Photo of Irene Goodman
30-year-old Irene Goodman at her wedding to Bernard Goodman.

(December 28, 1912 - February 14, 1998)

by Lew Goodman

Irene Jean Goodman, my mother, was born 100 years ago today in her parents' ground-floor apartment at 66 Saint Mark's Place, a building that still stands, between 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan of New York City. It was a neighborhood of mostly Ukrainian Christian immigrants in what was then known as the Lower East Side, though it is now called the East Village. My mother was proud that she lived in an area where the air was clean and there was room to breathe—unlike that which existed in the squalor of the tenements some nine blocks south. She said that her Christian neighbors loved her—a child of Jewish immigrants from Czernowitz, Bukovina at the eastern end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became part of Romania after World War I and the Ukrainian S.S.R. after World War II. Czernowitz was a center of Jewish culture and intellectualism in the late 19th century and remained so until Adolf Hitler intervened. But it was that mingling of gentile and Jew that remained a vital part of my mother's way of thinking throughout her life.

She told me that her father had died when she was a year old. However, my unsuccessful attempts at obtaining a copy of his death certificate plus several other factors have led me to believe that he may have abandoned his wife and infant daughter. But either way his disappearance affected her greatly and her fears became mine, as I always seemed to worry about my mother and two former wives when they were late arriving home. In an era when few mothers worked, my maternal grandmother obtained a job at Eneslow Surgical Appliances (now sellers of orthopedic shoes) and she and my mother moved in with my mother's maternal grandparents at 308 East 6th Street in Manhattan, just two blocks from my mother's birthplace. Her grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who believed that girls didn't belong in school, yet he enrolled my mother in grammar school, using his last name as hers. Therefore, she used his name—Reimer (which means harness maker in German)—for the remainder of her pre-married life. My mother's maternal grandmother, who taught my mother to cook and whom I was told was a truly magnificent cook and very gentle person, died when my mother was 11 and she cried when speaking of her for as long as I can remember. Her grandfather died shortly before or shortly thereafter, so only my mother and grandmother remained in the household.

My mother attended the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, a prestigious, tuition-free, private high school, that was on the corner of East 15th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. It offered commercial diplomas in a two-year program, at a time when it took four years to obtain one in a public school, and boasted an indoor swimming pool. The building now houses a public high school. Due to her studies there, she became a crackerjack stenographer, using Gregg shorthand. Her first job, obtained when she was 15, was for the Travelers Insurance Company, where she soon became the private secretary of one of its executives. She also did lunch reliefs as their switchboard operator. She had wanted to become a dress designer, as she possessed considerable drawing skills and had a keen eye for fashion, but her mother dissuaded her from that profession, saying that she would wind up working in a factory. She did produce many copper paintings, as a hobby, when she was in her 40's, winning first prize in a contest in 1955. One of her paintings, which was dedicated to the memory of her friend's son, who died of cancer at the age of four, was exhibited in the children's wing of Manhattan's Memorial Hospital for several decades.

My maternal grandmother remarried in 1933 and the newlyweds moved, with my mother, to a doorman building near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx of New York City, when there were still several chicken farms in the area. My mother married Polish-born Herman Fader on Sunday, August 16, 1936 in the Bronx, when she was 23, but they divorced in 1942, a relatively rare occurrence then for those not in the limelight. One of the highlights of this first marriage was going onto her Gerard Avenue roof to watch Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling in the first round at Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, when Louis was 24 and my mother was 25. After her divorce, she moved to Rockaway Park, Queens of New York City and lived with her mother and stepfather, one block from the Atlantic Ocean. She married my father, Bernard Goodman, on Sunday, August 22, 1943 and their wedding reception was at the luxurious Washington Hotel, on the southwest corner of Beach 124th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, also a block from the ocean and a block from her home. It now houses a college for Orthodox Jewish men and is quite rundown. My parents then set up residence at the newly built and restricted Parkchester housing complex in the Bronx, which has 12,500 apartments and was owned by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. African-Americans were not admitted there until 1968 and, without protesters lobbying for them, Puerto Ricans and Chinese arrived even later.

My mother gave birth to her first child—a daughter—in 1944 and to me six years later. When I was five months old, she developed a gangrenous gallstone and was taken by ambulance to a hospital for exploratory surgery. My sister and I didn't see her again for 12 weeks, a devastating event for all concerned. She lost much of her hair, due to the ether, and thereafter was forced to wear wigs. Soon afterwards, she became morbidly obese and remained so until her death. She lived most of her final 47 years with various ailments, such as thrombophlebitis and a ruptured incision, and in extreme pain. But that never stopped her from fighting for what she believed in, which was mostly her children. She fought battles against extreme odds, all five feet of her, and always seemed to win. When I was 10 and a 15-year-old boy had thrown lit matches at me, at a Borscht Belt bungalow colony, she confronted him. When he laughed at her, she slapped his face and he never dared to throw lit matches again. When I was 14 and a sophomore in high school, it was "impossible" to transfer schools. But since I had wanted to, my mother went to the Board of Education in Brooklyn and, naturally, a transfer was granted. When I was 17 and a sophomore in college, its 21-year-old radio station, WFUV, was about to be shut down. So my little Jewish mother met privately with the Reverend Leo McLaughlin, S.J., president of a great, 127-year-old, New York Roman Catholic institution known as Fordham University, and respectfully stated her case. Her son was only attending Fordham because of WFUV and therefore she would like him to save it. She found a friendly ear in Father McLaughlin, who told her that he was its former director, and 44 years later WFUV still exists. One of her favorite sayings, which depicted her toughness, was "First he'll get mad and then he'll get glad."

My mother was a very generous person—seemingly always giving cash gifts to relatives and the children of friends for their birthdays, because she believed that, "That way they could buy whatever they want." A friend of mine since 1960 recently reminded me that in the mid '60's she often gave me $5 to pay for lunch for him, another friend, and myself at a well-appointed Chinese restaurant in the Bronx whose entrées were served under metal domes (and that was for three three-course meals, tax and tip included). After my first divorce, in 1986, she enabled me to continue paying my rent by giving me $300 a month for several years. Because my employer required my obtaining a master's degree, she paid for my graduate school tuition in the late 1980's. She also provided the down payments for my brand new car in 1968, my Riverdale (in the Bronx) condominium in 1978, and my Manhattan co-op in 1996, despite being what would now be construed as lower middle class. When I sold the condo, in 1981, she refused to accept any of the proceeds.

She was extremely proud of her telephone voice—an apparent carryover of her switchboard days—and would bask in all her glory whenever a New York Telephone Company operator called her "operator." My mother often told dirty jokes, in Yiddish, to approximately 200 people in that Borscht Belt bungalow colony's casino and all I could hear from the outside was uproarious laughter. The American-born sons of Holocaust survivors, who were invariably the only bilingual boys there, would put their ears to the casino's windows and translate for us. And on Thanksgiving 1977, my first in which I had my own apartment, my 26-year-old best friend, who was a foodie at the dawn of foodieism and who frequented fancy restaurants, said that the meal my mother made was the best he had ever had. She knew he loved her well-done hamburgers, that were prepared by mixing the raw chopped beef with raw eggs and finally smothered with sautéed onions, so that was his appetizer—served without buns. At the age of 64, she hadn't lost her touch with turkey and he said it was the best he had ever tasted. My parents, who only drank at weddings, had a 30-year-old bottle of 12-year-old Haig & Haig Pinch Scotch (you do the math) and he devoured that, too, so that might have influenced his thinking. However, at age 61, he still frequently tells me that it was the best meal of his life. Regarding my own love of upscale restaurants, my mother often said, "You can't eat atmosphere."

My mother's most upsetting and longest-lasting fight was for my sister, who became epileptic at the age of 16 and a paranoid schizophrenic at 20. When my sister had her first seizure, at the very same Borscht Belt bungalow colony, she apparently had banged her head falling onto the porch and was totally unconscious, with her eyes rolled back. When my mother discovered her lying there, she repeatedly screamed, "She's dead; my baby's dead!" I was 10 and now I'm 62, but it was to this day the loudest screaming I have ever heard. It seemed as though a hundred people came running, full-speed, from every part of the colony—my father and I being part of the throng. When my sister had her second seizure and first one at home, our family doctor made a house call, but before examining my sister, he told my mother to be calm, although she wasn't acting strange. He just knew her very well. When my sister had a subsequent seizure, my mother noticed, from a distance, that my sister was lying on the ground with my maternal grandmother standing next to her. My grandmother, fearful of how my mother would react, immediately lied to her, saying that my sister had fallen. When my sister was 20, she was sent to Jacobi Hospital, a city institution in the Bronx, for a month or two and then the dreaded Bronx State Hospital for the insane for over a year. I never saw a sadder face than my maternal grandmother's, whenever she visited, and I dreaded the experience, where the heavily drugged patients walked like zombies, when they were able to walk. But my mother visited every single day, allowing her many plants to die and our apartment to become a mess. When she was released, in 1966, my mother vowed that my sister would never be hospitalized again and she kept her word for the next 32 years. My sister stopped hallucinating, due to a pharmacist's error, in 1970 and didn't start again until 1982, possibly due to my father's death, which had occurred a year earlier. She was able to marry in 1976 and after she had relapsed my mother moved in with her and her husband in Queens (though never giving up her Parkchester apartment), taking obsessive care of my sister, despite her occasional physical attacks which left my mother with a partial loss of hearing in one ear.

My mother lost a battle for the first time on Valentine's Day of 1998 in La Guardia Hospital of Forest Hills, Queens, at the age of 85—an amazing accomplishment for such an obese person. But she had had an excellent reason to live—my sister. My mother had been hospitalized for some minor strokes and breast cancer was discovered. She had apparently noticed a lump two years earlier, but kept that info from me, fearing that she would die if she were ever operated on. Since I had a fever, I didn't want my mother to be exposed or I would have surely not given permission for surgery. But I wasn't there to stop it (sounds like It's a Wonderful Life and George Bailey's saving his kid brother when he fell through the ice) and she had been right all along, as she died a few days after the surgery. Sure enough, soon after my mother's death, my sister was hospitalized again, though briefly, in a psychiatric institution. And without my mother there to take constant care of her, she died, at the age of 57, in 2001. At my sister's burial, one of my mother's first cousins said to me, "Thank God Irene didn't live to see this." I told him that I had just been thinking the exact same thing.

My mother totally adored her stepfather and when she married my father, her stepfather purchased all the solid mahogany furniture for both their living room and bedroom. On the day that she died, I sold that furniture, not suspecting that she was about to die in a few hours. It was the 42nd anniversary of her stepfather's death, which occurred on Valentine's Day of 1956.

Six years after my mother's death and almost 23 years after my father's, their only grandchild, Jean Elizabeth, was born. Jean and I plan to visit Irene Jean's birthplace today and then eat where her 80th-birthday banquet was held—a Ukrainian Christian restaurant that's around the corner.