The last time my mother was in a hospital, an
essay by Thich Nhat Hanh moved in front of my eyes. "Our mother is the
teacher who first teaches us love, the most important subject in life,"
he wrote. "Without my mother I could never have known how to love. Thanks
to her I can love my neighbors. Thanks to her I can love all living beings.
Through her I acquired my first notions of understanding and compassion."
My mother, Miriam A. Solomon, died on January 20, which happened to
be the seventh anniversary of the inauguration of a man and a
presidential regime that she loathed. Once, several years ago, when I
referred to George W. Bush as "an idiot," she made a correction
pointing out he's much worse than that; she used the adjective
At my parents' apartment, taped on the front door for a long time, a
little poster said: "The America I Believe In Doesn't Torture
People." The poster was from Amnesty International USA an
organization that my mom wrote many protest letters to dictators for
and it summed up her devotion to human decency rather than
counterfeit versions of American democracy.
On Monday, the day after my mom died, the Washington Post that arrived
on the apartment doorstep carried a lead editorial under the headline "Martin
Luther King Jr.: His Words Are More Relevant Than Ever This Election Year."
But the editorial did not include the word "war" even while
it grandly commented on "the vision of Dr. King" and, of course, quoted
from his "I Have a Dream" speech.
My mother was among the hundreds of thousands of civil-rights supporters who
gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial and heard King's speech that day in
1963. But unlike the Post's editorial writers she did not suffer from
arrested development in subsequent decades.
She shared in King's expansive view of essential struggles for human
rights during the last few years of his life. And in the decades that
followed, she took to heart his denunciations of economic injustice
and what he called "the madness of militarism."
In contrast to the Washington Post with its fevered editorial
support for the war in Vietnam and, a third of a century later, the war in Iraq
my mother was a humanist who cared about human life far more than geopolitical
positioning. In October 1967, then a 46-year-old mother of four children, she
joined in the large antiwar march to the Pentagon.
She was passionate about the Bill of Rights. In the early 1970s she
did extensive volunteer work for the ACLU in defense of the civil
liberties of antiwar demonstrators. And for decades she worked to get
progressive Democrats elected to office. She was never in the
limelight, and she never sought it.
Sometimes she'd tell me about her father, Abe Abramowitz, a socialist
who did tireless political work in Brooklyn. As a girl, she went with
him to branch meetings of The Workmen's Circle, where social justice
was on the agenda. Once she showed me how he showed her how to
quickly seal a lot of envelopes by wetting many flaps all at once
with a sponge. Along the way he supported Norman Thomas for
president; later on, as circumstances and possibilities shifted, he
opted for Franklin Roosevelt.
My mom adored her father, who had a sparkling sense of humor, a love
of literature, and most of all an overflow of humanistic
kindness. He died young, when she was only in her mid-thirties. It
must have been a terrible blow to my mother.
My mother did not die young (she was 86), but since then I've felt
awful waves of sadness. And sometimes I think of people who are
mourning loved ones of all ages, due to distinctly unnatural causes.
The people dying in Iraq as a consequence of the U.S. war effort. The
children in so many countries who lose their lives to the ravages of
poverty. The health-care system in the United States that in the
absence of full medical coverage for everyone as a human right
means avoidable death and suffering on a large scale.
In mediaspeak and political discourse, the human toll of corporate
domination and the warfare state is routinely abstract. But the
results in true human terms add rage and more grief on top of
Our own mourning should help us understand and strive to prevent the
unspeakable pain of others. And whatever love we have for one person,
we should try to apply to the world. I won't ever be able to talk
with my mother again, but I'm sure that she would agree.
After my mother died, I learned about a poem that she wrote long ago
apparently soon after her father passed away. The poem is titled
"Bereavement." Here is how it ends:
More than cherished memories are left
Behind; they leave us us
To know our duties and our powers
And to carry on without much fuss.
In the crushing grief of the moment, we think of how
vital and good our
loved ones were,
and vow to be worthy of them.