A Tale of Two Mothers

Or at least, two memoirs of powerful women who had a profound effect on their sons. Tiger mothers have sometimes had a hard time from me on this blog, but the beauty of books is that they never allow fixed or rigid positions on the part of the reader. Russell Baker’s depression-era memoir, Growing Up, and Gabriel Josipovici’s loving study of his courageous, self-effacing mother, A Life, put forward a very different case for what mothers had to do for their sons when the forces of history were against them.

Russell Baker’s early years were spent in a settlement aptly called Bakerville – it was pretty much full of his relatives. It was a rural paradise for a young boy, surrounded by his father’s family, with two younger sisters and a doting grandmother. Not that life was without shadows; his father suffered from diabetes in an area too remote to have knowledge of insulin, and he was a drinker, too. His mother, a forceful woman with an inner reforming zeal, regularly clashed with her mother-in-law, who was the unquestioned power of the family and none too keen on being challenged. And then, at the age of only 33, his father died from his diabetes, leaving 5-year-old Russell as the new man of his family.

His mother instantly moved back to be with her own relatives, having no wish to remain at the mercy of her mother-in-law. But it was at the cost of her youngest daughter, whom she was persuaded to part with so that she could be brought up in better circumstances by one of her husband’s many brothers. It was, Russell Baker says, the only thing she ever expressed any doubt or regret over. A certain necessity ruled her decision, though, as they were desperately poor and dependent now on her hardworking brother, Allen, and his jolly wife, Pat. It was the start of the depression and her hope of finding a job and a way to finance a place of their own would be thwarted for almost a decade. Baker’s account of these years is an ingenious mix of the harrowing and the hilarious. His mother’s family was no less numerous than his father’s and itinerant uncles came and went over the years. They were a storytelling bunch, sitting around the kitchen table until late at night, forgetting the strife of their daily existence by sheer enjoyment of each other’s company. It beggars belief to think what our ancestors went through, poverty, ill health and uncertainty of a kind that we would find inexcusable today. Their courage and determination ought to put us to shame.

Baker’s mother encouraged, well, bullied him really, into a commitment to ‘make something of himself’. She sent him out selling newspapers from the age of eight onwards, although he loathed the job, and had no compunction about making him feel a weight of responsibility towards his family. Not that her treatment of him was in any way unusual. ‘Her natural instinct with a man was to push,’ he writes, ‘and if he didn’t budge to push harder. If he failed to push back, she leaned on him full force.’ His mother was the sort of woman who really needed the feminist movement to come a whole lot sooner; unable to use her own vitality to secure the family, she was obliged to expend it as Newtonian force on the men around her. Baker found her influence intrusive and infuriating, but he was magnetically bound to her nevertheless. As he grew up, he wanted to better her and took pains he was later ashamed of, to humiliate her with his superior knowledge of book learning. But to think that, from such poor roots, he ended up a respected journalist with this Pulitzer prize-winning memoir to his name, shows how far his mother’s displaced ambition pushed him.

Gabriel Josipovici’s account of his beloved mother, Sacha’s, life is a tale of another woman beset by difficulties in her early life, but there is none of Baker’s ambivalence. Josipovici lived with his mother until she died at 85, and their relationship was a kind of perfect companionship. It began with another early departure by the father. Sacha grew up among well-to-do Egyptian Jews, but was orphaned at ten. Brought up by uncongenial grandparents, she married as soon as she could, a pretentious young man named Jean, who was going to do a doctorate in philosophy in the South of France. Sacha moved with him, but the marriage was soon in trouble, with Jean pursuing other women. Then the war began. They were booked on the last boat out of Marseille, only Sacha gave birth to Gabriel on the day it was to sail. The marriage didn’t last much longer; Jean ran off to Paris with a good friend of Sacha’s and she discovered that she was pregnant again, abandoned more comprehensively than when her parents had died.

The situation for Jews became much worse when the Italians withdrew from the South of France and only last minute intervention from friends saved them from being rounded up and sent to the death camps. Gabriel and his mother escaped to the Massif Central, where Sacha gave birth to a daughter who lived only ten days. Only the existence of Gabriel kept Sacha from suicide, at this darkest time in her life. She felt that stress and malnutrition had damaged the baby’s chances and two photos of her taken at this time show her with haunted dark eyes and a Mona Lisa smile.

Something happened in those troubled wartime days; a bond was forged between mother and child that would prove unbreakable. Sacha felt that Gabriel was her only success, her only hope of a fulfilled life. Gabriel felt he loved his mother too much ever to see her abandoned and uncared for again. He was a gifted child, good at sport as well as his lessons, but the books won out and took mother and son to England where an education at St Paul’s and then Oxford finally secured their future. Josipovici took a lecturing post at the University of Sussex and wrote asking for advice about renting accommodation for ‘myself, four cats, a rabbit… and a mother.’ It caused much hilarity in the university office, but for Josipovici it was a simple truth. Where he went, his mother came too.

It was the start of a period of calm, cultured pursuits, beloved pets and long walks on the Sussex downs. For all their happiness, mother and son were both troubled from time to time with guilt about their dependence on each other. Girlfriends came and went, but no lasting relationship developed, Sacha started to write poetry, expressing in one poem her anxious fear: ‘Am I a vampire mother feeding/ on your flesh gradually bleeding/ you to death.’  Josipovici wondered ‘if it had been my weakness or my strength that had led to my making my life with her, whether, by going away a long time before, I would have given her the freedom and strength to move beyond me.’ But Sacha provided her son with, I think, a model of perfect empathy and compatibility. Her natural self-effacement and her pride and pleasure in him made her the ideal audience for him, and one of the reasons, perhaps why Josipovici’s fiction is often concerned with issues of receptivity. Perfect reception, after all, might be indistinguishable from silence, and silence can give rise to doubts – who is the other who listens so well?

The point of this memoir is to find the woman behind the devoted mother and the perfect audience, but in the linked destinies of mother and child it is also a way of returning Josipovici’s life to him, now that his star witness has gone, and a way to process deep and painful grief.  The woman who emerges is a paradox, someone with definite tastes, strong emotions, forceful opinions, but at the same time lacking in self-esteem. Her poetry is scattered across the memoir, a way of bringing her voice in to mingle with Josipovici’s one last time. She was a stoic and a survivor, able to make the best of anything, and to go to any lengths for the son she loved. If the success of a life may be to know that we have been loved, then Sacha need not have feared; she was a success on those human terms. This is a moving tribute to a powerful spirit.


12 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Mothers

  1. I tried to read the Baker book a long time ago, but found it too sentimental-in-a-bad-way for my taste. I know that lots of people admire it, though, so perhaps I should give it another try. The Josipovici book sounds great — I’m looking forward to reading more from him at some point, and this book would be a good choice, I think.

  2. I observed that if there is a memoir dedicated to parents it is always either to the mother or the father and raely to both of them. The third choice would rather be the family as a whole. Given my own history the topic is endlessly fascinating but the second book, Josipovici’s memoir speaks more to me. It does make me feel uncomfortable, one wonders whether this was right, this dependence and then again who are we to judge what type of companion one should choose. I have a hard time imagining that there wasn’t a hidden conflict. Maybe Josipovici was just lucky he never met anyone he wanted to spend his life with, maybe then there would have been an eruption of conflicts.

  3. Back in the early 80s when I was in junior high school, Minnesota Public Radio had Garrison Keillor serialize the book for radio. I think it may have been on every night. I remember how soothing I found both the book and Keillor’s delivery. Oddly, as much as I loved that experience, I don’t really like audiobooks and I find Keillor’s novels boring.

  4. Two very interesting memoirs. I find it rather weird that Josipovici lived with his mother his entire life until her death. Freud would probably have quite a lot to say about that arrangement.

  5. The second book sounds wonderful. Like Stefanie I find it odd that he lived with her throughout her whole life. I can imagine being totally the opposite at the end of this book as it sounds like terrible context forged that relationship and that they managed to make something so good out of what could have been tragic, forced dependence sounds inspirational.

  6. I read “Growing Up” a couple of times when I myself was growing up, so it remains one of those pleasant artifacts of my youth. The thing I remember most about it was Baker’s description of the type of wild and unsuitable woman he expected to meet after he entered the army…some sort of harlot “…with smoking armpits and flaming thighs.” I retained a curious notion for a long time that appropriate sexual protection was more about asbestos, and less about latex.

  7. Surfing the waves of the web I am pleasantly stranded in this beautiful blog.

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  8. Lilian – I don’t read so many ‘mother’ books these days, but these just happened to fall together – both come from very good writers, I think.

    Dorothy – how interesting! I come from a very small family, and assume that all people from big families like that sort of big family book – good to be made to rethink that sort of assumption! I do like Josipovici – he really is a beautiful writer. Such elegance in his sentences.

    Caroline – how interesting – I’d never thought of the parental memoir as always dominated by one or other of them, but I can’t think of any book that disproves that rule at the moment. Maybe overdominance by one parent is that step closer to a dysfunctional set-up. As for the Josipovici, I think that there is conflict, as both are conscious of the unusualness of their situation. If that hadn’t been mentioned, I would have been inclined towards much greater suspicion. But it comes back repeatedly, this fear each had of sort of… hogging each other. In the end I felt that somehow they had managed to make their relationship work in a very genuine way (and believe me, I wouldn’t have assumed I’d come to that conclusion!).

    Thomas – how about that! I’ve only heard Keillor’s voice once or twice, but I remember it being very soothing. I can only imagine that all sorts of things came together for you at that point that in isolation really didn’t work. Sometimes I think that the exceptions are far more fascinating than the rule. I’ve never read a Keillor novel, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t encourage me to rush for them? 😉

    Stefanie – yes! There’s a point in the memoir where Josipovici lets it be known that he doesn’t think much of Freud’s theories, and that his relationship with his mother disproves them. Having just said to Thomas that I find exceptions really intriguing, I don’t think that they disprove anything much by themselves. It’s certainly a more complex relationship that the basic Freudian theory allows, though.

    Bookgazing – that’s a really lovely way of looking at it. There’s a bit at the very end that is so moving when Josipovici’s mother is dying, and knows it, and is desperate to tell him that the second half of her life, when they were settled and contented together, had more than made up for the traumas in the first. Really touching!

    David – lol! I remember that bit, and no wonder it made a strange impression on a young boy! Actually I wonder how that book would read to a teenage boy… would it give hope? I guess if you read it a couple of times it must have been reassuring in some way. He’s wonderfully honest about his own vulnerabilities, I thought.

    Jose – thank you for visiting! I’m sure I’ll call on you soon.

    Richard – Oops! And I used to tick the students off so much if they spelled the character’s names wrong…. Well, I have done some nifty editing now – thanks for pointing it out.

  9. I had the Baker memoir sitting on my desk at work for days when you first mentioned it as it sounds so interesting and I like reading about that period, but in the end I decided to note it down for later since I have too many library books out at the moment–now I will be adding the Josipovici to my list as well. That poor woman–your post almost brought tears to my eyes. I wonder if it was devastating for him when she died?

  10. The relationship between a mother and son is especially interesting to me since I only have one child and he is a boy. These books seem to reflect how complex the relationship between mother and son can be. I know I always struggle between pushing my son too hard and being too easy on him. At times there doesn’t seem to be a good compromise between the two. It is always interesting to read about successful men and the mothers they had.

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