John Reimann's personal blog

A Woman Ahead of Her time: My Mother, Miriam Wolf Wasserman

by John Reimann


Every year around this time of year I think about my mother. Had she lived, she would have been 95 this Christmas Eve. Her death (from breast cancer) in itself is part of the story of her life – a life that deserves to be appreciated as well as understood.

Born with a series of health problems – mainly due to allergies – she was a constant source of worry to my grandmother, who herself was given to worrying as well as loving. As a young woman, my mother was intellectually precocious in a time when women were supposed to be passive. She graduated from Barnard College and got married at a young age in order to get out of the house, she told me. Then in the mid 1940s she met my father, conceived a baby with him (my older sister), divorced her first husband and married my father – all in that order. As you can imagine, this was nowhere near the norm for a woman at that time.

Single Mother

Her marriage to my father was a stormy affair, with regular shouting arguments, my father storming out of the house and my mother lying weeping on her bed. I still remember that scene. Around 1951 or ’52, when I was around 5 or 6 they separated and eventually divorced. Again, life was not easy for a single mother in those days, no matter what kind of money she might have. In my mother’s case, it was not very much. She worked as a copy editor for Harcourt Brace & co., and I still remember her having to go to work on Saturdays. I also remember her saying that she did most of the work for the (male) editors and received very little of the money….

(My mother wrote a book – “The School Fix” – on the New York City school system at a time of crisis in that system.)  In it, she explained that the problems in the schools had nothing to do with educational theory. It was simply a matter of politics, which is to say power – who has it and who doesn’t. This power is then played out in the form of personal relationships – how administrators behave towards teachers, how teachers relate to students and parents, etc. And there is a clear hierarchy, starting with the top administrators and filtering its way down to the teachers, who are on the next-to-lowest rung. Below them, on the bottom rung, are the students and their parents, especially if those parents are black or Puerto Rican in New York. Each layer treats those below them in a condescending and oppressive manner.

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3 replies »

  1. John, this is a remarkable essay, one of the best you’ve ever written. I read it to Larry and we were both very moved by it. Do you still have a copy of your mother’s book? I would like to read it.
    Have you ever wondered if your mother had an undiagnosed mental or emotional condition that caused her to alienate everyone she knew and that cared about her? That sounds like classic depression, or maybe even early dementia. You have written an excellent tribute to your mom, she would be proud. Inspires me to write something about my mom, who will turn 91 in February.

  2. Most certainly in those last years she exhibited behavior that the professionals would give all sorts of labels to. And, most certainly, I didn’t know how to deal with it and didn’t deal with it right. I don’t think it was dementia, so the only explanation I can find is that, as I said, she was a woman ahead of her time, never fully figured out how to fit in, and suffered some severe disappointments in both her personal and professional life. One thing I’ve learned: We’d better let those close to us know how much we appreciate them and what they’ve done for us while they’re still alive.

    And, yes, I have a copy of her book. Two, in fact.

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