For years my mother, Sally, lied to me. I always knew that she wasn’t truthful about her age, but until my father died I never knew the extent of her deception. Then I learned that my mother, who had long declared that she was many years younger than my father, was almost the same age.
Ironically, for most of his life, my father could have cared less about how old she was, but I can only imagine his wrath if, during their retirement, he had ever known the consequences of her vanity. In what were then leaner years for my parents, she did not claim her Social Security until years after she was eligible.
She’d always been much older than all of my friends’ mothers, but, to her credit, I could never tell. No one could. Sally could, and did, pass as a much younger woman. She took great pride in her appearance, and the roots of that obsession were no mystery. She was born Sara Czernenka in Russia in 1914, and fled from pogroms there, arriving in Ellis Island with her mother and brother in 1922. They moved to South Philly, where she grew up, and was immediately labeled a “greenie,” an immigrant fresh off the boat. She struggled to fit in. She didn’t know the language. She had few clothes. She had no toys, not even one doll, and no bed of her own. She grew up to the knowledge that for women, looks and youth were the path to belonging and success.
Yes, Sally was a stunner; her beauty a major asset. When she dressed up, you might not be able to tell which movie star she looked like, but some famous actress’s name would be on the tip of your tongue.
In tribute to her beauty, an ex-boyfriend, a “mad man” who worked in the advertising industry, made her a professional looking Valentine lined with photos of the all the Hollywood femme fatales he thought she resembled. Printed across the top it read, “I see you everywhere I go.”
Sally saved that card in a box with all the letters and photos from her youth. When I was a child playing with the old clothes in her closet, I stumbled on it. How I loved that card! I was proud of and amused by my lively and alluring mother who, at one time, had been pursued by multiple suitors: Bill the muscle man, Barney the intellectual whose glasses were so thick she called him “The Blinde,” the blind one in Yiddish, and many others.
She wasn’t able to teach me how to be the man magnet she was, but she did teach me to care about my appearance. Back in the late 60s, every season, my sister, mother and I went to the neighborhood high-fashion store for girls, “Gigi’s” in Overbrook Park, where I got to pick out a new wardrobe. With the help of my mother and my older sister, I was the first girl in my class at Akiba Hebrew Academy, on the Main Line, to wear a mini skirt, bell bottoms or whatever else was in style.
My mother tried, with less success, to imbue me with her precepts about age. Once I reached my twenties, a time when I was still excited about each year on my path to maturity, she urged me to start subtracting. “If you want people to believe you’re young, you have to start early.” But I couldn’t be bothered with her calculated approach to aging.
As my role model, she was consistent with her carefully planned white lies. But, as she grew older, and the very early signs of dementia began to appear, she had trouble keeping track. Suddenly she was four years younger than my father, rather than six. Ironically, her accidental adjustments made her lies all the more believable, that is until 2001, when Ellis Island records were made public.
Since Sara Czernenka, nicknamed Sarushka, was born in Russia without a birth certificate, she’d always been free to lie. But with the advent of the Web, and the easy accessibility of the manifest of the ship that brought her family to the United States—the U.S.S. Gothland—the truth was finally exposed and immortalized. She came to the U.S. when she was 8, not 3. My mother gave birth to me when she was 39, not in her early 30s.
For my mother, uncle and grandmother, life in America was about reinventing themselves. They intended to become what my great grandmother called “Yankee Doodles,” real Americans. So when they became citizens, Sara Czernenka turned into Sally Cherner, her brother Zelig became Sam, and my grandmother, Ryvka, became Rose. Since she had no birth certificate, Sally also changed her age. Her citizenship papers said she was 26, but she must have been older by then. Further refashioning her image, she even gave herself a new Russian home. No small town for Sally. She said she was from Odessa, the birthplace of Russian Jewish intellectuals, and the city where my grandparents had studied. But the shtetl she was from, Bilogorutka, was as far from Odessa as Poughkeepsie is from Chicago.
By the time of my Ellis Island discovery, my mother was in a Jewish nursing home just north of Trenton, suffering from dementia. At first, she held on to the essential aspects of her personality—her passion for grooming, her love of learning and Jewish culture, and her garrulousness. But, over time, her illness eroded her grounding in reality. She began to disappear.
The first time I visited her after finding out her real age I blurted out, “I know how old you are. I saw the Ellis Island records.” I probably could have used more tact, but the truth amazed me.
Her face dropped. “You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?” she asked. Being young was so important to her, that despite her confusion, she didn’t forget her deceit and never would. Her manipulation of her age was burned into her brain.
“Aren’t you proud of how old you are?” I asked. “You look great for your age. Being older only makes you all the more impressive.”
“It doesn’t,” she answered. We were alone in her room, but she looked around afraid that someone might overhear.
She was forgetting so much about who she was, but not her commitment to deceit about her age. Her defining traits, like her fixations with age and appearance, which had once annoyed me, now comforted me. They affirmed that I was talking to my mother. Behind the confusion, my beloved Sarushka was really there.
She may have forgotten what ravioli were; she could no longer write beautiful notes as she once had; she couldn’t concentrate enough to read or even watch TV. She talked about two husbands when she only ever had one and she sometimes thought she still had a baby. But certain things were the same or almost the same.
Before she went to the nursing home dining room, she’d reapply her lipstick; and when I visited, she’d give me a big hug. Where once she was big busted and full-bodied, now I could feel her bony frame, but her enthusiasm was as large as ever.
“Lisa, Lisa!” She’d light up. “Lisa is here,” she called out to her aide whenever I walked into her room. No one has ever been happier to see me. But, after my warm welcome, the first words out of her mouth would be, “Why don’t you move your hair away from your face?”
“It is,” I’d answer.
“You look so pretty, but it’s messy. You should comb it.”
My long wavy hair contrasted with her short teased helmet, kept perfect by the nursing home beautician who gave her a weekly wash and set. Her hairstyle, even her hair color, was frozen in time. At 91, she still dyed her hair and offered styling advice to the entire family, including my teenage niece. My niece, she thought, should wear her hair like a Miss America contestant from the 1950s, with pin curls and finger waves.
When I was younger, her constant attempts to control the way I looked irritated me. But now her love was so palpable that her criticisms didn’t bother me. I was so happy to find in them a glimmer of the mother I long loved, a woman whose memory was quickly changing so many things about her.
That glimmer remained until she died five and a half years ago. Now my mother only exists in memory. On a day when my hair is messy I can hear her saying, “Brush your hair.”I carry round her lipstick case, and, just as she once did, I find myself reapplying my lipstick throughout the day. I am different than my mother, but a piece of her remains embedded in my heart. She was Sally, born Sara or “Sarushka.” I am Lisa, once called “Lisenka” or “Zisa Lisa,” sweet Lisa in Yiddish, by my family. I miss my mother, and as I get older I understand her better. At last I can relate to her reluctance to be judged by her age. When asked how old I am, I hesitate, but then I smile, and tell the truth, and think about my mother.
Lisa Z. Meritz lives in Philadelphia and works for Temple University. Her essays have been published in the Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle,The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and Bucks County Courier Times. She is grateful for the love and support of her husband Craig and her daughter Rebecca.