My mother and I were locked in a jail cell together when I was five years old. It was the first time, but not the last that we would share this experience. We were far from our Chicago home. Strangers in a strange land, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It was the Great Depression, in the bad old days of racial segregation and labor turmoil. Mom was a union organizer, sent down south by the Textile Workers. Dad, who wasn't with us, liked to carry a .45 Colt Automatic to social occasions. Anyway, he was maritally occupied elsewhere. He had left his wife and two kids for Jennie, a flaming, bohemian redhead. But then I happened. And when the going got tough, he got going, going, gone...
So there we were, in the Bible Belt. And Jennie is a single mother of a bastard son - me.
Of course, I didn't know all this at the time. I loved Chattanooga, skipping barefoot, chewing 3-leaf clover by the banks of the Tennessee River, and taking the cable car up to Lookout Mountain where Civil War cannon balls were still embedded in the trees. I completely accepted the racial and religious order of things - I went to a Baptist school and tried my best to fit in.
I saw myself as Mom's young Prince Valiant. We had taken non-Jewish names to conceal our controversial identity. But, eventually, word got out that Mom was 'talking union' in our kitchen to some mill workers. And African Americans came by our place after sundown - almost a capital crime in 1931 in the South.
So, with some violence along the way, eventually a very courteous sheriff of Hamilton County ran us out of town. We had to go back home where I couldn't run barefoot any more, and kids made fun of my 'suthin' accent.
Back on the west side of Chicago, Jennie and I raised each other through the bad times of strikes, unemployment and labor riots. I grew up in the image of my swaggering, macho Dad - but that was a
pose because I knew I was sheltered under Jennie's wing. When we opened a laundry store on Kedzie Avenue - of course it failed - Jennie's reputation for openhandedness - and her absolute refusal to judge another human being - drew legions of the disinherited and discontented.
The back room of our store overflowed with every conceivable species of hobo, tramp, con man, working street girls, radical, homeless children and people on the run from the law. In the aftermath of the notorious Republic Steel massacre, where cops lost their cool and killed ten strikers, our place became an improvised hospital for the wounded and traumatized.
That not all families were like ours I didn't fully grasp for a long time. As she got older and more tired, Jennie made her living sewing bathing suits. I got older, too, and I saw that this woman, my mother, was both very ordinary - a rebel disguised as a housewife, or was it the other way round? And she was very special.
As the years go by, Jennie emerges from the fog of my memory as a distinctly modern woman - torn by the contradiction between work and motherhood, sex and responsibility, playfulness and her obligation not only to me as a mother but to people all around us who she felt needed a break.
Her role model was Eleanor Roosevelt. Not only for Mrs. Roosevelt's accomplishments but her incredible self-discipline at keeping dark family secrets. Jennie was a genius of the cover-up, of a Jewish type of omerta, the code of silence it has taken me all my life to decipher.
Finally, toward the end of her life, I asked her for the truth. She stood there in the doorway, cigarette in hand, like the actress she most admired, Bette Davis. Through a curl of blue smoke she looked at me with her huge hooded eyes shrouded in black mascara... and gave me that Mona Lisa smile I knew so well...a silent instruction, never to ask her that again.
I was on my own, kid.