Cynthia Edelson, 1917 -- 2007

by Tom Edelson

Links: Tom Edelson's home page; Tom Edelson's blog


Note from the author: Since I originally wrote this, in October 2008, it has come to my attention that I am probably wrong about what happened, as described below, in at least one respect.  I am at work on a revised version ... which will also, as it happens, be in a different format: a PDF file.  But even after that is available, I will probably keep this original HTML version available somewhere, as a record of what I thought, and how I felt, at the time of its writing.


In a blog post dated February 1, 2008, I reported that my mother had died in November, 2007.  Here are a few facts about her life.

Well, let me qualify that.  There certainly will be some facts.  But I am not attempting to present an objective "capsule biography".  This is about my mother, but it is also about how she affected others ... and, in particular, me.  The first paragraph was written when I started writing the piece, and I have let it stand.  This paragraph, though, was added later.  Or, um, it is being added now ... obviously.  But the point is that "now", for this paragraph, is just before posting this first installment (for that is what it has turned out to want to be) to my Web page.

And so, though the story proper begins long before I was born, I know now that that is misleading: that my main concern has turned out to be, not the facts about my mother, but my memories of my mother ... true or not.  This is not as much an extended obituary, or capsule biography, as I thought it would be (and as the title might cause you to expect it to be), and more of a memoir.

Part One: From the Beginning Through the First Time

She was born Cynthia Ulrich on May 13, 1917, in Chicago; she was not given a middle name, at birth.  Her family moved to Seattle not long after that, and that is where she lived through most of her childhood ... through high school graduation, in fact.

She attended Vassar College and majored in "history of art, with emphasis on architecture".

Returning to Seattle during the Great Depression, she became involved in some of the political activity of the time.  World War II had begun in Europe, though the United States was not yet involved; in particular, Germany soon invaded the Soviet Union. 

Mother became involved in the "anti-Fascist" movement.  It held (though I don't know that they would have put it this way) that this was a war between good and evil, with the Axis powers representing evil ... and thus, that the United States should be more actively supporting those fighting against those powers; in particular, that we should be helping the Soviet Union.

A lot of the support for this movement came from those relatively sympathetic to the Soviet Union, including those Americans who adopted the "Communist" label.  And a lot of support for some of those groups came, in turn, from the Soviet Union itself.

Here we find ourselves in the presence of irony.  For the United States, of course, did enter the war, and so the view that this was a war between good and evil became widely accepted in this country.  Later, when the war was over, a time came when the received view was that the main enemy of the United States, and of the values on which it had been founded, was the Soviet Union.  And so it became inconvenient to remember that the "Communists and their fellow travelers" formed the largest group of early proponents of U.S. involvement against the Fascists and Nazis.

It was in the context of her political activities that Mother met Howard Joshua Edelson.  They were married in 1940.

(An aside which refers back to the fact that initially, she had no middle name: when married ... and for the rest of her life ... she used her married name as her last name and her "maiden name" as her middle name, thus: "Cynthia Ulrich Edelson".)

Two children were born of this marriage, though not very soon: Dad was serving in the U.S. Army in Europe for part of that time.  I am the elder, born in June, 1946; my sister Rachel was born in June, 1948.

My parents were divorced in 1951.  Dad remarried within a couple of years; Mother never did.  We two children were largely raised by our mother after that, though our father was part of our lives as well.  In particular, there was a longish stretch of time in which we were living on the west coast (mostly Berkeley, California) and Dad on the east (Nassau County, Long Island, New York).  During that period, Rachel and I generally saw Dad only once a year, but it was not a short visit: we would go and stay with him and his new family for about six weeks at a time.

During the years that Rachel and I were in school, Mother was often, but not always, employed part time, generally in a "secretarial" position (today, such jobs are more often called "administrative assistant").  One of her favorite jobs was at the Architecture Library of the University of California in Berkeley.

I think that my mother was seriously frightened by those events of the 1950s that came to be known, with some metaphorical aptness, as "witch hunts".  Partly as a career-building move by certain politicians, notably U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, efforts were launched to "expose" people who had been active in radical politics as much as twenty years earlier.  Most Americans, it seems safe to say, had looked on those radical activities as misguided.  But now it approached conventional wisdom to re-label them as subversive: to maintain that such radicals had been ... and many remained ... conscious agents of a foreign enemy, bent on violent overthrow of the United States government.

I regard such claims as hogwash.  They are particularly absurd when applied to someone like my mother; but my opinion is that they were simply false, with respect to the vast majority of those about whom they were made.

To my knowledge, Mother was never, personally, a significant "target" of any of these "investigations".  But the paranoid beliefs (or, in some cases, feigned beliefs) of the "witch humters" met with a paranoid reaction in her, in which she regarded herself as more likely to be a target than she actually was.

And here we reach the most difficult part of the story.  The word "paranoid" is often used quite loosely, to label any tendency that a person may have to develop suspicions of other people, particularly if those suspicions are thought to be unreasonable by the person applying the label.  But in the late 1950s (roughly when I was between 12 and 14 years old), my mother's behavior changed in such a way that it became plausible, at least, to describe her as "paranoid" in a narrower, more clinical sense.

The first people to perceive this were my sister Rachel and I.  Well, to be exact, I don't know that we would have used a word like "paranoid"; but we perceived that there was a major change; that she was no longer "normal", whatever that means; and that, more concretely, she was no longer able to function at all well in almost any role, notably including that of mother.

She spent most of her time just sitting, drinking cup after cup of coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, and ... what?  Should I call it "thinking"?  "Worrying"?  "Wrestling with her demons"?  The plain fact is that I do not know, and cannot imagine, what she was experiencing.  (Actually, I am glad that I cannot imagine it.)  I know only that most of the time, there was silence; from time to time, it was punctuated by some declaration or other.  For example, one time she told Rachel and me that:

I was old enough to be very clearly aware that such thoughts are thoroughly irrational, and not "normal".  And you can take it from me: it is distressing for a child to have a parent expressing "crazy thoughts" like that.  Fifty years later, the memory is still distressing, but I also can feel a little bit of perverse pride at just how creative my mother's "crazy thoughts" were.

In hindsight, I now believe that she was not very functional at motherhood, long before this time.  But that would not have been noticed, at least not so soon, had these more florid manifestations of "abnormality" -- of mental illness, in fact -- not developed.

We had no close relatives living anywhere near our home in Berkeley.  There was an aunt, a sister of my father's named Florence, in San Francisco; but ours was not the sort of close-knit family where someone in her position would have been expected to get involved in such a development.  I doubt that Rachel or I ever mentioned our concerns about Mom to Aunt Flo.

There were really only two people to whom it seemed natural to mention them.  One was my father, who lived with his second wife, and their three children, on Long Island.  The other was our uncle, Mom's brother, Dave.  He was, as it happens, a clinical psychologist; at the time in question, he was still a lifelong bachelor; and he lived in Connecticut.

So Rachel and I told Dad and Dave, over the long-distance telephone, that Mom was ... I don't remember how we expressed it, but ... no longer acting normal.  At first, we were not believed; the response was that this is what all children think about their parents, when they (the children) are becoming adolescents.  This was a lonely time for us.

That phase lasted only a few months, though.  I don't know that the reports from Rachel and me became any more credible to their audience.  But before too long, it became evident to Dad and Dave that something was wrong, from another source: from talking on the phone to Mother herself.

And what happened, once they realized that the problem was real, and serious?  My memories are not clear on some points.  I think that perhaps both Dad and Dave made (fairly short) visits to assess the situation at first hand; or perhaps only Dave did: I'm just not sure.

But I am sure that they were working together to figure out what to do.  Dad was more specifically concerned about his children, Rachel and me, while Dave's concern more equally included Mother herself.  But I have no reason to think that this caused any conflict between them.

Their first substantive response was to reach out to the woman we called "Aunt Dinah", who agreed to help in a very concrete way.  She came and stayed with Mother, Rachel and me for at least several weeks, just to get the household running again.

Dinah was not actually our aunt; she was my father's stepmother.  My paternal grandfather, Abe, was married three times.  No divorce was involved; the first two wives, who were the mothers of his children, both died relatively young.  Dinah, the third wife, never had children of her own, but was the very opposite of the "evil stepmother" stereotype.  She was, in fact, one of the kindest, sweetest people I have ever known.

And it was a wonderful thing she did for us, bringing some adult sanity, of a helpful but nonjudgmental kind, into our little household in Berkeley.  It was not, however, a long-term solution to the problem posed by my mother's illness (through no fault of Dinah's, of course).

Actually, I doubt that anything anyone could have done would have qualified as truly a "long-term solution".  Dad and Dave (with Dave more in the foreground) did, however (and after several more months) engineer something that at least made the problem more manageable: they persuaded Mom to move the household back to the East Coast: specifically, to Westport, Connecticut. 

This town is located in Fairfield County, the southwest corner of the state.  This is the part of Connecticut that is closest to New York City; in fact, Westport qualified, even then, as an "outer suburb" of New York.  That also means, of course, that it is relatively accessible to where my father lived, in Roslyn Heights on Long Island.  (And as for Dave, neither he nor I remembers, for certain, exactly where he was living at the time, but it was definitely also in Fairfield County.)

Dave spent a good chunk of time with us in California, helping arrange for the move: Mother could most certainly not have done it without a more functional adult helping, and Dinah had gone back to Brooklyn by then.  The actual move was arranged to take place during the summer, while school was out; I had just finished the ninth grade.  In those days, in public schools all over the country, that marked the transition from "junior high school" to "senior high school".  It was the summer of 1961.

I didn't make things any easier for Dave, because I decided that I didn't want to move away from Berkeley ... totally ignoring the fact that there wasn't much choice, under the circumstances.  I managed to "fall in love" with a fellow ninth-grader, named Barbara, at a dance at the end of the school year; this became, in my early-hormonal mind, the love of a lifetime, and also totally confused with a romanticized view of the place itself.  I wasn't the first person, nor the last, to romanticize Berkeley and the whole San Francisco area, but I carried it to such an extreme that being forced to move back East, to hear me talk, must have sounded like being sentenced to spend the rest of my life in [the capitalist equivalent of] a Communist prison camp, like the ones in Siberia.

I know for a fact that Dave eventually got tired of hearing it, because he told me so.  I don't know that I ever (until now) thought to apologize to him, for adding further stress to what was already profoundly difficult.  I hope that, though I did manage to get under his skin with it, he still realized that I was just a kid, doing what kids do.

I also doubt that I ever explicitly told him that, as it turned out, I was considerably happier at Staples High School in Westport than I had been at Garfield Junior High School in Berkeley.

Berkeley was (and is) very much a university town, and also had an image, even then, as a hotbed of nonconformity.  Garfield, furthermore, was supposed to be the "best" of Berkeley's three junior highs, with the highest proportion of professors' kids.  Despite all this, oddly, kids who were both intellectual and "quirky" were misfits and outcasts at Garfield, despised by most of their fellow students.

At Staples in Connecticut, not so much.  There, being brainy, geeky, and oddball might not be the ticket to being one of the most popular kids in school, but it didn't put you in a separate, untouchable caste, either.  It did wonders for my ego: girls would actually talk to me, and, once I had my driver's license, date me.

I have strayed from the topic of Mom, obviously ... though not as completely so as it might seem, as I hope will eventually become clear.

While I was beginning to thrive, Mother got worse.  We moved in the summer; some time the next winter, she was admitted to a mental hospital for the first time.  I don't really remember details of just how her condition worsened, that first time; I am actually inferring from other times when I say that a state of high anxiety, driven by extreme paranoid imaginings, must have become the norm, and with it, some [further] degradation of her ability to keep a household going.  The lack of clearer memories is probably merciful.

I do remember, though not with first-hand immediacy, some particulars of the process by which she came to be "admitted".  It clearly had been "orchestrated" between my father and Uncle Dave.  First, Dad came and got Rachel and me, and took us to his house.  Then, Dave arrived ... and he brought along an ambulance.  It was not an involuntary commitment: somehow, he persuaded her to sign herself in.

"In" was Fairfield Hills State Hospital in Newtown, Connecticut -- since closed, I understand.  She remained there about six weeks.  Rachel and I lived, during that time, with our dad, and I attended the nearest public high school, in Mineola, Long Island.  (I certainly didn't "fit in" there the way I did at Staples; but I don't recall minding that very much, perhaps simply because I knew it was temporary.  Or you could say that I wasn't up to trying to make friends, much, let alone dating.  I was keeping my head down; I just wanted to be safe.)

I also apparently wasn't up to paying much attention to how Rachel was doing.  At least, I don't remember much about it: not even the name of the school she attended, during that period.  Actually, there's nothing unusual about that: I generally don't remember the names of Rachel's schools, when they were different from mine.

Pretty much par for the course, for a high school sophomore.  Some older children become much like subsitute parents for their siblings, when a parent is incapacitated.  I didn't.  Rather than being ashamed of it, I think I should be grateful that I didn't have to.

However, when I say "I didn't have to", that might imply that Rachel's needs were well taken care of by actual adults, and I don't know that that's entirely the case.  Her own recollection, I believe, is that she was largely invisible, during the entire period, and I think I can see why.  Mother's illness sucked up much of the time and emotional energy of those who had to deal with it (particularly Dave).  I probably got more of Dad's attention than Rachel did (more of his positive attention, at least), because I was an "achiever" in an easily understood way: the way that the schools could measure.

In the light of all that, one fact is notable.  Rachel and I were taken to visit Mom at the hospital, probably twice during the six weeks.  My memories of those visits are vague in the extreme.  Hers, however, became a poem: "Locked Ward, Newtown, Connecticut".

Today, that poem is in several anthologies which are used as college textbooks. 

You can also find it in at least one place on the Web (at present): it is quoted in full in a story in the Newtown Bee which appeared just over a month ago.  I invite you to go read the poem now, and then rejoin me here.

My own clearest memory of Mom herself, from close to that time, was of something she said shortly after she got out of the hospital.  She said that she'd been afraid that some of the other patients might harm her.  But she'd devised a solution to this problem: she did physical exercise (I believe she mentioned jumping jacks), and deliberately did it out where other patients could see her.  I don't remember whether she drew the implication explicitly, but it was clear enough: she was demonstrating that she was in shape, so nobody better mess with her.

Now that's the mother I remember.  Not that kind of concern about physical violence, let alone that kind of response to it: that was unusual.  But more generally: she formed a belief that others had hostile intentions toward her.  She assumed that no one else would protect her.  And so she took action to protect herself.

Or at least ... and this is even more characteristic of her ... that's how she described things, afterwards.  Ever the heroine of her own saga.

After remembering that story in my head, I was struck by something else  For the first time that I can remember, the thought occurred to me that there was something significant, not just about what she did say when she got out of the hospital, but also about what she didn't say.

And what is that?  What do I not remember her saying, after our "nuclear family", consisting of Mom, Rachel, and me, was put back in place in our apartment in Westport, like dolls in a doll house?  Well, I don't remember her expressing any concern, or even curiousity, about what life had been like for us, her two children, while she was "in".  That's what.

Of course, perhaps she did; perhaps I just don't remember.  I thought of asking Dave and Rachel if they have any recollections about that.  Then I decided not to: at least, not before putting this piece of the story up on the Web.  I decided to just go ahead and record the fact that that is how I remember it ... in keeping with my conclusion that what I am writing here is more memoir than biography.

That also gives me an additional reason to do something I've decided, just within the last twenty-four hours, to do: to stop here, for now.  Or actually, the part of the decision that's new is not to stop: it's about time, under a plan I made at least two weeks ago, to put this down, and spend some time writing computer programs again.  The part that's new is the decision to write a little interim conclusion, which you are now reading, and then post what I've got so far, rather than putting the whole thing back "in the drawer" until I can get back to it and finish telling her "whole" life story.

And so the last thing, in this first installment, that's actually about my mother is the statement that, to the best of my recollection, she had nothing to say to, or ask, her children, right after she got out of the mental hospital for the first time, about what we had experienced while she was there.  That sounds a bit like an accusation, or at least a bitter memory, doesn't it?

There certainly have been times, in the years since, when those sorts of recollections (and non-recollections) have played that sort of role, for me.  But now, after she is gone?  Now they are just facts.  (Some of them may only be facts about the memories I formed, not about what really happened; but still.)

How do I feel about my mother, and her effect on me?  How do I judge her (if at all)?  I'm going to leave you in suspense about that.  I plan to tell you something about it, after I finish telling you the "whole story" of her life ... or at least, as much of it as I end up deciding to tell.


This page created: 2008-10-04

This page last updated: 2010-04-19

© Copyright 2010 by Tom Edelson.