Wife of a Doctor
by Andrew Sarewitz
“Living well is the best revenge.” Evidence: my parents’ marriage.
This weekend was the memorial for my Aunt Jeanne. It would have been her 93rd birthday. I didn’t attend. I loved my aunt, especially once I became an adult. Other than her youngest, Glenn, I don’t have any relationship, good or bad, with her older two sons. I contacted Glenn and asked him to be honest. Would he mind if I didn’t take the trip to the Boston area for the ceremony. If it was important to him, I would go. Assuming he was telling me the truth — which has always been our dialogue — he said it was fine with him. He would see me the next time he and his wife visited New York City.
These three women I affectionately refer to as the Philadelphia Sisters. My mother, Judy, was the oldest. She passed away in the spring of 2014, having just turned 91. Jeanne was the youngest, and in the middle is Mimi. Mim is the one surviving sister. Unfortunately, she suffers from severe dementia. She looks well but doesn’t know who anybody is anymore.
For Mimi back in time, and in the continuing history of her three children, they all seem to say anything they choose at any time, all in the name of honesty. That may appear to be an elevated way to express your thoughts and feelings. It’s acceptable when you’re three years old. But as an adult, there are ramifications to not editing your emotions. Particularly when it’s not a discussion: more like a cathartic, primal rant. Which is ironic since they seem over sensitive yet completely oblivious to anything outside of their own egos. Some verbal assaults of presumed honesty came abruptly but clearly with forethought. And frankly, honesty isn’t the same thing as truth.
So it seems that one of these cousins — in the name of honesty — told my older sister at the memorial, that our mother wore her status as the wife of a doctor with arrogance and lorded it over her sisters. And that the title of being a doctor’s wife was something she always had aspired to. He continued on, saying his side of the family agrees that Mom was thought of by her sisters as “the conventional one.” I gather he looked forward to “finally” saying this to one of us. I commend my sister for not striking back hard at the target of my cousin’s family and what I see as their multitude of glaring flaws. I can’t swear that I would have kept silent. But not having been there, it’s easy to think what my retaliation might have been. And in an odd turn in my thought process, as defensive as I feel, I also think it’s relatively pathetic that of all things, this is the cutting insult my cousin chose to throw at my sister.
My parents met at a Pennsylvania Jewish summer camp in 1942, when they were both 19 years old. My mother was a counselor. My maternal grandfather worked for a paving company called Liberty Corp., for which he eventually became Vice President. He made a comfortable living, even during the Great Depression. My grandparents owned a semi detached house in Philadelphia and Grandpa drove a Buick.
My father, Albert, worked in the kitchen at camp. He was the youngest of five children: the only boy. His mother, Hannah died of TB when Dad was 2 years old. They were so poor, they didn’t have heat in the house. Grandfather remarried two or three years after the death of Dad’s mother. Annie, with love — for all intents and purposes — became my father’s and his sister’s mother (never referred to as stepmother). She must have had some money because she was able to put heat in their home.
Whether or not my mother was proud of being a doctor’s wife, when she met my father, medicine wasn’t the future. He was prompted to study engineering. But with a strong love and understanding for science, he took pre-med boards while in the army and scored in the top one percent nationally.
In the autumn of 1944, my father told Mom that he had a plan. He would complete his time in the armed services (which would be 2 years), finish college, go to medical school, and then they could marry. My mother told me she started crying. Dad said, “Judy, what’s wrong?” She responded, “if you think I’m waiting for you, you are out of your mind.” At 21 years of age, they married on October 29, 1944. Almost no adult in Mom’s family approved of the marriage (my mother’s Uncle Harry being the one exception) with my father being borderline destitute and the promise of a career that could support them, years off.
I was born in 1959, the fourth and last child my mother would carry. At the time, my parents owned a white brick house on the corner of Connett Place and Scotland Road in South Orange, NJ. On my mother’s 37th birthday, March 18, 1960, they moved to our home on the corner of Forest and Brookside Roads. They stayed there until 1997, when they sold the house and moved to a two bedroom condo in West Orange. While cleaning out his files, Dad found an old tax document from 1956. His income that year had been $5,400. At the time he was the sole provider, with a wife and three young children.
They bought the bigger home for $29,000. It was a beautiful wooden colonial built in 1910. Mom told me that she had looked at a few other options that were in more prestigious neighborhoods, but not wanting to inflict perceived opulence on her sensitive younger sister, she chose our house.
The relationship between siblings is always complicated. Though Mimi was between my mother and Aunt Jeanne in age, they both looked after Mimi, from the time she was a child. As with her children, she would say things in anger — to my mother — feel relief, and leave Mom emotionally flattened. I’m sometimes sorry that Mom told me about the verbal explosions. God knows my mother was far from perfect. But she also had a very forgiving nature. Something I do not possess. I grew an animosity toward Mimi based on her relationship with my mother. Probably not fair of me.
Aunt Mimi never let go of her distain for my mother marrying someone who eventually made a good living. Mim’s husband, my Uncle Manny, was a high school teacher. When Aunt Jeanne’s husband, Uncle Paul, began to earn an impressive living later in life as a stock broker, eventually out-earning my father by far, Jeanne told me that Mimi began to act resentful toward her. There are a number of ironies here. One is that my grandparents helped Mimi and Manny financially for years. Mimi may have resented taking their help but she accepted it on a grand scale. The hypocrisy is transparent. My grandparents bought Mimi and her family a house in a wealthy area of town. And a colored tv — when that was a luxury — before either Jeanne or my parents had one in their homes. My grandparents even bought Mimi at least one car. As to lifestyle, Mimi had a housekeeper five days a week. Who paid for that, I wonder?
In the summer of 1971, the sisters’ mother, my Grandma Reggie, died of cancer. My parents had built a vacation home in Southern Vermont that year. For Thanksgiving, my mother unilaterally decided to celebrate the family holiday in Vermont, without traditional reminders, thinking it might be less painful for my grandfather. I admit I behaved badly, telling my cousin (Mimi’s youngest) that it was MY house so I get to pick which bed I’d sleep in. In my defense, I was 12 years old.
After we returned to New Jersey, my cousin raked me over the coals, calling me rich and spoiled. Wrong or right, I knew he was parroting his mother. As far as my experiences, he and I were the same. Yes, my behavior was obnoxious and he told me so. And I apologized.
I would later find out that after Thanksgiving in Vermont, Mimi came to our house and in an uncontrolled fury, screamed at my mother for showing off how rich we are. That was not my mother’s motive or intent, but she didn’t defend herself.
Mom, Mimi and Jeanne corralled in the South Orange/Maplewood area in the 1960’s to bring up their children together. I was raised by a village.
When Jeanne and Uncle Paul moved to Maplewood early in the 1960’s with three young children, they were in as difficult a financial situation as Mimi and Manny were. Yet my grandparents never offered to help them out. Jeanne told me so herself. Perhaps because they assumed that Jeanne was strong and a survivor and Mimi, from childhood on, was chronically fragile and unhappy.
When my parents were first married and living in an apartment over a rug store near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, they had no money. My mother’s father came for dinner one night. I don’t know why my grandmother wasn’t present. I assume she was out of town. My mother served grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner. My grandfather was mildly appalled. That was what my parents could afford at that time. My grandfather had no idea things had been so tight for them.
I acknowledge I am writing this in reactive defense. Both my parents are no longer alive. I have three older siblings. Whatever differences we all have, the kind of bitchiness my cousin publicly displayed toward my mother at her sister’s memorial is not in our make-up. I look at this cousin and his siblings, who are always on the outs with each other: with multiple examples through the years, often over money.
My parents had a good relationship and marriage. I know. I was there. Both of my aunts had seriously considered leaving their husbands over the years. That isn’t some slight or assumption. I was told so by both my aunts, during discreet discussions. Perhaps at a different time, they each might have taken that route.
As trite as my cousin’s accusation is, it was thrown at my sister with such acid-like aggression, I am unwilling to let it go. I stopped acknowledging this cousin on any level long ago. In this vein I am very different from my sibs. They find extended family relationships important to maintain. They may put up with words and actions due to blood, but I’m not that way. I’m not defending myself for this personality affliction. But come after my mother? I’ll come out fighting with no apologies.
About the Author
Amy is a Pacific Northwest-based author and advocate, writing on love, loss and family.