My Mother's Story: My
Eileen W. Fisher
© Copyright 2018 by Eileen W. Fisher
No one’s voice remains to tell my mother's story other than mine – the story of an orphaned Jewish teenager from Russia who manages to escape to America in 1922, at age fifteen.
It was only from time to time that my mother was even willing to talk about her childhood — and, usually in response to some event or bit of news. But even then, she would only speak briefly. If I persisted, her face would tense up; she would purse her lips and ask me, “Eileen, why do you want to talk about such sad things? We’re living today. The past is gone.” And I loved her too much to upset her further.
But over time, this is what I learned.
My mother, Riva, was one of five children, four girls and a boy. In the only surviving family portrait, she stands behind her mother, resting her hands on her mother’s shoulders as a baby sleeps in her mother’s lap. My mother appears to be about five or six. Her eyes are strikingly black, and she looks out with an expression of determination.
When her father died, he left a widow to raise five children, with little support. When discussing this with me, my mother commented matter-of-factly, “People didn’t live very long then. Once you got sick, you just died. There was no medicine, no penicillin. The cemetery was at the end of the dirt road, just outside the town. Everyone would walk behind the casket.”
After her mother died, the family was broken up and my mother sent to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle that she didn’t know. “I was a little girl. I was their niece, but they treated me worse than the maid. If I complained, they beat me even harder. I went to bed hungry every night. I never had enough to eat. I cried myself to sleep. I missed my mother so much.”
And, then there were the pogroms which were rampant during the Russian civil war that followed the Communist Revolution of 1917. This is how my mother described it.
“The Russians came, and broke into the Jewish stores. They took whatever they wanted,and burned them down. They walked all over, looking for Jews, and God forbid If they caught you. The soldiers came later, but they didn’t do anything anyway – they just stood and watched. They didn’t say a word. For three days, there was no police. We hid in the house. It wasn’t safe to go out until they all left.”.
Eventually… my mother was able to steal across the border at night by bribing a soldier to take her through the forest. Only once did I ask her how did she get the money. My mother looked at straight at me, but never answered.
She sailed from Romania; the money for the steamship coming from relatives in America. At Ellis Island, Riva Spiegel became Ray Spiegel and…January first, her birthday.
My mother moved into the Harlem boarding house of her father’s aunt, Nessie. The bedrooms were on the second floor, and the restaurant that she ran was on the first.Having found a job as a seamstress, and my mother was able to pay her way.
However, Nessie did not prove to be the kind of aunt that my mother had hoped for.
“Even when I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, she wouldn’t give me nothing for free, not even a crumb. I had to pay for every piece of bread I ate. Family, what family? To her, I was just another boarder. I to used to sneak down to the kitchen at night and look for leftover scraps in the pots. I was so hungry.”
“If I stayed in the shower too long, she would yell up to me, ‘What are you, a duck?'
The almighty dollar. That’s all she was interested in.”
But my mother was a survivor, both emotionally as well as physically. She was able to overcome the trauma of her childhood, and make a new life for herself.
Once, when I was helping my mother straighten out her dresser draws, I asked her about all the silky, lacy nightgowns and lingerie. She explained, “That was the first thing I bought when I started making money. It made me feel good to put it on. I was always so dirty and kept in rags. I had two dresses. When I washed one, I wore the other.”
And, because she had no family, my mother created her own.
Nessie had three daughters. My mother was drawn Florrie, the middle child, who was about twelve years her junior. She thought Florrie was ignored because she wasn’t as pretty as her two sisters. Florrie was thin and scrawny, with stringy hair that hung down her back. Her older sister was plump, with big round cheeks and curly hair, and the baby was…just that, the baby.
My mother took her cousin under her wing, and raised her as if she were her own; buying her clothes and taking her everywhere … to Orchard Beach, Coney Island, and even to the movies. Florrie told me more than once, “Your mother was more like a mother to me than my own mother.”
She mothered that child in the way that she wished she would have been raised. They were always close, as close as sisters. We moved into the apartment building next to Florrie and were constantly in and out of each other’s homes.
Perhaps because of all that she lived through, my mother was a fatalist. “If you have years, you have years”, she would say. “I was supposed to die so many times, but I didn’t. When I was in the hospital with pneumonia, that was the year they invented the sulfur pill. It was as big as a horse’s pill. The doctors kept me up all night because they told me that if I fell asleep, I would die.”
According to my mother, the small, silver-plated clock in their bedroom stopped ticking the night she was taken to the hospital. It didn’t start ticking again until she returned home. That clock now sits on my bureau.
And, although I wish I knew more about my mother’s early life, I have come to appreciate the fact that my mother wanted to spare me her pain.
When I think about mother’s childhood, I see how her experiences shaped her life. When I think about growing up as my mother’s daughter, I know that that experience has shaped mine. Her legacy lives within me.
Although Eileen’s first love as always been the arts, she has also had a career in public education. After retiring, Eileen decided once more to pursue her interest in the arts. She currently attends classes in painting and sculpture, and has taken courses in creative writing. Eileen earned her M.S. in Supervision and Administration from the City University of New York, and resides in New York City.
Through her writings, Eileen has found a way to preserve the memories of her family, and of her childhood.