THE PACE CHRONICLE

Mama Takes Me to School

Professor+Diane+Cypkin+performing+her+Concert%2FLecture%3A++%22While+You%27re+Away%3A+Love+Songs+of+World+War+II%22%0ADiane+Cypkin
Professor Diane Cypkin performing her Concert/Lecture:

Professor Diane Cypkin performing her Concert/Lecture: "While You're Away: Love Songs of World War II" Diane Cypkin

Professor Diane Cypkin performing her Concert/Lecture: "While You're Away: Love Songs of World War II" Diane Cypkin

Dr. Diane Cypkin, Professor, Media, Communication, and Visual Arts

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To my colleagues, students and friends:

In April, many remember the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943, fought by the few Jews left in that ghetto, fighting not so much to live, but to die fighting!  At the same time, it reminds me of my brave, immigrant, Yiddish-speaking mama—who lost everything in the Holocaust in Europe, specifically in the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania, and yet determinedly made sure her family succeeded in America, di goldene land (in Yiddish, the golden land) . . .

The following is an excerpt of a book I’m writing about the memories I have of my mama.  It’s about my first day at school—a first tragi-comic day that would lead, in fact, to many wonderful days . . .   I thought you’d all enjoy it.  Funny how things turn out!!

Mama Takes Me to School

I always loved being with mama, holding her warm, comforting hand, taking her arm, just being safely near her.  We went everywhere together, just everywhere!  And mama, she wouldn’t go to a party of any kind if we—my brother and I—weren’t also invited.  For that matter, my brother and I NEVER had a babysitter!  A stranger taking care of her children?  Her treasure?  NO!  It was simply not in her “mode of operation.”  So, till the age of five, I never dreamed I’d go or certainly not be left anyplace without mama.  But then the unimaginable happened:  School.

I do recall that I was excited about the “idea” of school.  In fact, I woke up very early that “first day” just from excitement.  Mama made me a tuna fish sandwich for lunch.  I had a little black/brown purse-lunch box I put it in that magically closed when you turned two little triangular silver buttons.  She also gave me a shiny penny carefully double-wrapped in a tissue so that at something called “snack time” I could buy a pretzel.  I neatly put that in a separate little compartment in my purse-lunch box.  I was dressed in a little flared dark blue skirt and white blouse with a rounded collar mama carefully pressed the day before.  Mama put a little blue and white embroidered butterfly handkerchief in a pocket of the blue skirt to be used if I sneezed or coughed.

Of course, before and even while preparing me for school, there was my brother—older than me—to somehow hustle off to this same place he considered a prison.  He NEVER liked school, mainly because he always hated being told what to do!  And this intense dislike made him a difficult “customer” even when it came to just waking up to get ready to go.  Thus, each morning there was the same routine.  Mama would begin very early (she had to!) ever-so-gently waking him (mama felt it was dangerously unhealthy to startle someone awake) and he’d “bargain for” another ten minutes of sleep.  In ten minutes she’d do the same, and he’d bargain with her again.  In fact, this back and forth would go on for almost an intolerable hour.  Mama never screamed at him.  Mama never screamed.  She just got more insistent.

Nor did her “urgings” end once he got into the bathroom to wash.  For at that point, he seemed to get lost in there—totally unaware and completely oblivious to the time!  Moreover, he already spent what seemed like “years” doing his hair in the latest style.  (And they say women take forever!)  Finally, he’d “appear” to begrudgingly put on the shirt and pants mama prepared for him.  Then he’d sit and “nod off” as mama pulled on his multi-colored socks and tied the laces on his shoes.  In sum, working with my brother in the morning was very much a test of patience.

“Breakfast” meanwhile wasn’t a pancakes or a bacon and eggs affair, (God forbid!), it was just breakfast.  Mama felt you had to have something warm in you before you left the house—especially if it was winter.  So in the morning we, generally my brother and I (papa had already gone to work), usually had some hot oatmeal with milk, a slice of hearty black bread generously laden with whole butter, and the requisite glezele tey (a glass of tea) that you poured into a bowl to cool before sipping—a very Eastern European thing to do.  (Of course then we thought everyone did it that way!)

After breakfast my brother would reluctantly throw on his scarf and jacket, grab his books, and leave to meet up with his friends to go to school.  On his way out, mama would hurriedly give him all her final “safety” instructions including: “Look how you cross the street,” “Eat lunch” (My brother was already buying lunch in the school cafeteria), “When you’re cold, put on your gloves,” “Keep your scarf on your neck,” “Don’t catch cold,” etc., etc.   Interestingly, mama never made a big issue of kissing us, or saying how much she loved us, ever.  She didn’t have to.  We knew it in our very bones, always!

At this point, mama grabbed her well-worn coat and pocketbook. (Mama never concerned herself with fashion much when it came to herself.  Her children, that was a different story!)  I had just about dressed myself and already had my jacket on and my purse-lunch box in hand.  I’ve always been early with everything!  Then she took my hand, and we were off—rushing!  Why?  We were late.  You see mama had that tendency.  It wasn’t her fault . . .  completely . . . .  It’s just that she had so much she had to do before she left the house.  For example, even in the morning, while she was getting us ready for school, she was, at the same time, straightening up the apartment.  Mama could never leave the house a “mess.”   And this straightening up had to be done “correctly.”  For, in fact, mama was an obsessive compulsive before the word got famous.  Thus when I recall walking to school, it’s more like RUNNING to school with mama. I was always begging her to slow down.  And so she would, for a short time, before hitting her stride again.  So, what could I do?  I’d run along next to her.  It didn’t matter.  It was okay.  I was with mama!

As we neared our destination, school, I could see large crowds of adults—generally mothers—with children, like me.  And I could hear loud raucous crying.  This definitely did not bode well.  Crying!?  Why was there crying?  What was going on?  What was going to happen to me?  Where was mama taking me that made children cry?   No, I didn’t like this at all!  I could already feel my own tears welling up!

As we got nearer still, I could see that some adults, identified as “teachers” were conscientiously instructing parents to leave their children with them, telling them in a kindly and very friendly fashion that everything would be fine, and that—they need have no worries—for they could pick up their little ones at one o’clock right at this same place. Now, on the one hand, the parents listening all seemed to accept these directions, on the other hand though, some good number of children didn’t, not at all!  And they were the ones desperately crying and clinging to their mothers for dear life!

As I look back now on all this, I can’t help but laugh at the irony of it all.  I’ve spent my whole life at school, on one side of the desk or the other.  And I absolutely LOVE IT.  But that first day . . .  I never stopped crying.  I never let go of mama.  And NO ONE, not the principal, not the assistant principal, NO ONE could get me to let go of her.  In sum, mama “attended” kindergarten with me.  It was only in first grade when I was struck by the warm-heartedness of the teacher I had, Mrs. Stein, that I “allowed” mama to leave me.  Or else, who knows, mama might have had to go to first grade with me too . . . and maybe more!

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