My mother, Lydia Kellman, was born in Capetown South Africa, the 2nd of 5 siblings—4 girls and a boy—in the shadow of Table Mountain, with its white covering of cloud, called the Tablecloth. She and her siblings played on the pristine beaches, where the waters of 2 oceans came together in streams of two different shades, two temperatures. She was happy and fortunate, unafraid to face challenges.
As a young woman, she joined the South African Air force, learning the skill of aerial photography and traveling far from home. On a quest for a technology in Europe that might help restore a modicum of her mother’s failed hearing, she sailed the perilous wartime oceans with her parents on a Greek ship that served her kosher mother rabbit, which she assured her mother was chicken, lest she starve.
Later, she joined her sisters in traveling to Israel to work on a new kibbutz, and joined the Israeli Air force, again as an aerial photographer. This life lived among others suited her. She enjoyed their company, thriving in the social whirl of parties and dances, and played as hard as she worked.
How she came together with the serious and troubled young man from Philadelphia isn’t hard to imagine. In his manic phase, my father, who resembled a pint-size Cary Grant during those years, was funny and charming, a gifted mime and actor. Maybe it took a while before she saw the other Mish, the angry and morbid one.
The two married and traveled to England, where he was stationed, walking miles in the Lake Country, where they stayed at youth hostels nestled in the green hills. They sailed to France, innocent of all French, but managing somehow to communicate their needs. My mother would often tell the story of how she and my father pantomimed their desire for hot water, until the owner of the pension where they were staying understood.
This life hardly prepared her for Philadelphia, where she had to face my grandmother, a depressed and difficult woman who scorned this flighty young woman from South Africa. The Kellmans were as different a family from the proud and sophisticated Horvitches as anyone could imagine, and my mother, far from home in a new land, was treated poorly by her new family.
America did not turn out to be for her the golden land my father had promised. She missed her family, her beautiful South Africa, and the happy life of luxury she was used to living. When I was growing up, she instilled in me a sense of otherness, cautioning me against these Americans, with their barbarous manners and cruel behavior toward anyone who did not match the common mold. When I was teased at school, she filled my head with bright visions of other worlds beyond the borders of Philadelphia and the U.S., where she hoped I would someday travel.
Life was hard in Philadelphia not only because of the family and the neighbors, but because she had to struggle financially, to do without the servants she was used to, to manage my father’s sometimes abusive behavior. It is a wonder to me that she did not simply pack up and go back to South Africa, as her sister Edna urged her to do.
Instead, she busied herself, trying to work briefly as a secretary, typing up plays for an off-Broadway company. She would return on the Frankford Elevated train, humming the songs from the latest shows. She made friends, and served as a den mother for the girl scouts, taking me along on their camping trips. It was a blow to her when I was expelled from the Brownies for hiding under the bed in the boring store where we had gone for a field trip.
I was a bit of a disappointment to her, being nothing like the butterfly of a young girl she had wished for. She tried dressing me in gay and flirtatious colors, but this didn’t help the fact that I was serious and observant, given to study and reading, a collector of insects known as Bug Lady to the neighborhood children. She did what she could with me, but I could see that I did not match the vision she had for her daughter. I was too much a Kellman, an American, more like my father in many ways than like her.
Yet despite this, I am grateful to her for teaching me a respect for language. A purveyor of correct usage, she mercilessly corrected me until my syntax sparkled, purged of infelicities and slang. Thus, she is as responsible for me being a writer as my father was, with his story-telling and weekly gifts of books. It was she in early years who nurtured a respect for language.
People marveled to the last when they saw us together, finding us to be nearly identical in appearance. I never saw it. But I admit that we had the same slender frame, the same dark eyes, even the same way of moving.
Despite her frustrations, my mother adored my father and me. She sent me large care packages when I went away to college and later married and moved to California. She spoke to me on the phone, until her hearing, like her mother’s, grew too bad to continue these talks and her mind gave out. And to the end, she could barely stand to be in a different room from my father, who alternately coddled and mistreated her.
She was happy for me being in California, which so resembled her native South Africa. Every June, they would visit, just so she could walk the streets purpled with jacarandas, reminding her of the broad avenues of home.
At the last, I am glad I was able to bring her out here, to fill her life with the kind of beauty and luxury she had grown up with, though it was admittedly too late for her to truly appreciate it. In the depths of dementia, when all else fell away, this had become “home” for her, and thus one can say that she came to port at that elusive place she so longed for.