health, with depression, with alcoholism, she was always willing to take the time to discuss issues with me, to try to challenge my thinking. That kind of experience has led me to take the sometimes ill-formed and more crudely expressed ideas of my students seriously -- it has very much shaped me as a teacher.

My mother was never very happy as a person. Nor was our family a particularly harmonious one. And to this day some of my social awkwardness is a product of being the child of two gifted but ill-suited - to each other and to the larger society in which they lived -- parents, who nevertheless were as loving and giving of themselves as they could be.

I graduated from high school on JUne 23, 1963.; My mother was not there, because she was drunk. Several days later my sister found her unconscious, and she was rushed to new Rochelle Hospital. On June 29th her sister, my aunt Harriet came into the study where I was watching tv in tears, telling me my mom was dead.

It is now almost 43 years since she passed. I have struggled in my own life - with depression, with alcohol, with what I was supposed to do with the gifts which at times seemed more curse than blessing. As I approach my 60th birthday in 9 days, and as I have during this past year periodically looked back on my life, I find that I am grateful for the 17+ years i was able to share of her troubled life. I’d like to think that she’d be proud of what I have chosen to do, in my service to others as a teacher, in my willingness to speak up for what I believe is right. She would not agree with all of my choices, but she would respect my right to make them, as she insisted in 6th grade that the decision about whether to skip had to be mine, because I would have to live with the consequences of that choice.

Mentally I embrace her today. More, I honor her every day with my passion for music, my desire to see every child I encounter have the greatest breadth of opportunity in her life. I cannot overlook the scars and pains that are part of her memory, but I also know how much pain in her own life she had to overcome.

Today I am honored to say that I am the child of Sylvia Livingston Bernstein, 1915-1963.
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