Author fnds his mother, long after her death

April 17, 2005|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Book Editor

Who She Was: My Search for My Mother's Life

By Samuel G. Freedman. Simon & Schuster. 339 pages. $25.

To Socrates' assertion that an unexamined life is not worth living, a current crop of authors is adding a corollary: Life isn't worth living without examining one's parents' lives, either. Former New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld, Francine du Plessix Gray and Sean Wilsey all have written new books that excavate the lives and characters of their parents. Each of those writers proved wise enough to be born to compelling, book-worthy subjects, either by virtue of admirable characteristics (Lelyveld), glamorous lives (du Plessix Gray) or outsized loopiness (Wilsey).

Journalist Samuel G. Freedman did not have nearly so much to work with. His mother, Eleanor Hatkin Freedman, did not offer her son a life that was rich in accomplishment, excitement, influence or even longevity. For the longest time in Freedman's Who She Was, Eleanor's primary attribute for biographical treatment appears to be nothing more than the accident that a writer happened to emerge from her womb. In fact, the young Eleanor emerges as vain, shallow and narcissistic. Eventually, though, Freedman's skillful narrative reveals that the poignancy in his mother's story has nothing to do with achievement, fulfillment or grand tragedy. The haunting meaning of her life is prosaic if unalterably sad -- her depleting realization that the promise of a vivacious youth was no promise at all.

"The story of my mother's life is the story of someone whose life peaked at seventeen," Freedman achingly writes. "And if there's anything sadder than dying at fifty, then it's having peaked at seventeen and living to fifty with that knowledge."

He was just 18, a sophomore in college, when Eleanor died (with grace, we learn) of breast cancer in 1974. The distance that he, as an independent adolescent, insisted on maintaining became permanent with her death. Or it did until decades later, when, nearing 50 himself, he tells us in his prologue, he was seized by a desire to do penance to the mother that he had neglected in life and death, by using the tools of his craft to reveal who this indistinct figure really was, to finally "see my mother true and clear."

Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew, delves into his mother's scrappy upbringing in a Jewish immigrant home in the Bronx during the Depression and World War II. The 17-year-old Eleanor he discovers was high-spirited, pretty and curvy -- attributes of which she was well aware -- the smartest student in her high school, and deeply resentful of her selfish, Old World mother, who rightfully obsessed about family left behind in Hitler's Europe.

Eleanor, with the self-absorption of youth, was less interested in ghastly world events than in her own dramas. For one thing, because of her father's lackluster performance, she was forced to become the family breadwinner (and curtail her college studies in the process). She was also preoccupied with finding a love who would deliver her from a drab, constricted existence. The book follows her pursuit of a husband like a contestant on Let's Make a Deal, always wondering if a better prize doesn't lie behind Door No. 2.

Freedman unsparingly portrays Eleanor at her most dishonest and manipulative (not to mention in moments of intimacy that sons generally would pay any price not to imagine). But he also exposes traps -- of family, of history, of religion -- that close off a passionate, talented young woman's options. Eleanor falls short, in love, in career. She does what people do, she settles (Freedman inescapably observes that Eleanor's children are not thorough compensation in that bargain). Without overlooking her part in her own disappointment, Freedman, in his touching conclusion, also realizes that he doesn't need to. He finally sees his mother whole, if flawed. Love, he shows us, does not require a sentimentalized version of its object. The real thing is quite enough.

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