Rose at the Beginning
Today, June 30, 2021, is the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have spent a lot of time this month remembering her and her sad life. My mother, née Rose Friedman, was a rose that never bloomed. By her mid-thirties she had started to wither, and before many years more had passed, she had died long before her death.
Apart from my daughter, Kathryn, I imagine no one but me ever even thinks about her these days, and I am the only person still living who knew her intimately from the time she was a young woman until her death.
Friendless and all but abandoned except by me at the time of her death, her passing hardly caused a ripple even within my small family. We did have a little gathering at my house two months afterward, which I had intended to be at least an informal memorial of sorts for her, but even that affair quickly turned to other family stories, particularly revelations about my father and grandfather, thanks to my Uncle George, then in his nineties, who relished his role as the genial raconteur of family gossip.
So my mother had died, but was not really missed or mourned, other than by me, and even then, I can’t say that I did much to keep the flame of her memory burning for long. I did visit her grave twice in the first year or two after her death, but I haven’t been back since. Thus did my mother pass into oblivion, as we all will, of course, but before I do – I am now on the far side of 85 – I want to take the time to relate something of her story and tell you how it was that this once beautiful woman lost her way and why she failed to bloom. This is my love offering to her before it is too late.
My mother was the last of five siblings to be born, but her immediate older sister, Mary, soon forged a very strong bond with my mother which would endure for the whole of their lives. Mary was the elder by two years and always served as Rose’s protector, advocate and advisor. Mary was the strong and competent member of the pair, Rose, the shyer, less confident and more troubled.
My mother grew up to be a beauty – the only one of the Friedman children (there were two boys and two other girls) who had exceptional good looks. So much so that as a teenager she had entered and won at least one beauty contest that I know of.
Here is a photograph of her when she was nineteen that begins to show her classic beauty.
I don’t know how much, if at all, she dated during this period of her life, but I know she was much sought after. Eventually she met a man who, according to what I was told, she fell passionately in love with. Rose’s father was apparently a rather tyrannical man, and I know my mother was eager to get out from under his thumb as soon as she had finished high school. She felt that the man she was in love with could be the means, and she was eager to marry him. But fate had other ideas; he turned out to be a homosexual. My mother was desolated when she discovered this. As far as I know, this man, whose name I never learned, was the only man she ever loved.
But Rose did have other suitors, and one man in particular had begun to court her ardently. His name was Phil Kurman, and he was an artist. At that time, he made his living playing the piano in clubs, but he had aspirations to become a painter. Phil apparently had a great deal of charm, was intelligent and articulate, and although he was not particularly good looking, with a somewhat long nose, he was far from unprepossessing. He also was buoyed by a great deal of self-confidence, and from what I was later to learn from Mary, he was wild about my mother.
It was at this point that my mother made the first of her fateful errors. She consented to marry Phil – on the rebound. He would now be her ticket out of her own household and her father’s control over her life. She was already twenty-two, both of her older sisters had already married, and Rose would not be left behind.
In the mid-1930s, my mother’s family moved to California, and to begin with, my mother and her new husband lived with Mary and her husband, George, in San Francisco, where, toward the end of 1935, I joined them. Although for reasons I will soon explain, I don’t think I was a desired child, but all the same after I arrived my mother seemed happy to have me.
The reason I believe that, at least on my mother’s part, I was an unwelcome baby is that I know by the time I was born, my mother was convinced her marriage had been a mistake, and now with a child to raise, she was stuck. She did not love my father, and as I was later to learn, she had never loved him and never would. Phil, however, had certainly loved her, and at first had loved her passionately. But to no avail. And no one in the family seems to have taken a liking to him either. He apparently was full of himself, tended to brag about his talents and, from what I later gathered from Mary, he was generally found to be an obnoxious character. Again, according to Mary (my mother would never talk to me about Phil and later destroyed all of his paintings and almost all the photographs of him), Rose – who by that time preferred to be called “Ro” – had become “turned off” by Phil and refused to have sex with him any longer. Phil, naturally, was forced to turn elsewhere for physical affection, as he did. According to George, who knew my father well, after a while Phil was “in and out” of the marriage even before he departed permanently during World War II. Probably my mother was relieved to see him leave. From now on, it would be just my mother and me.
Ro and I soon formed a close emotional bond. My mother clearly had changed her mind about me. Actually, I think she did shortly after my birth because I was a happy baby, easy to care for, with blond curly hair, and from an early age I loved to sing (my mother told me that I would sing along to jingles on the radio even before I could talk). In effect, I believe I was the compensation to my mother for the unhappiness in her marriage. All her love went to me and not to her husband.
Nevertheless, my mother was not a physically demonstrative woman (I can’t recall whether she ever hugged me as a child or even in later life), but I never doubted her love for me. I remember how she used to say goodnight to me when I was young, perhaps seven or eight. I can still recall the purple and black checkered comforter on my bed. Before I went to sleep, my mother would steal into my room. She wouldn’t kiss me, but she would look playfully into my eyes and then softly press her check against mine.
During the war years, we were living in Oakland, still with Mary and George, and, as of 1940, their son, Cliff. During those years, I became very close to my mother emotionally, even though my main caretaker was my aunt Mary, since my mother had, even then, psychological problems, mainly, so far as I later was able to discern, having to do with her feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression. Once, when I was about eight, I believe, I discovered a book in her nightstand by a psychiatrist named Cowles whose title I still remember, Don’t Be Afraid! That said a lot about my mother’s fragile psyche of which I had already become aware.
As a naïve child, of course, I was not familiar with psychological concepts; I did not realize then that my mother was a depressive. Mostly, I remember her tendency to sleep late and often resting, but she did confide in me about her problems, and I know I listened sympathetically to them. I realize now I was the only person she then had to whom she could express her love unreservedly, but the fact is, I felt very loved by my whole family, and cherished. My own nature was sunny and seemingly uncomplicated.
Nevertheless, my mother was mostly a recessive character in our household. She did not cook or bake; she left that to Mary. The only foods I can ever remember her preparing for me were an occasional artichoke or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She didn’t work, never held a job and couldn’t drive. I do know that she would occasionally take me shopping with her in downtown Oakland and that she liked to sunbathe. I later learned that she was a reader, but did she ever read to me? Not that I recall. In a way, she was a kind of a recluse in the house she shared with her sister and her husband, almost like a guest. She was there, but absent at the same time.
Suddenly, during the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, I learned that we -- my entire family -- would be moving to Brooklyn, New York, for the summer. I had actually been taken to New York once before, in 1941, for a short time, but living there for an entire summer would be another matter altogether, especially now that I was nine years old. Ostensibly, the reason was that George’s mother, who was widowed by then, was in ill-health and George needed to be there to help take care of her. Only years later did I come to learn that there was another reason for us to travel there at that time.
Unbeknownst to me, my father was about to be discharged and had arranged to have a surreptitious meeting with my mother in July of that year -- at least it was a meeting that was kept secret from me. It was only from Mary many years later that I learned about it and more about what my father had been up to during the war. From what my mother had disclosed to her sister at that time, Phil had apparently been something of an “operator,” rather like the character Milo in Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22. He was, my mother said, always “making deals,” and seemingly had managed to enjoy his time while in Europe as millions were dying -- and where at the time, with the war there over, millions of survivors and refugees were starving and fighting among themselves.
Therefore, my mother must have listened with complete stupefaction to the shocking proposal my father had come to New York to make to her. He had so loved being in Europe, he told her, that he wanted to return after the war to make his home and his living there— and he wanted my mother and me to join him as soon as possible!
Of course, I have no idea how my mother actually responded to this preposterous proposition, but I like to imagine it was something along the lines of -- “You want me to take my only begotten son and myself to Europe while it is still on fire and people are starving and in rags there? Are you completely daft, Phil?”
In any event, my mother, for once, made a definitive decision for herself. She would of course have none of it. That didn’t stop my father, whose penchant for Bohemian adventurism had obviously only been enhanced by whatever opportunistic contacts he had made during the war. Born in Europe, he was returning home and would take up the life of an itinerant artist there. Thus it was, even without my knowing it then, that my father left me for the second time, this time for good. My mother and I went back to California shortly afterward.
While we were on the train heading home, the Japanese surrendered, and since the train was already crammed full of servicemen, the hoopla and celebrating made it a very memorable trip. My mother, still beautiful and no longer tethered to her European-bound husband, was now in fact being wooed by several servicemen. One of them, a sailor named George (who, I remember, told me that he weighed 236 pounds) tried to charm my mother by teaching me how to play pinochle. Unfortunately, George succeeded only in charming me.
After we returned to Oakland, Mary was forced to confront my mother with a problem that she would have to take steps to solve, and soon. As I was to learn years later, during the war years George had been providing all of my mother’s financial support. But now that it was clear that Phil would not be returning, George had put his foot down -- Ro had to find some other means to support herself, either by working or finding someone to marry after her divorce became final. Accordingly, since many veterans were now returning home, Mary advised Ro to go to the service clubs that were then so popular and see if she could find someone suitable to marry her. My mother was still a “looker,” and dressed well, as you can see from this photograph that was taken of her during the war when she was in her early thirties.
It did not take my mother long to find a number of men who were attracted to her (though it helped that she lied about her age).
A few months later, I would take another train trip with my mother, this time to Reno where she would obtain a “quickie divorce.” My mother was about to make her second fateful mistake.
This is the first part of a three-part blog about my mother. The next episode will be posted on Wednesday, July 7th and the final installment on Wednesday, July 14th.