Exit Ramp: How I became my Jewish mother

Exit Ramp: How I became my Jewish mother

Happy Mother’s Day,” the man packing my deli order said, unaware the food was for my mother’s shiva. I was grateful she’d lived to see my son turn 3. That was 31 years ago, and I think of that incident each time I light the yahrtzeit candle for her. 

A feminist with a demanding career as a television writer, I’d expected to be less obsessed with my child than my stay-at-home mom had been. But minutes after Nick was born, I had her same urge to boast. Hearing the delivery room nurse call out the scores of the test that assesses a newborn’s health, I wanted to get a bumper sticker saying: OUR SON ACED THE APGAR! 

My Russian-born mother had doted on her “shayna maideleh,” her pretty girl, praising me too effusively, like a Yelp review you suspected was bought. I cringed when she likened me to the beautiful actress, saying, “You’re as beautiful as Grace Kelly.” I would have enjoyed if someone else felt that way. More specifically, Prince Rainier of Monaco. Twin brothers eight years older diverted some attention, but not enough. My mother wasn’t as extreme as the women who’d provided comic material for Phillip Roth and Woody Allen, which I liked to think was why I never achieved their stature as a writer. If I was a household name, it was only in my own home. 

Working for television, we were instructed to “Write Yiddish, cast British.” One joke I put into an episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was inspired by my mother. I had Rhoda, Mary’s self-deprecating Jewish best friend, fantasize about her boss: “I can see the wedding invitations now: Mr. and Mrs. Martin Morgenstern are relieved to announce the marriage of their daughter, Rhoda, to Mr. Douglas Hemple, who’s not good enough for her.” 

Giving birth at 41 and stunned by the intensity of maternal pride, I knew I’d have to rein it in so as not to overwhelm our son. Martin, my husband, and I had grown up in families that focused on academics with little regard for our emotional states. We agreed not to pressure Nick, hoping he would have the self-esteem we didn’t. Martin joked, “He’ll be a very happy potter.”  

Encouraging my toddler to develop skills and confidence, I read him books like “The Little Engine That Could.” Because he was an only child, I arranged playdates, eager for him to be comfortable with himself, his peers, and with us. Despite bursting with pride at his every accomplishment, if I had to kvell, I did it inconspicuously.  

When he was ready, we sent him to sleep-away camp. On visiting day, we were devastated to find our 9-year-old crying and begging to come home, telling us, “The boys in the bunk tease me.” I wanted to “save him,” which my overly protective mother would have done, but insisted it was important that he stay and work things out. He did, and by the end of the summer he was a happy camper.   

At 11, Nick was still OK to hold onto Martin’s and my hands as we walked him to a school dance. A few blocks from where we were heading, he said, “I’ll go the rest of the way myself.” 

“Why?” I asked. “Is there something we do that embarrasses you?”

“It’s just embarrassing to have parents,” he answered. That wasn’t a personal indictment, so I laughed it off. 

Shortly after his bar mitzvah, I explained to him, “I’m deliberately pulling back. I don’t want you to think I care about you less. You’ve reached a stage where you need more privacy so I’m…”

Smiling wryly, he cut me off and said, “It’s just fine.” Pleased that he was becoming self-reliant, my challenge was to “man up” when our teenager told us he wanted to spend his junior year of high school living with a family in France at a program for American students. It was an extraordinary adventure that forced us all to individuate, preparing us for what was ahead.

After graduating from college, Nick taught English in Thailand for a year, returning to live with us briefly before moving into his own apartment in New York. A few years ago, he called to say, “I’m getting married.” A wonderful Jewish woman from Paris he’d met in college, whom Martin and I adored, was becoming my daughter-in-law.  

While they were making wedding plans, I had a request. “I associate ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ with you,” I told my son, “and hope you’ll play it at the wedding.”    

He checked with his fiancée and said, “We will. Come early.” Only the photographer and caterer saw me tear up as I listened. It was the sound check. 

I enjoy spending the second Sunday in May with my son, but for me, Aug. 11 is the celebration of a 7-pound, 11-ounce newborn who couldn’t yet say “Mommy,” helping me understand what my mother had felt for me. For 34 years, he’s made every day Mother’s Day. 

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