My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
My Mother, ca. 1920
A Page about my Mother...
It's hard writing a family historyit means suddenly having to discuss your relatives meaningfully and intelligently, at the same time that you may have some pretty intense feelings about them. But I'm going to do my best anywaynot surprisingly it's hardest of all writing about my mother.
But let me at least make a startthe usual way of writing such an account is to state simply when and where that person was born, so let me try it that way and see if it helps.
My mother was born in 1891. Actually this turns out to be quite helpful. Just by mentioning 1891, it means that my mother had to have grown up partly in the nineteenth century, even though she lived most of her life during the twentieth. This pretty much explains why, once the "roaring twenties" came along, she was never fully a part of the joyous throng, though she probably tried her best. All the loud jazz and dancing and drinking and relatively casual sexyes, she probably tried to become a part of that too, but I'm pretty sure in retrospect that something was holding her back.
She was born in St. Louis, Missouri and spent most of her early life just across the Mississippi in southern Illinois. Knowing this is pretty helpful too and probably explains a fair amount, it may have played a role in what also held her back later on. When I say southern Illinois, I mean places like Carlinville and Jacksonville and Carbondale and Springfield. If you've ever spent any time in southern Illinois, you'll also know how she spoke, you'll almost be able to hear her. My mother, although she was quite educated, spoke southern style, not deep south like Alabama or Mississippi, but still sounding a lot more Dixie than Yankee.
And that also explains why I spent my earliest years speaking two forms of English: New York style, like all the kids I knew from my block and school, but back home with my mother I also learned how to speak Southern. Which explains why to this very day whenever I meet Southerners I tend to automatically fall into their way of speech, it's a gentle, comfortable way of talking, not so full of effort and argument as Yankee style, you really don't need to enunciate all the consonants.
Sometimes when this happens I have to explain to people that I'm not putting them on, that my mother grew up in southern Illinois, that I still find it pretty natural talking that way whenever other people do. Later on my father would issue me a distinct order that I must from that moment onward model my speech on the accent of the English actor George Sanders, and I ended up doing a lot of that too. But that's getting ahead of the story.
It wasn't just my mother's manner of speaking that was a bit southern. Her parents were hard working folk who over the decades ran a series of small hotels in those southern Illinois towns, and my mother grew up exposed to the whole surrounding culture, including fundamentalist bible thumpers, Civil War veterans, and traveling salesmen, The Bible thumpers taught her that sex was wrong, especially before marriage, which helped her to deal with the traveling salesmen.
She also came to know another group of people, the members of another race who performed the hardest chores around town and in the hotel. At one point she formed a close friendship with a black girl near her own age. Like many others who grew up during that era, my mother would tell me again and again how deeply she cared for those people andthough it's deeply frowned on todaywould in all innocence talk about "how much she loved to hear the darkies sing."
As I've mentioned, my mother was brought up to believe that almost anything having to do with sex was a sin, and I think she was in all likelihood truly still a virgin when at the age of 32 she met my father. This also wasn't too unusual in those days.
But let's not type-cast my mother too much. Thanks to the money made in the hotel business and the beginnings of state-sponsored education, my mother also belonged to the first generation of American women who actually made it through college. She graduated from both Blackburn College in 1912 (founded in 1837, still active and boasting a number of successful male and female graduates) and Illinois Women's College in 1917. When she finished her education, she began to make her own living as a high school teacher in the Illinois public school system, teaching Latin and History. In other words my mother was very much a rarity for her time and even qualified as something of a feminist simply by being an educated woman.
She loved Latin and instilled a fondness for that language in me from an early age. She also studied ancient Greek, which was not abnormal back then, and had a great love for ancient Greek culture as well. Once when I brought a Greek-American schoolmate home, I remember her astonishing him by comparing her "ancient" words with his "modern" ones.
She also knew a fair amount of German and was capable of carrying on at least an elementary conversation in that tongue. When others spoke German around her, I could actually sense her beginning to "hear" in that language, reaching inside her for the German way of saying things. She got this from her father, who had grown up in a German-speaking enclave along the Mississippi. This meant he was bilingual in German and English and frequently spoke to my mother in German while she was growing up. His name, along with her maiden name, was Brewer, originally Breuer. She enjoyed asking herself "Was ist los?" and then herself punningly replying "Was nicht verbunden ist." And for some reason she used to suddenly sing out the chorus of a 1920s German song:
Du bist verrückt mein Kind,
Du mußt nach Berlin,
Wo die Verrückten sind
Da gehörst Du hin!
(You're crazy, my child, you must go to Berlin, where the crazy people are, that's where you belong!)
Let me say something about her appearance. Photographs make her look something like a 1920s "flapper," though her deeper roots would not really let her become one. At five feet 10 inches she was also taller than most women were "supposed" to be during that erathis made her self-conscious, and she tried to compensate for her height by a slight stoop when she walked.
As luck would have it, my mother traveled to New York in 1923 to continue her education with some advanced summer school courses at Columbia. One was Advanced Latin and dealt with Roman theater, the other with "Modern Poetry," which at that time would have emphasized Vachel Lindsay among Americans, Rudyard Kipling among Britons. Even though Pound and the Imagists and T.S. Eliot himself had begun their careers, they would not have been included in an academic course at that time. Throughout my upbringing my mother would frequently quote to me from both Lindsay and Kipling.
And there she was poring over some Latin texts in the main reading room of the New York Public Library during 1923 when she happened to meet my father, most probably taking a break from research in the map room. At this remove in time, it seems pretty obvious to me what happened to both of them.
Though a mid-westerner and a conventional American in many ways, she also quested after something "cultural," something "higher" and "better." For the first time in her life she found herself in the company of someone who could talk endlessly and knowledgeably of London, Budapest, and Vienna in a deep persuasive voice accented in equal measure with England and Mitteleuropa. In retrospect I can see no way that my mother could have possibly resisted Papa. They never married but were obviously still seeing each other eight years after that in February of 1931, since I was born nine months later in November of that year. Going through her papers, I recently found a love letter from my father to my mother, most probably written in 1923, showing that from his point of view this was by no means a one-way relationship. I have posted and commented on that letter below.
My first years with my mother were not easy ones. I was a difficult birth for her, as she never tired of reminding me. I was repeatedly told that I took three days and three nights of painful labor to come out of her womb. She would also tell me how much my birth had weakened her, often as an excuse for not taking me out for walks more frequently during my early childhood years. Though she claimed to be a free thinker and was also deeply influenced by Mary Baker Eddy's non-conformist "Christian Science," her Bible Belt days (and indeed the entire nineteenth century ethos) still weighed heavily on her. Though she considered herself deeply religious, she would not join any church or civic group. I believe this was because she was certain that she had "sinned" by bringing me into the world and that society would truly punish her if it were found out that she was an unmarried mother. What's more, I'm fairly sure she actually believed that society would be right in punishing her.
Let me give an example here of how she tended to think. Whenever Papa would show up, he tended to bring Jewish delicatessen food like sausages or corned beef, along with mustard and and pickles and some bottles of beer. My mother drank the beer but complained that it made her woozy. Christmas was a major event for us, each year my mother spent hours preparing a feast for us with turkey and all the trimmings, and Papa would arrive with a bottle of genuine French champagne. She would complain that this made her a bit tipsy, but she certainly drank her share, and even I was allowed a glass as I grew older. But except for Papa's visits, there was no alcohol to be found in our household.
Except for a bottle of cooking sherry, which she employed sparingly and apologetically. Whenever she used it in cooking (or perhaps even tasted it...), she would invariably quote an apology from the holy book: "Why even the Bible tells us 'Take a little wine for the stomach's sake.'"
I'll say a bit more about my mother when I start talking about my father and a few of the disagreements they had over my upbringing. But living so closely to her as I did over the years, it would eventually become obvious to both of us that I did not share her beliefs about the Bible or the nature of marriage and sin and felt no sense of shame at all for my existence. My father was not continually present at home, though he certainly intervened more than often enough. He encouraged her to take the name Mrs. Alexander Gross and regularly supported us by mailing checks to her under that name.
This might have become important after his death, when after consulting a lawyer I learned that she was legally his common-law wife, and I urged her to sue Papa's estate for a greater sum than he had left her. But perhaps out of loyalty to Papa but more likely traumatized by a family battle in court over some Illinois property during her youth, she refused to bring a case.
As I grew older, a never-ending contest grew up between my parents over what I was to become. And I gradually and instinctively came to prefer my father's view of the world over my mother's, though his own ideas about my future would in the long run also turn out to be fairly unrealistic.
What follows is the letter by my father to my mother. It is certainly the most humble and pleasant letter I have ever seen directed by him to anyone and definitely qualifies as a love letter. Internal evidence makes it quite clear that it was most probably written in the late summer or early autumn of 1923, soon after they had first met in New York at the Forty-Second Street Library. They both found themselves in that city for the first time, and although they undoubtedly would have preferred to remain, they were probably both overwhelmed by New York's bustle and competitive atmosphere and felt the need to retreat to less hectic cities to carry on their lives.
Though Papa ended up for a while in Chicago before returning to New York, we see him in this letter first trying his luck in Saint Louis, Missouri, even at that time a fairly important center. It seems clear to me that my mother would have urged Papa to try Saint Louis first instead of Chicago simply because Saint Louis was closer to southern Illinois, where she was teaching. In the end Papa moved his business of teaching English for new immigrants to Chicago, probably because there were more of such students to be found in Chicago than in Saint Louis.
There were probably contacts between my mother and father after he moved to Chicago for his business, but I have no record of them, any more than I can document the nature of their contacts that finally brought them both back to New York or the meetings which led to my birth. I ought to have asked my mother about all this while she was still with us, but I failed to do so. All I can say for sure is that they clearly remained in contact between 1923 and 1931, when I was born.
The reference to "Lackawanna" concerns a major train station across the Hudson in Hoboken, then the main terminus for passenger travel to the West, which explains why he mentions the long distance she would need to travel back to her rooming house in Manhattan, involving both a ferry trip across the Hudson and then a bus trip. Papa's letter is hand-written on the stationery of the hotel and bears a stylized drawing of that hotel, typical for hotel stationery of that time.
Park Manor Hotel
My dear Elizabeth
Just a hurried note to give you my address. It seems a nice place and if I can get the required number of pupils I shall not regret having come here.
It was really very good of you to have seen me off at the Lackawanna bearing in mind the distance you had to cover to get back to the dreary embrace of a rooming house, especially after the day before!
I shall inquire tomorrow at the American Express Co whether any letters have arrived for methere may be one from you amongst them.
I sincerely hope that you will start some result-producing occupation, so as to have the means for the niceties of life, which your vanity very sensibly postulates as necessities. So does mine, and therefore I shall make a determined effort to get hold of some cash.
Yours with love
My mother's last years were not entirely happy ones, and I was not truly able to comfort her. Her mind came to center around a few concepts based on biblical themes, and I don't believe these provided her much comfort either, though I could be mistaken. It became extremely difficult to talk to her, and after a time I probably ceased to make the necessary effort. I've since spent some years studying medicine and am fully aware how difficult the art of diagnosis can be, and in any case terms for Alzheimer's and other geriatric conditions were not used as frequently in those days as now, though I would not be surprised if they describe the direction her mind took. In 1970 she passed away at 79, the very same age as Papa when he left us.
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