My mother invented a wonderful and useful term that says so much about who she was and how she lived her life. The term is “social intercourse.” To her, social intercourse meant much more and was far deeper than just idle conversation. It meant full engagement and quite often her complete determination to know everything going on in someone else’s life.
“Tell me all about it,” she would say when her sullen teenage son, who was prone to one-syllable responses, would return from a night out. A natural and perpetual worrier, she’d be waiting up late for him and ask a battery of questions: “Who was there?” “What did they say?” “What else happened?”
Quite often the answer was, “Mom, I don’t know. There were a lot of people, and a lot of things said. I’m too tired to go into it. It's late.”
“Oh, you’re no fun,” she’d reply in frustration. “I’m just trying to have social intercourse.”
She really expected and craved full answers, even if she didn’t always get them in return. She absorbed the vicarious pleasure or angst people shared with her. Whenever my sister or I would bring home a friend, my mom would sit them down, repeatedly offer them three-fourths of the food and drink in the kitchen, and put them through steady, intense questioning. She sincerely wanted to know what they were doing in school or in work, about their recent travels and adventures. She’d ask how and what their parents or siblings were doing and about other friends. Everything. She was much more interested in what they had to say than what she had to tell them.
I’m pretty sure this kind of interrogation took many of our friends by pleasant surprise. They often didn’t know how to react, at least at first. They seldom expected any one of their friends’ parents to take that much interest in them or to flatter them with the encouragement that what they were doing sounded so great and wonderful. And when she’d see them on a later occasion, she’d ask how things had turned out since then, often remembering more about their last conversation than they did.
All five of her grandchildren, whom she adored and worried about, witnessed this kind of intense attention to what they were doing. Whether it was face to face or over the phone, she’d always ask them to tell her everything. No detail of their lives was too small, and she was produce of every little thing they did.
Social intercourse was also operative when she would participate in what today has been replaced in large part by online social media – the informal sharing of all kinds of information with a network of friends. “Gossip” might be another word for it. But that term makes what she did sound so much more unsavory than it really was.
Usually via long phone conversations, she dished out and took in precious bites of data about someone who was sick, or whose daughter was getting married or had just had a baby – all that was part of her lifeblood. It was how she related to others, how she fed and was fed by her interlocutors.
And who am I to judge? I benefited from her central role in this traditional social network: For the many years since I’ve lived away from Indianapolis, I appreciated her regular updates about people I would never have heard about otherwise, even after the advent of Facebook. She was my personal correspondent for all new Indianapolis.
Social intercourse was also the real objective of her long-standing, regular Mah Jongg games with some of her oldest and closest friends. She didn’t play for the money because, well, nobody does. There’s not a lot of money involved. In fact, occasionally, she’d report that she had “won big” in that day’s game.
“How much did you win?” I’d ask.
The answer would be something in the neighborhood of “Three dollars and thirty-eight cents,” if that much. That would have been a big haul.
So there was something much bigger going on with this game – the only thing that older Jewish women and older Chinese men have in common, by the way.
The name of the game was social intercourse, about connecting with her best friends.
As the baby of a family of six children, my mom grew accustomed to being taken care of, a role she continued throughout life. My dad certainly understood this need and played his part accordingly.
There are many examples, but one of the best took place about a dozen or so years ago when my dad was at home and feeling some acute pain and tightness in his chest. Suspecting a heart attack, he told my mom that he thought he should go to the heart hospital that had just opened on Meridian Street near 106th – about four minutes from the house.
They got into the car – he behind the wheel, and she in the passenger seat. When they pulled up to the emergency room entrance, he let her out so she didn’t have to walk far and went on to park the car.
When they saw my mom, the nurses inside asked what was wrong with her?
“Oh, it’s not me. I’m okay,” she said. “It’s my husband who’s having chest pains.”
“Well, where is he?” they asked.
“Outside, parking the car,” she said.
A couple days later, my dad had six-way bypass surgery.
Don’t let that story deceive you into thinking that she was fully dependent upon the help of others or unhelpful. She liked being taken care of, but she spent much more of her life helping others.
A childhood friend, named Shirley [we don’t have her last name!] sent my mom a letter about a dozen years ago, in which she recalled my mom’s hospitality when they were just teens.
In the letter, Shirley wrote:
I was 16 when my family had moved to Indianapolis…. I was miserable and my grandmother felt so sorry for me, [so] she called a friend a block away and asked if her girls would come over and meet me. She said her girls were going swimming that afternoon and that I was welcome to join them…. When we got to the pool, they introduced me to a girl named Rinky. The first thing I noticed about her was her wonderful smile. Her eyes lit up when we were introduced and she asked me all kinds of questions. Where I was from? Why did we move there? What were my interests? I knew immediately I had found a friend. And so I did. We became fast friends and started to hang out together soon after that day…. By the time school started, I had several friends and felt pretty good about things.
An Indiana University grad, my mom taught school for a number of years, and she spent many more as an active volunteer leader for lots of Jewish women’s groups, including the Beth El Sisterhood, for which she served as president in the ‘70s. She volunteered for years to work at the information desk at the Indianapolis City Center, dispensing a lifetime of native Indy experience to out-of-town visitors. (When they needed directions, though, she’d call my dad, Mr. Google Maps, and put him on the phone tell the visitors how to navigate the city and state.)
Later, for about a decade or so, my mom worked at the front desk of a busy internal medicine practice. After only a few years there, she decided she had gotten a sufficient enough medical education to diagnose and recommend treatment for anyone she felt needed that guidance – whether they wanted it or not.
There were never any malpractice lawsuits, so maybe she did know what she was doing. But she never gave up her illicit medical practice. Frequently, and as recently as about a month ago, if I so much as coughed once during a phone call, she would insist I get an immediate chest x-ray.
Indeed, her most basic and ever-present impulse was to care for others – whether it was to be there for my grandfather as he got older and more frail or when other bereaved people needed her services as part of the SWAT team that would cook and set up for shiva.
She expressed this philosophy of helping once when I was very young. I remember sitting next to her at high-holiday services and asking why only some people stood up during the Mourners Kaddish, the prayer for those who had died. She said something to the effect of, “Those are people who’ve had a death in the family. By standing up, they’re shielding other people from any threats to their own lives.” It was as if the very shadow their bodies would cast on others around them would create a powerful and protective force-field against any misfortune.
I’ve asked several rabbis if they are aware of this interpretation and whether it has any grounding in Jewish thought or law. None have heard of it. This was her own insight, or maybe some bit of Old Country folklore she picked up from her parents. But it essentially said that, even at a time when one is in pain or sorrow – maybe even especially at that time – her role is to help and protect others.
That sums up my mom perfectly. It also provides a kernel of validation of the tired old stereotype of her generation of Jewish mothers: “so long as you’re happy, I’ll just sit here by myself and suffer in the dark.”
My mom’s aesthetic tastes were an exact reflection of her personality. She dressed and decorated her home with bright, bold, humorous, playful and overly conspicuous designs. Nothing subtle.
Her clothes often featured busy patterns, accented with sequins, thick embroidery and sometimes dangling, sparkling doo-dads. Her lipstick and nail polish was usually bright red. Her glasses were sometimes funky and ornate. There was always oversized, colorful costume jewelry, big, flashy purses and watches that were good at getting attention but whose faces were too small for her to actually tell the time.
She collaborated with her long-time hairdresser, Tommy Yates, to try out new and slightly adventurous hair styles. And early on in their three-decade relationship, my mom taught Tommy to finish every hairdressing session by singing these words from an old standard, “You are too beautiful for one man alone….”
At home she favored, shall we say, eye-catching wall paper and furniture coverings, a thick flock of figurines and keepsakes on almost every available ledge, big colorful throw pillows, dramatic wall hangings, lots of rococo, gold trimming and sprays of fresh and silk flower arrangements everywhere.
How appropriate that she was known for nearly all her life as “Rinky” – the nickname that came when her mother morphed Irene into “a-Rinka”. It’s hard to know if the name made the woman or if the woman made the name, but Rinky came to stand for something vibrant, playful, colorful, even harmlessly devilish at times. Something to make you feel better, have fun and laugh.
I can’t finish without pointing out that my mother was intensely Jewish. Not scholarly or highly traditional in religious observance, but deeply Jewish nonetheless.
This identity was nearly inescapable growing up in a traditional, Eastern European immigrant home, where Yiddish was the first language, and in a time when full access to other social circles was pretty limited. Consequently, for all her life her friends and were almost entirely within the Jewish community. Her life revolved around the synagogue and the cycle of Jewish holidays, which were as much of an opportunity for being with friends and family as they were to regularly remind herself of who she was.
Her sensibilities tipped toward culture that reflected Jewish sensibilities: particularly the work of Jewish comedians like Sid Caesar, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart and Larry David. It’s not that her comedians had to be Jewish. It’s just that there was something in the DNA of their work that rang in her ears as uniquely Jewish and therefore comfortable and familiar to her. She loved to laugh in a language she understood.
She acquired her political outlook more through her Jewish identity than by any in-depth policy analysis. She was a loyal and solidly centrist Democrat because that was part of the mid-20th century Jewish article of political faith. She instinctually believed that Democrats, starting especially with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, were the guardians of the pluralism, egalitarianism and justice that have made the United States the most hospitable place in the world for Jews, other than Israel. She had nothing against Republicans, but the Democratic Party was where she felt most at home.
So it’s only a little surprising that, just a few hours before she died the other day, that she agreed to have the Democratic convention on the TV in her hospital room. She was apparently conscious enough to want to want to know what was going on there, and she was especially interested in hearing the address that night by Bill Clinton, who she had always considered charming and who, she was convinced, was always speaking directly to her. Just her.
She believed Bill Clinton stood exactly where she did on the issues. His personal scandals did not dim her infatuation. In fact, she kind of enjoyed hearing and talking about the steady stream of gossip that Clinton generated. It was all so terrible, she’d say, but she couldn’t get enough of it.
There’s so much more to say about this remarkable woman, but not enough time right now to say it all. There are, as someone said the other day on Facebook, many “Rinky stories,” about how she made people laugh and feel good.
One of the sad consequences of her death, of course, was that she would have loved being here with all of you. Listening to your stories. Interrogating you. Asking you to tell her everything and just luxuriating in the presence and energy of so many people.
In short, she would have loved to engage all of you in a bit more social intercourse, a practice she perfected over 85 years of life and offered as a precious gift to the world.
Zichrona livracha. May her memory be a blessing.