By Bill Simons
Mother’s Day 2022: for me, it is unlike the celebratory milestones that preceded it. My mother Elaine, age 95, died on January 9, 2022, making me a 72-year-old orphan. Like Mrs. Patimkin and Mrs. Portnoy, novelist Philip Roth’s iconic Jewish mothers, Elaine differed from the Yiddisha Mama of yore.
One of my earliest memories involves going to a political rally on the Commons in the city of my birth, Lynn, MA, on a mellow September day in 1952. The morning of the rally my parents, Shep and Elaine, talked loudly. From my bedroom, I caught fragments of their exchange. My mother said she was going to take me to the Commons to see General Dwight Eisenhower, a great hero of World War II and now the Republican candidate for president. My father told her not to go into a big, pushy crowd since she was pregnant with another child and given that “Billy” was only 3, the event would have no meaning for him. Once my father left for work, my mother, almost never deterred by anything, prepared me for our little trip.
Walking to the bus stop, she told me, “You will never forget this day.” We boarded the jammed bus for the three-mile ride. At the Commons, astounded by the size and sound of the crowd, which roared repeatedly, “I like Ike! I like Ike!” – I joined the chant. My mother bought me a little Eisenhower flag that I waved and kept for years. She told me that General Eisenhower and my father had served in the same army.
Many people were in front of us. In her condition, my mother could only hold me high enough to see Ike on the bandstand briefly, and the view from my standing level was frustrating. Then, suddenly someone picked me up and perched me on his shoulders: it was my father. Getting no answer on our home phone, he realized that, despite his admonition, my mother had taken me to the Commons. So, he went to find us in that big crowd and he did. Now, lifted by my father, I could see Ike’s warm smile.
Her early years shaped my mother. The Great Depression, the long absences of her salesman father and the strength of her mother fostered a resilience in Elaine that never faltered. Elaine and her older sister, Lucille, developed a strong bond, living in close proximity to one another throughout their adult lives and speaking daily.
During World War II, Elaine contributed to the American military effort from the South Boston Naval Annex. Coming of age surrounded by sailors, Elaine enjoyed their attention, but adhered to the guidelines of her watchful mother – and when in doubt provided a new aspirant with a phony telephone number.
Elaine met her future husband, a young Army veteran, Shephard Simons, on a date arranged by friends. Engagement, marriage and motherhood soon followed. Elaine and Shep’s love remained strong throughout their 69-year marriage.
Jewish identity was central to my parents. Although they lit Shabbat candles, observed the High Holidays, joined the Sukkot festival, gifted on Hannukah, attended our Purim theatricals, supported their Reform temple and co-hosted memorable Passover seders, organizational activism, family history, support for Israel and vigilance against antisemitism were their primary forms of Jewish expression. My mother was the first woman elected to serve as vice president of both the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish of Federation of the (Massachusetts) North Shore. She was president of the Swampscott-Marblehead chapter of B’nai B’rith and played a major role in the planning/fund-raising for Jewish elder housing in Lynn. Elaine and Shep traveled widely, including several trips to Israel, where they remained centered when mortar fire rocked their bus.
Part of a generation of Jewish women pulled between neo-Victorianism and feminism, my mother was competitive. Dress, appearance and peer status mattered. Determination and practice enabled Elaine to more than hold her own on the golf links. Mother set a brisk pace on long walks. Bridge was her forte. Elaine, in her early 90s, successfully lobbied calisthenics classmates to elect her athlete of the month. Even at the end, she gave no quarter in games of rummy with great-granddaughter Hannah.
Always a veracious reader, mother read multiple books a week during COVID. And she raised telephone conversation to an art form.
Elaine always reveled in the achievements of her family. When I won the First Place Award for Excellence in Writing About Sports from the American Jewish Press Association last year, my mother insisted on having a copy of the certificate and hung it on her living room wall, reminiscent of prior displays of her children’s elementary school work. To the end of her life, my mother referred to my wife Nancy and I as “you kids.”
One of my favorite memories is taking my mother’s great-grandson/my grandson Isaac to visit her twice this past August. To share his detailed knowledge of geography, Isaac, then 8, brought a large globe on both occasions. Kvelling from Isaac’s presentation, my mother asked of her other great-grandchildren, “Are they all this smart?”
At my mother’s 95th birthday in September 2021, we observed the protocols of the pandemic. It was a good day. Still formidable, Elaine enjoyed the attention of those she loved. A few months later, she took a serious fall and incurred major neurological damage. Her children, grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren visited during the final passage.
Due to the lingering pandemic, my mother’s funeral service split virtual with in-person. Her rabbi, David Meyer, officiated. My sister, Jo Ann, and I shared eulogies. At the Temple Emanu-El cemetery, there were six pallbearers. On the right side of the coffin, I led, with my son Joe directly behind me and his oldest son Isaac following him.
After my mother’s death, cousin Shelly sent me a photograph, reminding me of Elaine’s affinity for the camera. My mother served as the model for the postal queen on a huge outdoor storefront mural at the family uniform business. Despite disclaimers, she enjoyed the attention.