On Aug. 14, 1963, when I was a few months old, the famous LA gangster Mickey Cohen was beaten with a lead pipe to within an inch of his life by a fellow inmate at the Atlanta federal penitentiary. Cohen, who was 49 at the time, was presumed to be at his end and a Jewish chaplain was called to minister to the murderer.
That chaplain happened to be my father.
When my father got the call, he was at our home in Atlanta. He jumped into his ’59 Chevy Biscayne and drove to Cohen’s bedside at high speed—he was on official government business.
Dad had been prepared to recite the Shema with the famous gangster. He even fantasized that he would recite the Viduy, the deathbed ritual with him, and Cohen would confess his crimes. (The crafty Cohen always maintained his innocence.)
My father later recalled to me that Cohen was bandaged completely around his head like a mummy with only the tiniest slits for his eyes and mouth. Instead of a dying confession, the famous gangster held my father close and rasped into Dad’s ear: “Rabbi, call my mother and tell her that I am OK. Zi zollen nisht zorgen. I don’t want she should worry.”
My father, who was a genius at taking instruction, called the famous criminal’s mother. I do not know if the conversation took place in Yiddish or English, but according to my father, it went something like this: “My name is Chaim Feuerman, I am the prison chaplain at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Mickey told me to call you and to tell you not to worry. He will be OK. Zorg nisht.”
She said nothing and hung up.
To my father and everyone’s surprise, Cohen recovered and some years later he was released from prison. He died in 1976.
But the story lived on in our family. When my father recounted it years later, he told me with an ironic laugh: A mama’s a kind is doch gevunden—a gosses—uber svet zein gut? A mother’s child is beaten in the head near death, and yet she shouldn’t worry?
I guess it struck my father that even gangsters who have done horrible things “worry” about their mothers and in some way “care” that their mothers should think well of them and the lives they made—as though with a mere gesture to Mother, they could skip over all the terrible things they do to humanity.
Many years after my mother’s passing, her happiness is on my mind as Mother’s Day approaches. What could I do to make my mother happy? Would she be happy with what I have done with my life?
Why should it matter? Why should it matter now? Why did it ever matter?
Psychoanalysts know that it matters a great deal. There is something bedrock in us from our earliest months of life that is attuned to our mother’s suffering—and happiness—both with herself and with us. In fact, it is a primitive impulse to soothe one’s mother, and this impulse is present in the lowest among us—even criminals and psychopaths.
In the old world of my grandfather, they would say: A zund muz zufridden shtellen di mameh. A son has to make good by the mother.
If all goes well, in normal people, a highly sophisticated system emerges from this impulse. A man comes to symbolize his mother: He projects her image onto the teacher, his spouse, his customers, his children, his nation, his god. Freud said that all these become representations of the mother.
Why does that impulse seem to extend to all of humanity for some people, but remain limited for others? If we all had a mother, then why are there wars?
My mother was a beautiful woman with no plans for herself or me or anyone else, except to not upset anyone, and that we should have lunch.
My mother made my lunch and cut my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into squares and triangle shapes. I loved her every time she did this and she seemed “happy” to do these “mommy” things for me.
It’s an axiom in psychoanalysis that no one is forever happy with the mother they have. There was a time in my life when I felt that she should have paid more attention to me, she should have loved me more. And I was unhappy and, in turn, made her unhappy.
How laughable that is to me today! In the course of life, I came to understand that unhappiness is precisely what is so valuable in relation to one’s mother. In fact, psychoanalysis calls it the pursuit of “unhappiness.” We value unhappiness because of its clarifying properties. Unhappiness is often the beginning of the journey to becoming your own person.
My mother was busy with her own semisweet, beautiful, brooding life, trying to make sense of her sorrows and pleasures, her love of futility and her begrudging, perplexing, and gorgeous Jewish God.
Against that impressive backdrop, my role was rightfully that of a walk-on, a cameo. The idea that I should have been or was her “star” was the trouble and folly of my earlier life.
I think she unconsciously wanted an audience for herself—beyond the family. The problem was finding one. Once—once, mind you, in 1944, when she would have been 8 or 9 years old, growing up in England during WWII—she landed the starring role in a stage production of Snow White in Bournemouth. Her father yanked her out of the play. Not a place for a Jewish girl from a Hasidic family. But if her place was not in the play, where was her audience?
For many women of my mother’s generation, the household was, among other things, a low-rent stage and the kitchen and the washer/dryer were her props over which she had a degree of creative discretion. In my mother’s kitchen, for example, WQXR played all the time, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Tomaso Albinoni, her favorite composers.
The laundry was in a basket near the bed in her room and she folded and put away the towels, sheets, and underwear every weekday afternoon while As the World Turns and The Guiding Light were on television. That is, except during the Watergate years when the soaps were preempted and Jeb Magruder, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Dean spoke into skinny microphones with a glass of water by their sides and a jowly Sam Ervin presided.
Perhaps she had a sense as she was getting older that she was losing what audience she had, but I was her audience forever and always.
My misfortune and my good fortune was that I fell deeply in love with her, her softness, her gentle looks. As her audience and critic I came to realize that the demands of reality, motherhood, rabbi’s wife, caretaker of her parents, were overwhelming to her and unrelenting and spoiled her dreams and made her emotionally unavailable at times. She had lines she was given; I would have wished she could have said more of her own.
She could not ponder what most people ponder, which is to measure themselves against what they might have been. She did not hope or even imagine that her children would reach out for a prize that eluded her.
Yet ambivalence can beget admiration. And maybe that is the point of Mother’s Day, a brilliant stroke of capitalism made to appeal to women of her generation—women who were not permitted to find out who they really were.
The analyst/thinker Adam Phillips refers to life as one big attention-getting project. Instead of asking people how they are, he suggests, one might ask how their attention-getting projects are going.
Mother’s Day is a national attention-getting project for mothers and specifically, for what some would see as their thankless work. This popular commercial holiday ingeniously appropriated the powerful mechanism that forms in a child from a young age to want to please his mother and make her “happy.”
Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wondered whether the mother was created or discovered. There is a kind of love that is created and discovered through mutual seeing. That love is likely to extend to the rest of humanity and is the work of a lifetime. A mother who is merely a primitive provider creates a primitive soother.
One time when I was about 10 years old, I had “stolen” the chocolate Lollycones she had hidden for Pesach. I began to stuff myself with the chocolates. I was already becoming chubby—a real no-no; for her, thinness was practically a religion. Feeling betrayed and alarmed, she tried to take the treats away and we were in a tug-of-war. The suddenly, she looked at my face and relented. “It’s OK,” she said, “you can eat them.” At that moment, I stopped eating the chocolates. I put the box away and I would never in all my days overeat again.
Mother’s Day may be a crass product of clever capitalism, but something about it seems right to me. All these years after her passing, I am still interested in her, still thinking about her, her honor and even her happiness. This is because she did one unforgettable thing for me—and she didn’t even know it, though she might have known it somewhere deep inside. When I looked in her face, she allowed me to see my own.
Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.