PAST 90 (4)
On May 1, 1930, when I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade, something happened that has reverberated through all the years of my life. I’ve told the story before and won’t repeat all the details here. That was the day my father and eleven others were brutally beaten inside the police station in Stamford, Connecticut.
They had been arrested at a large peaceful May Day demonstration, for which the Mayor had denied a permit. My father and a few others had been arrested the previous March 6th at a huge peaceful rally for unemployment insurance, also banned by the City. Those arrested on May 1st were taken out of their cells one by one and four policemen stomped and assaulted them methodically, each in turn, with brass knuckles and clubs, breaking one man’s ankle and another’s arm. They were left back in their cells to bleed without medical attention. When word leaked out to my mother, she got our family doctor to demand entry and he was allowed to bandage the wounds.
(Maybe you thought things like that only happened in the Jim Crow South. Police brutality was common across the country, as was Jim Crow itself even where it wasn’t written into law. Of course, for young Blacks and Latinos of today, that’s not just history. No doubt the police in Stamford in 1930 were goaded to enhanced ferocity by the very fact that their victims were Black and white together, when friendship across color lines was rare indeed and always raised a red flag for “law enforcement”.)
My mother, less passionate about politics than about literature and music, could be fearless and formidable in confronting bullies. When my brother Malcolm and I, with our parents, were brought before the Superintendent of Schools because we stayed out of school on May Day, Mother went on the offensive. She scolded the Superintendent for presuming to lecture us on “patriotism” after the City authorities answered “free speech” with such violence. My father, sitting there with bandaged head, was quiet as Mother accused. Then she took up an old grievance of her own, remembering the Superintendent and the current police chief as boys who threw stones and shouted “kike” at her father as he went about with his push cart.
I could segue from this May Day story to many related matters, but for today it’s mainly about my mother.
Growing up as the only girl among nine siblings in a poor Jewish orthodox home, Rose had to become strong or have her spirit broken. “Orthodox” in any religion spells subordination of women, denial of their intelligence, individuality and dignity. She managed to get some schooling through the ninth grade, left home for a marriage at eighteen. The short marriage didn’t work out, and she returned home with a baby girl, my sister Clare. With life more onerous and humiliating than before, somehow she blossomed into a self-made intellectual. She met and married my father in her late twenties.
My mother devoured books, from ancient to modern classics. She knew and loved classical music and opera. How she got that breadth of knowledge and culture, I really don’t know. When I was writing compositions in high school, she was my first critic. She would point out shortcomings in substance or expression, and I would argue reflexively in self-defense. An hour or so later, the light would dawn and I had learned something.
To get back to May 1930, Rose had to be strong for the life that was ahead. My father’s leadership of the unemployed and workers’ movement in Stamford brought him a “promotion”. He became District Organizer of the Communist Party of Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. The family moved to New Haven. The flat my father had rented turned out to be occupied by bed bugs and roaches. My mother got us out of there in two weeks. Remember, it was the Great Depression, so options for a family in poverty were limited. We moved into a rented home that was clean, light and roomy, but the only heat was the kitchen kerosene stove. I was skinny, and I can feel how cold I was to this very day. Anyway, we couldn’t keep up with the rent and, after nine months, had to move to a cheap (but clean) tenement flat.
That’s almost enough for this installment. Let’s leave it with the fact that my parents never rose to luxury over the next twelve eventful years in New Haven. When I got married in 1942, the newlyweds spent the night on a small couch in the living room of my parents’ one bedroom apartment.